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Interview: Alexander Zaitchik on his new biography of Glenn Beck, 'Common Nonsense'

Last summer, when Glenn Beck was rocketing from talk radio stardom to the status of a national icon, he got the full profile treatment from Alexander Zaitchik at Salon. That profile was the first serious -- if not too sympathetic -- attempt to understand how a small-time "morning zoo" radio host became a top conservative critic of the Obama administration, with legions of fans signing up with his projects and hanging on his words. The profile also started Zaitchik on the path to writing "Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance."

Would I recommend the book to Beck fans? It will tell them more than they've ever known about Beck, but it will challenge the premises of his stories and his crusades. Zaitchik defends ACORN and environmental activist Van Jones from the pounding Beck gave them -- at times, the reader feels that he's watching a medic team pick up wounded bodies from the culture war. Below, my questions for Zaitchik, and his answers.

CommonNonsense.jpgThis is the question I hear liberals most often ask about Beck: Is he doing this for money, or does he believe this stuff? You seem to come down in the middle, and argue that he's a huckster, but he's also dim enough to believe that, say, ACORN is at the root of all evil.

His main motivations are, and have always been, money and fame. If Beck has a true religion, it’s not Patriotism. It’s not Mormonism. It’s cross-platform self-marketing.

The one constant in his life has been enormous ambition. His business and brand will never be big or successful enough—hence the new projects never stop coming. But I don’t think Beck’s self-image as a businessman is at odds with his beliefs about religion and politics. He doesn’t know enough about the world to understand why his grand-unified theory of a 100-year progressive plot is a laughingstock outside of his own TV and radio studios. I think he actually believes God wants him to make all this money and fight dirty for right wing causes. Does he really believe God is speaking to and through him? I don’t know. But in one of his books, he describes Heaven as a place where everybody “can make as much money as they want,” and he does believe that God basically wrote the Constitution in 1787.

The mistake Beck’s critics often make is to say, “Okay, so if his main self-identity is as a media and entertainment mogul, then everything else is just an act.” There’s no need to choose just one door. On his worldview’s own terms, there’s no contradiction between his enormous success, his entertainment toolbox, and his bat-in-the-bell tower politics. What’s shocking to me is how completely his fans swallow the “selfless patriot” act. It’s like they’re deaf and blind to the way his tearful civic-activist shtick feeds directly into the business, indeed is the business. What’s happening, I think, is that Beck thinks God approves of his manipulations, and his fans are willing to suspend their disbelief and give him a pass because, they too, think Beck is ultimately doing God’s work. The whole thing is arguably the most elaborate Kabuki theater on view on the right today.

The most recent Beck mini-outrage came when he mocked Malia Obama for asking her father whether he'd "plugged the hole" in the Gulf of Mexico. Isn't this the stuff that made Beck famous, and won't he get away with it?

Beck has a long history of attacking other people’s kids. In the past, he’s even attacked fetuses. In Phoenix in the mid-1980s, he once called the wife of a rival deejay and mocked her live on the air about her recent miscarriage. In Tampa, he repeatedly called the second-marriage children of Michael Schiavo (husband of Terri) “bastard children.” The tic is just one of the many recurring manifestations of Beck’s molten mean-streak, which runs a mile deep and often explodes like a volcano.

As for whether he’ll get away with it, of course he will. He knows his audience very well. He plays directly to their own oversized spleens, which fuels so much Tea Party politics.

What sort of attempts did you make to interview Beck for this book? If you made those attempts why were you denied?

I never tried to get in touch with him or his inner-circle. Even if he had agreed to talk to me, which was extremely unlikely, I wouldn’t have believed a word that came out of his mouth. Beck may not know much about politics or history, but he has arguably the most demonstrably sophisticated instinct for self-promotion on earth. I wasn’t interested in allowing Beck to use the book as a way to reinforce his well crafted and partly fictitious redemption narrative. Nor was I interested in trading my cerebellum for subject-access. I’ll leave that kind of thing to Zev Chafets.

You hint very strongly that Beck has a problem with non-whites, such as when he infamously attacked non "decent" victims of Katrina. And you call him a "symbolic racist." How does he view race in America?

“Symbolic racism,” sometimes called “laissez-faire racism,” basically describes the kind of racism you find in post-Nixon conservative politics, where white racial fears and anxieties are exploited by exaggerating the threat and burden of those on state assistance, the so-called 'undeserving poor,' who are usually racialized despite the actual demographics of welfare. You see this in Beck’s fixation on ACORN, Van Jones’ “street” background, and especially in his false casting of green jobs and health care reform as forms of “stealth reparations.”

There’s also a huge cultural component. I have a chapter in the book in which I unpack how, for Beck, “whiteness” is bound up with a whole imaginary universe of “Heartland” values and institutions. This is why Beck can call Obama a “racist,” and in the same breath say that this doesn’t mean Obama hates white people. Beck caught flack for this seeming contradiction, but he was actually being truthful in ways he didn’t even realize.

Beck likes to describe himself as “the whitest guy you’ll ever meet.” His profound animus toward black social-justice activists—and, wow, does he hate them—comes partly from understanding his audience’s own prejudices, partly from a genuine dislike of their style, and partly from a complete ignorance of black history and culture. I mean, this is a guy who thinks the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is an urban legend. His base is made up of people who watch Bill O’Reilly and Pat Robertson for entertainment. Or, if they really want to laugh, they go see a Glenn Beck “comedy” show. Beck carries the flag for a fading white “corny” culture (his word) in a world in which Chris Rock is the biggest comedian going, not Bob Hope. His fans are the kind of people who cheer at the end of "Easy Rider."

