Analysis: Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, the anti-utopian harbingers of American political future

By J Brooks Spector 5 September 2010

It is easy to deride Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honour” rally in Washington, DC, just one weekend ago. And maybe it’s easy to be more than a little bit terrified of it as well. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Just from the aesthetics alone, whenever and wherever more than a 100,000 middle aged, well-fed, sunburnt, white folks wearing big floppy sun hats and spandex shorts come together in the last week of America’s summer to protest, at minimum, it will have been interesting.

Besides working ferociously on some late summer tans, rally participants had a chance to be whipped up and egged on by Glenn Beck, the country’s premier, grand champion electronic rabble-rouser. Beck uses his daily show on Fox News TV to harangue the multitudes about Barack Obama and insist the nation’s schools, government institutions – and society as a whole – have all lost their moral compasses. The cure is more than a bit disconcerting – especially when it comes with Sarah Palin’s political sleight of hand. (Where are those compasses being hidden anyway?)

Glenn Beck’s rally also aimed to appropriate the symbolic meaning of one of America’s most politically potent, sacred landscapes. Beck’s army of the righteous gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial – the magnificent, classical styled building that faces the western edge of the capital’s national greensward – a spot that has been a gathering venue for civil rights demonstrations and anti-war protests since the 1930s.

Sixty-one years ago, the African American contralto singer, Marian Anderson, then at the peak of her vocal talent, had been barred from giving a recital in the concert hall run by the archconservative organisation, the Daughters of the American Revolution, in a still-segregated capital. In response, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in what became a legendary outdoor concert attended by thousands and thereby giving birth to a great symbolic tradition in the way the Lincoln Memorial is viewed and used by the public.

Then followed Martin Luther King’s “March on Washington” in 1963, the “Poor People’s March” of 1968 a week after King was shot, several anti-Vietnam War protests, marches in support of breast cancer research, as well as “The Million Man March”. All these came in addition to the now standard quadrennial concerts in honour of presidential inaugurations, as well as the annual Fourth of July concert and fireworks display.

Watch: Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech

Organisers for Glenn Beck’s rally were clearly tuned to the symbolism of events that have occupied this particular public space. And, though he denied even being aware of it, for his rally Beck selected the same date Martin Luther King had determined for the great civil rights march of 28 August 1963. Perhaps a little disingenuously on his own show, Beck said he had not chosen the “I Have a Dream” anniversary for his own “Restoring Honour” rally, but had decided it had happened by virtue of “divine providence”.

But Beck’s event was a demonstration with a difference. He had asked his followers to leave behind banners for any easily identifiable political agenda. In fact, Beck and his people told the faithful they should leave behind any signs that could undercut what Beck called his positive, non-partisan message. But, in truth, the entire event effectively became a giant banner setting out the Beckian political worldview to the world. The rally was a perfect example of what the Aussies call “dog whistle politics”.

It’s like this. We all know that dogs can hear frequencies higher than people can. And most of us have seen someone blow a whistle that emits those ultrasonic frequencies – and then watched as dogs suddenly jerk their heads in the direction of the sound humans didn’t hear.

And so it was with Beck’s rally. Throughout the day, the speeches at the rally were carefully calibrated to tell the faithful that the speakers identified with their listeners’ deepest concerns, feelings and fears – even as the rest of us thought we were just hearing the same old burble of public rhetoric. Of course, the rally participants were already prepped and ready to snap to, on command, to be ultra-receptive to the cues, and to anticipate additional doses of ideological “red meat”.

And so, when Sarah Palin rose to tell the live televised audience that she was the proud mother of a soldier in Iraq, she was really telling her listeners that, unlike all those naysayers, defeatists, and clever folks aligned to the Democrats, she and her audience were the real Americans. They needed to get ready to take back their country – first piecemeal in this year’s mid-term election and then fully in the 2012 presidential election as well.

Photo: Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin addresses supporters of TV comentator Glenn Beck at his Restoring Honor rally on the National Mall in Washington, August 28, 2010. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Throughout the rally, there was a torrent of that secular piety that seems peculiar to Americans as speakers called on Americans to rededicate themselves to God to reclaim their country. There were those appeals to a near-religious patriotism and heroism; awards for “Faith, Hope and Charity” to an African American minister, a Mormon businessman and even baseball star Albert Pujols; as well as a tribute to Martin Luther King, to nail down the alignment of this rally to something very different 47 years earlier. If to some the rally seemed about as political as a high school football game, all this God-and-Christ talk, the salutes to the military and community encomiums were a subtext lurking just below the surface like the Great White in “Jaws”.

