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How Glenn Beck Re-Invented Himself as a Crying Conservative

Glenn Beck's strange TV: Mormon masterpiece theater.
 
 
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The following is an adapted excerpt from Alexander Zaitchik's book,Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, due out this month on Wiley & Sons.

Every July 4, Glenn Beck emcees the Stadium of Fire celebration in Provo, Utah. The patriotic extravaganza is the most elaborate Independence Day celebration in the country, drawing more than fifty thousand people annually to Brigham Young University’s LaVell Edwards Stadium for a program of family music, star-spangled speeches, military displays, and a magnificent array of fireworks. Sponsored by the conservative Mormon group Freedom Festival, the Stadium of Fire is the closest thing in the country to an institutionalized Rally for America, Beck’s controversial 2003 traveling pro-war roadshow. It is not surprising, then, that this is among the high points of Beck’s calendar year. “There’s nothing like Utah on the Fourth of July,” he likes to say.

The Jonas Brothers were the biggest commercial act on the 2009 Stadium of Fire program, but the chaste Disney boy band didn’t headline. That honor went to an enormous American flag, 155 feet by 90 feet, which was ritually burned during the show’s climax. It was Beck’s job as emcee to narrate the rite as it was carried out according to an elaborate official protocol. When a cauldronlike container at the center of the field was set afire, an emotional Beck declared, “If our American flag could speak, oh, the stories she would tell.”

With those words, the Stadium of Fire became a Coliseum of Crying. “Many people teared up,” reported the Deseret News, “including event emcee Glenn Beck, who emphasized to the audience what a special ceremony they were witnessing.”

Except that it wasn’t. A few days later, Provo’s fire chief admitted that the nylon flag had not, in fact, been burned, as the crowd was led to believe. Because of safety concerns, a less volatile material had been quietly substituted for the flag in the giant cauldron. Like the emcee’s famous tears, Provo’s patriotic inferno was not what it seemed.

*

If people know one thing about Glenn Beck, it is that he cries. He is the Crying Conservative. Alone among cable news and talk-radio personalities, he frequently chokes up, his lips quiver, he wipes his eye, and he holds tortured misty pauses until he can hold them no more. For more than a decade, Beck has been crying on the radio, on television, on stage, in interviews, and even in scripted commercials. Sometimes the tears are implied; at other times, such as during a 2009 stage performance, he gets into a fetal position on the floor and bawls. But whatever the gradation, he owns the scale. It defines him like nothing else.

This is not an accident. As they were always intended to do, Beck’s tears have become a distinctive corporate-brand handle. They mark him clearly from everyone else in the broadcasting industry. When Beck began his career in conservative commentary, the field was thick with tough-guy know-it-alls—from the lace-curtain boor O’Reilly to the cigar-chomping blowhard Limbaugh.

But the cast of the late 1990s was incomplete. It contained no emotional Nancy, no repentant prodigal son, and no needy Twelve Stepper. Beck, a careful student of positional marketing theory since his days as a morning-zoo deejay in the 1980s and ’90s, identified and exploited the open niche. He began practicing the act during his transition from Top 40 to talk radio in the late 1990s. According to his Connecticut colleagues, he was known for being both genuinely emotional and able and willing to fake cry on cue.

“There were definitely times the crying was a tactic,” remembers Vinnie Penn, Beck’s former cohost in New Haven. “He’d be crying on-air. Then we’d go on commercial break and he’d phone in an order for a bacon-and-egg with cheese. Then we’d come back on-air and the tears would be back.” In Tampa, too, where he launched his talk radio career, he was known for turning on the waterworks for dramatic effect.

The role of Crying Conservative is well suited to Beck’s dramatic personality and emotional needs. But that alignment doesn’t make his execution of the character any less cynical. Sometimes Beck’s use of tears is so patently faked that it’s funny; at other times, it’s just nauseating. The best example of the latter is the time that Beck Freudian-slipped while choking up over the tragedy of someone else’s missing child. “Two years ago,” Beck said somberly one night early in his Fox News tenure, “I made the father a promise that I would not let this story dry—er, die …”

Beck’s tears are low-hanging fruit for parody, which no Beck hater can resist. It didn’t take long, however, to figure out that Beck was laughing the hardest of all, in the back seat of his limo. The trailers for Beck’s stage shows tout the star as “America’s favorite hysterical, fear-mongering, TV and radio crybaby.” The back cover of his best-selling book, Arguing with Idiots, shows the author pointing to a juicy tear on his right cheek, as if to say, “Make fun of me all you want, you fools. Please, don’t stop.”

