The Eschatological Stylings of Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck seems to have more in common with End Time preachers than he does with a serious political analyst.

altNote:  this is a re-written and expanded version of a post I wrote at PoliBlog in 2009.

A recent clip of Glenn Beck posted by Doug Mataconis reminded me, yet again, of the ways in which Beck reminds me of Evangelical End Times preachers.*   The kind of guys, for example, who, over time, have been certain of things like the fact that the European Union was prophesied to bring about the anti-Christ. The ones who knew that the anti-Christ was Gorbachev or Saddam Hussein or whomever.** The ones, in particular, who would try to string together confirmations of Biblical prophecy either on a weekly (if not daily) basis, or who would write books on the subject. I am thinking here of people like Hal Lindsey (of Late, Great Planet Earth fame) or Jack Van Impe.

The style is one of breathless revelation of what is presented as complex and hidden truths that become obvious once sufficient light is cast upon them by a sufficiently savvy interlocutor (which describes any given Beck presentation). Ultimately it became a mix of half-truths, obfuscation, exaggeration, and seeming knowledge-all of which would take too much time for most people to even bother trying to sort out. Beyond that, the goal is to convince the faithful (i.e., the already convinced) anyway, so no one is going to do much fact-checking.

Here’s the clip in question:

Basically this is a lot of drama hand-waving with very little actual solid content, let alone understanding.  It plays into understandable fears about political instability in a volatile region of the world whilst stoking fear of Islamic extremism to the point of creating an existential threat to Europe (which, by extension, threatens the US).  It reduces complex political actions to icons (fires, smiley faces, frowny faces) and mixes in enough terminology (Sunni!  Shiite!  Hamas!  Hezbollah!) to make it all sounds frighteningly compelling.

Compare the above to the following recent clip from Jack Van Impe (which seems to equate Obama with the anti-Christ):

(It strikes me as a strange transition, btw, as to how a discussion of potential global tribulation transitions to a plea to views to eschew drugs and drink).

Here’s another from a couple years ago which (especially starting at roughly 1:40) is even more similar to a Beck performance on contemporary politics than is the above clip:

Give Van Impe a series of chalkboards and it would be hard distinguish him from Beck.

In general, the style is the same:

1.  Appeal to a vague concerns (if not fears) in the audience. In Van Impe’s case, the Evangelical belief in the End Times.  In Beck’s case, the vague fears of global conflict, especially as linked to radical Islam (and indeed, one could argue that Beck is doing both).

2.  Exploit the semi-knowledge of the audience. I was going to say "exploit the ignorance of the audience" but that is not correct.  Those watching know at least some (maybe even a decent amount) of what is being discussed.  Just as Van Impe’s audience has likely heard, at a minimum, sermons on Daniel and Revelations, so too is Beck’s audience is at least vaguely aware of things like the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

3.  Assert with authority as if the statements contain complete and self-evident truth. In the Van Impe clip, he rattles off a number of Bible verses.  Some he quotes in their entirety and other he just references.  However, there is no reason to assume that just because a quoted verse sounds like it fits the current period means that it actually does.  Moreover, just stating that a verse in Daniel means that a seven year reign of a Europe-born anti-Christ does not mean that the interpretation is the correct one.  However, Van Impe simply asserts as though it is Truth.

Beck does the same thing.  While he doesn’t cite chapter and verse of the Bible, he blithely throws out assertions about history, geography, contemporary events, and even the future, as if there is no room for interpretation or additional data needed.  What Beck knows just is.   This, of course, makes for better television than actually grappling with the complexity that is reality.

At a minimum I am trying to note the following about Beck:  while he tries to present his theories as though they are grounded in deep research and understanding, the fact of the matter is that they reflect the dictum that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Further, he is not basing his argument solely on a politico-historical understanding, but also on a particular set of theological assumptions (which, by the way, he may only understand with the same depth as he understands the politics and history).

If you find Beck entertaining (an I can see how this might be the case, even if I do not) then more power to you.  If you think he is actually conveying useful insight into the way the world works, that’s another issue entirely.***

*It is worth noting the Beck is a Mormon and, if memory serves, Mormon eschatology is pretty close to the Evangelical narrative (as fact that needs to be taken into consideration when evaluating his "analysis."

**Not to get to off the topic of Beck’s stylings, but in doing some reading on this subject I came across an example of a pastor preaching on this particular view of eschatology (click) and found it interesting (and telling) that at about the 3:00 mark he states that the "nation to the east" that will oppose the anti-Christ is China.  However, as memory serves, whenever the "nation to the east" was discussed in my youth in this context it was always the USSR.  It illustrates the way in which this type of logic takes an existing narrative and shifts the narrative to fit changing world events.

