In November of 2000, Americans sat on the edge of their seats waiting to find out who would be the next president. Protests were held, counter protests were organized to meet the challenge and everyone had an opinion. The 2000 election remains capable of igniting passionate debate. Some look it as the time that the Supreme Court stole an election for George W. Bush. Some mark it up to Al Gore having the campaign skills and spinal fortitude of a slime mold. There are those who rue Florida’s hanging chads and aging Jewish voters for Buchanan. And not a few still point to those tense days as proof that Ralph Nader is a festering sore on the ass of the Republic.
Any or all of them could be right. But when you read Alexander Zaitchik’s new book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, you’ll turn the last page with the understanding that election 2000 brought something far more sinister than Bush/Cheney down upon America. Worse, you’ll know that it ain’t over yet.
Beck was working in Tampa at the time, unsuccessfully trying to break into conservative talk radio. In fact, he was about to be let go because he was terrible at his job, saved only by Clear Channel’s local monopoly. But when Bush v. Gore came to a head in Florida and Beck was one of the few local voices on the airwaves, Clear Channel saw the opportunity and went national with Beck. That exposure formed the foundation for his current media empire, and the experience turned Beck into the “real conservative” he is today. No more making fun of rednecks: from then on, Beck would fashion himself as one.
If you’re hoping to read a book-length rant against Beck and all that he stands for, then this isn’t for you. This is not Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. It’s a careful and studious look at Beck: part biography, part deconstruction and incredibly readable from the first page to the last.
Listed as “Current Affairs,” Common Nonsense is written like the best history. Zaitchik moves the focus between the tree and the forest with incredible dexterity, giving the reader depth as well as context. Both are frightening. I found myself comparing the feel of Zaitchik’s book to The Heart of Darkness, particularly the sense of foreboding that builds as the reader understands more and more of what makes Beck tick, or more accurately, what makes him particularly unhinged and dangerous. Kurtz “went native,” a respectable thing to do in my book. Beck went Mormon, which is like going native but without any of the positives. And at least Kurtz had the good grace to live with the natives; for all of Beck’s soft-focus talk about the “real America,” the man lives in a mansion in Connecticut and takes a limo to work.
I’ll let you read the book to find out what kinds of crackpot conspiracies Beck subscribes to and the kind of hard Mormon rightwingism that he’s bringing into mainstream American culture. A god among the natives he may be, but he’s not off the corporate reservation: he’s just packaging the fascism in a way that would make Goebbels proud.
My compulsion to dog-ear every page containing important information, a laugh-out-loud turn of phrase or Zaitchik wielding stinging, sarcastic wit deformed my review copy. The reader never has far to go between examples like, “Weirder still is the fact that Beck has successfully grown a mass following while stumbling through a remedial self-education in U.S. democracy, which reflects the carnival mirrors inside his mind as much as it does the reality he struggles, in futility and desperation, to comprehend,” and “It seemed that the [Tea Party] protesters’ main enemies were Russian history and apostrophes.” They’re all great, but Zaitchik plays them subtly enough that they never detract from his presentation of vital information.
And that’s what makes this book special. A great many writers from the left could have spent 258 pages lobbing insults at Beck. Zaitchik takes the high road, blending straight biography with solid, investigative journalism. Sometime in the future, professors will be assigning Common Nonsense and historians will be referencing it.
Read it. It’s not going to make you feel better, but it will give you a much deeper understanding of America’s current insanity.