For a year and a half, we've seen rallies and town-hall shouting and attack ads and Fox News special reports. But I still haven't the foggiest idea what these folks actually want, other than to see like-minded Republicans winning elections. To be sure, I admire their passion, and I applaud their willingness to get involved in public affairs. If more Americans chose to take a more active role in the political process, the country would be better off and our democracy would be more vibrant.
But that doesn't actually tell us what these throngs of Americans are fighting for, exactly. I'm not oblivious to their cries; I'm at a loss to appreciate those cries on anything more than a superficial level.
This is about "freedom."
Well, I'm certainly pro-freedom, and as far as I can tell, the anti-freedom crowd struggles to win votes on Election Day. But can they be a little more specific? How about the freedom for same-sex couples to get married? No, we're told, not that kind of freedom.
This is about a fight for American "liberties."
That sounds great, too. Who's against American "liberties"? But I'm still looking for some details. Might this include law-abiding American Muslims exercising their liberties and converting a closed-down clothing store into a community center? No, we're told, not those kinds of liberties.
This is about giving Americans who work hard and play by the rules more opportunities.
I'm all for that, too. But would these opportunities include the chance for hard-working Americans to bring their kids to the doctor if they get sick, even if the family can't afford insurance? No, we're told, not those kinds of opportunities.
This is about the values of the Founding Fathers.
I'm a big fan of the framers' generation, who created an extraordinary nation. But if we're honoring their values, would this include their steadfast commitment to the separation of church and state? No, we're told, not those values.
This is about patriotic Americans willing to make sacrifices for the good of their country.
That sounds reasonable; sacrifices can be honorable. But if we're talking about patriots willing to sacrifice, does that mean millionaires and billionaires can go back to paying '90s-era tax rates (you know, when the economy was strong)? No, we're told, not those kinds of sacrifices.
This is about a public that, at long last, wants to hear the truth from those who speak in their name.
What a great idea. Maybe that means we can hear the truth about global warming? About the fact that health care reform wasn't a socialized government takeover? About Social Security not going bankrupt? About how every court ruling conservatives don't like doesn't necessarily constitute "liberal judicial activism"? No, we're told, not those truths.
The talk sensation looked more like a televangelist at his “Restoring Honor” rally this weekend, but his preaching about unity only proved that his biggest adversary is himself.
The Rev. Glenn Beck staged a religious revival on the National Mall in Washington yesterday.
His “Restoring Honor” rally sidestepped politics, instead offering a tribute to the troops and calls for a new Great Awakening, proclaiming “We’ve got to go to God Bootcamp,” to the applause of hundreds of thousand of followers.
But the most striking thing about Beck’s heartfelt evangelism was its hypocrisy.
“We’re dividing ourselves,” Beck lamented. “There is growing hatred in the country. We must be better than what we’ve allowed ourselves to become. We must get the poison of hatred out of us, no matter what smears or lies are thrown our way… we must look to God and look to love. We must defend those we disagree with.”
It made me wonder if Glenn Beck has ever watched the Glenn Beck show.
The man offers a daily drumbeat of division for a living, earning $32 million last year selling his paranoid snake oil. It’s almost impossible to keep up with Beck’s serial fearmongering, though a stroll through Media Matters will give an authoritative sampling. Just a few of his greatest hits include:
• “We are a country that is headed toward socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest imagination.”
• “There is a coup going on. There is a stealing of America… done through the guise of an election.”
• “The president is a Marxist... who is setting up a class system.”
• “The government is a heroin pusher using smiley-faced fascism to grow the nanny state."
• “The health-care bill is reparations. It's the beginning of reparations."
• And of course, speaking of President Obama, “I believe this guy is a racist” with “a deep-seated hatred of white people.”
You can’t profit from fear and division all week and then denounce them one Saturday on the National Mall in Washington and hope nobody notices.
But Beck sure tried, offering a string of aphorisms in a rambling speech that was equal parts sermon, history lesson, and motivational seminar: “We, as individuals, must be good so that America can be great;” “We must not just explore outer space; we must explore inner space;” “Somewhere in this crowd is the next George Washington;” “What you gaze upon you become;” “I testify to you now that one man can change the world!”; “There is a lot that we can disagree on. But it is values and principles that unite us;” “We must not have fear and we must not get lost in politics.”
What accounts for this split personality? I’ve argued in the past that there is a Good Beck and a Bad Beck, and they are usually struggling for supremacy inside his head.
The Good Beck is genuinely patriotic and deeply religious, ascribing his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction to his family and his newfound Mormon faith.
The Bad Beck is such a talented broadcaster that he knows how to manipulate an audience’s emotions. He uses conflict, tension, fear and resentment to keep their attention day after day, buying his books, attending his rallies.
The two coexist uneasily under the justification that the Bad Beck promotes the Good Beck. He is advancing himself in order to advance a greater cause. And I can only imagine that in the Beck-centric universe, yesterday was supposed to represent the triumph of the Good Beck over the Bad. The fact that his 100-year Plan for America was abandoned in favor of “faith, hope and charity” set to an Aaron Copland score, symbolizes the elevation of religion over political ambition.
But you can’t just escape your past, even if you’re selling redemption. A gospel choir singing “unity” only goes so far. For all Beck’s exhortations about the importance of personal responsibility and telling the truth, those principles apparently do not extend to his professional life.
The biggest pre-rally controversy was the question of whether Beck was qualified to “reclaim the civil-rights movement” and carry the mantle of Martin Luther King (and this was before LittleGreenFootballs.com unearthed a clip of Beck calling MLK a socialist earlier this year). In a taped video tribute to King, Beck visually compared Tea Party protesters to civil-rights marchers, and quoted MLK self-referentially, saying “We must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” The irony was compounded when signs of hate at Little Rock were flashed on the screen, reading “Race-Mixing is Communism” and “Stop Race-Mixing—March of the Antichrist.” The photo offers fleeting evidence of a continuum between those who embraced hate during the civil-rights movement and those who encourage Obama Derangement Syndrome today.
But the Bad Beck who fear-mongers for fun and profit was nowhere in sight yesterday. Instead, there was charity for a great organization, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. The crowd was broad and peaceful, with none of the anger associated with last summer’s protests. Even Sarah Palin was on her best behavior, speaking as a soldier’s mom rather than a politician, and firing off only one thinly veiled dig at President Obama: “We must not ‘fundamentally transform’ America as some would want. We must restore America!”
Restoring America. Reclaiming the civil-rights movement. Restoring honor. This is the language of “taking our country back.” Each of these apparently uplifting statements pushes off the idea that something has been lost in America since the election of Barack Obama—not just jobs, but the character of the nation itself. They are slogans that would divide America into God-fearing patriots and secular socialists, creating the emotional argument beneath hyper-partisanship—an all-or-nothing struggle that pits “us” against “them,” with the fate of the nation at stake. In other words, exactly the dynamic that Beck spent so much time trying to disavow.
At the end of his three-hour revival meeting, Beck asked the crowd to keep the spirit of faith, hope, and charity alive in their actions, warning, “This wakeup call will fade if it was just about today, and the critics will be right.” And so I’ll be watching, waiting to see if Beck keeps faith with his call to “get the poison of hatred out of us.” It will presumably mean no longer demonizing people who disagree with him, no longer using fear or hate as a recruiting tool to pump up ratings. Beck told his audience to attend any house of worship, provided “that [it] is not preaching hate and division”—it is a standard that will have to apply to his own televangelism as well.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.