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2010-09-02

Alexander Zaitchik on "Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance"

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Alexander Zaitchik, author of Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance.

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Glenn Beck organized a much-publicized "Restoring Honor" rally on Saturday in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Beck’s fans reportedly number in the millions, and Saturday’s rally drew nearly 100,000 supporters. We speak with Alexander Zaitchik, author of Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to a deeply polarizing figure who’s been dominating the airwaves. He’s the darling of conservatives and right-wing activists. But to liberals and progressives, he’s a much-reviled object of derision, a demogogue prone to maudlin dramatics. Yes, I’m talking about the right-wing TV and radio host Glenn Beck. He’s also a bestselling author, and his latest venture is a slickly designed blog called "The Blaze."

Last weekend, Glenn Beck organized a much-publicized "Restoring Honor" rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital. It was held on the forty-seventh anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Here’s an excerpt of Glenn Beck’s speech at the rally.

    GLENN BECK: Somewhere in this crowd — I know it — I have been looking for the next George Washington. I can’t find him. I know he is in this crowd. He may be eight years old. But this is the moment! This is the moment that he dedicates his life, that he sees giants around him. And twenty-five years from now, he will come not to this stair, but to those stairs, and he can proclaim, "I have a new dream."

    Tell the truth. Tell the truth. And it only matters when you tell the truth and you know it’s going hurt you. You know that it’s not going to help your side. Tell the truth. America is crying out for the truth! Tell the truth in your own life and then expect it from others.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Fox News broadcaster Glenn Beck. His fans reportedly number in the millions, and Saturday’s rally drew nearly 100,000 supporters.

How did a former Top 40 Radio DJ who describes himself as a recovering alcoholic who struggled with drug abuse become a nationwide cultural phenomenon? Well, investigative journalist Alexander Zaitchik tells this story in his book Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance. He joins me here in our studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK: Good to be here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You were at the rally.

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK: I was there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What was it like?

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK: Well, it certainly didn’t resemble the rally that I read about in the press. It sort of got a pass. People thought this is a softer, kinder, squishier Glenn Beck, a non-political Glenn Beck. But it was a deeply political event, I think. He’s calling for, you know, basically a return to Biblical principles, turning back to God, which is as political as you can get. This is a secular republic the last time I checked. And Beck’s conception of turning back to God and bringing the Constitution back to its, you know, original Biblical kind of base is — you have to see it in light of Beck’s Mormon reading of American history, in which God literally wrote the Constitution and intended its development to stop at around the Tenth Amendment. So when Beck talks about turning back to God, what he’s really talking about is a drastic diminuation of the government as modern Americans know it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tell us a little bit about his history. How did he get to where he is now, to become this sort of icon of right-wing conservatives?

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK: It’s an incredibly unlikely story that this guy would end up addressing this many people at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Just ten years ago, he was still a struggling Top 40 DJ. Basically a failure. Had bottomed out after about twenty years as a Morning Zoo Top 40 guy traveling the country, getting fired from markets pretty quickly for making a lot of enemies and being famous for his mean streak, which is still in abundant evidence. He was really kind of a divisive figure even then, when he was in this clownish, infantile world of Top 40 radio.

And he got a talk show largely through being at the right place at the right time. He was working for Clear Channel when it was still a small company. And then, when it began to take advantage of deregulation, he used his connections to land a job in Tampa, where he was about to get fired, until the recount drama of 2000 put a lot of focus on Florida, where he was working. So he was able to parlay that into ratings, and then he was syndicated. And then 9/11 happened, and he sort of turned overnight into this hard-charging, fire-breathing superpatriot that we know today.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And some of the —- you mentioned his propensity to get in trouble for what he says. Some of the statements that you’ve been chronicling over the years now of his?

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK: Right. Well, his more recent controversies are pretty well known. But even going back to the ’80s and ’90s, he was known for a racist, sexist shtick. He famously, or infamously, called up the wife of a competing DJ in Phoenix in the mid—'80s and mocked her for having a miscarriage live on the air. He made fun of a guy named Malik Jones in New Haven, who was an unarmed black man shot by a white police officer, and it was quite a big police brutality case at the time. He went on air that week making fun of Jones, talking about how he used to smoke crack with his grandmother. Stuff like this. So, you know, this Glenn Beck that is so divisive today has been there the whole time. And the idea that he had this, you know, transformative experience when he became a Mormon and became a good guy and is this sort of moral beacon is just ludicrous.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Glenn Beck was on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace discussing his "Restoring Honor" rally and how he plans to, quote, "reclaim the civil rights movement." When Wallace asked him about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of economic justice, Beck said that’s a part of the civil rights leader’s message that he didn’t agree with.

