I don't usually associate my 60 year-old parents with quality movie suggestions but I am grateful to my dad for making me watch Elia Kazan's 1957 satirical masterpiece A Face in the Crowd. For those of you who have not seen it, it could just as easily be named The Glenn Beck Story or How Rush Limbaugh Became Famous without being the slightest bit misleading.
To make a long story short, Andy Griffith portrays a miserable drunk who, through a series of unlikely events, parlays his folksy, down-home shtick on an Arkansas AM radio station into the role of political kingmaker and media superstar in New York City. Elected officials clamor for the opportunity to appear on his show to trade low-brow populist anecdotes and use the kind of corny expressions and affected aw-shucks accents that they imagine simple 'merican folk use. This clip really captures the flavor of the film:
Behind the scenes, "Lonesome" Rhodes is actually a neurotic tyrant, cynically manipulating the system for his own benefit, abusing his friends and coworkers, and acting vindictively toward anyone who isn't sufficiently deferential. Eventually he is destroyed when a hot microphone overhears him referring to his fans as mindless cattle, and Rhodes ends up alone in his apartment performing his shtick for hired servants and fulfilling his desperate need for adulation with a recorded applause track played repeatedly.
As Glenn Beck's show on Fox News has effectively been canceled due to declining ad revenues and plummeting ratings (Media Matters does a nice retrospective of his greatest hits) I am reminded of Walter Matthau's character in the film complaining in exasperation that despite having voiced contempt for his audience Rhodes will be back; the audience is dumb enough to accept any excuse Rhodes offers and the networks can't resist the temptation of a proven earner.
What comes next for the real life Lonesome Rhodes, now booted off the set at both CNN and Fox? I see a few possible outcomes:
1. Walter Matthau was right and Beck resurfaces elsewhere doing the same horseshit under a different call sign and sponsor.
2. Beck, whose calling card of insanity has always been his willingness to traffic in extreme conspiracy theories and make apocalyptic predictions that will inevitably be proven foolish, goes full Alex Jones and starts devoting his entire media presence to chemtrails, FEMA concentration camps, the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, and buried yard gold.
3. Freed from the minimal standards of taste and decency imposed by Fox – which after all IS a mainstream media outlet – Beck goes Westbrook Pegler on us, slowly killing himself with liquor while making a career out of increasingly anti-Semitic and racist outbursts in increasingly obscure media. By the 1960s Pegler had become so unhinged that the John Birch Society newsletter fired him because his views were too extreme. I have very little difficulty seeing Beck go down this path, shambling about in the gutters of the right wing media machine launching tirades of invective against the Goddamn Jews and the Shiftless Negroes before dying of cirrhosis at a city-run men's shelter in Brooklyn.
4. Let's not rule out the possibility of pulling an Al Capp – going on a highly paid college speaking tour until one too many female undergraduates come forward to tell the police that he exposed himself and attempted to sexually assault them.
I don't know with any degree of certainty what is going to happen to Beck, but I am sure that he isn't going to go quietly into the night. He still has an audience willing to hand him money (and do just about anything else The Leader asks) and an insatiable need for attention. I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up with a major radio network, nor if he ended up in his basement paying a coterie of homeless people to nod solemnly during his long rants to no one in particular.