How much Beck did you consume in the research for this book?

It was a very unhealthy amount. I basically compiled as complete an archive of his radio and television recordings as possible, going back to the 1980s. Then I lived in it for the better part of a year. Every morning for many months, his voice was often the first thing I heard after waking up in the morning, and the last thing I heard before going to sleep. There were a few moments where I almost cracked. I moved down to Tampa [from Brooklyn] so I could write the book without any distractions. But there were days when I wanted nothing more than a large distraction. Such as global thermonuclear holocaust.

What would the tea party movement be like without Beck? Would it exist? Would it be better or worse informed?

It would definitely exist. In fact, Beck reconceived his 9.12 Project on the fly to capitalize on the movement as it came into being in March and April of 2009.

I don’t think it’s possible the Tea Partyers could be any less informed with another leader. Beck tells people that the most important book they can read is "The 5,000 Year Leap," by Cleon Skousen. This man was a raving lunatic who thought God’s hand directed the writing of the U.S. Constitution, which He modeled largely on the governing system of the ancient tribes of Israel. Beck’s required reading list in Common Sense only has ten titles, four of which are by Skousen, who was so far out he was monitored closely by Hoover’s FBI and almost excommunicated by the Mormon Church. I have a chapter in the book devoted to Skousen’s story, which is crucial to understanding how fringe Beck’s foundational influences really are. Skousen’s prominence tells us an awful lot about the intellectual seriousness of this movement.

In the last year, Media Matters and other liberal groups have made a cottage industry of Beck-watching and Beck-bashing. I think you show that he loves this stuff — he loves it when people mock him for crying. Is the left doing a shoddy job of challenging Beck?

It is very easy and extremely tempting for liberals to tee-off on everything that comes out of Beck’s mouth. He’s a giant tree whose branches bend with juicy, chest-high fruit. But what I think a lot of people don’t understand is that this is all by careful design. Beck understands that controversy is the closest thing to a publicity perpetual-motion machine. He’s been courting controversy for decades. That’s the name of the game he learned in radio—get them talking about you, raise your profile—and it's in his blood in a way it can only be for someone who has been fighting for his survival in ratings wars since he was a teenager. It’s all about being in the news, finding the next biggest stage on which to promote his shows and his sponsors. Beck loves it when people go after him for crying, or blog about silly questions like, “Did he really boil the frog?”

Back in Baltimore in the early '90s, he crafted this whole extensive bit around hamsters and snakes in order to get PETA protesting in the station parking lot. He’s a positional marketing mastermind. It’s not a coincidence that the “third most listened to” show on talk radio is so well branded as being hosted by “the crying conservative with the chalk board and the Truth.” He knows exactly what he’s doing. I wish the left was better at resisting some of the bait he dangles on a daily basis, and focus on the bigger picture, like the agenda of [David and Charles] Koch-funded groups like Americans for Prosperity, which feeds Beck most of his scripts. That, and the content of the religious pseudo-histories he keeps telling people to read. At some point, enough is enough, and the left is letting him run this never-ending diversion play.

Does Beck write his own stuff? How smart is he?

He has a huge team of writers. To his credit, he’s very up-front about this. Orson Welles, one of Beck’s heroes, used to deny his ghost writers credits, but Beck doesn’t. I think "Arguing with Idiots" had something like nine authors listed. His fiction is ghosted, of course. When you do four hours of radio and television every day, plus all the rest of it, including running a business, then you are most definitely not sitting at your desk writing a steady stream of nonfiction books and novels. Especially when you have Beck’s ADHD. Clearly, he hired some of his friends in the patriotic thriller business—and he surely had favors coming, after what Beck has done for them—to ghost his new novel, The Overton Window. But his fans don’t care. As long as his name is on it, and Beck tells them to buy it, they’ll buy it.

As for his smarts, he’s clearly smart enough to do what he does very well.

How important is understanding Mormonism in understanding Beck? I expect your chapter on Beck's religion to be the most controversial.

I thought that chapter might be controversial as well. But the response I’ve gotten from Mormons has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve done a lot of media in Utah, and the most common response is that I nailed the influence of Mormonism on Beck’s act. Aside from providing an introduction to Skousen, Mormonism is a perfect religious fit for Beck in a lot of ways, from the wealth-worshiping corporatism of the LDS Church, to the teary social ritual known as “bearing testimony,” to the schmaltzy sentimentalism found in so much Mormon film and literature. But those are each long stories in themselves. If anyone is interested in hearing them, they should buy the book.

You end the book by intimating that his rise is unstoppable. Is it? When and how does he lose his audience and influence?

If his fans haven’t grown bored or disgusted with him yet, I’m not sure what it will take.

Consider his Aug. 28 “Restoring Honor” rally. The whole thing is classic Beck: a massive self-promotional event that he’s masquerading as a way to “support the troops.” He’s actually asking his fans to pay for the thing by sending him money—and only any money left over will go to charity. You’d think his fans would stop and think: Gee, where have we seen this before? It’s a replay of his listener-supported “Rallies for America” tour in 2003, which exploded his profile while he was racking up affiliates and building his national brand. His fans just don’t get the fact that, as one of Beck’s former producers told me, “It’s always about Glenn.”

Some people are currently making a big deal about his Fox News ratings dip in 2010, but his radio numbers remain strong. And he’s headed for another #1 bestseller before the thing even hits the shelves. So I wouldn’t write his obit quite yet.

By David Weigel  |  June 2, 2010; 10:24 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews , Media  
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