Then there is the July 2009 GQ photo shoot in which Beck applied Tiger Balm to activate his famous tear ducts. It was from this shoot that the image for his September 2009 Time cover was drawn. Beck now uses the image as the screen saver on his office computers.

“It is not whether you really cry,” Ingrid Bergman once said. “It’s whether the audience thinks you are crying.” In Beck’s case, it’s not whether you really cry. It’s whether people are talking about whether you are really crying.

Making a joke of his tears, as he does, is not the same as copping to emotional dishonesty. Beck bristles whenever his tears are used not as joke material but as evidence of a larger, deeper fraudulence. Admitting that he is a charlatan is one bridge that Beck cannot afford to cross, even if his denials often serve to confirm the obvious. “I’m a crybaby. I’m such an easy target. I’m surprised SNL [Saturday Night Live] hasn’t come after me,” Beck once told a reporter.

“If you’re going to make that case [that he’s faking it], I deserve a frickin’ Emmy,” he said in the same interview. “That’s unbelievable acting. Do you think that a grown man crying on the air is something I wouldn’t get hammered relentlessly for?”

As Beck knows very well, being hammered relentlessly has its uses. When SNL finally did come after Beck, he was thrilled. Heavy attacks by liberals only publicize and reinforce Beck’s faux vulnerability among the only people who matter to his business: conservatives who hate liberals.

*

Beck likes to say that his tears are biologically determined, that he’s “90 percent ‘chick’ in that category.” It’s a revealing statement, not just for himself but for his more macho peers as well. With his constant crying and effeminate hand gestures, “Glenda” Beck apotheosizes the gender blending that has always been at the heart of right-wing talk radio.

“On talk radio in the 1980s and 1990s, ” writes Susan Douglas, a media historian at the University of Michigan, “masculinity was constructed as a fusion of traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits. Boys were supposed to be boys, meaning white, heterosexual boys, but they were also gender poachers, recuperating masculinity at the end of the century by infusing it with the need to chat, the need to confess insecurities, the need to be hysterical and overwrought about politics, the need to make the personal political.”

But when it comes to public crying as vaudeville, Beck owes less to universal womanhood than to a very specific brotherhood. He’s not stereotypically premenstrual as much as classically Mormon. Like so much else that baffles people about Beck, his approach to public tears has been shaped in the crucible of his adopted faith. It was the lachrymose Latter-Day Saints who turned an amateur crybaby pro.

*

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During the first weekend of October 2009, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints held its semiannual general conference in Salt Lake City. For two days, church leaders sermonized on the power of the Holy Spirit and railed against pornography, a “potent tool of Lucifer.” In turn, the speakers described powerful spiritual experiences in highly personal terms. Throughout the telling, often at similar dramatic turns, many speakers appeared on the verge of being overwhelmed by emotion. Sometimes the emotion broke through. Voices cracked, throats caught, eyes misted over. To the uninitiated, it seemed as if the speakers were all imitating Glenn Beck.

Among the practices that distinguish Mormonism from other forms of Christianity is a highly stylized social ritual known as bearing testimony. On the first Sunday of each month, Mormons gather at their local ward house to speak about “what they know to be true.” The format is something like a cross between an open-mic poetry slam and an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. One by one, congregants give semi-structured speeches—testimonies—that deal with a central theme; each one usually lasts no longer than a few minutes. These testimonies, structured like radio monologues, describe the feeling of being overwhelmed by the love of Jesus, of struggling against temptation, and of maintaining full dedication to the restoration of the gospel. As the speakers relive these feelings, it is common for them to emote within circumscribed boundaries.

Because they are such emotional events in which pure feeling trumps argument or rhetoric, some consider the ritual to be the Mormon equivalent of speaking in tongues. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism describes it as follows:

Bearing testimony is based on [the belief] that the power that motivates individuals to live as Christ taught is the power of the Holy Ghost, rather than the power of logic or the eloquence of gospel teachers. . . . This is illustrated by Brigham Young’s account of his own conversion when an LDS missionary bore his testimony: “If all the talent, tact, wisdom and refinement of the world had been sent to me with the Book of Mormon, and had declared, in the most exalted of earthly eloquence, the truth of it, undertaking to prove it by learning, and worldly wisdom, they would have been to me like the smoke which arises only to vanish away. But when I saw a man without eloquence, or talents for public speaking, who could only say, ‘I know, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith is a prophet of the Lord,’ the Holy Ghost proceeding from that individual illuminated my understanding, and light, glory, and immortality were before me. I was encircled by them, filled with them, and I knew for myself that the testimony of the man was true.”


