Knowing that, at the end of this week, Glenn Beck will no longer be with Fox News, I watched the full hour of one of his parting shows. I wanted to see what impression he might leave me with—something to recall about him—and what struck me was his overweening confidence. Beck came across as a man completely lacking in self-doubt. He showed skepticism toward a lot of things, but never toward himself or the interests that he so unapologetically serves.
Kind of like a press secretary.
In light of Glenn Beck’s utter lack of self-doubt, it occurred to me that the proper epitaph for him—when he reaches his turn to leave, not just the broadcasting biz in total, but this world quite completely—might be this:
Glenn Beck was a confidence conservative.
It’s not a compliment.
And it occurs to me that this is what characterizes 21st century American conservatism generally, and what might stand as its epitaph as a whole. Contemporary American conservatism’s energy is the energy of a feigned and theatrical confidence in the following:
- confidence that proclamation and insularity are preferable to vulnerable dialogue with outsiders;
- confidence in one’s own self-righteousness (and the devilish motives of opponents); and
- confidence in the absolute superiority and purity, far above all others, of one’s religion and culture.
These are vices, obviously. To some degree, all movements—including good ones, such as the environmental movement—are in danger of drifting toward these negative qualities.
But 21st century American conservatism has these movement vices in spades, and the conservative movement’s leaders have made of them, as a sort of fait accompli, badges of honor: their most unseemly and vulgar vices are now virtues. American conservatism has evolved into a confidence game (and, apparently, a winning one, Glenn Beck’s cancellation notwithstanding).
But this also makes for a cultic scene, and this aspect of the movement derives from the religious fundamentalist takeover of so much of the Republican Party. More accurately, the conservative movement’s elite Machiavellians—the think-tank intellectuals and the wealthy who fund them—find populist fundamentalist culture and cultism useful and are happy to ignite and direct its energies and mental habits toward their plutocratic interests.
It’s an old game. But it’s utterly corrosive to the functioning of a truly healthy bourgeois public square. People have to talk with one another honestly and stay in serious dialogue—and have a respect for reason and facts—to live together well.
Look, for example, at this recent exchange between presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann and George Stephanopoulos. It’s extremely sad. It shows just how intellectually impoverished the Republican Party (as represented by Bachmann) has become. The most basic facts of history cannot even be acknowledge or discussed seriously:
Obviously, a non-silly person would have replied to Stephanopoulos in a manner something along the lines of the following:
I misspoke. The Founding Fathers didn’t work tirelessly to end slavery. Most were indifferent to the issue or owned slaves themselves. And John Quincy Adams wasn’t a Founding Father. I’m not a historian. I myself was tired on the day I made those comments.
Then she might have simply moved on, or discussed America’s history surrounding slavery honestly. But Michelle Bachmann cannot be moved or vulnerable in dialogue before a representative of the “lamestream media.” The spirit she means to channel is not, say, Abraham Lincoln’s, nor is it even Barry Goldwater’s or Ronald Reagan’s. Instead, she means to channel the spirit of George Wallace (the real Founding Father of the contemporary conservative movement):
Segregation then, segregation now, segregation forever!
No apologies, no patience, no complexity, no nuance. Doubting or questioning the purity of America’s 18th century Founders—especially on matters racial—is a parlor game for coastal liberals; simplicity and unwavering belief in prevailing and comforting Herderian myths are, instead, what Bachmann wishes to model to heartland voters.
Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil.
And that’s too bad. Because, even as Glenn Beck is heading for the door at Fox News, she appears headed toward her party’s nomination for President of the United States.
I wonder, if Michelle Bachmann were asked whether Glenn Beck might make a good press secretary for her administration, what she would say.
Maybe somebody should ask her.