Throughout his gripping new book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, Philadelphia Daily News reporter and blogger Will Bunch augments the notion that Glenn Beck is playing a fictional character named "Glenn Beck." A faker. Specifically, Bunch draws together evidence indicating that Beck is nothing more than a morning zoo deejay whose latest money-making stunt is to portray a new kind of televangelist, offering political and religious salvation for profit.
Watching Beck's concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, while simultaneously reading Bunch's book, it struck me that Beck has moved beyond a mere televangelist and has taken on a character role far more nefarious and dangerous.
He's becoming a phony-baloney faith-healer, minus the actual laying-on of hands. Saturday's event was a slick, well-produced PR stunt disguised as a disjointed Christian revival torn from the Benny Hinn faith-healer playbook -- orchestrated to emotionally and spiritually manipulate predominantly angry, naïve, paranoid white people -- the frightened masses who want "their country" back.
In his reporting, Bunch displays Herculean levels of patience and professional restraint as he -- or, in the context of the book, the attention-grabbing second-person voice "you" -- visits with Beck disciples as they watch the neo-faith-healer's Fox News show and discuss the latest conspiracy theory flowcharts on Beck's famous chalkboard.
You can't help feeling sympathy for these people as they're manipulated by one of America's most effective con-men -- four hours a day, every weekday. It's clear they're looking for a new kind of savior. They're looking for someone who will virtually lay his hands on their heads and reassure them that their unfocused fears and prejudices are, indeed, genuine and acceptable. The symbiotic relationship forming what's commonly referred to as "epistemic closure" -- a religious and ideological bomb-shelter protecting them from the not-to-be-trusted "Other." And then, as with the unemployed Beck disciple in Bunch's book, a Pennsylvanian named Robert Lloyd, they brandish their credit cards in the midst of a jobless recession and pay the preacher.
There's no harm in making an honest buck, of course. But in the venue of cable news and AM talk radio, Beck is engaged in one of the most lucrative deceptions for cash in broadcast history. The dishonest buck. The big con. He's Steve Martin's faith-healer character in Leap of Faith, bilking yokels beyond the hundredth meridian for profit, with Will Bunch and others endeavoring to be the Liam Neeson sheriff, exposing the painted-on Jesus eyes and the fake tears of blood.
In this case, the painted on tears are Beck's own. His equally fake character is a derivative grab bag of other tried and tested personalities. His adenoidal "Clydie Clyde" voice is based on morning zoo pioneer Scott Shannon's "Mr. Leonard" character. His history is borrowed from the widely debunked work of W. Cleon Skousen. His conspiracy theories are horked from Alex Jones and maybe Jack Van Impe. His anti-Obama, anti-socialist monologues are pure Joe McCarthy. His chalkboard is stolen from televangelist Gene Scott. His solemn, over-processed radio monologue delivery is a dead ringer for Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio. This is all well-worn stuff, but no one has drawn it all together and sculpted it into one big holy Mr. Potato Head for the purpose of conning an especially susceptible audience during turbulent racial and economic times.
But it's difficult to know what will manage to overpower the allure of Beck's promise of salvation and wake up his audience to the flimflam. His act is peppered with big, obvious, gaping contradictions and yet they continue to believe. (In a new YouTube video shot by NewLeftMedia, several of Beck's most loyal followers refused to believe that Beck accused President Obama of being a racist. They insisted that the quite neutral interviewer, Chase Whiteside, was tricking them.)
Yet on numerous occasions, he's admitted to being nothing more than an entertainer and a "rodeo clown," self-exposing his ruse with a wink. He's attempting to create his own version of a Christian evangelical revival, but is, himself, a Mormon -- a sect which most evangelicals believe is nothing more than a cult. He rants about Woodrow Wilson's and Charles Darwin's racism, then embraces, worships and emulates pro-slavery historical figures like George Whitefield and George Washington. (Whitefield, by the way, was a cross-eyed 18th Century evangelical preacher and devout Calvinist who helped to reinstate slavery in colonial Georgia. Beck noted on his radio show this week that Whitefield is the inspiration behind Beck's new Huffington Post knockoff website, The Blaze. Another money-making venture in Beck's shopping mall of gimmicks.)
Like any faith-healer, though, it's the money that ultimately lights a trail to the con-man behind the curtain.
Until Saturday, when he, like any faith-healer, tearfully begged his audience for more cash to finance the revival concert, Beck never explicitly passed the collection bucket. Bunch and others, including in one of my previous columns here, have enumerated Beck's variety of shoddy products and offers: his Fusion print magazine (only 16 pages per issue), his "Insider Extreme" subscription website, his multiple books (thin on content, big on white space), all of it. More importantly, however, Beck is associated with several shady advertisers who continue to sponsor Beck's show, practically becoming synonymous with the Mormon/Calvinist/Evangelical/Clown preacher.
