IRVING, Texas — The so-called liberal media are preaching the good news about Glenn Beck in unison: He is redeemed! "Glenn Beck Is Sorry About All That," the New York Times says. The New Yorker announces that "Glenn Beck Tries Out Decency." The Atlantic catalogues "Glenn Beck's Regrets."
In the publications that Beck for years dismissed as an effete elite that had led the nation astray, the notion that Beck has now apologized for everything he did to make America an uglier, louder, more fractious place is just too delicious to resist. Now, in a moment of deep gloom for the nation's intellectuals, life delivers a gleaming gift: Glenn Beck, godfather to the tea party, cable news rabble-rouser of the first order, a hawker of ornate and dire conspiracy theories, not only has spent the past year as a Never Trumper but also has spurned his past and is testifying to the power of love, understanding and empathy — for liberals!
For those who yearn to believe the movement that made President Donald Trump possible is having serious second thoughts, the new Glenn Beck seems heaven sent.
Seven years ago, Beck was the fourth most admired man in the country (just ahead of the pope). He shouted, he explained, he wept, he drew intricate charts on his chalkboard to show how evil forces were conspiring against good Americans. He sowed fear and gathered up his minions to form an army of righteous anger, who stormed the nation's capital a hundred-thousand strong to stand tall for the Constitution, determined to fulfill the prophecy that Beck, a Mormon, had described to them: a stirring tale of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith's followers parading through the streets of Utah, with only the Constitution to protect them.
Back then, Beck was the bad boy of cable, on CNN's HLN channel and then on Fox News — one more former Top 40 radio disc jockey who, like Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern and many other influential stars of talk radio, had switched from spinning the hits to spinning the news, always remembering the laws of Top 40: Keep it simple, keep it moving, never stop selling.
Beck has stopped the music.
"I'm not willing to do this anymore," he says. He leans over, drops his head as if in penitence and pronounces himself riven with regrets.
Now, at 53, Beck sees a nation of people who are at one another's throats, and he blames his language, his meanness and his assaults, his constant selling of the idea that the other side was evil and that his side had the one true answer. He believes that his radio show and his TV shows and his rallies on the National Mall paved the way for the incivility, intolerance and general indigestion that now plagues the body politic.
"I did and said terrible things," Beck says. "I did my thinking out loud and it's one of my worst aspects. But I haven't changed my principles. I've changed the way I phrase things — for example, I'm trying to ban the word 'evil' from my lexicon. I didn't notice how my language could be interpreted by half the country as racist. I lacked humility. I was the height of arrogance."
Photo by Rex C. Curry for Washington Post
So he's sorry. Really sorry.
And if you want to blame the existence of President Trump on him, he will not squawk. No, he will instead bat his tropical blue doe eyes, and he will tell you in the most earnest and gentle tones that he is determined to be a better person and teach people on the right to love and to hug.
He says this kind of thing on the air these days, and his audience, on 400 radio stations and on TheBlaze.com, his news and talk site, frankly doesn't know what to make of it. He thinks a fair number of them are tuning away.
Every morning on The Glenn Beck Program, he calls upon his flock to go back to those defriended Facebook friends, to sit down with those spurned neighbors and above all, to put the dirty business of politics aside and listen to one another.
And then, at the appointed minutes, Beck breaks from his new hymnal and reads the commercials that pay for his vast and beautiful Mercury Studios, a former movie soundstage outside of Dallas. Reading from a loose-leaf binder, he once again becomes the Beck character his sponsors have paid for, the Fearmonger. He sells a home security system, a home safe that "protects my family and my guns," a defense against identity theft, a four-week survivalist food supply (preparewithglenn.com), and a company that urges people to buy gold because, as Beck says, "I don't know what the future will bring, but massive change is coming."
He's not sorry about any of that business. "I'm still a catastrophist," he says. "I still believe grave danger is on the way."
Since he was a teenager, Beck has been selling stuff. At the pinnacle of his popularity, he sold conspiracies and the idea that President Barack Obama had a "deep-seated hatred for white people" and was leading the nation toward becoming "a fascist state," and the fear that his enemies on the left would soon "shoot me in the head."
Now he's going to find out whether he can sell empathy.
