In my high school, the gym teacher doubled as the U.S. History teacher. We passed each class ignoring him as he read questions from the back of the teacher's edition, just like in the famous scene with Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I think most Americans got something fairly similar, so it's not a surprise that we're a people who don't know much about our history.
Last Saturday night, I experienced a very different kind of history class. It was held in Dallas Cowboys Stadium, I had 65,000 classmates, and the teacher was Glenn Beck. There were videos on the Jumbotron overhead, a small army of live performers on stage and we did "the wave" eight times around the stadium cheering.
Nevertheless, it was just an American history class. The class was the feature event of a three-day long gathering that included faith leader meetings, political organizing workshops and documentary film screenings. To make this event happen, Beck followers set up local websites and organizations to connect, cheer each other on, arrange rides and charter busses. Many attended inner-circle meetings that may be serving a leadership development function. In other words, Glenn Beck is preparing a run for president as an independent in 2016. If he does it, he'll be the first American political leader ever to be backed by a well-prepared, well-educated and ideologically-coherent following.
I've always been fascinated by Glenn Beck because he puts so much energy into teaching history. His radio shows are 50 percent snark, 25 percent abuse of his chosen opponent of the day (I've been one a couple of times), and 25 percent history lesson. And that's 25 percent more history than you'll find on any progressive radio or television talk show.
When he gathers his core supporters together in person, as he's done several times now in different locations around the country, the mix changes. Wouldn't you expect the level of abuse and snark to rise? But it's the reverse. These gatherings are all about laying down the intellectual foundation of his movement and creating positive bonds among participants.
In Phoenix last year at Beck's "American Revival," I sat with 14,000 people in a hockey stadium for nine hours listening to extended lectures by a constitutional historian, a legal historian and an economist, with only very short comedy breaks in between delivered by Beck and his radio show side kicks. I didn't make it to the "Restoring Honor" event held on the Mall in DC, but at least several thousand of the audience in Dallas were there.
In Dallas, Beck did not delegate the U.S. history lecture to professionals the way he did in Phoenix. He taught the class himself and did so with brilliant showmanship. He brought to Dallas several striking physical relics -- "worth over 30 million dollars" -- to powerfully anchor each part of his lecture. He knelt before a blood-drenched beam from a Revolutionary War hospital tent. He held one of the first Bibles printed in the United State -- "printed by Congress!" He sat in Lincoln's White House chair, at Lincoln's White House desk, and read from a young lawyer Lincoln's personal letter denouncing slavery.
"I used to believe that Lincoln didn't care about ending slavery," Beck explained, "that he fought the Civil War to protect Northern capitalism. I used to believe that!" I too had learned that, and have seen lots of quotes from Lincoln during and just before the war about how he was explicitly not fighting the war to end slavery. I was surprised to hear the young Lincoln making vigorous arguments against not only slavery but any kind of race-based inequality.
But why in the world was Beck talking defending Lincoln against left wing revisionist historical claims in Dallas to a stadium full of right wing whites who had never even heard them before?
The left -- and I mean the radical, ideological left in which I came of age intellectually -- requires you to confess that Capitalism, electoral democracy, religion, the nuclear family and America itself are all evil at the root before you do anything else. It's the left's way of committing suicide over and over across hundreds of years of human history. The right, of course, simply reverses the equation. All of those things are pure good. If you question it, you're probably evil at the root yourself.
What left me reeling from surprise for days after the Dallas event was the way Beck was taking a far more sophisticated approach than either of those. He introduced the topic of America's sins with a story about his daughter. When she told him she wanted to study history, he said, "Great! We need more U.S. historians!" She told him, "I can't be a U.S. historian: American history is drenched in the blood of genocide and slavery."
Beck told us of his disappointment -- and the project that followed: He and his daughter began to study U.S. history together. "We were both wrong. And we were both right," he said. Beck learned about genocide and slavery. On the stage at Dallas Cowboys Stadium he denounced manifest destiny. He mocked it. He said America was built upon stolen land, and he meant it.
Why did he do it? None of the fans in that stadium wanted to hear anything about genocide or stolen land. He scored no points with that stuff at all. He must have sowed a certain amount of confusion, doubt and difficulty. But why?
Beck would have been answered by wild cheers if he had said something like, "Leftists condemn manifest destiny as genocide. I say they hate America!" Instead, he chose to challenge his audience's quaint view of American history and was answered by uneasy silence. Why is he doing this?
Why would Beck step so far outside of the angry and jingoistic discourse that maximizes ratings and applause? The only way I can explain it is he is trying to build a true mass movement. Mass movements must have cross-over appeal that reaches a large portion of the population. They must also empower their participants with a worldview that will stand the tests and trials of objective reality outside of the insularity of the movement.
Is Beck consciously thinking all of this through? It's possible. As a fanatical anti-totalitarian, Beck has studied a lot of Nazi and Soviet history. Maybe some has rubbed off. In granting his core followers access to secret knowledge about the world ("We really did steal the Indians land and commit genocide") he is taking them into a tantalizing world of truth and power, where only he can be their guide. That tactic comes right out of the pages of Hitler or Stalin's playbook. But more likely, he's just going on instinct.
Before the event began, the Jumbotron was cycling through quotations from people such as Gandhi, King, and RFK. In his history lesson, he passionately invoked the Civil Rights movement and the legacy of the Abolitionists, in an audience who should not had appreciated either.
