Glenn Beck’s strange appeal

Doubtless it marks me out as a member of the uncomprehending godless elite, but I find the popularity of Glenn Beck very hard to understand. Sarah Palin’s popularity, I think I do understand. However much of an illusion it may be — all politicians deal in illusions — she projects an appealing, proud, self-sufficient ordinariness that makes her a credible spokesman for many Americans. Beck sets himself up not as a spokesman so much as an inspirational teacher and guide, blackboard and all. There he stands, with the answer to everything, gravely propounding his theories of life, the universe and everything that surrounds it. Wrapped up in his own psychodrama, his self-regard seems limitless.

He strikes me as a huckster drunk on his own pitch, a true believer in his own cult, ready to hurtle off the rails at any moment — and all of this seems obvious. Yet he, not Palin, was very much the star of the rally in DC on Saturday. They love the guy.

And so many of them. It is a sign of something I suppose that the National Park Service no longer does head-counts for events like this. (They were accused of deliberately understating the turn-out for the Million Man March in 1995. No doubt they would have been accused of bigotry if they had tendered a disrespectfully large number for Beck’s event.) Reports cautiously said tens of thousands. It looked like 250,000. A huge area of the Mall was packed.

As I say, I find Beck a tragi-comic figure. And as an atheist (I didn’t deny being godless) I do not thrill when a speaker says, “America today begins to turn back to God”. Quite a claim, that: Beck’s signature modesty again. At the same time, though, this gathering — as it turned out, far more of a religious revival than a political rally — was completely unsinister. No anger, so far as one could see; no racism. Beck says his choice of date and venue was initially a coincidence, then an act of God; either way, he meant no disrespect to Martin Luther King. I had thought Beck did not believe in coincidences: arrows connect everything to everything else in his mental world. On the other hand, at the event, he praised King effusively as an American hero and sounded as though he meant it. Perhaps he was insincere; even so, an odd thing to say if you are addressing a quarter of a million bigots.

The truth is, it was an enormously friendly, good-natured event. There were families with children everywhere, all smiles. “The event had the feeling of a large church picnic,” said the NYT. The most political statement was on the T-shirts that said, “I can see November from my house.”

AP’s report began:

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck and tea party champion Sarah Palin appealed Saturday to a vast, predominantly white crowd on the National Mall to help restore traditional American values and honor Martin Luther King’s message.

This afternoon, walking back to my home in predominantly white North-West DC, I paused for a bite to eat in the predominantly white Dupont Circle area, in a cafe whose clientele was predominantly white. There, I did see something mean. A family wearing “Restoring Honor” T-shirts walked by outside, and a little girl tripped over and hurt herself. The couple at the next table laughed.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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