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The Beck of Revelation

Jim Lo Scalzo/epa/Corbis
Sarah Palin at the ‘Restoring Honor’ rally
In the last five years, I have—I’ve gone from a big hawk to not Ron Paul, but on the road to Ron Paul…. Honestly…, I wasn’t paying attention before 9/11. I didn’t know what the heck was going on in the world. Now, I’m paying attention. When people said they hate us, well, did we deserve 9/11? No. But were we minding our business? No. Were we in bed with dictators and abandoned our values and principles? Yes. That causes problems…. I’m not going to screw with the rest of the world. I’m going to get out.

In his didactic thriller The Overton Window he is even more explicit and offers a surprising take on post–September 11 America. The book’s conceit is that behind the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was a conspiratorial network of business, finance, and political leaders working with foreign governments and international organizations to establish a post-democratic world order ruled by elites. Their long-term strategy was to gradually undermine American sovereignty by promoting globalization, establishing an autonomous military-intelligence-police apparatus by exaggerating security threats, and nudging the world economy toward ruin by running up national debt. The basic idea was to bring democratic governments everywhere to the point of collapse and then create a state of emergency allowing the New World Order to emerge. That was what the attacks were supposed to accomplish but didn’t. Now it’s time for another try.

The cabal’s mastermind is Arthur Isaiah Gardner, an elusive public relations executive with a genius for manufacturing market demand and political consent, whether for bottled water or the Gulf War. He secretly directed the campaigns of all our recent presidents except Jimmy Carter (too holy) and Richard Nixon (too cheap). Gardner is also a would-be messiah who thinks he’s been called to redeem humanity. He once believed in America and its democratic promise, but at a certain point had to accept the evidence of his eyes. The truth must be faced: the American experiment has failed and the time has come for the rule “not of the people this time, but of the right people: the competent, the wise, and the strong.”

The Overton Window is a kind of inverted Ayn Rand novel. While she romanticizes the lone atheist visionary struggling against the conformist herd, Beck idealizes the common folk who resist the John Galts and Howard Roarks of the world. The evil Arthur Gardner is up against the flannel-shirted members of a Tea Party–like organization called the “Founders Keepers,” a Web-connected crew of God-fearing populists devoted to the Constitution and small government, who have vowed to resist the tyranny of the “self-appointed ruling class” of “huge corporations, international banks, the power brokers on Wall Street, foreign governments, media giants” who are creating “a two-class society in which the elites rule and all below them are all the same: homogenized, subordinate, indebted, and powerless.”

On a lark, Gardner’s son Noah (yes, Noah) attends one of their meetings, which is broken up by Blackwater-type goons and agents provocateurs pretending to be gun nuts and anti-Semites. So he begins collaborating with the Keepers to help foil his father’s plot, which they only partially do. Noah is captured and taken to a secret prison where he is beaten, waterboarded, and given electroshock in hopes of drawing him back to the dark side. As the novel ends he is in a halfway house being rewired for future use, though maintaining secret contacts with the Keeper underground. A sequel is promised.

No one picking up a Glenn Beck thriller will be surprised to find Congress demonized, along with the IRS, the United Nations, and the Council on Foreign Relations. But the libertarian Beck also puts into the mouths of his characters a litany of left-wing complaints and conspiracy theories of a libertarian tinge. Besides the usual government crimes that haunt the right-wing imagination, characters in The Overton Window also denounce presidential national security directives, spying on domestic dissenters, the privatization of the police and military, the preventative detention and torture of potential terrorists, undeclared wars, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the overthrow of Latin American governments, the disproportionate incarceration of young black men, corporate campaign contributions, and the bailout of Wall Street millionaires.

Oliver Stone, you’ve got mail. Dick Cheney, you don’t.

Beck has been the lead horseman of the American Apocalypse for some time. But now he seems to be catching on to the fact that despite our susceptibility to conspiracy theories, Americans can’t be mobilized for long by fear alone. We just don’t do Kulturpessimismus. We do divine providence, five-point plans, miraculous touchdowns as the clock runs out, and the whole town coming together to save the bank because, gosh darn it, it’s a wonderful life. So after a few years scaring the wits out of us, Glenn Beck now wants to reassure us that God has a plan for us. A couple of days after the Washington rally he told his television audience, “I know you and I have a special relationship and that you trust me, and I value that trust…. I recognize that I am in this place at this time for a reason…. What God is telling us is ‘get behind Him.’” At the rally he coyly dropped that “God gives me hints of stuff,” though he doesn’t always understand everything He says. “I’m not the smarter one of your children,” he joked, “you’ve got to be more clear. Speak slowly.”