Those who study Mormon rituals and rhetoric say that the fingerprints of bearing testimony can be found all over Beck’s public tearfulness. “Beck’s ability to ‘cry on cue’ appears to be a combination of Mormon culture and the practiced delivery of a media professional,” says Daymon M. Smith, a Mormon doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. “He is using Mormon tactics to spread Mormon ideas, such as the gospel of Cleon Skousen, under the cover of secular political revelations.”

“Beck’s emotional performances are very like Mormon testimonies,” agrees David Knowlton, a Mormon cultural anthropologist at Utah Valley University. “Beck has married two rhetorical styles: the quiet, Mormon sense of emotion present during key moments in testimony, and the bombast of more mainstream evangelical performances. Mormons and evangelicals simply do not trust reason to the same degree they trust feeling. George W. Bush also tapped into this with his elevation of gut over mind.”

When viewed in the context of Mormon practice, Beck’s public crying begins to make more sense. Like his Millennialist politics, they cause liberals to laugh but command respect from Mormon and evangelical religious conservatives. This helps to explain the yawning comprehension gap between his religious fans and his secular critics. Secular liberals watch Beck’s cheap theatrics and see unmanly, dishonest, and possibly insane behavior. Mormons and like-minded evangelicals, especially Pentecostals, see familiar signposts associated with masculinity, sincerity, and even authority.

“The tears of Mormon men are emblems of sincerity,” says Knowlton. “This is the role of light crying from the stand, when one chokes up and may even tear up. Public crying gets more common as one climbs the ladder of church authority. Mormonism praises the man who is able to shed tears as a manifestation of spirituality. Testimony is both a formal genre and a performance of personhood that marks a transition from a mundane to a mystical way of knowing. The emotion involved is a symbol of righteousness.”

It is also the ultimate rhetorical punch. “Nothing can silence a Mormon congregation like a voice crack from a speaker,” says Brad Kramer, a Mormon anthropologist who writes on Mormon politics and culture. “The testimonial style unites an unquestioning audience, and they too may report feeling, as a sort of divine contagion, the truth of another’s testimony.”

It is hard to imagine a religion better suited to Beck’s emotional neediness, unrivaled egomania, and hack entertainment chops than the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Mormonism has not only made an art of fake crying, it has institutionalized Beck’s favorite mode of speech, the sentimental monologue. It also encourages a certainty of spirit based on self-revelation that lies outside argument, fact, or logic. What Beck does on radio and television is an amped-up version of the testimony ritual: he fervently talks about what he believes—knows—is happening, describes the dark secrets he has uncovered, conveys the transcendent importance of these discoveries, and frames it all in a Manichean narrative straight out of the Book of Mormon—America as a battlefield on which God-fearing defenders of liberty face off against evil big-government conspirators.

The way Beck has built his movement and his audience is a microcosm of the method by which the Mormon Church grew into a worldwide religion. Like an earnest young missionary spreading the good word through emotional speeches to confused Latin American villagers, Beck has brought his gut self-revelations to the angry, not-so educated audiences of Fox News and AM talk-radio, employing emotional intensity overflowing into tears to conquer doubts of his sincerity and prove his access to powerful truths. By asking his viewers to “join him”—in the 9.12 Project, as a “constitutional watchdog,” for his 100-year plan—or to “follow him” (as he says at the beginning of each Fox broadcast), he is offering viewers a chance to share in his revelation.

Bear testimony; recruit. Bear testimony; recruit.

*

On Thursday evening, October 15, 2009, Brother Beck’s Mormon Masterpiece Theater treated Fox viewers to an especially memorable production. The one-act performance had no official title, but it quickly became known on liberal blogs as “Glenda Watches a Coke Commercial, Cries, and Goes to a Suburban Keg Party.”

