Entering this past weekend, I was convinced that Glenn Beck's star was about to go into eclipse.
Just as Michael Moore, amid Democratic disarray, became the unlikely face of liberal opposition to George W. Bush, the mercurial, weepy, demagogic Beck has spent the last 18 months filling the void left by the institutional collapse of the Republican Party. And just as Moore's influence diminished as the Democrats came roaring back, it seemed plausible that Beck would matter less as the midterms and then the 2012 election re-empowered actual Republican politicians.
But after spending my Saturday at Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on the Washington Mall, I'm beginning to think that I underestimated the man.
The Fox News host had promised that the rally, billed as a celebration of American values, would be an explicitly apolitical event. And so it came to pass: Save for an occasional "Don't Tread On Me," banner, the crowded Mall was nearly free of political signs and T-shirt slogans, and there was barely a whisper of the crusade against liberalism that consumes most of Beck's on-air hours.
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Instead, Beck served up something considerably stranger. This was a tent revival crossed with a pep rally intertwined with a history lecture married to a USO telethon -- and that was just the first hour.
There was piety as speaker after speaker demanded that Americans rededicate themselves to God. There was patriotism: fund-raising for children of slain Special Forces vets, paeans to military heroism (delivered by Sarah Palin, among others), encomiums to the founding fathers. There was an awards ceremony on the theme of "Faith, Hope and Charity," in which community-service prizes were handed out to a black minister, a Mormon businessman and the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols. And since this was the anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, there was a long tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
There was enough material, in other words, to justify almost any interpretation. A Beck admirer could spin "Restoring Honor" as proof that left-wing fears about the Tea Partiers are overblown: free of rancor, racism or populist resentment, the atmosphere at the rally resembled that of a church picnic or a high school football game.
But a suspicious liberal could retort that all the God-talk and military tributes were proof that a sinister Christian nationalism lurked beneath the surface.
Similarly, one could call the rally a gross affront to the memory of King, who presumably wouldn't have cared much for Beck's right-wing politics. But one could also call the day a strange, unlooked-for fulfillment of King's prophecies: 47 years after the "Dream" speech, here were tens of thousands of white conservatives roaring their approval of its author.
To this rally-goer, though, the most striking thing about "Restoring Honor" was the way the pageant effortlessly tapped into the same rich vein of identity politics that has given us figures as diverse as Palin and Howard Dean, George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- but did so, somehow, without advancing any explicitly political agenda.
Now more than ever, Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life. This spirit of self-affirmation was at work in evangelicals' support for Bush, in the enthusiasm for the Dean campaign among the young, secular and tech-savvy, and now in the devotion that Palin inspires among socially conservative women.
The Obama campaign raised it to an art form, convincing voters that by merely supporting his candidacy, they were proving themselves cosmopolitan and young-at-heart, multicultural and hip.
In a sense, Beck's "Restoring Honor" was like an Obama rally through the looking glass. It was a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians -- square, earnest, patriotic and religious. But whereas Obama wouldn't have been Obama if he weren't running for president, Beck's packed, three-hour jamboree blessed a particular way of life without burdening it with the compromises of a campaign, or the disillusioning work of governance.
For a weekend, at least, Beck proved that he can conjure the thrill of a culture war without the costs of combat, and the solidarity of identity politics without any actual politics. If his influence outlasts the current election cycle, this will be the secret of his success.
THE NEW YORK TIMES