The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On a melodramatic night, Fox News makes room for melodrama king Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck appears on Tucker Carlson's program Thursday. (Fox News)
7 min

Before Tucker Carlson dominated Fox News with a mix of apocalyptic doomsaying and extrapartisan political rhetoric, that was Glenn Beck’s job. So it was only fitting that on Thursday — a night with no shortage of fodder for right-wing melodrama, given the indictment of former president Donald Trump — the two should team up to offer the most dire possible assessment of what might happen next.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

If you are not familiar with Beck’s oeuvre, a primer is in order.

With a background in radio, he originally hosted a show on CNN before decamping to Fox in early 2009. In fact, his prime time show on the network began on Jan. 19, 2009, a day before Barack Obama took office. That was fitting; Beck made opposition to Obama and the broader left the focus of his program.

His ratings skyrocketed. In an interview the Los Angeles Times conducted in March 2009, he explained that Fox — and, specifically, Roger Ailes — had agreed to give him a long leash in his commentary.

“You may not want to put me on the air,” Beck claims he told Ailes. “I believe we are in dire trouble, and I will never shut up.” Ailes, Beck claimed, depicted his channel and/or Beck’s show as America’s “Alamo,” the last stand. And necessarily, per Beck: “I think our country is on the verge of disintegration.”

That was his assessment 14 years ago this month.

Mind you, Beck was unquestionably ahead of the curve. His unfettered hostility to the American left both fed and fed off of the surging tea party movement, itself a reaction to the election of Obama and the perception among older Americans that America was changing uncomfortably quickly. Beck attacked the administration ferociously, partnering with nontraditional sources of information like provocateur James O’Keefe to cast Obama and his team as disconcertingly left-wing. His rhetoric and tactics are common today — but were much less so then.

That meant that Beck was soon a focus of blowback. The lengthy screeds with which his program often began devolved into often-weird diatribes in which he outlined incomprehensible and unfounded conspiracy theories with literal linked-together-with-string-on-a-board aesthetics. He triggered a widespread boycott in 2009 after stating that Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for White people.” A lot of advertisers pulled their spots.

In July 2010, California Highway Patrol officers pulled over a vehicle near Oakland. The man inside, Byron Williams, opened fire, injuring two officers. When he was captured, police found Williams in possession of several firearms. His intent, he said, was to target the Tides Foundation — a small grant-making organization that had for some time been a central part of Beck’s conspiracy theorizing.

“I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn’t for the fact that Beck was on there,” Williams said at one point. “And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind.”

In 2011, in the wake of the advertiser boycott, dropping ratings and myriad controversies, Beck departed the network.

On Thursday night, as part of a string of right-wing voices offering similar commentary about the Trump indictment, Carlson introduced Beck.

“When the history of cable news is written, assuming anyone bothers to write it, but if it ever is written, Glenn Beck will have his own chapter as possibly the greatest synthesizer of big ideas ever to appear on camera,” Carlson said. “And a lot of people made fun of Glenn Beck over the years for that, but if you go back and watch the tape, you will find out that, maybe more than any other person on television, Glenn Beck got it right. Again and again and again.”

There is no reason to think Carlson doesn’t sincerely believe this. Again, Beck blazed (pun intended) the path Carlson now walks every night: weaving together disparate elements in service of a vague the-elites-are-against-you worldview. Carlson, too, has faced boycotts and advertiser departures but has survived, certainly in part because Beck helped shift the Overton window (also intended) for what sorts of rhetoric were permissible from right-wing pundits.

You may recall, though, that Beck semi-disavowed all of this. In late 2016, after Trump finally replaced the hated Obama, Beck gave an ain’t-I-a-stinker interview to the New York Times magazine in which he solemnly asked his left-wing opposites not to behave the way he had.

“I know I wouldn’t believe me if I heard myself apologizing, so I’m telling you now: Don’t take my word for it,” he said. “Watch my actions. I don’t care what you think about me. All I care about is saying, Please, don’t make the mistake I made.”

Beck, after all, didn’t support Trump.

“I think he could be one of the most dangerous presidents to ever come into the Oval Office,” he said. “We have to watch him carefully, but also focus on each other and make this work.”

After Carlson’s generous introduction on Thursday night, Beck then proceeded to depict Trump in hagiographic terms.

“Donald Trump is not even a person anymore. He is a symbol,” Beck said. “He is a symbol of the average, everyday guy that keeps getting screwed every single time. Watches other people screw up: big banks, screw up their companies and get away with it. They see people all the time doing stuff that they know, if they did, they’d be in prison for 20 years. But because they’re … part of the elite, they get away with it.”

“Donald Trump has taken arrow after arrow,” he continued. “And that’s why” — he paused to put on a Trump hat, to Carlson’s amusement — “this is the way the average American feels tonight. … This guy has been taking the bullets. For the average person now for years.”

“Now we’re here in crazy town,” Beck said in that November 2016 Times interview. “What we need now is for reasonable people to sit down with each other and say: O.K., your guy wasn’t the end of the world. My guy wasn’t the end of the world. How can we talk to each other?”

“The America that we knew, the fundamental transformation that started in 2008, is finished,” Beck said on Carlson’s show Thursday night. “We are no longer viewed as a superpower. … What [the indictment] is all about, I believe, is trying to inflame this country. They’ve” — the elites, of course — “wanted violence from the right from the beginning. They can’t wait. They need it.”

Beck went on to make some predictions about 2025: that the country would be at war (perhaps with China, Russia and Iran, he said at a different point), here would be a “new dollar” and we will all “live in a virtual police state.” A lot of this, in classic Beck form, is just picking out things in the news as new pieces for his foundational belief that everything is collapsing. It’s the playbook he’s been running since 2009, back when America was “on the verge of disintegration.”

Carlson ate it up.

“That’s, I think, exactly right,” the nouveau-Beck marveled. “I’ll be processing that for a couple of days.”

And then, the fringe Hall-of-Famer’s time under the spotlight over, it was on to the next Trump defender.