Originally the rally was promoted as the public unveiling of a book Beck kept calling “The Plan.” As the date neared, and perhaps as the book got delayed, or God was dictating too fast, the rally was refocused on larger themes. The book is now finally with us, under the title Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure, and it is a strange piece of work—sober, even boring, and totally unlike his sly, satirical best sellers Arguing With Idiots and An Inconvenient Book. It’s all about our growing national debt and seems to have been outsourced to think-tank types who wrote wonky chapters about such arcana as the distinction between “unified cash basis” and “modified accrual basis” budget accounting. It is a fairly standard libertarian tract, offering the same analysis and proposals one finds in reports from the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute, or in articles in Reason magazine, which are all cited frequently here. There is a call for minimal government, more federalism, a flat tax, balanced budget and term-limit amendments, stemming the growth of Social Security and Medicare payments, and serious cuts in defense spending.2 The book offers a surprisingly coherent, though wholly fantastical, picture of America’s future. But like all twelve-step programs, it is aspirational, not realistic.

Far more interesting, and potentially more consequential, was the “plan” Beck presented in his Washington gathering: his call for a “third Great Awakening,” a national conversion back to divine principles. “God is not done with you yet, and he is not done with man’s freedom yet.” Just read the two words carved into the Washington Monument and let them sink in: LAUS DEO, praise be to God. If we can do that again, in word and deed, we will see “the beginning of the end of darkness,” we will restore our nation, we will “restore the world.” But remember that if we try to change Washington without changing ourselves, we will fail. “America is great because America is good,” he declared, but

we as individuals must be good so America can be great…. God is not on our side; we have to put our lives in shape so we will be on God’s side…. Go to your churches, your synagogues, your mosques, go to those who are teaching the lasting principles.

He encouraged them to pray often, leaving the door slightly ajar so their children could learn from the example. He also urged them to tithe to their places of worship and to be as generous as possible in giving to private charities. Good to his word, Beck used the rally to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides scholarships for the children of slain soldiers.

Watching a tape of the rally later, I was struck by how artfully he touched on themes dear to the religious right—family, church, honor—without sounding angry or exclusionary. This, too, seems in keeping with the laissez-faire doctrines of the Tea Party movement, which has ruffled the feathers of some old-school evangelical activists. As one of them recently said, “there’s a libertarian streak in the Tea Party movement that concerns me as a cultural conservative. [It] needs to insist that candidates believe in the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.”3 Beck refuses to do that. He has even gone on record saying he sees no threat to the family in gay marriage.4

Instead he is doing his own mobilizing, on his own terms. Last year Beck formed something called the “9.12 Project,” whose mission, according to its website, is to “bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001.” It asks members to affirm a charter of the “9 Principles” and the “12 Values.” The principles are a mix of the patriotic (“America Is Good”), the religious (“I believe in God and He is the Center of my life”), and the moral (“I must always try to be a more honest person than I was yesterday”). Politically, they are down-the-line libertarian: “The government works for me.” The values to be respected in private, on the other hand, are softer and more generous, like reverence, hope, thrift, humility, gratitude, and charity. Beck is no longer directly involved with the project but it served its purpose, which was to show that his developing vision could mobilize like-minded Tea Party types under his own banner. His message is simple: America can be saved if it turns and follows Him. And him.

Tune in to one of Beck’s shows today and you’ll see that he remains the coincidentia oppositorum he’s always been—angry, thoughtful, ironic, nasty, sentimental, bathetic. His new Moses character is just one more in his dramatic repertoire and who knows how long he will choose to play it. I suppose it all depends on the reviews from the Tea Party faithful. Polls show he is the most popular public figure among movement sympathizers, running just ahead of Sarah Palin, though his message is not the same as hers. He presents himself as a social libertarian, not a social conservative, he is isolationist in foreign policy and skeptical of the national security establishment, and he wants to end Social Security as we know it. On paper, at least, that puts him at odds with a large segment of the Tea Party’s supporters. Yet they revere him and believe he understands them.

  1. 2

    On foreign policy the book also lays out a Beck Doctrine, which holds that “we mind our own business,” “the enemy of my enemy is not my friend,” and “we sacrifice our values at our own peril.” (“Yes, Saudi Arabia, I’m talking to you.”) Worth noting, too, is that among the books Beck recommends to his readers is Andrew Bacevich’s impassioned work, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press, 2005). 

  2. 3

    See Ben Smith, “Tea Parties Stir Evangelicals’ Fears,” Politico, March 12, 2010. 

  3. 4

    When challenged on The O’Reilly Factor in August, Beck reiterated his libertarian credo that “if it neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket, what difference is it to me?” When O’Reilly insisted that gay marriage was a menace, Beck mugged a frightened face, stared into the camera, and asked, “Will the gays come and get us?” 

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