    GLENN BECK: Reclaim the civil rights, meaning people of faith that look at equal justice and look at every man the same, that’s who needs to reclaim it, not the politicians, not the parties, not white people or black people.

    CHRIS WALLACE: But Glenn —-

    GLENN BECK: People of faith.

    CHRIS WALLACE: But Glenn, the civil rights movement always had an agenda beyond just equality, beyond just, quote, "justice." The full name of the march forty-seven years ago was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    GLENN BECK: Right.

    CHRIS WALLACE: One of the speakers at the event was a labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, who talked about the injustice of people who live in poverty. John Lewis, then a student, now a congressman, said this at the event: "We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of the family whose total income is $100,000 a year." The civil rights movement was always about an economic agenda.

    GLENN BECK: Well, you know what, Chris? I think that is part of it, but that’s a part of it that I don’t agree with. I think the bigger part -— the thing that we fail to recognize is that is the racial politics.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And last year, Glenn Beck accused President Obama of being a racist and having a, quote, "deep-seated hatred for white peope." Well, on Sunday, Fox News’s Chris Wallace played that clip for Glenn Beck.

    GLENN BECK: This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don’t know what it is. This guy is, I believe, a racist.

    CHRIS WALLACE: Question: after that, do you have any credibility talking about reclaiming the civil rights movement?

    GLENN BECK: OK, let me go over this again on the reclaiming the civil rights movement. People of faith that believe that you have an equal right to justice, that is the essence. And if it’s not the essence, then we’ve been sold a pack of lies. The essence is, everyone deserves a shot. The content of character, not the color of skin. Now, when — I’ve addressed this comment a million times, and, in fact, I think I amended it this week, that what I didn’t understand at the time was the influences on President Obama. And, you know, the white culture, look — read his own books. He writes about the white culture and how he struggled with it, etc., etc. But I didn’t understand really his theology. He’s — his viewpoints come from liberation theology.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Alexander Zaitchik, your response to those comments of Glenn Beck’s, and especially what the comments on President Obama did to the campaign that developed against him?

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK: Right. Well, it led to the most successful campaign against Beck, the Color of Change, stopbeck.com, campaign to get sponsors to drop his show, and it’s been quite successful. It’s created this narrative out there, which Beck is rightly seen as somewhat freakish. No one recognizes brands from their breakfast table on his show anymore, and that’s as it should be.

As for the comments about Barack Obama’s liberation theology, you know, it’s hard to know where to begin. This is just kind of classic Beck, and it’s part of his larger campaign against social justice, which is, you know, a combination of the sort of classic Beck trifecta of ignorance, provocation and pretty sly racial innuendo, which comes pretty effortlessly to him.

As for Martin Luther King appropriation, he clearly would have put King on is chalkboard, had they been contemporaries. Beck not only would have honed in on King’s connections to real radicals, but he also would have, you know, called him a cockroach for spreading the virus of social justice. This is the kind of language that he engages in on a regular basis, which is what makes him so dangerous. He’s injected this language that is pretty foreign to American political discourse, this sort of pre-Hitlerian, almost, talk about cockroaches, rats, viruses, cancers, dehumanizing your political opponents.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in the little time we have left, his involvement with the Mormon Church, while at the same time trying to curry support among evangelical Christians, who regard — many of whom regard the Mormon Church with disdain, could you talk about that?

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK: Sure, sure. This is, I think, the most interesting fault line that’s developed lately. It’s not so much between Beck and his liberal critics — we all know about that — but it’s between his evangelical fan base, those who are a little bit put off by his posturing as a Christian leader, as a divine medium, when in fact he belongs to what most evangelicals belong to — consider a cult. So it’s a little strange also that he would be throwing stones at other people’s Christianity, when he himself is in a pretty big glass house when it comes to, at least as his fans understand, his faith.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Is there any sense, in your research on him, that he has political aspirations? Of course, the talk a couple of years ago was more about Lou Dobbs running for president. But what about Glenn Beck?

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK: Yeah, no, I think Beck is smart enough to know there’s too many skeletons that’ll be dragged out if he ever tried to run for office. And also, frankly, there’s too much longevity and money in what he’s doing building himself up as a sort of movement leader that’s above the fray, or at least pretends to be above the fray, but in fact is not.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But he’s had a lot of influence, obviously, in terms of the campaign against Van Jones and then against ACORN. He was very influential in helping to destroy those figures.

ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK: Sure, sure. He’s a potent political force, absolutely. I don’t think you can understand what happened on Saturday without reference to what’s going to happen two Saturdays from now with the FreedomWorks-organized march. Taxpayers March, they’re calling it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, thanks very much for being with us, Alexander Zaitchik, an investigative reporter and the author of the Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance.

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