Glenn Beck is arguably the leader of the new tribe of Tea Party populist personalities that are supplanting the leadership of the Grand Old Party.
Of course, that leadership deserves to be ousted. But are the new bosses any better than the old.
In a recent essay, I explored the new conservative books–some of which have been huge hits, climbing to the top of the bestseller lists and staying there–to discover what it tells us about the movement.
What I found isn’t very promising.
(Note: This is an excerpt from the books issue of The American Conservative. Read the whole thing right here.)
Even in lean economic times, conservative books are a booming business…
No one is likely to have his worldview rocked by Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us From Evil or his political eyes opened by Michelle Malkin’s Unhinged. Laura Ingraham’s Shut Up and Sing slides easily down the memory hole. But permanence isn’t their intent. Conservatism has shifted from a modest cast of mind to a playground contest of insults. Millions can play along.
This isn’t to say that bestselling conservative authors don’t manage to pack arguments into their books or buttress those arguments with facts and footnotes. But they do not aim to challenge the faithful or change the minds of their opponents—to turn moderates into conservatives or shake liberals from their delusions. Conservative readers are looking for how-to manuals—an easy way to beat that liberal sister-in-law in a dinner-table debate. Thus Beck’s latest blockbuster offers “the secret formula to winning arguments against people with big mouths but small minds.”
But it may be too generous to say that book buyers are only looking for ammunition: many conservative bestsellers aren’t purchased to be read so much as to be owned. In the bully’s game that talk-radio conservatism has become, if you can’t keep Barack Obama out of the Oval Office, there’s at least some satisfaction in forcing the New York Times to put Obamanation at the top of its list. Besides, stocking up on conservative kitsch yields a rush of inclusion, like wearing the jersey of a favourite football team. Being on the Right is no longer a lonely struggle standing athwart history; it can be more like standing in a stadium doing the wave.
Of course, fan clubs need stars, and the conservative galaxy has its own leading lights. Look at the right-wingers scaling the lists—Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin, Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Joe Scarborough. All were autographs long before they stretched their literary limbs. Then look at a few of the other luminaries sharing space with them on the NYT list: actor Patrick Swayze, comedienne Kathy Griffin, late-night talk-show host Craig Ferguson. New York publishers are not interested in advancing the conservative case, and apologetics aren’t the product for sale. Celebrity is merely exerting its endless fascination, and the Right has adopted a blueprint long ago perfected by the Hollywood Left.
No surprise then that conservative books feature prominent pictures of the authors on their covers—complete with flowing blonde mane and low-cut dress for those who can pull it off. Who they are is at least as important as what they are saying, and the texts are written the way a talk-radio show is produced—centered around a charismatic host. These authors are no more expected to be masters of the writer’s craft than Chelsea Handler, whose dizzy Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea recently spent 47 weeks in the top 15. Their job isn’t to enlighten but to entertain. The minds grow dimmer as the stars shine brighter.
The conservatives who sell by the hundreds of thousands belong in the same category—of intellectual depth as well as sales—as professional wrestlers, sit-com stars, and self-help gurus. Radio and TV talker Glenn Beck didn’t extract $3 million from Simon & Schuster for his next two books by virtue of his expertise on climate change but by sheer force of personality. His breakout bestseller, An Inconvenient Book, debuted at the top of the charts and sold over half a million copies. In it, he dishes on everything from tipping in restaurants (15 per cent is too much) to dating (decide in the first two minutes whether it will work) to what America can do about oil dependence (nothing—we’re screwed). This is part of his mass appeal: his opinions are unbounded.
Where once conservatives revered Russell Kirk for his historical analysis of the roots of American order or the discovery of a conservative strain in Anglo-American thought, now the Right finds its heroes living, breathing, crying, and laughing. Beck is famous for shedding tears then breaking into mirth on air. He is not limited by the need to gain expertise before confidently concluding that he’s right—the more rashly, the better.
Then there’s the other equation conservatives have solved: controversy sells. Witness the success of Mackenzie Phillips’s celebrity incest tell-all, now in its third week on the New York Times list. On the cover of Beck’s newest number one, the indelicately titled Arguing With Idiots, he poses in an East German military uniform. Inside, he predictably races through the familiar stops—Chappaquiddick, gun grabbing, socialist creep. Not without calculation did he recently declare, on one of those Sunday morning shows watched by people who don’t go to church anymore, “The Manchurian candidate couldn’t destroy us faster than Barack Obama. If you were planning a sleeper to come in and become president of the United States, this is how he would do it.” Persuasion isn’t the point. Beck is fighting his way to the next million. The more liberals hate him, the more his fans will love him—and the more books he’ll sell.