Mark Lilla on Glenn Beck, in the NYRB:
…after reading these books and countless articles on the man, I’m coming to the conclusion that searching for the “real” Glenn Beck makes no sense. The truth is, demagogues don’t have cores. They are mediums, channeling currents of public passion and opinion that they anticipate, amplify, and guide, but do not create; the less resistance they offer, the more successful they are. This nonresistance is what distinguishes Beck from his confreres in the conservative media establishment, who have created more sharply etched characters for themselves. Rush Limbaugh plays the loud, steamrolling uncle you avoid at Thanksgiving. Bill O’Reilly is the angry guy haranguing the bartender. Sean Hannity is the football captain in a letter sweater, asking you to repeat everything, slowly. But with Glenn Beck you never know what you’ll get. He is a perpetual work in progress, a billboard offering YOUR MESSAGE HERE.
As anyone who witnessed his performance on the Washington Mall can attest, what makes him particularly appealing to his audience is not his positions, it is that he appears to feel and fear and admire and instinctively believe what his listeners do, even when their feelings, fears, esteem, and beliefs are changing or self-contradictory. This is the gift of the true demagogue, to successfully identify his own self, rather than his opinions, with the selves of his followers—and to equate both with the “true” nation.
To understand someone like Beck, and the people who love him, you need to stay on the surface, not plumb the depths or peek behind the curtain.