Glenn Beck's 'Mad as Hell' Marketing Strategy

Tears of a Clown:
Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America
By Dana Milbank
Doubleday, 272 pp, $24.95

As the saying goes: You can fool some of the people some of the time—and those are the ones you need to concentrate on. The ones Glenn Beck is concentrating on are his nearly 3 million Fox News (NWSA) viewers, the 9 million who tune in to his radio show, and the 3 million who buy his books. Beck burst onto the national scene, and into his signature tears, on Jan. 19, 2009—that is, the day before Barack Obama (aka The Antichrist) was sworn in as our 44th President. The featured guest on his show was Sarah Palin, and there, as Tom Wolfe might say, you have it all: our twin pasionarias of paranoia, hitting the jackpot. Beck's annual paycheck, according to Forbes, is around $32 million. By day he rails about the Obama Administration's secret concentration camps for political dissidents. By night he sleeps behind fortified walls in New Canaan, Conn. Nice work if you can get it.

In Tears of a Clown, Dana Milbank, a columnist for The Washington Post, has written a lively and depressing book. Demagogic crackpots are hardly new to the American scene. Readers wondering when Milbank will invoke Howard "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore" Beale—the deranged TV anchor in Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant 1976 movie, Network—will find him on page 87. Father Coughlin, the Nazi-sympathizing, anti-Semitic radio priest of the 1920s and '30s, arrives on page 207. Beck stops just short of outright anti-Semitism; though, Milbank writes, he's clearly troubled by the "disturbing hair" in George Soros' nose. Such illuminating details make it hard to read this account of an unbeautiful mind without wondering whether Beck is either a) certifiably cuckoo or b) putting on a very clever and very lucrative act.

Take a random paragraph about this past summer: "Beck has in the last few weeks mocked the President's eleven-year old daughter; praised Joseph McCarthy; recommended the work of an anti-Semitic author; released a 'rooted-in-fact' thriller about the United States succumbing to a world government; marveled that a Sarah Palin biographer has not been punched in the face; and given his considered opinion that the private sector 'could probably take care of things in Afghanistan better' than U.S. troops. Beck has been in what could be called an Ann Coulter spiral: Each outrage must pack more shock value than the previous. The difference is that Beck, unlike Coulter, has millions of passionate followers." Whether or not he's actually deranged, he's raving all the way to the bank.

Beck has a few traits in common with various other messiahs. First among these is his untidy past. He bottomed out on cocaine and booze in the late 1990s as a New Haven radio talk jock. Yet Beck is candid about his past: "I was a monster," he's confessed. "I'm a recovering dirtbag," he's proclaimed, and some readers may be inclined to agree, at least with the latter half of the sentiment. His trinity of virtues, frequently illustrated on his trademark chalkboard, consists of "God, gold and guns." His Fox News colleague Bill O'Reilly—who, by contrast, comes off as thoughtful and intellectually collected—is seen here poking fun at the gold fixation. However, that, too, is another part of the Beck empire: One of his biggest advertisers, along with Kaopectate, is gold vendor Goldline International.

Beck's moment of clarity came in 1999, when he embraced the Mormon faith, at which point the plot thickens—or congeals. Milbank tells us that he came under the influence of a noxious Mormon—and John Bircher—by the (perfect) name of Cleon Skousen. Now deceased, Skousen "regarded The Manchurian Candidate not as a fictional movie, but as a documentary," Milbank explains. "A Brigham Young University professor, he reacted to pressure on the Mormon Church to ordain blacks as priests by declaring that communists were attacking the Mormons." Little good is likely to come when you start with a Cleon Skousen as your role model. To its credit, the Mormon Church seems aware that in Beck it has a live grenade in the pew. Though the 10 percent tithe on $32 million must be some comfort.

Beck's other infatuations include Obama, one-world government, slavery, Hitler, doomsday (coming soon), and Woodrow Wilson. Yes, Woodrow Wilson. Beck has described our 28th President, Milbank says, as a "dirtbag racist," "one evil SOB," and "possibly the spookiest president we've ever had." "The Progressive Era," Milbank explains, "was the time of muckrakers and such things as the struggle to abolish child labor, break up monopolies, clean up meat-processing plants, and give women the right to vote." For Beck, "This was a very dark time in our nation's history."

A dark moment from Beck's short history: When Obama arranged that (somewhat odd) "beer summit" between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge (Mass.) cop who arrested him for breaking into his own house, Beck jumped the shark, informing his viewers that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." This assertion did not go down well; most people, including many of his colleagues at Fox, reached for the Kaopectate. Beck responded in typical fashion: "I'm not saying he doesn't like white people." Milbank wearily points out that, well, actually, in fact, that's exactly what he said.

By this point, readers may have arrived at a scarier conclusion. After all the fearmongering and the ignoramus statements, they may shrug and marvel, yet again, at the wonderful, generous employment opportunities America provides to its whack jobs, so long as they entertain us. On that score, the author of this useful, timely, and even important book gives due credit. Love him, hate him, fear him, there's no denying Glenn Beck is "an entertainment genius." The only remaining question is whether the rodeo clown is having the best laugh of all.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.