The way right-wing-media personality Glenn Beck sees it, no matter who wins the election, Donald or Hillary, he’s done for, gone, kaput, along with all that he has built since leaving Fox News in 2011 – his websites (TheBlaze and Glennbeck.com), his radio show (The Glenn Beck Radio Program), his live-streamed online network, his status as a bestselling author in four genres (latest nonfiction hit – Liars: How Progressives Exploit Our Fears for Power and Control). Last year, Forbes put his corporate revenue at around $90 million. After November 8th, that, too, would presumably take a giant hit, maybe force him to sell his beloved $200,000 Mercedes-Maybach or his private jet or perhaps the stuffed life-size polar bear that overlooks his office for no discernible reason. In fact, his many enemies in both conservative- and liberal-media camps are already front-running the end, churning out copy with headlines like “Glenn Beck Empire Is Officially Collapsing” and “Glenn Beck’s Blaze Empire Continues Its Decline,” the stories buttressed with tales of mass layoffs at his various businesses, rapidly declining Web traffic, plummeting ad sales, outside offices being shuttered and side ventures needing to be scuttled. And a good bit of this presumably because of his failure to fall in line and support Donald Trump – the way so many of his right-wing brothers have.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Dallas, inside a massive, repurposed movie studio with an armed guard stationed at the front door, the interior a nifty if schizoid mishmash of old movie props (a battleship, a scale-size submarine), historical artifacts (a piece of the coat Lincoln was killed in, Walt Disney stuff, more Lincoln stuff, the bench from Forrest Gump), with bunches of young people padding across cement floors into offices behind glass doors, looking very purposeful, like big stuff is at stake and they better hop to it, 52-year-old Beck himself is slurping down a Diet Coke – he might have preferred coffee, but being a hardcore Mormon he follows a God who takes a dim view of consuming “hot drinks” – and talking the way he talks when he isn’t on the air in front of the audience, which is to say, not loudly, not irrationally, not with tears threatening to leap from his eyes, with no call to hurry up and buy gold from one of his advertisers.
Right now, he’s apologizing for using the word “goddamn” during a recent broadcast about the defection of Ted Cruz, whom he’d backed for the GOP presidential race and called “the next George Washington.” He couldn’t understand it. Trump had insinuated that Cruz’s wife was wretchedly ugly and his father a likely Kennedy-assassination player. And for him to then endorse Trump: “Well,” Beck says, “I was just frustrated. But, yeah, for me to use that word is about as bad as it gets. I’d rather use the f-word.” He shakes his head. “It sure doesn’t help my case when I get mad and become unreasonable.”
If his world is about to collapse around him, however, you sure wouldn’t know it by how he appears today. His eyes are startlingly blue and clear, and, as usual, they seem swollen with sincerity; his beige trousers are primly pressed and creased; his forehead is more lightly ruffled with concerns than deeply corrugated; withal, he’s possessed of a kindly, grandfatherly, Mr. Rogers-like quality that’s wrapped around him like a goose-down quilt, which during his Fox years made even his more loopy if not insane comments seem almost reasonable, enabling him to become one of the Tea Party’s top voices and to have, in 2010, a Gallup poll reveal that Americans admired him more than they did the pope.
With those days well past, he uncrosses his legs and leans forward. Worst-case scenario, he says, here’s how his demise after the election might come to pass.
“I could see us going into a greater depression,” he says, “a collapse of the Western economy, chaos, shootings on the street from Islamic terrorism, shortages, bank failures, and in that kind of situation, as any strongman knows, the first thing you have to do is get a hold of the media. So, how do you think that ends for someone like me, because I am not shutting up?”
He’s told his kids, jokingly, he says, that no matter who the new president is, they shouldn’t be surprised if their dad winds up behind bars, but it’s not Hillary he’s worried about in this regard so much as it is Trump.