Media observers also noted how this pageant was also designed to tap into a deep American vein of identity politics where political choices serve to validate personal life choices. As a result, Beck’s rally became a kind of mirror image of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Beck’s event was like a gigantic church picnic complete with an earlier-style reverence for those older, mythic pieties. It became a festival of affirmation for (largely) middle-class white Christians — square, earnest, patriotic and religious – but also more than a touch angry as well. If one of the speakers had suddenly gone into a rapture and burst out with a near-Obama-esque “Hallelujah, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” such a message would have fit right in too, argued a columnist for The New York Times. Beck’s jamboree was a kind of aural warm bath of patriotism and public piety, blessing a particular way of life (and even the promise of a hereafter), all without the disillusionments that come from the real compromises of life.

Watch: Sarah Palin speech at Glenn Beck 8/28 Restoring Honor Rally, Part one (Warning: cringeworthy)

Beck’s crowd largely brought together individuals and groups who seem to coexist under the Tea Party umbrella. But, while many Tea Party groups say the threat to the nation is a lack of fiscal conservatism, rather than religion or social issues, most outside observers said the tone of the rally was almost overtly religious. And here is a key element of Beck’s rally. Beck and company seem to hope they have managed to plug into the rising arc of America’s newest “Great Awakening”. This phenomenon has a long tradition in America, with the first version taking place way back in 18th century with a dramatic rise in religious fervour and conversions to more populist versions of Christianity and away from more established sects. This process has repeated itself multiple times. Every couple of generations in America in the 1820s, the 1880s and 90s, the 1920s and now once again as the born-again, evangelical movement now includes 40 million voters. And counts among its supporters several recent presidents as well.

Crucially, these populist religious explosions have usually both fed on and been nourished by parallel waves of political discontent. Sometimes this political energy has demanded more political inclusiveness from the small-scale pioneer farmers of the frontier. And sometimes this movement has championed the rights of the increasingly marginalised underclass of farmers and miners in the south and the west – in the face of the country’s growing richness and industrial power in the east, as with the populist uprising at the end of the 19th century. And sometimes, too, it has taken on the darker, anti-immigrant, anti-minorities strains.

These elements coexist in Beck’s movement as well. The first, of course, is its cross-identification with that Tea Party movement. The second is how Beck fits so closely to the evangelical use of the mass media.

The Tea Party movement came together first in 2009 in opposition to the Troubled Asset Relief Programme (Tarp) passed at the end of the Bush administration, then gained traction opposing the Obama social agenda such as healthcare reform, as well as the stimulus package that bailed out large businesses while leaving smaller firms and individuals reeling.

Simultaneously, the Tea Party movement has also tapped into deeper nativist (i.e., anti-new immigrant and opposition to legalising older ones) roots of those who have been angered by the country’s social changes. These joined up with more conspiratorial elements who have viscerally mistrusted Barack Obama’s bona fides as president – or even as a US citizen and a Christian. (The White House has finally been forced to issue a media statement that he really is a Christian and goes to church.)

On Sunday after his rally, Beck continued his campaign against Obama. “You see, it’s all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don’t know what that is, other than it’s not Muslim, it’s not Christian. It’s a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.”

Then, woven into this Glenn Beck tapestry was the antidote to those Obama-esque forces of inauthenticity and arrogance – Sarah Palin’s hard-working, common-sense, rugged-individualist public narrative. Portraying herself as a protean earth-mother grizzly bear, protecting her young (the rally-ers), but sending her firstborn son off to do battle with the forces of evil gathering in the darkness. And so we come back to the world of “dog whistle politics”. Palin’s every phrase was finely honed to earn automatic responses from her faithful to each trademark “shout out”. Subtlety and nuance were not parts of it.

Restoring Honor Rally – Glenn Beck Speech Highlights (same warning as for Sarah Palin’s video applies)

The most recent issue of Vanity Fair magazine (follow the link to another Daily Maverick story on this subject) has thoroughly examined the Palin mystique, pointing out where much of it is a created narrative that significantly diverges from her more quotidian reality. But it almost doesn’t matter that there are real doubts she actually hunts, shops at Walmart, or loves a down-home life of camping and sleeping in an SUV out in the tundra. It doesn’t even matter if she actually knows anything about anything complicated because she has the thing that is most important of all – her inner knowledge of the true nature of things.

Her presence at Beck’s rally, coming just about at the end of the American primary election season, has further highlighted the interplay between the rally’s ostensibly non-political message and Palin’s and the Tea Party supporters’ political ambitions. For the past several months, Palin has been criss-crossing the country to collect some serious speech fees from fiercely friendly audiences and to campaign for a select group of people she has endorsed in Republican Party primary elections. Two-thirds of these candidates have now won their primary races – and most of these new politicians have cross-allegiances with the Tea Party. This gives her a whole stack of political debts she can collect over the next two years as politicians try to position themselves for a run at the presidency – or at least the Republican Party nomination for it.

Finally, there is the question of how Glenn Beck’s own persona contributes to the meta-message of his rally, his allegiance to Palin and his own ambitions to shape America’s future. Beck has followed the style of a long line of televangelists and Chautauqua tent-style preachers reaching back in a tradition that includes preachers Fulton Sheen, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, James Hagee and many others.