Beck began the performance with two well-known television advertisements from the early 1980s: one for Coca-Cola and one for Kodak. The spots represented the first time in weeks that major-brand advertising had been seen on Fox News between 5 and 6 p.m. When Beck’s eyes misted over after playing the spots, it seemed that the memory of such advertising was too much for him to take.

Beck was crying for more than just the memory of blue-chip sponsorship. He was crying for the innocent America of 1980 and the great U.S. advertising agencies of that long-lost era, which conceived ads of such power and wholesomeness. Where were the advertising creatives of today who were worthy of standing on the shoulders of these giants? Not traitorous GEICO with its limey lizard or the proud radicals at Progressive Insurance. (These two companies were among the first to join the advertiser boycott against Beck's Fox News show in August 2009.)

Beck explained that 1980 was “a simpler time” when Americans “were united on some basic things.” He asked his audience to join him in remembering what life was like during this simpler time, when Three’s Company was the biggest show on television and the top marginal income tax rate was 50 percent. Beck acknowledged that America “has never been a perfect place.” Then came a long, choked-up pause, during which Beck appeared to resist the urge to bite his knuckles. He launched into a rambling allegorical tale about how his viewers are a lot like teenagers at a party on a Saturday night, out way past curfew. They smell of weed and booze, but they didn’t really do anything wrong. Still, they are going to be in trouble when they get home. They will be grounded and forced to stay home on the following Saturday night.

If Beck were capable of driving his most flummoxed viewers to suicide, this would have done the trick. In the Internet discussions the segment sparked, many participants found themselves at a complete loss. “While watching this,” wrote one person in a liberal discussion group, “I could almost hear the shotguns being cocked and loaded across the country.”

Indeed, there was something about this segment that was fundamentally unanswerable. The sentimentalism of the bit was so cheaply canned, so reflexively narcissistic, and so historically obtuse that it was less a piece of theater than an act of violence. With this bit, Beck’s love of vulgar sentimentalism hit terminal freak velocity. Anyone who looked directly into its light was sucked through a vortex and deposited into a strange land where Free Willy is Citizen Kane, and a sepia-toned Kodak commercial is capable of capturing all that is good and true about an America that never was.

In this, too, Beck's adopted religion has been a perfect fit. Along with being the teariest form of Christianity, Mormonism has developed maudlin sentimentalism into an art and an industry. Mormonism is the closest thing America has to a Disney religion, with an orthodox culture that has replaced the tragic sensibility with a masochistic addiction to uplift. The Church produces and promotes a steady stream of LDS-approved books, music, and films that form a G-rated Wellbutrin-fueled world unto itself. In this world, the grand Wurlitzer of human experience is reduced to a single-note caricature of the redemption theme.

Like Beck’s work in radio, television, stage, and publishing, official Mormon culture is more than aggressively anti-intellectual. It is infantilizing. Those who stray too far outside the sandbox of accepted narratives do not fare well. In 1993, after a brief glasnost period at Brigham Young University, the school purged its faculty of feminists and liberals. Church officials gave speeches naming feminists, intellectuals, and gays and lesbians as the three greatest enemies of the church. Ever since, the BYU faculty has been required, as a condition of employment, to annually renew their endorsements by local ecclesiastical leaders. Beck, so ready to decry imaginary neo-Soviet policies in the U.S. government, is silent about the real neo-Soviet policies within his church.

Before Beck embraced this world, it confused him. In his memoir-cum-manifesto, The Real America, he describes the curious case of the Amazing Mr. Plastic Man, an especially happy member of his future ward house. Beck describes how he and his fellow congregants were in Sunday school class discussing the Mormon concept of Zion—a place where, in Beck’s words, “we can all make as much money as we want, where we can all still be capitalists, but we only take the amount we need and give the rest to help the poor, widowed or fatherless.”

Mr. Plastic Man raised his hand. “There’s only one way this will happen,” he said, “If I truly love you and you truly love me. If deep down inside of ourselves we see people for who they really are, our literal and spiritual brothers.” Beck then comments:


He was crying and I was crying. Simple truth. . . . It was then that I decided, “I don’t care if you have Kool-Aid in the basement, give me a cup. I’m so tired, I can’t live with the baggage of my life any more. I can’t live with the mistakes I have made. I’m laying down my sword, because I want to be like the Amazing Mr. Plastic Man.”