Bunch writes about a Glenn Beck fan named "George from Santa Clarita" who tells the story of how Beck advertiser Goldline hard-sold him into buying $10,000 in Engish gold sovereigns. Before the purchase went through, "George" backed out of the sale -- later discovering that the gold he nearly bought was marked up 40 percent by Goldline. The price of gold would have to increase by at least 40 percent for "George" to break even on his investment. Another Beck fan invested $5000 in Goldline gold, but only actually received $3400 after fees and commissions.
Another Beck sponsor, Solutions from Science, markets something called the Survival Seed Bank -- an ordinary packet of heirloom seeds -- in preparation for what Beck describes as the coming "dark times." Retail price: $149.99. Unknown to Beck's audience is that Bill Heid, the founder of Solutions from Science, previously ran a shady outfit called AVC Marketing. AVC was investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for marketing an obvious snake-oil called the "Himalayan diet breakthrough." The diet consisted of eating goop that allegedly oozed from the cliffs of Nepal. Seriously. Bunch reports that AVC sold $4.9 million of this crap to desperate and gullible Americans before the FTC stepped in, only to discover that most of the profits had vanished. And now, Beck is pitching Heid's Survival Seed Bank. Selling these elixirs to his naïve flock.
And his concert last weekend, sponsored in part by Goldline, was ironically named "Restoring Honor." That's rich.
While everyone is focused on the crowd sizes or Glenn Beck's tall tale about holding in his bare hands George Washington's inaugural address at the National Archives, the more important questions ought to be about the money. The concert, Beck claimed, was also supposed to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF), a reputable and worthy charity tasked with helping the children of special operations military personnel killed in the line of duty.
Both Beck and SOWF report that the concert raised $5.5 million, but it's unclear how much of that money is actually going to be paid to the charity. In the fine print at the bottom of Beck's 8/28 website there's the following disclaimer:
"All contributions made to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF) will first be applied to the costs of the Restoring Honor Rally taking place August 28, 2010. All contributions in excess of these costs will be retained by SOWF."
So SOWF gets leftovers. If the event indeed grossed $5.5 million, it's not necessarily accurate to say that all of that money was paid to the SOWF like Beck's website claims:
With your support and help we were able to raise more than $5-million dollars for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
Unless, of course, the concert managed to raise significantly more than $5.5 million to cover the overhead. And the overhead is massive. There's the cost of renting the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial from the National Park Service (created by evil progressives who Beck hates). There's the advertising and promotion. There's the equipment, travel and security. How much did fellow grifter Sarah Palin earn? And why, if this was a charity event to honor Jesus and the troops, would she take any money at all? We know her rate alone is $75,000, plus expenses and riders. The night before, there was a Beck event at the Kennedy Center. How much did that cost?
Beck's legion of followers deserve a full accounting of where and how their donations were spent, especially given Beck's history of dealing under the table. Make no mistake: there's nothing illegal -- just unethical and immoral. And if Beck raised, say, a million dollars for SOWF, that's still pretty admirable, all things considered. But if not, it's yet another lie to insist that the entire $5.5 million went to the SOWF when it, in fact, might not have.
As Bunch reports, the "Restoring Honor" concert wasn't originally intended to be about God or the troops at all. It was originally intended as an over-the-top way to unveil Beck's The Plan, his forthcoming book. We can only conclude that it would have been impractical for a publisher to rent the National Mall for a book launch, and soliciting donations for a book launch would look especially unsavory -- even for Beck.
So they painted over The Plan idea and came up with this hasty and muddled "Restoring Honor" idea. The Plan B. Put another way, God and the troops and SOWF were The Back-up Plan -- second fiddle to Beck's book.
One way or another, all of this benefits the Beck neo-faith-healer empire.
Unfortunately, faith-healers and scam artists aren't going anywhere. Professional wrestling is still very popular despite being exposed as pre-planned and injected with steroids. But it's important to peg these hucksters at the correct level of seriousness. Beck isn't a healer or an evangelist or a serious political thinker. He's a matchstick man. A huckster. To regard him as anything more -- to insist that his events are more historic than a rock concert in the park or that his TV and radio shows are more nationally significant than a late night preacher or a morning zoo deejay -- is a dangerous mistake.
(Update: The sentence about Scott Shannon was updated to add specifics and a link to the source material was added.)