On the Mall With Brother Glenn

Glenn Beck’s rally was about as angry as a Teletubbies episode.

Also in Slate, Christopher Hitchens describes the rally as a mass exercise in white self-pity. William Saletan defends Glenn Beck from criticism that his MLK tribute hijacked the civil rights tradition.

On Friday night, FreedomWorks was capitalizing on Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on Saturday with a rally of its own. Activists crowded inside the fittingly named Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, where Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., ripped the roof off the place with a speech that started with district-by-district politics and built to a call-and-response: “Are you in? I’m in! Be in!” Mike Lee, a Republican lawyer who is all but certain to be the next senator from Utah, told the crowd about his favorite constitutional power (letters of marque and reprisal) and described the Constitution as a sort of Tony Robbins manual: a “recipe for economic prosperity,” a way to make “amazing things” happen. As the politicians talked, volunteers walked up and down the aisles handing out signs for the candidates—”champions of freedom”—endorsed by FreedomWorks PAC.

Then the emcee interrupted the proceedings. “I think you know our next guest,” he said, and the rest of his introduction was drowned out by applause for Glenn Beck. Beck smiled and took it in. On his way to an event at the Kennedy Center, he stopped because he wanted to take a minute to set expectations for his “Restoring Honor” rally today.

“It’s something that, originally, a year ago, I thought was supposed to be political,” Beck said. “And then I kind of felt like God dropped a giant sandbag on my head.”

He’s serious. He wasted no words on politics. “I think that’s the hot breath of destruction breathing down our necks,” he said Friday. “And to fix it politically is going to take a figure that I don’t see anywhere. So the idea is that the figure I see who’s going to part the seas and do everything”—he points his finger at the ceiling, toward heaven—”is that one!”

Today, on the Mall, Beck makes the same argument at much, much greater length, backed up by $2 million of video/audio equipment, security, and Army-green portable toilets. He appropriates the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., just like liberals said he would, and he does it to make a political argument that doesn’t sound political at all. Instead of opposing Barack Obama (he never mentions the president’s name) or spelling out how to dismantle the welfare state, he informs the people who want to do this that they are merely being obedient to God and restoring the goodness that America has lost.

On Friday night, there was no disagreement from the cheap seats. The crowd that flowed into Washington to watch Beck is coming on faith, in several senses of the word. People hardly knew what the agenda for today’s rally was, because Beck kept that mysterious. They were ready for a religious message, because it’s an overwhelmingly Christian crowd, packed with the older, white evangelicals who never warmed to Obama even in 2008, when he was popular. These are people who have never forgotten what Obama said, 29 months ago, about voters who “cling to guns or religion.” It’s just that they’ve learned some economics since then—or at least economics as defined by Glenn Beck.

“He teaches so much,” said Tracy Henchman, who flew to Washington from Florida with her husband, Mark. They’re eating some of the pulled pork provided by FreedomWorks to attendees of the pre-rally. “He’s the only one of these hosts who doesn’t just bitch, but gives you solutions. He teaches us what will happen after bills are passed. I always knew that Congress was passing bills, but I didn’t know what was in them!”

After the FreedomWorks rally on Friday, Mark and Tracy grabbed lawn chairs and headed for the reflecting pool. Beck’s set was already in place a few levels down from the Lincoln Memorial. It wasn’t yet clear how many people he brought to Washington as middle-aged Americans in patriotic gear hovered around the Lincoln and war memorials like moths around a gaslight. This must be one of the few places where you can still buy, with no hipster irony, buttons and T-shirts that make fun of Jane Fonda. This is where the least liberal conversations in Washington happen.

“I love Ronald Reagan,” said Tracy. “He was what a realAmerican president should be. They should play his speeches all the time, not Obama’s speeches. At least they should play them side by side.”

But a little time near the reflecting pool, around 10 p.m., provided a sense of the attitude Beck’s bringing with him. It’s about as angry as a Teletubbies episode. Activists from hundreds of miles away—you can tell which state or county from their Tea Party shirts—relaxed on blankets and lawn chairs, talking about the value of the dollar or about the stupidest things their local Democratic members of Congress have said on YouTube.

They are not all Beck fans. Robert White, a motivational speaker from Colorado, said he isn’t “really here to support Glenn Beck.”

“I am wracked with guilt,” he said. “I am responsible for this. We all are. We let this happen to our country. I’m in Denver, so I’m represented by [Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette]. The guy running against her doesn’t have a prayer. But I am spending my time walking precincts, knocking on doors for him, because I need to do something. My kids need to know that I did something.”

Ten hours later, the people who didn’t want to sleep on the mall are making their way to the rally. They swap stories of travel hell. They buy memorabilia and grab anything that’s being passed out to them, like a flyer for college ministries (“Glenn is reaching the nation. Now let’s reach the campus!”) and an ad for a self-published comic called the “Obamasutra,” which includes “1000 aphorisms and 180 caricatures.” They pack onto the Mall, around the World War II memorial and on a side lawn with a massive screen. They mill about, listening in to the speeches when they can but just as often reading pamphlets or Kindles or talking to people in “Restoring Honor” T-shirts that they’ve just met.

They are hungry for any information they might have missed that might point them to some revelation. They’ve studied up on it, and Beck has done a lot of the teaching. “If you are a student of history, you will see a lot of the same things that created chaos and crippled countries in the past,” says Lawrence Perkins, who sells three-wheeled traveling bikes called Trikkes along with his wife, Lisa. (Former President Jimmy Carter is a customer.) “Look at Germany after World War I, when they had such an immense debt that they printed too much money and the currency meant nothing. I’m afraid that if we keep paying for things we have no way of paying back, the currency means less and less.”

This was Beck’s audience. He didn’t need to do any educating. The rally confirms what the crowd already knows about America: “America is good,” says Beck, “not just because America is great, but because we are good! When we are good, we make America great!” He affirms this by reminding the crowd of the portraits of Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin that “came to him” over the 2009 holidays, with the words faith, hope, and charity. * He bestows awards of merit in each category on a reverend, a baseball player, and a philanthropist, all of whom praise him as they accept the honor. When Sarah Palin is introduced, it’s as a “military mom” who only makes a few obscure political references as she tells stories about brave war veterans.

The Democrats who pre-butted Beck’s rally by predicting an overtly political hateananny were played for suckers. They didn’t pay attention to Beck’s “Founder Fridays” episodes on Fox, his high-selling speaking tour, or his schmaltzy children’s book The Christmas Sweater. It’s not his blackboard that makes him popular. It’s the total package he sells: membership in a corny, righteous, Mormonism-approved-by-John Hagee cultural family. The anger is what the media focus on, he says, joking several times about what “the press” will do to twist his words.

“I believe God intended Barack Obama to be our president,” says Laura Belcourt, who “works for Sheriff Joe” Arpaio in Phoenix’s correctional system. “I mean, this isn’t about him, but he’s just helping us become aware of the problem with government, overall, period. We want politicians who are going to tell us the truth and say they’re not going to keep entitlements around, because we know they’re just taking our money and doling it back to us and that can’t last forever.”

Beck’s rally ends just as he said it would—without incident, political or otherwise. He’s just taken the world’s most derided TV audience, put them in the National Mall, and presided over the world’s largest megachurch. “Bring out the bagpipes,” he says. Bagpipe players then walk onto his stage, and the sound of “Amazing Grace” fills the mall.

Click here to view a slide show of the Glenn Beck rally.

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Correction, Aug. 30, 2010: This article originally referred to portraits of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. The first in the series is Samuel Adams, not Jefferson. (Return to the corrected sentence.)