“Hillary is big-government, fundamentally unable to tell the truth and, I mean, she’s just criminal, but Donald is a pathological liar, possibly a sociopath, and a vengeful, bitter man if he feels he’s been betrayed at all.” Or slighted in any way, which puts Beck right in the crosshairs. He has equated Trump with Mussolini and Hitler. Earlier this year, to simulate Trump’s grotesque golden skin, he donned a pair of swim goggles and plopped his face into a bowl of ground-up Cheetos, which led to universal ridicule, much concern, facetious and otherwise, about his mental health, and to him saying today, “Oh, my gosh, the biggest mistake I’ve made in five years. It just wasn’t funny. Wow. It sucked.”
More recently, he allowed a fiction writer on his radio show to dream up a Trump-presidency situation – purely hypothetical, mind you – in which some “patriot” might find himself called upon to “remove [Trump] from office” in a less-than-legal way. Within hours, the Drudge Report ran the headline “Glenn Beck, Author Talk ‘Patriot’ Taking Out Trump,” and SiriusXM yanked him off the air for a week.
Now Beck is shaking his head. “There’s no good outcome for me in any of this,” he says. “If I’m right about Trump, that sucks. It’s not like everyone’s going to walk around saying, ‘Good job, Glenn!’ And if I’m wrong, that sucks too. But I have a choice. I can either dismiss what I see, or ring the bell like I’m doing and hope that I’m wrong. Really, I have no way to win.”
Of course, that’s a bunch of baloney, because if you take him at his word, he’s positioning himself in a way that transcends politics and the election. From his perspective, no matter who prevails, Beck can at least say that it was only he – not Sean Hannity, not Fox, not Drudge, not Breitbart, not Bill O’Reilly, not Rush Limbaugh, not any of those fellow rightists – who had the guts to state the obvious, that a vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil, and stick to his moral-high-ground guns, no matter the cost to him professionally or personally, what with the likely coming of a day when Trump finally starts to unsheathe his long knives.
“I mean, can you imagine that guy being our president?” Beck says, all but shuddering at the prospect.
So, does that actually mean he’d rather Hillary win?
“If I did, do you think I’d tell you?” Long pause. Then: “I don’t know what happened to Donald Trump as a child, but I think he’s extraordinarily unstable.”
What does he think is the worst thing a President Trump could do during his first 90 days in office?
“Serve,” Beck says, glumly. “Show up.”
What can you say about a guy like Beck but that, ever since he hit the national stage, first on syndicated radio starting in 2001, then on television at CNN Headline News and at Fox News, he’s shown a singular knack for finding the most outrageous things to say and do to provoke the most outrage, and the highest ratings, possible.
In 2010, he made an unsubstantiated claim that Jewish financier George Soros collaborated with the Nazis. In 2005, he said he was tired beyond belief of listening to the complaints of 9/11 survivor families, as in, “I’m so sick of them!” On obese Americans: “I say let them die.” He once said we were surrounded by anarchists, Marxists, revolutionaries and Maoists with evil intentions “to eliminate 10 percent of the U.S. population” and begged his listeners to “help people wake up. I’m not saying that you and I are going to, you know, meet each other next week in a concentration camp in southern Utah. I am saying that there are elements with connections, with government officials that have positions in the government now.”
One time, he threw a frog into boiling water (he later claimed it was a toy) to demonstrate something or other, it doesn’t matter what. He held his hand up in the Boy Scout salute while prancing around in lederhosen. He screamed at a female caller to his radio show, voice cracking into the upper registers, “Get off my phone! Get off my phone, you little pinhead!” – his rage so intense that rational discourse wasn’t even an afterthought. And then there are the tears he shed, seemingly on demand, face thickening with emotion, over the American flag, or someone’s lost child, or a vintage Coke commercial – in fact, over just about anything at all. Some took to calling him the Crying Conservative.
That he got his own national TV show in the same year that Obama first took office is just one of those odd, inexplicable serendipities. Suddenly, he had the biggest player on the biggest stage in the world to lash out at, and he took every opportunity. He said that Obama’s health care bill was the start of “reparations” and that Obama was hellbent on “creating a new America, a new model that will settle old racial scores through new social justice.” Most egregiously, in 2009, he called the president of the United States “a racist” with “a deep-seated hatred for white people.” On he went, detouring only to fantasize about poisoning Nancy Pelosi or about beating Charles Rangel “to death with a shovel,” which you’d think his Mormon God would find much more abhorrent than, say, hot coffee.
