Last spring, when Fox News announced that Glenn Beck had been chosen for the rapture from their ranks—his last day will be Thursday—the network started playing a promo for Beck’s personal end-time that could have been a trailer for Enemy of the State. Called “The Final Chapter,” it flashes words of evil like “Obamacare,” “net neutrality” and even “Food regulations” with black-and-white photos of President Obama, Van Jones, George Soros et al., casting Beck and, by extension, his audience as characters in a national security state thriller:
The heart-pounding staple of fear-inducing Republican ads, sounds a lot like the music backing Tim Pawlenty’s much-mocked action-thriller campaign video, which in turn echoes the theme to The Dark Knight, one of the right’s favorite flicks. Conservatives see that Batman movie as a 9/11 allegory, a municipal security thriller—the posters showing Obama in Joker make-up were spin-offs, and no less than the New York Post once swooned that the Dark Knight was “Dick Cheney with hair.”
And it would be just like Beck to overdramatize his departure as a coup d’état, or a final plot twist in an Allen Drury script. Of course, Beck has been shedding advertisers and viewers for more than a year as his paranoid vigilante shtick wore thin, but that isn’t the reason he’s been axed: Rupert Murdoch subsidizes many projects that don’t turn a profit, the New York Post for one. No, Beck is leaving because he’s served his purpose for Fox and its subsidiary, the Republican Party. And the kind of movie that Beck’s audience has been cast in isn’t a superhero thriller or even a standard save-the-world spy thriller but a very specific genre all its own: the amnesiac national security melodrama, like Matt Damon in the Bourne movies or Gregory Peck in Mirage.
Those movies always start with the hero waking up just after a blinding psychological trauma that has left him unable to remember who he is or what he’s done. As he begins his search to find his identity, he comes to believe that danger is all around him. Only by relying on his most violent instincts can he hope to survive; slowly, with the help of a flawed, unprepared and often compromised helper (usually a woman, but Glenn Beck is very good in this role), the hero comes to terms with who he really is and finds the courage to live as that reintegrated personality.
This plotline pretty much describes the hysterical reaction of the Tea Party to the calamity of George W. Bush’s presidency and Beck’s role in reviving their will to live. After the economic collapse and the elections of 2008, the panic on the right was completely understandable. Bush made it clear that everything conservatives had fervently believed was false: tax cuts and deregulation don’t create jobs, American armies can’t remake the Middle East, capitalism is really socialism for the very rich, and the party of fiscal conservatism is in fact more profligate than generations of Democrats.
Taken together, this succession of ideological impossibilities hit the Republican base like the two bullets in Jason Bourne’s back. (Unfortunately, the rank and file do not have a laser signal for a numbered Swiss bank account buried in their hips—only their leadership gets that.) They underwent a severe psychological break, and when they came to they were no longer Republicans at all: They were Tea Partyers.
These conservative voters might well have awakened as progressives, given what had happened to them and at whose hands. Hollywood’s national security thrillers always have an anti–right-wing spin (even when the books they’re based on don’t, like the Tom Clancy adaptations), because the idea of leftwing authoritarians taking over the country is, frankly, not believable.
But through the alchemy of wild hysteria and Vick’s Vapo-Rub-induced tears, Beck convinced his audience that their values had never been wrong, they had simply been betrayed by conservatives-in-name-only—that the GOP’s ideology wasn’t flawed, only its leadership was.
Like, mirabile dictu, George W. Bush himself. To them, Bush’s worst lie wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction but about just how conservative he really was. During the Egyptian uprising, Beck told his audience that both Bush administrations “told our bombers not to bomb…ancient Babylon. Why? Because the Bible tells us that that is the seat, right here”—he points to a small blob on his chalkboard—“of power, of a global, evil empire. Well, that’s also where the twelfth imam from Iran is supposedly going to show up…” (See?)
Beck’s querulous, portentous, giddily apocalyptic delivery was perfect for this message of shocked—shocked!—realization. Once through the looking glass of Bush’s perfidy, you could sell these people almost anything: the Democrats had somehow managed to steal away the bonny effects of trickle down, the stimulus had actually made things worse, taxes just never got low enough or regulations lax enough to really let the free market deliver us its riches, and so on and on. There were enough conspiracy theories in the John Birch archives to keep it all spinning like a top, at least for a year or so. By that time, Obama had been in office long enough to own America’s problems—and Beck’s form of extreme psychotherapy, once so useful in nursing the right through a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, was superfluous.
So now it’s time for Beck, like the dead girlfriend in The Bourne Supremacy, to float off into the dark river of talk radio and the Internet, his role accomplished, the hero—a k a “the base”—restored. With the confused, nerve-wracking, touch-and-go exposition now over, Fox is moving on to the part of the script where the beleaguered hero begins to take his vengeance. And for that, there’s a new supporting cast made up of 2010 freshman governors—Walker, Scott, Christie, Kasich, LePage—each a union-slaying, New Deal–demolishing enforcer.
Which brings us to the Beck Ultimatum. Glenn has jumped so many sharks in the past year that he couldn’t possibly have satisfied even his shrunken audience’s sense of impending doom day after day for much longer. Toting a sign around that reads The End Is Near will, sooner or later, force you to deliver an event of commensurate desperation—even if it’s only your own departure. Fortunately, the oligarchic economy itself, crippled by the radical policies of those Republican governors and their cohorts in Congress, is making good on Beck’s prophecies. The world is ending, in a way, for a lot of people, and so is that idyllic postwar dream.
“I have a strange relationship with you,” Beck confided to his TV audience in one of his “Final Chapter” shows. “I feel you when I look into the camera.… I feel you say, ‘We get it. We get it. Now what?’ ”