***A good example of this is Beck’s declaration that we are on the road to fascism (see here).  His assertions about the Mercury dime, for example, shows a problematic view of history, to be kind.  I find it highly problematic, for example, that Beck constantly uses terms (e.g., fascism, socialism, etc.) in a way that its divorced from actual meaning.  No doubt this is because I am professionally disposed to the proper usage of language (while recognizing that there are legitimate debates about meaning within a reasonable range).

FILED UNDER: Media, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Who really cares what Glen Beck thinks? A couple million FoxNews viewers? Maybe?

  2. @Charles:

    Well, I must confess that as an educator I find the notion that a couple of million people are being ill-served from a knowledge point of view is concerning.

    Further, it seems to me that it is concerning because many of those people are avid voters within the GOP base, which affects things like primaries.

    In general, I see Beck’s influence amongst students, family and friends (as well as in things that I read).

  3. John P says:

    A couple million folks bought Power Bandz, Shape Ups, The Shake Weight, and tried the “Taco Bell Diet”. Guess that proves we love things gimmicky and useless.

  4. ponce says:

    A recent New Yorker had an interesting article about Roger Ailes, Fox News head, who bought his latest wife a mansion in a small town on the Hudson, then bought her the local newspaper to run.

    She’s changed it from a typical small time newspaper to a miniature version of Fox News.

    The editor he hired to run his wife’s paper said Roger Ailes’ key strategy for running Fox News is to piss off liberals and it doesn’t matter how his network does it.

  5. Another problem with Glenn Beck is how frequently he sinks into Apophenia. Any similarity between A and B means there is a connection between A and B. Thus he builds a vast web of conspiracy based laregly on coincidence.

    Given the way some of his blackboard talks go, I sometimes wonder if there’s a room at Glenn Beck’s house that looks like John Nash’s office from A Beautiful Mind

  6. Fog says:

    It’s all fun and games until we elect someone who truly believes that fomenting war in the Middle East will help bring Jesus back.

  7. Steven Plunk says:

    Beck fills a niche market just like Olbermann did and Maddow does. I doubt his influence is nearly as much as feared but just like ex governors he is a lightning rod that attracts the Left.

  8. @SD: That is my vocab word of day, as I was unfamiliar with it, but yes: it fits.

    @SP: Funny, I don’t consider myself of “the Left” (although I am, not doubt, to Beck’s left). How about this: there are clearly readers of this blog who buy into Beck’s worldview, so it seems worthy of comment if for that reason alone.

    Why is it that you and Charles wish to adopt a “move along, nothing to see here” attitude?

  9. c.red says:

    I don’t watch Beck, and from what I’ve glommed second hand would probably be fairly offended by his show, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen third partry articles and interviews from him were he describes himself as only an entertainer (and, once, as a rodeo clown?) and that even he pretty much doesn’t believe his spiel.

    I can understand why it is not the best idea for him to shout that from the rooftops, but really why do so many people take him seriously?

  10. Hello World! says:

    Olbermann and Maddow have their slant, but comparing them to Beck is way off base. A better comparison on the left would be someone like Jim Marrs.

  11. You spend a lot of time on someone no one (right, left, middle, up down, whatever) takes seriously. Kind of like the Palin obsession here. As far as a few million people being misserved, how about the tens of millions or more misserved by the “mainstream” media, like Dan Rather and CBS, etc. Sort of like arguing with Brother Jed and his cohorts when they’re preaching on the quad.

    I don’t really care and just think its a waste of time and energy.

  12. @Charles:

    Understand I ask with a smile: but if this is a waste of time, why did you click through to admonish me twice for posting on this subject? And for the record I am not even sure when the last time I wrote about Beck and i haven’t even mentioned Palin in over a week (maybe longer).

    And i would radically prefer that people watch the nightly news in lieu of Beck.

  13. Hello World! says:

    My mom, sister, brother in law, and their 4 children take him very seriously.

  14. Bleev K says:

    Creationism for the kids, Beck for the grown-ups… The perfect storm of stupidity. We’re creating a great nation of retards who won’t be able to compete with any other emerging countries on earth. But at least Beck or Palin will be rich.

  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***blithely***lol…..

    Have you even watched his show? He has a couple of points that he stresses more then any of the others….

    ***It’s all fun and games until we elect someone who truly believes that fomenting war in the Middle East will help bring Jesus back.***

    lol, it don’t work that way for us, but for a Muslim, hmm……………

    ****Given the way some of his blackboard talks go, I sometimes wonder if there’s a room at Glenn Beck’s house that looks like John Nash’s office from A Beautiful Mind****hehe…..