In recent years, Beck has expressed regret for much of what he said and for his part in helping foster the current anything-goes, no-blow-is-too-low climate in what passes for public discourse, which, as well, helped set the stage for the arrival of a nutcase like Trump. “I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart,” he told Megyn Kelly in 2014. “I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were.”
But when asked today what his number-one Fox-years regret is, he shuffles around and says, “The number one, obviously, is saying that the president is a, you know . . . ” He pauses, unable or unwilling to utter the word “racist.” And then, forehead corrugating for the first time today, he can’t help himself and, almost Trump-like, starts trying to justify his behavior, saying, “You know, that came from, I mean, he talks about the white culture in his own book!”
It’s such an odd display that, as always, you hardly know what to think or which of his words to believe, so changeable does he seem. For Beck, though, this is a big part of his appeal.
“My audience likes me because I think out loud,” he says. And then, him being him, he continues to think out loud. He says, “It’s also why those who don’t listen to my show every day sometimes get way off track, because if I got to know me just through YouTube clips, I’d hate me, too.” He says, “I mean, you know, you’re doing four hours of live, unscripted talk every day and you throw a lot of crap against the wall.” He says, “I wrestle with my stupid mistakes every day.” He says, “There is an internal battle inside me all the time. It’s the good guy versus 40 years of training in how to do a show.” He says, “I don’t know if people can think my apologies are sincere, because, ‘Well, then, don’t make that mistake again.’ But that’s really hard. I mean, you try to be better than the farting caveman, but I’m not always good at that. And I am really trying.” And, finally, he says, “You can’t be as hated as I am and not spend a good portion of your day saying, ‘Is that what I am? Am I that? I mean, gosh!’ But the only answer I can come up with is no. Have I caused my own problems? Yes. Am I human? Yes. Am I flawed? Yes. But I don’t know how I would have done it differently.”
It takes him about two days to say all of this. It comes in dribs and drabs. But the only way to try to make sense of it is to piece it all together and see what you’ve got. And what you’ve got really does seem like some kind of spectacular mess.
The worst thing that’s ever happened to Beck happened during his childhood. He was 15. He’d been raised in Mount Vernon, Washington, the son of a baker father and an alcoholic, mentally unstable mother. His parents divorced when he was 13, he and his mom moving south to Sumner. One spring day, in 1979, his mom went with her boyfriend on a boating trip, leaving Glenn and his older sister a note by the crockpot that read, “Here’s dinner. More in the fridge. Everything’s going to be OK. Mom.”
Recalling this, Beck says that the note was “just odd,” without elaborating. He goes on: “And then the next morning, when we got up, she didn’t come home that night, and I just had this gnawing feeling.”
Nonetheless, he trudged off to school, only to be called out of class by his aunt and uncle. His mother and her boyfriend had drowned. Later, the deaths were ruled accidental, but Beck has always maintained they were suicides. One can only imagine how awful it was. How could he possibly deal with what had happened?
He rests his hands on his pants and speaks with the same soft, easygoing voice that seems to be reserved mostly for when he’s not playing to a crowd.
“Oh, my gosh, I was devastated,” he says. “I loved her, and she loved me, and it kicked me off on my poor-me stage of life.”
Years earlier, when he was eight, his mom gave him a record called The Golden Years of Radio, with lots of comedy on it, as well as Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds we’re-all-going-to-be-annihilated-flee-for-your-lives, oops-just-kidding broadcast. Beck loved everything about it, the way words could paint a picture in his mind, and he spent countless hours imitating what he heard. He was a natural. At the age of 13, he entered and won a local contest to become a radio DJ for an hour, and two years later he got a part-time job doing the same thing for pay at a Seattle station.
After graduating high school, he skipped college to spend the next 15 years roaming the country as a radio DJ for hire, in Utah, Texas, Connecticut, Arizona, lots of places, making a name for himself as one of the biggest jerks that morning Top 40 Zoo-style radio had ever known, complete with wacky stunts, loopy pranks, offensive impersonations (“the black guy” was one of Beck’s staples), stupid sound effects and rude, boorish behavior.
