The countdown clock ticks ominously outside the Fox News headquarters on Sixth Avenue. The “Largest Tax Hike Ever” is only 100 days, 11 hours and 32 minutes away.
Not that any of us have been watching.
Barack Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest citizens is not what has brought 30 chosen ones, me included, to Studio D at the most-watched (not to mention polemical) cable news network in America.
We instead have been selected to form the audience at a taping of Glenn Beck, the successful weekday afternoon show hosted by perhaps the most charismatic, controversial – and entrepreneurial – figure in the modern American media. And, if his fans had their way, potential candidate for Mr. Obama’s job.
With only one “audience show” a week, tickets are awarded to the luckiest of Mr. Beck’s followers – or, in my case, curious observers. We have each filled out a questionnaire for the privilege. The requirements include expounding on our favourite Founding Father, explaining how what we’ve learned in history textbooks differs from what we take away from the show and providing thoughts on the dangers of mixing government and religion, the theme of this week’s episode.
To his detractors, Mr. Beck is a flake, a fake, a fanatic – or all three rolled up into a hyperactive time bomb. They charge that his alternately hysterical and weepy rants border on invitations to armed uprising. There is no denying, however, that he has captivated a significant subsection of American conservatives with his version of their country’s founding myth.
In his nearly 20-minute opening monologue, delivered with the aid of a teleprompter, he takes on critics who say that he seeks to establish Christianity as America’s official religion.
“People will say I’m trying to get you into religion to control or manipulate you. Nothing could be further from the truth,” begins Mr. Beck, who is taller and less doughy-looking in person than he appears on the tube. “I want you to be self-reliant. If you know your relationship with God, no man can tell you he can create a right for you, because you know who your rights come from.”
The real peril, Mr. Beck continues, is Democrats’ use of government to realize Mr. Obama’s social justice agenda. He plays an excerpt from a speech given by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in which she calls on a group of bishops to use the pulpit to push for immigration reform. He attacks Obama spiritual adviser Jim Wallis, who has called the redistribution of wealth “what the Gospel is all about.”
“Jesus didn’t say, ‘Give all your money to Caesar and Caesar will create a program to buy you a pair of pants’,” Mr. Beck counters.
There is a precedent for the slippery slope on which “big government progressives” have put America, Mr. Beck warns. It’s Nazi Germany.
Preacher, politician, entertainer – and, most notably, master marketer – Mr. Beck is not the right-wing media celebrity with the highest ratings. On radio, that would be Rush Limbaugh; on TV, it’s Bill O’Reilly, who, like every other Fox host, kills the competition in his prime-time slot.
But no one else matches Mr. Beck with his multimedia wallop, creating an all-pervasive presence that spans radio, television, books, cross-country arena tours and the Internet (his latest property is a news site called The Blaze) that has made him the most influential and wealthiest Obama-basher of them all.
Well, maybe not as influential as Sarah Palin. But the $55-million (U.S.), according to Forbes magazine, that Mr. Beck’s Mercury Radio Arts pulled in during the two years to March 1 far surpasses the earnings power Ms. Palin has shown since quitting her day job as governor of Alaska.
No one in line seems to begrudge the 46-year-old Mr. Beck his money. How could they? To be a Beck follower is to celebrate the individual empowerment afforded by American capitalism. In Mr. Beck’s view, America might just be the last place on earth where the Protestant ethic stands a fighting chance, though he warns it is in grave danger of being snuffed out by Mr. Obama and his “big government” policies.
Though he called Mr. Obama a “racist” barely a year ago, he has since reformulated his critique of the President. He now defines Mr. Obama’s belief system as a kind of “liberation theology” aimed at seeking reparation for centuries of black oppression.
“It’s all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation,” Mr. Beck, who became a Mormon in 1999, said on Fox News last month. “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.”
The increasingly evangelical tone of his sermonizing – most noticeably during his massive Aug. 28 “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial – has led to speculation that Mr. Beck is angling to become the leader of the U.S. Christian right – if he isn’t already.