Why is Beck actively appropriating the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, national liberation struggles and radical reform movements? He's the only right winger to do so with true passion. I believe it's because he doesn't want to commit the mistake of building a movement that must agonizingly denounce the best things about the 20th century. That would just be an unnecessary drag on his movement's energy. One fruit of the Civil Rights movement just may be that some right wingers of Beck's generation are not white supremacists. They've got a head full of stereotypes, they can be rude, they're ideologically immune to talk of discrimination and systemic racism, they've got no qualms at all about viciously attacking black and Latino leaders almost just for being black or Latino leaders -- but: at least some of them don't actually believe that whites are the master race and that everyone else must be actively suppressed. Once that bridge was crossed there was no longer any reason to try to pretend the Civil Rights movement wasn't a great part of American history -- so that may be all Beck's doing. He's just removing one of the pieces of shrapnel lodged by the 20th century in the American right wing. I think. I guess. I don't really know. The truth is that what I saw in Dallas was all pretty overwhelming and impossible. And as you can tell from the previous several paragraphs, I'm just fumbling around trying to make sense of it.
So what might Glenn Beck want to do in the end with the mass movement that he's building? How, unless he knocks himself out with some kind of scandal before then, can it not culminate with a run for the presidency in 2016? But while that thought has no doubt crossed his mind, I think he's just making up this movement as he goes along. He's riding a wave of personal inspiration fed by what he experiences at these kinds of events and other engagements with fans, grassroots Tea Party leaders and other right wing leaders around the country -- and also by his real inner spiritual life.
That's how he described it, and I got the feeling he meant it. If any of you progressives were there, you would have been freaked out when he started talking about how "God's been revealing" to him the steps of this movement. But that is not unusual language for Christians or rank and file Mormons (Beck is a Mormon). He doesn't mean that he's hearing an audible voice of God. He means essentially the same thing as when an atheist says, "I have a gut feeling." Christians who believe in active divine intervention in daily life just think the gut feeling is put there by God. By saying that God "spoke" to him, he's not saying that he believes God is using him as a uniquely important leader; everyone who adheres to this popular version of Christianity believes that "God has a plan" for them and is "speaking to them" through the medium of gut feelings, daily coincidences/signs and the regular unfolding of events. So the people in Cowboys stadium weren't sitting there in awe of a guy with a direct connection to God -- they experience that same direct connection themselves every day. In fact, Beck modeled this at the event in a video in which some of the attendees talked about their own prayer life. It's a beautiful universe where the God who created it is still in touch with the humans who inhabit it -- and it gives the people in that stadium great confidence and resilience.
As the Beck movement continues to grow, progressives will continue to denounce his followers as lemmings. But these folks are not blind, stupid followers. Atheists tend to fail to understand that mainstream evangelical Christianity is based on a very predictable and stable way for people to follow a leader while retaining their own agency and independence. Atheists -- especially former Christians who got burned by broken church in their lives -- see only a bunch of blind followers. In a minority of churches that can be the case. But the norm is that the followers have the same relationship to the leader/pastor/teacher as a sports fan has to a pro athlete -- or perhaps client to their defense lawyer. That is, the followers acknowledge that the leader can do something special and useful, but think of the leader as a proxy for themselves. Beck has a talent for speech and showmanship. That's what the followers are using him for. They choose to follow. And they're checking every fact and thinking hard about everything Beck says to make sure it squares with their own self-chosen world view. The minute it doesn't, they spin off into another leader's orbit.
But this brings us back to the issue of why and how Beck is challenging them on topics like slavery and manifest destiny and the ultimate implications of this dramatic departure from expected reality. That kind of challenging happens all the time in Christian churches. In the fastest growing churches people go each week expecting and wanting to have their mind blown. They're seeking the rush of having their horizons expanded. But in the church, congregants have an independent yardstick against which to measure the pastor's words: the Bible. If the pastor's ideas can't be squared with the Bible then those people have to make a choice: follow the pastor into a cult, or find another church. Almost always, they leave.
But Beck is not a religious leader. He's advocating a political program. There is no authoritative source to measure his ideas against. This opens the possibility for him to create more and more of a cult of personality. If he goes too far in that direction, his run for the White House can't happen, because America has never accepted charismatic leaders with their own specific programs.
Anyways, the important thing for a curious progressive to know about Beck's God talk is that for now it is at least just a very powerful way to connect to nearly everyone in these stadiums -- and to about 60 percent of America who practice or are exposed to such talk in their own lives. That's pretty powerful.
Finally, what does Beck actually want to accomplish? That's where, way down the road, this whole thing either has to come to a complete stop or turn into the kind of fascist nightmare that Beck regularly warns against.
Beck's only policy goal is to basically eliminate the government. He and his fans really believe that taxes, regulations and meddling social programs are almost the only forces behind social break down and economic decline in America. In their minds, if you just get rid of the government in people's lives, that suddenly a million new businesses will spring to life and thrive, and communities will suddenly begin taking care of each other, and doing a good job of it.
The problem is that it's not that simple. It's not going to work. If a movement like this ever one day gets power, and strikes out like that, then what? It just sits back down? Or maybe it starts to try actively to make changes in society and the economy. It will be sort of like how Lenin came to power, realized a planned economy was impossible right away, and established a free market entrepreneurial economy instead (for a few years) -- but in the reverse. Beck will find that free market forces won't work in America's favor right away. What if he knows too much about totalitarian social and economic planning not to try it? All I know is that will be one, or two?, very scary decades.
Follow Zack Exley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zackexley