    🙂 dude had like ten blackboards on his last few shows, reminded me of Night Gallery ….

  16. @Charles:

    Just because I was curious: my last Palin-specific post was on the 16th of January (over two weeks ago), although one could argue that my 1/20, “Taking Requests” was an at least tangential to that topic.

  17. tom p says:

    “someone no one (right, left, middle, up down, whatever) takes seriously”

    unfortunately Charles, there is a fair minority that DO take him seriously:

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2011/02/foxs-rambling-man.html

    and some of them are my neighbors.

  18. anjin-san says:

    Beck is a digital con artist, he will push anything the suckers will buy. I seriously doubt he believes more than 10% of what he says.

  19. Dr. Taylor, I am a curmudgeon, an addict, or perhaps both.

    In no way, should I be construed as defending or trying to defelct criticism of Glenn Beck. He’s a carnival barker with the usual odd mix of truth, half-truths, and WTF?

    My apologies if I conflated your input with that of the others at OTB who have trouble not talking about Palin.

  20. Sarah, I mean. More writing about Michael is welcome.

  21. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***Creationism for the kids, Beck for the grown-ups…** Evolution for the kids and Jon Stewart for the grown ups? Retards who can’t compete indeed……

  22. When I was a cable newsophile I watched Mr. Beck regularly on CNN, but that was because I watched every news show I could and would stay up all night for repeats of the ones in which I missed earlier due to scheduling conflicts. I would say then, as well as now, that viewership doesn’t necessarily translate into indoctrination and I don’t know a single person who treats Glenn Beck seriously. I am sure there are some people who believe what Mr. Beck has to say, but I just think most people use shows like his to reinforce their ideological bias without really hanging on every word.

  23. @Tal:

    Certainly viewership does not equal indoctrination (or agreement). However, I fear that, in fact, some people do take him seriously.

    And yes on the reinforcement.

  24. sam says:

    @Tal

    ” I don’t know a single person who treats Glenn Beck seriously”

    Meet GA Phillips, upthread. GA is doing pre-lessthanalmostthere-graduate work at Beck University. GA is working on his dissertation, On Deimmanentizing the Eschaton: Images of Jesus in Domino’s Double-Cheese Pizzas – A Refutation. Upon “graduation”, GA hopes to secure a position in media, specializing religico-gastronomical affairs.

  25. G.A.Phillips says:

    sam……you been looking up my old one word sentences? lol…

  26. mannning says:

    Oh yes!

    No. 3 Down: conservative man with blackboard—4 letters

    Sensible points @ 60%, but try to find them in the other 40% of points.

  27. Louis Wheeler says:

    Glenn Beck has three main theses: the Left want to transform America into a Social Democratic, Fascist or Communist State, the Islamists intend to take over most of the world as a Caliphate and the Elite classes are engineering a collapse of the American economy in order to rid itself of unsupportable social programs. All these groups intend an increase in central authority.

    This is what the Left, the Islamist and the Elites say they want. They are working together loosely to provoke the collapse of Western Civilization. The Elitists want an orderly decline of the dollar, but they are more likely to provoke a complete economic collapse. This will produce wide spread privation, economic disruption and rioting in our big cities. Mass starvation may occur as our distribution systems break down. The question is only how dire events get.

    The conspirators will turn on each other when the deed is done. None of these groups are shy about saying what they want. Glenn is taking their words as face value.

    I don’t know what the future will bring, but preparing for the worst has not hurt my net worth at all. The pessimist in me says that the rich and the powerful have always attempted to turn ordinary people into slaves. It has only been through the sacrifice of patriots that we are not in chains.

    I suggest that you read “Liberal Fascism” by Jonah Goldberg to understand the history of the Progressives. We seem near to the Elitist and Progressive endgame. My reading of economics says that a hyper inflationary depression will occur in one to five years.

    Our educational institutions have ill equipped people to understand what is coming; the indoctrination in the Mainstream Media, Hollywood and Education inclines people into giving more power to the state in a crisis. Very few people are saying that the solution is a return of power to the people. Glenn Beck is one of those few. People must prepare for their own survival and the survival of the American way of life.

    I am too secular to be pious, nor am I inclined to attend church much. My position is as a “Jeffersonian” Libertarian. Jefferson believed in divine providence, but he was too much of a free thinker to hew to any dogma. Like him, I want to be surrounded by morally religious people disinclined to steal what I have put aside.

    A Leftist would think me a fool to bet against the Obama administration. But, if Obama and his Progressive agenda produces chaos, that Leftist would be the first to steal my “profits” from predicting the future accurately. A study of Economics gives no benefit in the marketplace, but it can predict the results of governmental actions.