For a self-described rodeo clown who frequently admits he isn't that bright, Glenn Beck must be doing something right. A de facto leader of the populist backlash against President Obama, he made the cover of Time magazine, with his tongue sticking out no less. His books are immediate best-sellers. His radio and TV shows have stratospheric ratings. His one-man comedy performances draw packed audiences, and the proceeds from his numerous ventures have him making north of $20 million a year.
But perhaps his most impressive feat is his ability to unite a broad coalition of liberals, media scolds and conservatives under the single banner of Beck-hatred.
Now, before I proceed, I should disclose the fact that I like Beck personally and that his support for my book "Liberal Fascism" was a huge boon, helping to push it to No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. As a Fox News contributor, I have appeared regularly on his show. Whether that gives me more, or less, credibility when I say I cannot defend some of the things he says is for others to decide.
Still, much of the anti-Beck backlash (He's an extremist! He's paranoid! He's hate-filled!) from the left is hard to take seriously. First, this is a crowd that lets Michael Moore and Janeane Garofalo speak for them, and that celebrated the election of unfunny man Al Franken to the Senate. If you think it's racist to oppose Obama's health care reform efforts, it goes without saying that you'll think Beck is an extremist. This is what liberals always say about popular right-wingers, including Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley. For over 20 years liberals, including Presidents Clinton and Obama, have insisted that Rush Limbaugh is everything from an unpatriotic hatemonger to an enabler of domestic terrorism. It makes sense that they'd give Beck the same business.
THE DARLING OF THE LEFT
Or consider Jon Stewart, the legitimately funny host of "The Daily Show." Stewart is reminiscent of Will Rogers -- a humorist who was nonetheless anointed by the National Press Club as the "ambassador at large of the United States." The liberal establishment swoons over him. The Television Critics Association bequeathed its award for outstanding achievement in news and information to a show that isn't even a news show. Times columnist Frank Rich seems to have a man-crush on the Peabody comedian, while Bill Moyers of PBS insists that "you simply can't understand American politics in the new millennium without 'The Daily Show.'" The hosts of NPR's in-house press watchdog show, "On the Media," claim Stewart as their role model!
Stewart's M.O. is to launch lightning attacks as a left-wing pundit and then quickly retreat to his haven across the border in Comedystan, but Beck must be pelted from the public stage for blurring the line between theater and punditry? Really?
Over at MSNBC, which until recently floated no end of paranoid theories about neoconservative plots, Beck is boogeyman for his sometimes bombastic rhetoric about fascism and whatnot. Some complaints have merit, but this is the same network whose favorite conservative pundit is the populist Pat Buchanan, not even a Republican, who has written a book explaining why World War II was a mistake and how Hitler craved peace. Meanwhile, Keith Olbermann's shtick is far more dishonest: He pretends he's Edward R. Murrow reincarnated when he's really Al Franken with more important hair.
The conservative criticism has more bite. Many conservatives believe Beck is undermining conservatism with his often goofy style and his sometimes outlandish and paranoia-tinged diatribes. In an ode to conservatives such as William F. Buckley, my friend Charles Murray writes, "Don't tell me that we have to put up with the Glenn Becks of the world to be successful. Within living memory, the right was successful. The right changed the country for the better -- through good arguments made by fine men." Murray is nostalgic for conservative leaders who were, like Murray himself, soft-spoken intellectuals.
There are problems with such nostalgia. First, there has always been a populist front on the right, even during the "glory days" when Buckley was saying he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard. Moreover, whatever Beck or Limbaugh's faults, they are more cheerful -- and more responsible -- warriors than the populist right-wingers of yesteryear. The Tea Partiers may be rowdy and ideologically diffuse, but their goals -- like Beck's -- are indisputably libertarian. And from a conservative perspective, popular libertarian uprisings should be preferable to the sort of statist populism so often celebrated on the left.
A MORE ACCESSIBLE MOVEMENT
Most important, popularity is what the intellectuals were fighting for: to create a conservative culture (Americans describe themselves as conservative over liberal 2-1 ). By definition, making conservatism popular means making it less stuffy and intellectual and more accessible. Not only is Beck good at that, he actually gets people to read serious books in ways Buckley never could. Why defenestrate him from the house of conservatism merely to preserve the rarefied air?
Besides, why should conservatives support an unfair double standard? Liberals never see the antics of their more flamboyant celebrities as an indictment of liberalism itself. Perhaps it's time conservatives adopted a more liberal standard.