Anyone who has followed Beck over the course of his career knows that he never followed the Amazing Mr. Plastic Man into the basement, never drank from the Kool-Aid tasting of a truly loving cosmic consciousness. Nor did he lay down his sword. Beck’s spleen drives him still; his self-loathing remains as twisted and deep as ever, daily manifested by a steady stream of gruesomely violent fantasies, vicious personal attacks, and eliminationist rhetoric that routinely reduces his political opponents to cockroaches, cancers, and vermin.

No, Glenn Beck is still the same splenetic jerk he was before he found his Mormon Jesus. His newfound piety is as contrived as his tears.

*

There is no better example of Beck at his saccharine sentimental worst than his first novel, The Christmas Sweater. Although he doesn’t advertise it as such, it is an archetypically Mormon creation. Beck claims that the story is based on true events, centered on the death of his mother. But the standards of Mormon sentimentalism demand more than one parental death, so the young protagonist’s father also dies. Beck cowrote the number-one New York Times best seller with another Mormon author, Jason Wright.

The result is an unwieldy collection of clichés and congealed preteen literary sugar that could easily be confused with any number of other Mormon-authored novels. One of these, Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas List, shares not only a cover design with Beck’s book but also enough by-the-numbers pathos to melt the human brain. (The biggest difference between the two novels is that Beck manages to work in a swipe at the federal food-stamp program in the first five pages.) The Web site of the church-owned Deseret Book Company describes The Christmas Sweater as a “warm and poignant tale of family, faith and forgiveness.” The same description could have been lifted from almost any other work of Mormon popular fiction.

LDS Church-produced films offer more of the same. All follow the trajectory of cartoon tragedy to bright-light redemption with pummeling predictability. Consider the plots of Mormonism’s most famous “film classics,” as described in the BYU Creative Works Catalogue:

The Gift: A twelve-year-old boy struggles to understand why his father is so hard on him. When he realizes that his father is simply trying to teach him a strong work ethic, the boy searches for the perfect Christmas gift to give in return. Since it is the depression of the mid 1930s, money is scarce, but when he decides to get up early on Christmas morning to do the farm chores, he gives him a gift that will last a lifetime.

Cipher in the Snow: When a teenage boy dies unexpectedly, his math teacher is asked to notify the parents and write the obituary. Although he was the boy’s favorite teacher, he hardly knew him. Shy and ostracized, the boy was considered a “cipher”—an unknown number in a class roll book. As the teacher unravels the mystery of what led to the boy’s death, he commits himself to not letting others suffer the same fate.

The Emmett Smith Story
: When Emmett Smith has a brain tumor removed, he loses his equilibrium and is told he will never run again. With determination, the high school track coach is able to run 20 miles once again within a year. When Cindy Duncan becomes a student at his high school, Emmett challenges her to do the same—set a goal for leaving her wheelchair to walk to the podium to get her graduation diploma.

John Baker’s Last Race: When John Baker learns he is dying of cancer, he faces a choice: to end his life, or to use his remaining time to make a difference in others’ lives. He chooses to dedicate himself to his young students and his citywide girls’ track team, leaving them with a legacy of love and accomplishment, and an understanding of the value of determination and a positive attitude.


It wasn't supposed to be like this. Mid-nineteenth century Mormons gathered together to build gleaming cities in the desert into which they imagined the rest of the world would one day flow, drawn by reputations of learning and high culture. Alas, the Mormon cities of today are spirit and intellect crushing wastelands of stricture and schmaltz. The roads leading into Salt Lake City and Provo are dotted with billboards covered in slogans like "Escape from the world" and the faces of people like Glenn Beck.

The degeneracy of Mormon sentimentalist culture has resulted in more than just horrible film and fiction. It has also obliterated any possibility of a fuller reckoning with the complexities of history. In his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin argued that sentimental novels, by cheapening tragedy, help to reinforce the reality that made the tragedy possible in the first place. Sentimentalism, Baldwin wrote, is rooted in a “medieval morality [of] black, white, the devil, the next world—posing its alternatives between heaven and the flames.” This medieval morality, he argued, is fertile ground for medieval politics. For Baldwin, the politics of sentimentalism always shared an “indecent glibness” with those “moral, neatly framed and incontestable . . . improving mottoes sometimes found hanging on the walls of furnished rooms.”

In other words, Beck World politics.

Alexander Zaitchik is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and AlterNet contributing writer. His book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, will be published this month by Wiley.
 
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