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Glenn Beck’s Great Awakening

Populism, revivals, and goth Americana

Nick Gillespie
November 10, 2010

On Saturday, August 28, Glenn Beck brought tens of thousands of people to Washington, D.C., for his “Restoring Honor” rally. The aim of the event, the lachrymose radio and TV host explained, was to “come celebrate America by honoring our heroes, our heritage, and our future.” I covered the event for reason.tv, and I found the rally interesting, strange, and powerful.

Beck is channeling a very strong American tradition with regard to religion and the public square. One of the main themes of the rally was that it was America’s “turning away” from God that led to our present problems. The solution offered by Beck, other speakers, and most of the people I encountered, was “embracing” God and putting him back in the center of our lives, both private and public.

The problems themselves were never fully articulated, but they are palpably related to the recession, which undergirds a huge amount of free-floating anxiety. For much of the new century, and indisputably for the past three years, uncertainty has infected both the economic and the political arena. The people I met at the Beck rally said that they felt like cogs in a machine whose shape and size they didn’t even understand. They were not rabid xenophobes or racists or even haters in general, but they were pissed off that their individual actions did not seem to mean much. They were not conspiracy freaks, but they felt frustrated and cheated that their individual lives seemed to be controlled by larger forces and institutions over which they had little or no control. To the extent that they talked about government, the focus was generally on government spending that they felt threatened to destroy the future.

(Article continues after the video, "What We Saw at the Glenn Beck Rally in DC.")

Historically, such a mind-set has led to two sorts of broader crusades. It can create a populist movement, which might seek to tame the power elite, demonize foreigners, turn the government over to a new crew, or otherwise intervene in the political realm. Or it can inspire a self-improvement movement that has political import but is not fundamentally political: America’s various Great Awakenings, for example, or the self-help gospels of Norman Vincent Peale.

The rally was an interesting mix of both strands. In his day job, Beck rarely misses an opportunity to rail against politicians he deems socialistic. But at this event the accent was on the self-help dimension: the idea that self-transformation was the key to a larger group transformation. A lot of that seems to stem from Beck’s facility with and embrace of 12-step rhetoric. In a sense—and I don’t mean this snarkily—the rally was a giant Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, flush with the notion that whatever else is going on in the world, you can control some portion of your own life.

The attendees saw a continuity between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, between spendthrift and ineffectual Republicans and Democrats. To me, this was the most interesting aspect of the crowd. As one person told me, “It all started under Bush, but now it’s really going to hell.” There were definitely more Republicans than Democrats, if indeed there were any Democrats there at all, but virtually everyone we talked with identified more enthusiastically as an independent. They were fed up with the past decade in toto, not just a year and a half of Obama.

The other thing that struck me about the crowd was how much it reminded me not of a stereotypical church congregation in its Sunday best, but of Walmart. I live part-time in small-town Ohio where the local Walmart Supercenter is an important third place, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s term for spaces outside the home and workplace that facilitate interaction and community. And over the past few years, contrary to its wholesome image, the chain has gone seriously goth. If you check out the T-shirts you can buy there, you’ll find that virtually every other one has skulls and crosses on it. And if something doesn’t have stylized chains and blood on it, then it’s in Day-Glo colors.

The Restoring Honor crowd reflected that, with more piercings than I’ve seen at some rock shows, ZZ Top beards galore, a biker look on many men and women. A noticeable percentage of the crowd was wearing inexpensive Faded Glory (Walmart’s house brand) American flag T-shirts. This is America.

The organizers and attendees of this rally were not really part of the Leave Us Alone coalition, Grover Norquist’s famous phrase to describe people who resent government intrusion into various parts of their lives. Yet in some ways, they were proto-
libertarian: They want the government to spend less money, and they seemed wary of interventions into basic economic exchange. (Nobody seemed to dig ObamaCare or the auto and bank bailouts.) But they also want the government to be super-effective in securing the borders, they worry about an undocumented decline in morals, and they are emphatic that genuine religiosity should be a feature of the public square. Which is to say that, like most American voters, they may well want from government precisely the things that it really can’t deliver. 

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.com and reason.tv. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Nick Gillespie is Editor in Chief, Reason.com and Reason TV


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