“His motto in those years was ‘I hate people,'” says Pat Gray, who was Beck’s on-air partner at WBSB in Baltimore in the early Nineties (and, along with Stu Burguiere, is still Beck’s partner today). “In the Zoo days, he was really volatile with producers and interns. He fired a guy for not having a Sharpie. All he wanted to be was famous and wealthy. That’s what drove him. And then, when the clock ticked over to five, it was time to drink.”
He liked his Jack, weed and coke; liked hightailing it around in his gull-wing DeLorean sports car; and couldn’t have cared less when a rival DJ’s wife had a miscarriage; for him it was an opportunity: He reportedly got her on the air and made wisecracks about how her husband couldn’t even have a kid right. A former colleague has remembered him as “a sadist, the kind of guy who rips wings off flies.”
“Look,” says Beck today, “in the 10 years since I was 13, all I’d heard is ‘Can you imagine what this guy is going to be like at 35? Good God, man!’ You start to buy into your own bullcrap. I bought in 100 percent. I was the greatest, most talented superstar yet to come. ‘Get the “f” out of my way!'” Pauses, says, “I was a bad man” and “I was a bad nightmare.”
He got married, had two kids, snorted more coke, drank more booze, continued his poor-me slide, got divorced, began to contemplate doing to himself what he believes his mom did to herself. Instead, he joined AA, cleaned up, traded in his ponytail for a mullet and eventually met a pretty blond girl named Tania who would marry him only if he got religion. So, after some shopping around, he did. They both became Mormons, which in recent years has allowed him to get career advice directly from God Himself.
In 2014, for instance, he announced that he suffered from a neurological malady, which he says nearly cost him his voice and made it impossible to tie his shoes (and maybe led him to say some of those crazier things). The disease apparently baffled traditional medicine, but with help from various oddball therapies, he was cured. Revealing this on his TV show, his eyes grew moist as he said, “I asked God, ‘Am I done? Can I put my sword down now?’ The answer was always ‘No.'”
By 2001, Beck was a force on nationally syndicated talk radio, who became even bigger following 9/11. “I’d just signed a national radio deal,” he recalls. “I didn’t know anything. I’d wasted half my life. I didn’t know what the hell I was. I was still the Zoo guy. But then September 11th happens, and I knew I could no longer be that guy. On that day, I remember saying, ‘I can’t tell you what’s happening, but I promise you this: I will find out, and I will tell you the truth as we go along.'”
Or at least his version of the truth, which more and more people seemed to want to hear. In 2006, as the face of CNN Headline News, he likened Al Gore’s public battle against climate change to a “mass persuasion campaign” worthy of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, which no doubt helped lead to a ratings bonanza that landed him in second place at CNN, right behind Nancy Grace. After he moved to Fox News in 2009, he continued to traffic in free-floating paranoia and vituperative anti-Obama rhetoric. He soon had an audience of 2 million viewers. “I’m afraid,” he would often say to them. “You should be afraid, too.” Which must have sounded pretty good to the then-nascent Tea Party folks, who quickly gripped him to their bosom and anointed him one of their best and brightest. In 2011, however, Fox decided it’d had enough of Beck – then-chairman Roger Ailes let it be known that he didn’t think Beck was much of a company man – just as Beck says he had resolved on his own to leave Fox. “There were lots of reasons to leave,” he says, “but primarily I felt, ‘If you don’t leave now, you will not leave with your soul.'” And so he left, with his soul presumably still intact.
Back in the bowels of the converted movie studio, a loading-dock bay door opens and in slides Beck’s Maybach, driven by his bodyguard. Beck has a concealed-carry license and sometimes packs a pistol, but not today. He looks well rested, his cheeks pink. As he walks to a soundstage built to look like the Oval Office, where he hosts his three-hour morning show, he says, “I’m a catastrophist. Though I wish I didn’t, I see all the millions of ways everything is going to fall apart.”
Again, he has Trump on his mind. His brow darkens. “Trump says he surrounds himself with the best people. No, he surrounds himself with the people who are even more vindictive than he is and have the same kind of enemies-list mentality as Nixon, where they’ll take care of everything under cloak-and-dagger.”
