Alexander Zaitchik’s Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance is on the shelves. Beck seems to dislike the book as much as i liked it, calling it “despicable, yellow journalism.” Alexander was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and Beck. And it turns out that at times it really was like going up the river after Kurtz.
The full story of Glenn Beck is a pretty twisted tale. Did you know what you were getting into from the beginning?
Not really. I knew almost nothing about Beck when I signed on. I had seen a clip of his famous “We Surround Them” monologue on Fox News, the one where he cried while mumbling about how much he loved his country, but that was about it. I was living abroad during most of the years Beck was climbing the talk radio ranks and broke into television in ’06. When he started on Fox, the day before Obama’s election, I had just returned to the States from a long stint in Mexico and was thinking about other things. He was not on my radar at all. It was only in March and April of 2009, when I did some reporting on the Tea Party scene, that I first came into contact with Beck. The fact that I didn’t know what I’d find is one of the things that made the project initially appealing.
So you didn’t you see Beck as emblematic of “the triumph of ignorance” from the beginning?
It was obvious I wasn’t dealing with Bertrand Russell, but I tried my best to keep an open mind. I can honestly say that I set out to answer the question, “Who Is Glenn Beck?” and not simply scream about “Why I Hate Glenn Beck.” Once I felt that I had honestly answered that question to my satisfaction, sure, I had no affection for the guy. But I was not hired to write, and did not set out to write, your standard fill-in-the-blanks lefty hit job. There’s no fun in that, no challenge. It would have been boring to write and boring to read.
As I noted in my review, the book felt a little like reading The Heart of Darkness. Did you ever feel like you were going up the river when writing this?
Yes, and in more ways than one. There were a lot of days, especially during the middle of summer 2009, when I wanted nothing more than to turn the boat around and go back to the trading post. After a month or two, I started mumbling, “The horror… The horror…” There was even a tropical element to it. I moved down to Tampa and holed up in an empty apartment to write the thing without any distractions. I know a lot of people who can’t take five minutes of exposure to the guy. Imagine listening to his show for three hours every day, the first thing in the morning after waking up, then the last thing at night before going to sleep—every day for eight months. I would not recommend it or wish it on my worst enemy. There were days when I would wake up and stare at the radio in cold terror, knowing I had to turn it on and hear his voice again. It was like, “This can’t be happening. Am I really doing this?” Probably the worst of it was in July, during a heat wave, when I came down with an anxiety-induced case of the shingles. Here I was sitting at this big makeshift desk, sweating my balls off, slight fever, the air felt like fire on my rash-ridden torso… and to make deadline I had to put in 10 hour days thinking about Glenn Beck. I don’t believe in Hell, but if I did, I would imagine it might be something like those two weeks. Now that it’s over and I’m back in New York working on other things, I feel like a cancer survivor or something. A new lease on life, a second chance. I smell lots of flowers. I tell my girlfriend I love her at least once a day.
I’d never heard of Cleon Skousen until this book. And, frankly, that’s what I found most frightening about the work: Beck’s mainstreaming of some seriously fucked up ideas. Did you know that Skousen was at the heart of Beck’s ravings?
I started looking into Skousen pretty early on. Beck never stopped talking about his books, especially The 5,000 Year Leap, so I knew he must have held some sort of key. Sure enough, the guy was a raving lunatic whose fingerprints are all over Beck, who encountered his works pretty soon after converting to Mormonism. Beck basically incorporated elements of each of Skousen’s three incarnations: hysterical lying paranoid red-baiter, New World Order conspiracist, and finally Christian Constitutionalist. The Skousen chapter was one of the most interesting to research and write, and I think it’s arguably the most important. If you look at what Skousen and some of the other rightwing Mormons from the last century were saying, guys like Ezra Taft Benson, you realize that Beck has revived their crusades and updated their mission, almost note for note. Keynes said the living are always in thrall to some famous dead economist. In Beck’s case, it’s some creepy dead Mormon Bircher.
Do you think that Beck’s a true believer in his own shtick or a snake oil salesman out to make a buck off the suckers. Or maybe a little of both?
This is everybody’s favorite parlor game. I think for the most part he believes what he preaches. He has everything you need to become a hard-right true believer—recovering alcoholic, oversized spleen, not much of an education, and of course its made him very, very rich. Whether he actually thinks God is speaking through him or not, only he can say. But it’s certainly possible. His megalomania is unrivaled, and he clearly has at least a bat or two loose in the bell tower. But I don’t think he’s as crazy as some of his critics would like to think. He knows exactly what he’s doing. And beyond his admitted ADHD, I have no evidence of clinical diagnosis, though more than one former colleague I spoke to believes he was diagnosed bipolar in the 90s and was prescribed lithium. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter whether he’s crazy or not, or whether he knows he’s spouting horseshit. The important thing is that he has a monthly media footprint of something like 30 million Americans. And that has consequences that cannot be parodied away.
What in your research disturbed you the most?
It’s hard to choose just one thing. The history of these rightwing Mormons Beck reveres has to rank high. Skousen and Benson were of course anti-civil rights, but it went even further than calling MLK a commie. Benson actually wrote the forward to a Mormon authored book of race hate called Black Hammer: A study of Black Power, Red Influence, and White Alternatives, which had on its cover the bloody, severed head of an African-American. The second-generation of Skousens and Bensons, meanwhile, ran the Utah Birch Society and used it to create panic over civil rights, in one case by spreading rumors that blacks from Los Angeles were marching on Salt Lake City with plans to riot. The National Guard actually had to be called out. You can’t make this stuff up. Also surprising to me was the depth of Beck’s mean streak, a constant throughout his life and career. The sadism still comes out, here and there, with the personal threats and violent fantasies, but it used to be much more out in the open. While working as a Top 40 deejay, he once called a woman live on the air and mocked her for having a miscarriage.
Do you figure that you’ll be the subject of a “two minutes of hate” from Beck?
Last September he attacked my Salon series on Fox, calling it “despicable, yellow, journalism.” But he knows that if he mentioned the book by name, I’d probably be able to pay off my student loans the very next day. He’s not that stupid. Whatever else you can say about Glenn Beck, the man has a more demonstrably sophisticated understanding of publicity, its nature and its uses, than just about anyone else on the planet.