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Alexander Zaitchik

Alexander Zaitchik

Posted: July 5, 2010 03:11 PM

The following contains an adapted excerpt from the author's new book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance.

Glenn Beck deserves every shell of heavy fire he's getting for his "Restoring Honor" rally scheduled for August 28 on the National Mall. His critics are right about the absurd audacity of his loud claims on the legacy of Martin Luther King, who delivered his "I Have a Dream speech" 47 years to the day before Beck's own planned (and long coveted) spotlight on the Mall.

But as perverse as Beck's fantasies about being an heir to MLK may be, the most notable aspect of Beck's planned August rally is its lack of originality. To grasp the extent to which the August rally is straight out of Beck's playbook, all you need to do is review Beck's biggest success of 2003. That was the year Beck organized another event he described as being "all about the troops." Then, as now, he asked his listeners to send in donations to pay for what was little more than a massive Glenn Beck, Inc. promotional extravaganza.

Before revisiting the 2003 "Rallies for America," it's worth emphasizing just how grotesque is Beck's attempt to co-opt a landmark anniversary of the civil rights movement. Beck has been anything but shy about his intentions. On May 26, he told his radio audience, "We will reclaim the civil rights moment. We are on the right side of history."

This from a man who once called Jesse Jackson "the stinking king of the race lords."

Had Beck been a public figure at the time of King's famous speech, there is little doubt on "which side of history" he would have stood: the same side as every other far-rightwing Mormon. Had they been contemporaries, Beck would have condemned King as a "progressive cockroach" surrounded by communists, or as an outright communist himself. We know this not only because he has imported such tactics into the present. We know this because his Mormon heroes were viciously anti-civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Beck has repeatedly, respectfully, and recently played audio of men like Ezra Taft Benson, a Mormon apostle who thought the civil rights movement was a dastardly communist plot. Benson also wrote the foreward to a book of race hate whose cover illustration featured the severed, bloody head of an African American. Beck's favorite author and biggest influence, meanwhile, is W. Cleon Skousen. The author of four of the ten books on Beck's 9.12 Project required-reading list, Skousen embodied the Birchite view captured in the title of a September 1965 cover story in the John Birch Society Bulletin, "Fully Expose the 'Civil Rights' Fraud, and You Will Break the Back of the Communist Conspiracy!"

The Benson/Skousen axis of the 1960s, to which Beck would have been an energetic party, was a multi-generational affair. In 1965, Salt Lake City was plunged into hysteria when Reed Benson (son of Ezra) and Mark Skousen (nephew of Cleon) spread rumors that the NAACP was sending two thousand Black Muslims to attack the Tabernacle. When general panic ensued, the Utah National Guard was placed on alert and began practicing riot maneuvers in anticipation of the invasion. After calm was restored, the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP both condemned the Bircher-fomented race-war fearmongering in Utah. (Both groups have also condemned Beck.) The next month, the Bulletin published articles describing blacks as "savages" and civil rights leaders as "animals."

Although Beck is now advertising his rally with references to the legacy of Skousen's "animals," and with paeans to "the troops," the real focus of the event is the same as all his other events: Glenn Beck. If anyone doubts Beck's record of shamelessly orchestrating mega-events funded by appeals to patriotism to further his own fame, it's useful to revisit his 2003 "Rallies for America."

If you remember the charged national atmosphere in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, you remember them: Flags, soldiers, and oaths to God, country, and divinely anointed leader dominated Beck's rallies, which also featured thinly veiled threats against antiwar protesters, echoing the violent fantasies routinely heard on Beck's syndicated radio show.

Before the events, which took place between March and May of 2003, Beck often rode around the stadium standing atop buses adorned with his show's logo, propaganda posters from World War II, and the words FOLLOW US AND . . . RALLY FOR AMERICA. While atop his tour bus, media's strangest man-boy often wore khakis and his favorite shirt: an American flag-themed sweater with fire trucks on it.

If this was political theater with Riefenstahlian overtones, it was fascism on a picnic blanket. The events were a distinctly U.S. hybrid that combined Nurembergian expressions of power, blind allegiance to a wartime leader, and TNN shmaltz.

Unlike USO performers in Iraq, Beck never sacrificed much personal comfort during the Rally for America tour. He frequently traveled between events in Clear Channel's corporate planes and limousines. Nor were his speeches wasted on the ostensible subject at hand (the troops); rather, they served as self-promotional speeches that leaned heavily on biography and could be recycled for his future one-man stage shows and books.

The final Rally for America was staged more than two months after the start of the Iraq War, on Saturday afternoon, May 24, in Huntington, West Virginia. The event served as a cap to weeks of extended radio buildup, Beck's specialty. His logo-emblazoned bus led a caravan from Dallas, Texas, to the stadium's parking lot; Beck arrived, waving from atop the bus, outlined against a clear blue sky, like some goofball Caesar.

The brazenness with which Beck wrapped his personal-corporate brand in the nation's flag and dipped it for flavor into family tragedy was nothing short of breathtaking. After a series of patriot songs and at least four readings of the Pledge of Allegiance, the crowd of twenty thousand was whipped up into frenzy by the time Beck appeared. The full intro to his radio show--a commercial jingle--rolled across the stadium as he took the stage. Beck's name was repeated four times over a heavy guitar riff. "Let's--get--going--with--Gle-e-e-enn Be-e-e-eck!" bellowed the announcer. It could have been a monster truck rally.

Beck waited for the applause to die down before asking the veterans to stand up. He thanked them for their service, then thanked "the commander in chief," who is "here in heart." With this, the face of George W. Bush appeared on the Jumbotron behind Beck. "I am so grateful to God in heaven that George W. Bush is our president," he said.

Beck then introduced his old friend and morning-radio partner, Pat Gray, now a sidekick on the Glenn Beck Program. Here the program deviated sharply from patriotic homily and got down to nitty-gritty Beck brand building. Gray told the crowd that he'd known Beck for fourteen years "as a proud American and best friend."

Gray then made what can only be described as a product testimonial, a money-back guarantee on the rising-star conservative host. "He's the same person you know and love," said Gray. "He's honest, caring, open, sensitive. I used to wonder if Glenn was a woman. I tell people there are two women in my life: my wife and Glenn."

Beck proceeded to tell a series of stories from his life that had no bearing on the military that the rally was supposed to be honoring, the war he helped boost for, or the coffins already trickling into Dover Air Force Base. Instead, Beck talked about his grandparents, his daughter, and his most recent tour through "the Real America." He also issued a disjointed diatribe against Jimmy Carter, who served six years in the Navy during a period of his life in which Beck was snorting cocaine off the dashboard of his DeLorean.

As Beck made his way backstage, a three-letter chant erupted. "U-S-A!" roared the crowd. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"

It was the sound of the Glenn Beck Nation, Inc., in utero and in song. On August 28, it will have its reunion. As he did seven years ago, Beck will arrive by private plane, make his pitch, salute the troops, and leave the scene just a little more famous than he arrived. Barring a massive terror attack that day, he will be among the biggest stories in the country. Just as planned.