This would seem to be a reference to Ailes, his former boss at Fox, who had recently been forced out due to allegations of sexual harassment and hired by Trump as an adviser, which most people take to mean as his godless, ruthless hatchet man.
“If Trump wins, it’ll be because of Ailes,” Beck says, “but I’d rather not go too deeply into the Fox stuff, because no good comes of that. What I can say is that at least if Trump is president, the world is headed for such trouble that maybe he loses track of us.”
By Beck standards, his show today is pretty tame and not likely to make any YouTube compilations. Later, back in his office, Beck meets with Lawrence Jones, 23, one of his rising-star on-air personalities, to view a few of his proposed bits. One of them is about Anthony Weiner, in which Jones calls Weiner “a dirty bastard” and says, “When you text naked pictures of yourself to children, there’s consequences. . . You know what they do to rapists in prison?”
Afterward, Beck tilts his head and calmly says to his young protégé, “You cannot be a commentator and say things like that. My problem is with the rape and the ‘dirty bastard.’ Let’s be better than this. I mean, what is the only thing left in America that is shocking?”
Jones tilts his head.
“The gentle truth of who you are,” Beck says. “It’s so not done that nobody believes it. Nobody believes you’re being honest. So, you’ll be alone, but once you become a brand, it’s almost impossible to get that brand off you. Everything is going to push you hard: ‘Be divisive, be divisive, be divisive.’ Don’t do it. Don’t sell out.”
“Don’t ever be anyone but you. It’s your decision. I’ll support you either way. But don’t cross that line of name-calling and, gosh, don’t repeat my life of doing that.”
To which Jones says, “OK, I feel you,” and leaves Beck’s office a little chastened but a lot wiser.
It’s interesting to hear Beck give advice like this and to realize how trapped he really is and how he knows it is impossible for him to escape. After the bizarre spectacle of the Cheetos incident, the possibility that Beck was suffering from mental illness was raised by critics, and even some supporters – though, perhaps, never to Beck directly. It is, of course, a terrible thing to ask someone about, but in Beck’s case, given his openness about himself and his history, it seems almost unavoidable. Certainly, sitting here, so far away from the pressures of a camera and a microphone, he seems like the most settled of fellows. And his recent statements made after Trump’s hot-mic, groping-is-good video came to light (from Beck’s Facebook post: “If the consequence of standing against Trump and for principles is indeed the election of Hillary Clinton, so be it. At least it is a moral, ethical choice”) suggest that he is indeed possessed of a rock-steady, clear-seeing mind. But you never know. So, maybe now is the time to ask about it, delicately, if possible.
Has he ever been to a shrink?
“Not in a long time, but yes.” Pause. He looks around but his eyes seem rather unfocused and don’t fix on anything in particular, not the submarine, not the polar bear, not the Walt Disney memorabilia, not the giant likeness of Abe Lincoln created by his staff out of the heads of 180,000 nails. Momentarily, he drifts, and then, seeing where this might be headed, he brings it up himself. “Are you suggesting I’m mentally ill?”
Lots of folks seem to think so.
His eyes narrow as he starts to shift forward, almost out of his seat. “Am I mentally ill? What are you looking for me to say? I’m not mentally ill? That’s kind of insulting,” he says, still rising. But then he flops back and leaves it at that.
A distressing silence fills the room and apologies for the intrusion are made because anyone with a shred of decency would surely know how wrong it is to stumble around in someone else’s dark places like that. Then again, when Beck raises the rabble, stirring the emotions and fears of his viewers and slinging unfounded accusations at the innocent, is he not stumbling around the same way?
It’s a curious thing. In Beck’s worldview, as an avowed catastrophist, anything is possible, so don’t believe what you are told and don’t believe what you see. Keep looking. “Everything’s going to be OK” were his mom’s last words to him. No. It won’t be. Look deeper. The worst is yet to come. It’s coming right now. All you have to do is wait for it. It’s the only thing Beck knows for sure. That’s why he’s so attached to it. It’s the only thing that does not change or abandon him at night.
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