The Birth of Glenn Beck’s Nation

Yesterday, Glenn Beck hosted his last show on Fox News, and the media coverage began in earnest to document his meteoric rise and decline since his first show in January 2009.

Some breathe a sigh of relief that Beck will no longer reach millions of TV sets around the nation, while others will follow him to his paid-subscription internet show, Glenn Beck TV (GBTV, forthcoming in September). Much of the coverage relishes his decline into “extremism,” his shift in tone from conservative optimism to apocalyptic vision. David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun chides Beck and Fox News for their “paranoid and angry words,” and Media Matters charts Beck’s what it sees as his descent into madness and isolation.

Much of the coverage concludes that Beck is, at best, “bonkers.” Alex Pareene of Salon.com, however, realizes that perhaps this is not “some sort of victory”; that leaving Fox is not the end of Beck, but rather that his legacy might not be as a talking head but as an amateur historian, the creator of Beck University, with a clear, and popular, articulation of nation. The tagline for BU promises, “learn history as it really happened” with David Barton responsible for courses labeled Faith 101, 102, and 103, in which students can (of course) learn about the faith of the Founding Fathers. 

Beck’s mantle of telling history like it really “was” is packaged, glossy, and consumed. Yet this mantle, or even legacy, does not solely belong to him. The struggle to reclaim the nation, or “restore honor,” began long before he, the John Birch Society, Joseph McCarthy and the like joined it in the mid-twentieth century. Americans, from the Reconstruction Klan in the 1860s, the Know Nothings of the 1890s to the second Klan of the 1910s and 1920s, to home-grown Christian fascists of the 1930s, sought to protect a nation in peril from any perceived threat, be it Catholic, Jew, African American, or Communist.

In my particular area of the study, the 1920s Klan, the Knights, recruited members with both warnings of a nation in decline as well as a vision of a fabled white Protestant America, which could be recaptured, recreated, or even relived through their efforts. This nation needed defenders to protect citizens and to uplift the historical legacy of the nation. Klan leaders and newspapers provided a history of the fabled nation-state, which emphasized the Puritans, early white colonists, the Founding Fathers, and former Presidents (there are some notable absences in this reconstruction). Their jeremiads proclaimed a fragmentation of white Protestant social order while narrating a pristine, coherent history. In this way, the Klan mobilized millions of white Protestant men and women to join the order, wear robes, and burn crosses.

This desire, to narrate a certain kind of America, a certain kind of history, and defense of the nation from its despisers, binds Beck to a much longer history of intolerant nationalism than current media coverage regularly admits. (Though, Gary Laderman asks this question in a different way, when discussing the “the death rattle of the white Protestant male.”) Beck’s approach to history is a continuation of these previous attempts. He, like others, wants to protect the nation from its people and protect its people from the encroaching diversity, language of tolerance, and social fragmentation.

In the 1920s, the Klan sounded the call for defense too late; the changes were already wrought. Here, Beck faces a similar dilemma. The unified history that he constructs no longer exists, in spite of its market value (in products) and his chalkboard maneuvers to make it stick. Beck’s appeal rests in his ability to emphasize a nation, unified, traditional, and whole; but his flailing effort to support this vision affirms that it has already slipped away, if at all it ever existed. While he might be leaving Fox, this yearning for nation lost will undoubtedly remain, alongside his calls to destroy its enemies. Beck’s attempts echo those of previous American patriots, to reclaim a nation that never was. His struggle to realize this vision leads to an utter flattening of American history, a removal of the warts and wounds, and a triumphalist hope that maybe, just maybe, we can return to a nation less complex, diverse, and fractious.

kellyjbaker@gmail.com'

Kelly J. Baker, the editor of the group blog, Religion in American History, is the author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK's Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (U of Kansas Press).