Riaz Patel is secular, liberal, gay, Muslim and an immigrant. He was, until recently, no fan of The Glenn Beck Program. But he has become Beck's partner and friend. They do broadcasts together. They have family dinners together.
Soon, Beck and Patel will travel together to America's small towns, to places where Trump won handily, and there, the two new friends will meet with people, listen to them and then confront them with Beck's new message: They must lay down the arms he once urged them to take up, and they must learn once again to love their neighbors, yea, even their secular, liberal, gay, Muslim, immigrant neighbors.
Patel, a TV producer who made reality shows such as How to Look Good and How to Look Good Naked, was in Orlando last year to attend a Pakistani-American wedding when an American-born supporter of the Islamic State killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub. A friend who worked at the Blaze reached Patel and asked him to come on Beck's show to talk about the attack.
Patel was deeply skeptical. He knew Beck as a hatemonger, someone who was opposed to just about every aspect of Patel's identity and life. "He was angry news personified," Patel says. "He played with fire and it was exciting. And he is culpable. I thought Glenn was the white devil."
But they talked and talked. Slowly, Patel came to believe that Beck's change was genuine. "What you're seeing now is maturity," Patel says. "I've bet my career on it."
Patel, 43, now spends much of his time in Dallas, preparing with Beck to tout their friendship as evidence that left and right need not be enemies. "This is not touchy-feely stuff," Patel says, "this is Civil War 2. We're saying sit down and see people's faces. How much more of this division can we take before gunshots are fired?"
Patel's agent, friends and family warn him that Beck is just seeking absolution. And some Beck fans say Patel is in it for the cash.
But Beck and Patel say their tour will probably lose money. "This is terrifying," Patel says. "I'm risking my career for a man I met six months ago. But he's too tired to want a huge career resurgence. He just wants people to see him for who he is now. I look in his eyes and I know."
Patel is not Beck's only new pal. Another new friend is the liberal TBS comedy show host Samantha Bee, whose program, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, he went on in December.
"My audience would like to stab you relentlessly in the eye," Beck told Bee.
"My audience wants to kill me for normalizing a lunatic like yourself," Bee replied.
Then they fed each other cake. They became, as Bee hesitantly put it, "allies." The two plan to travel to Uganda together to rescue children from the sex slave trade. Next summer, they plan to invite their audiences to Detroit to do community service — paint schools, clean up neighborhoods.
It sounds like something Beck used to make vicious fun of, something that the despised Obama once did: community organizing.
"What I dismissed in 2007, I no longer dismiss," Beck says.
The pivot is proving to be not so easy for many in Beck's audience.
On the Blaze, commenters have reacted to the new Glenn Beck with ripe skepticism, such as this: "We don't need to be 'taught' by you. We can pretty much figure things out on our own, thank you. So take your sanctimonious crap and stick it where the sun don't shine."
Beck admits to severe doubts about the success of his new venture. He's under no illusion that he will persuade Bee to embrace his brand of libertarianism. He doesn't know whether the town halls with Patel will draw a crowd, let alone persuade anyone to hug a liberal.
But he believes he must try. He believes people on both sides of the divide must understand the other's root fears — for example, the left's fears that Trump will put immigrants in concentration camps, or the right's fears that Democrats want to take their guns. He believes that beneath those fears, most Americans share core beliefs — in freedom of expression, in individual initiative, in caring for those with less.
"We're not going to come together on politics," he says. "But we can come together on principles. It's just time for the hatred to end, or we're going to destroy ourselves."
Michael Harrison has seen this show before. Harrison, editor of Talkers, a trade journal of the radio talk industry, has watched through the decades as Beck has remade himself again and again, from Top 40 disc jockey to morning zoo comedian to angry shock jock to sentinel of political doom.
"Glenn Beck is the closest thing we have in radio to a performance artist — he's a showman and a method actor," Harrison says. "Beck is making a switch like a professional wrestler who goes from playing the bad guy to playing the good guy. He is unpredictable, and that's unusual in radio. So many of the guys who make it big are very predictable because that's what the audience wants. We're in the era of confirming people's views."
