For a while there, Glenn Beck seemed to be the very embodiment of American conservatism circa 2009. He had his nationally syndicated radio show, his best-selling books, and his Fox News show. He was featured on magazine covers, discussed on other cable shows, and his rise was on everyone's mind. Then his fevered conspiracy theories grew kind of old, and Fox dropped him, whereupon he announced that he was going to make his own subscription-based internet television network. Chances are you haven't heard about Beck in a while, despite the fact that GBTV is making more money for Beck than he ever made at Fox. That's because the people who do things like edit magazines don't listen to Beck's radio show, and they haven't subscribed to his internet TV channel. Which means that he has lost almost all his ability to influence the broader discourse or political events. If he went on a holy war against a White House staffer the way he did against Van Jones (very successfully; Jones ended up resigning), no one would notice or care.
But he's still out there preaching to his fans, and Conor Friedersdorf does us a favor and plunks down $9.95 to see how Beck is doing. The answer? It's complicated. GBTV has a whole slate of programming, and while Beck's own program is just as crazy as ever, full of apocalyptic warnings and encouraging viewers to believe that sinister forces are everywhere, Conor has nice things to say about Liberty Tree House, a kids' show on the network that tells pleasant stories about people like Johnny Appleseed:
As portrayed on Liberty Tree House, America is a country full of possibility where personal integrity matters more than making a profit, hard work usually pays off, and individuals are masters of their own fate -- able to change their lives for the better so long as they believe it to be possible and do what it takes. As much as I'd hate for my grandparents to watch the Glenn Beck Show, I wouldn't mind if my (as yet hypothetical) children watched Liberty Tree House. It draws on the best aspects of non-denominational Christian traditionalism and American history. It's no more heavy-handed than a children's show on PBS. And the takeaway is mostly, "Be inspired!"
This actually makes a kind of sense. The thing about kids is that they encourage you to act more like the person you want to be, and the kind of person you hope they grow up to be. You have to drive more reasonably when the kids are in the car, not only because you want to keep them safe, but also because you always feel their eyes on you, and you want to model good behavior for them. That also means that when they're with you, you often end up being more polite and considerate to people you meet. And when you talk to them about politics, you want to encourage them to be principled and rigorous in their thinking but also thoughtful, to understand their opponents' perspective as best they can and have good reasons to conclude that those opponents are wrong about any particular issue.
So maybe the Glenn Beck Show reflects the person Glenn Beck is, and Liberty Tree House reflects the person he'd like to be. In any case, the nice thing about where Beck is now is that the people who are willing to pay to listen to his rants can do so to their heart's content, and the rest of us don't have to hear about it.