As Beck told his crowd: “Something that is beyond man is happening, America today begins to turn back to God.” Then, the day afterwards, he told Fox News Sunday, “There’s nothing we can do that will solve the problems that we have and keep the peace unless we solve it through God.” There is much that harks back to the combination of American religious and civic values that began with Puritan leader John Winthrop’s sermon, “The City Upon a Hill” that his congregation listened to even before they had landed in the New World. The harsher, altogether more severe version, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” would come a century later. The combination of religion and politics takes place even though the US Constitution stipulates the separation of church and state.

But rather than the usual circumstances where a preacher warns his flock of the dangers of, well, whatever he worries about most, Beck has the advantage of not quite being a minister and also of having been converted from his earlier sybaritic lifestyle to that of a public ascetic – something like Torquemada with his scourge, but without the cassock and the church. Beck had enjoyed the fast life for years, before finding his personal commitment as a secular political preacher. In this he embodies the narrative of that most confessional of all Christian hymns:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

One would have to be spectacularly tone-deaf not to hear the connection. And in fact, as Beck spoke during the rally, a bagpiper actually played “Amazing Grace” in a riff to Beck’s words. Unlike so many of those other evangelist folks, Beck hasn’t had to live a dual life of public piety and private pleasure to keep the prayer (and money) wheel spinning. (He gets 2.3 million viewers on the Fox cable news channel every day and that means lots of sponsors and money.) As a result, he will never fear the public fall from grace that has been the fate of a fictional Elmer Gantry or the real child evangelist Marjoe Gortner or of tandem team Jim and Tammy Bakker. (Gortner’s fall was the subject of an extraordinary 1972 Oscar-winning documentary film that brought audiences right in under the flap of the tent.)

The conjoined public narratives of Beck’s appeal to a return to the old values (and the banishment of usurpers like Obama) and Sarah Palin’s embodiment of those same, supposed values in her issue choices and in the candidates she has supported, give their followers and supporters hope – hope that a secular Kingdom of Heaven can be installed on Earth, in their lifetimes.

It is a politically provocative, strangely joyful message: It reaches out to the angry and the frightened. It says that if enough people can be strong enough to do what is necessary, all the bad stuff can go back in the box. This movement becomes politically potent if it can capture the core of the Republican Party; if that party can come close to or actually succeed in erasing the Democratic majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives this year, and then move on to depose the “usurper king” in 2012.

Such people see themselves as unfairly characterised, even persecuted, as extremists. The Tea Party disaffection has encouraged a sense of persecution that has actually fed the movement and been its galvanizing force – a favourite sign at Tea Party rallies, if not at Glenn Beck’s rally has become “How dare they ignore us?” Sarah Palin, in one of her many dog whistle moments could tell the rally “You have the same steel spine and the moral courage of Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It is in you. It will sustain you as it sustained them.”

Not surprisingly, Democrats have been quick to point to this Beck/Palin/Tea Party movement as proof, as Florida Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told the audience of one of the Sunday talk shows the day after the rally, “There is a raging battle going on within the Republican Party for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”

The political puzzle that Barack Obama and the Democrats need to figure out – and rather quickly – is just why so many of America’s white middle class appears to feel that American honour and values are in jeopardy, and why they blame this president, especially since so many polls now show results that a majority of voters feel more comfortable with Republicans than Democrats on a litany of issues that includes the economy and taxes, national security, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration, government ethics and corruption, healthcare, Social Security and education. It is obviously good politics for the Becks of this world to imply that they alone honour the country, its constitution and its armed forces, and that the other side doesn’t.

At the same time, however, mainstream Republicans have to be just a little nervous about this anti-establishment political ground swell. Establishment GOP candidates for senate nominations have been knocked off by Tea Party favourites like Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada and, most recently, Joe Miller in Alaska.

“But to be more than a political movement that is tugging the Republican Party ever farther to the right, the tea party must show in November that its candidates are electable,” political analyst Rhodes Cook wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “If not, the movement could lose much of the lustre and attention that it has gained over the past year.”

The thing is that America’s demography still runs against them. The country is fast becoming a land of mixed heritages and varied minorities, many of whom fail to hear either Beck’s or Palin’s whistles. While it is a nation that is much more religious than most (60% of Americans say they attend religious services versus 5% in, say, the Netherlands), the fastest growing religious denomination in America now appears to be Catholicism, rather than evangelical Christianity, in part due to immigration.

We are left with the question of if the results from the 2010 election in November will offer real proof about whether the Beck/Palin/Tea Party strain has enough strength to achieve electoral impact, or whether it takes the Republicans into a place, over time, where they can win most of the preliminary battles, but still lose the larger electoral war. DM

For more, read The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC, the BBC, the Christian Science Monitor, The Economist.

Main photo: Glenn Beck waves at thousands of supporters at his Restoring Honor rally on the National Mall in Washington, August 28, 2010. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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