Breaking with your audience is dangerous to your mental health and your bank account, say talk hosts who have made political about-faces. No matter their original views on a given candidate, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other titans of the business usually end up embracing Republican standard-bearers because that's what their audience expects.
In the past year, Limbaugh went from highly derisive of Trump to a steady booster of the new president. But Trump was a bridge too far for some talkers. Charlie Sykes, an influential conservative host in Milwaukee, was dead set against Trump from the start and ended up forfeiting his radio show over it.
Chip Franklin was a reliably right-wing libertarian on his talk shows in Washington, Baltimore and San Diego over the past couple of decades. But "it dawned on me after 2008 that I'd been scammed," Franklin says. "I started being entirely honest about my positions on the show."
It didn't go well. "Some listeners treated me like I'd kidnapped their child."
Franklin now does a daily show in San Francisco, where he is an unalloyed liberal. "In this business, you can go from right to left, but not the other way," he says. Franklin thinks Beck's emotionally open style will carry many followers along on the host's twisting road.
Beck's appeal was never entirely political; he has always won followers by baring his troubled soul.
"Is he really changing as he says he is?" Harrison says. "I don't know. I'm not his shrink."
Keith Ablow is, sort of. A psychiatrist and Fox News commentator, Ablow is a longtime friend and counselor to Beck, and he has a name for his buddy's occasional spiritual and political transformations: "Glenn is a searcher. He has a constant commitment to self-betterment, so I take him at his word when he says he's had an epiphany."
After Beck delivered his call to faith at the Lincoln Memorial in 2010, Ablow sat down with his friend and told him, "You may need to run for president."
Nikki Kahn | Washington Post
"He got choked up," Ablow recalled, "and he asked me, 'Are you getting a prompting that I need to run?' I told him it was kind of a joke, but he cares a lot about inner voices and visions and what they mean."
Beck believes he has a duty to lead. "In my life, I've had so many come-to-Jesus pivot points," he says, "and I keep searching. Jesus and Hitler could both draw a crowd by saying, 'You have pain. I have the way to make it stop.' "
He stops. He says maybe he shouldn't have said that.
And then he says, "You don't want to live inside my brain."
Sometimes, The Glenn Beck Program is a lunge across the country's divide, a call to Make America Warm and Fuzzy Again. Beck is a nostalgist; his vast Mercury Studios complex is a veritable museum of his collections of old-time radio microphones, manual typewriters, seltzer bottles, clocks and Disney paraphernalia.
Sometimes, the program is what it has been for many years, a prepper's home companion, an anxious expression of Beck's catastrophist mind-set. He wants hugs, but he expects doom.
And sometimes, Beck's show is what it was a couple of decades ago, a morning zoo, five guys sprawled out on couches, guffawing over other people's pathetic lives. Last April, Beck and his radio gang donned swim goggles and ground their faces into bowls of Cheetos to achieve just the right level of orange so they too could look like Donald Trump.
"You really have to push your face into it," Beck told his sidekicks. "This is how you learn."
Each of those aspects of the show reflects parts of Beck's brain. Now he wants to explore a new node. He aims to halt a dangerous slide he thinks he helped start.
On a jumbo chalkboard in his office, giant letters spell out a warning: "Never Again Is Now."
Right now, Beck says he feels a little bit reborn — and a little bit lost. "I don't know how to warn anymore," he says, and warning people — especially about the coming collapse (of the economy, or the country, or democracy, or everything) — is what he had thought he did best.
Beck tells the studio audience at his hour-long TV show, people who've driven to Texas from Michigan and Georgia just to see him, that "I'm just having the greatest experience with people on the left."
His crowd doesn't seem to want to hear it. They ask if they could please talk about currency collapse and the coming shock to the system, and Beck shifts over to their terrain and warns that "We're entering a world where there will be 50 percent unemployment."
But then he tries to pull them back. "We're commanded to love," he says, and a man in an old Army cap counters that there's no point talking to the other side "because all they do is hate."
The show ends, and Beck ushers his fans out into a world where they face choices such as Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Beck wonders whether his people will join him in the search for a new path.
"This is my big regret," he says. "I fell into that tribal mode. And now I'm over here, but I still don't know how to reach people on the other side."