Friday, August 28, 2020

This Day in Media History (Beck, Palin Lead Pseudo-Event, ‘Restoring Honor’ Rally)

Aug. 28, 2010—In one of the more curious manifestations of the growing Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck (pictured) and Sarah Palin led a “Restoring Honor” rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial that attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees.

The event, audaciously held on the 47th anniversary of the “March on Washington,” had little discernible content but demonstrated plenty of discontent—principally, with an African-American President whose election two years previously would have been inconceivable without the civil-rights movement that had reached its rhetorical zenith on this spot.

At the time, "Restoring Honor" garnered quite a bit of attention, typified by the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, which devoted three articles in one issue to the rally: William Kristol’s lead editorial, along with features by Harvard government Professor Harvey Mansfield and Lee Harris, author of The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite.

Searching the Internet for more recent retrospectives on the rally, though, I came up with nothing significant. You might wonder, then, why I am even writing about something that left so little discernible impact on the popular memory.

But I would argue that it is worth discussing—not only as a demonstration of the amorphous anger that coalesced into the Democratic Party’s midterm drubbing the following November, but also as an example of what the historian Daniel J. Boorstin had, in his 1961 book The Image, termed a “pseudo-event.”

That resentment and the movement’s penchant for such synthetic happenings were integral elements in both the Republican Party’s domination of Capitol Hill through much of this past decade as well as in the rise of Donald Trump and his continued popularity among Republicans.

But back to Beck.

Three years ago while on a tour bus in Savannah, I saw another passenger, a middle-aged man, blinking nonstop. I couldn’t think right away who he reminded me of. Then it hit me: this was a Glenn Beck look-alike. I groaned at even this low-grade, undoubtedly unconscious imitator.

Starting out as a radio personality, Beck made the leap to television at CNN’s Headline News. Eventually the libertarian commentator came to the attention of Roger Ailes, who was casting about for an additional ratings magnet besides Bill O’Reilly. After meeting with him, the Fox News head hired Beck.

Debuting the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration as President, Beck was attracting more than 2 million viewers daily within a few weeks. Despite appearing in the 5 pm slot—not even the coveted prime time spot—Beck soon became the third highest-rated personality on the network.
He endeared himself to his audience with such pronouncements as that Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people” and that Nazi tactics were progressive tactics.

Besides Beck, Fox had also had a hand in promoting Palin. From the moment of her selection as GOP Presidential nominee John McCain’s running mate, Ailes saw her as a natural for his medium with her biting criticism of both GOP regulars and liberal press outlets, or, in a term that has been endlessly and mindlessly retailed on social media ever since, “the lamestream media.”

With mounting legal bills from the election and her new-found celebrity status, Palin stepped down as governor in July 2009. Early the following year, she was on board as a Fox political commentator—as well as a star in the insurgent right wing whose endorsement could catalyze previously moribund candidates.

Although recognizing their ability to boost ratings, Ailes before long found Beck and Palin distinctly high maintenance. That feeling began to solidify with the “Restore Honor” rally, which—particularly in Beck’s case—the news head saw as an attempt at brand building outside the umbrella of the network, according to Gabriel Sherman’s biography of Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room.

In no small part, that explains why Fox made no special attempt to cover a happening by one of its own stars.

Ailes’ suspicions about Beck may have sprung from a conjunction of the rally itself, the anniversary of the civil-rights milestone, and his star’s own venture. Only a couple of days after “Restoring Honor” was held, Beck launched TheBlaze, a conservative cable media company. Indeed, it might be said that the venture arrived amid a “blaze” of publicity for its founder.

Whatever the rally’s shortcomings as actual news, it was certainly the kind of “pseudo-event” that Boorstin had in mind.  Using his criteria, it was planned rather than spontaneous; planned primarily to be reported or reproduced; ambiguous as it relates to the underlying situation; and intended as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even more obnoxiously, it sparked pseudo-events meant to counter it: on that very day by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and that fall in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”

But in another sense, "Restoring Honor" was not just a pseudo-event but also a daring act of political appropriation. More specifically, Beck and Palin capitalized on the inevitable association with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech without acknowledging the true nature of his challenge to the American political and social order of the time.

In a single sentence, Palin lumped King together with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as having “the same steel spine and moral courage” as the crowd.  Leave aside for a second the blatant flattery of those gathered together, not to mention the fatuity and fallaciousness of grouping them with a trio who risked death for establishing or extending freedom to Americans.

In essence, Palin was conveying that she knew that King was somehow important, but not why. The causes that drew her and Beck to the Tea Party—less government and lower taxes—were antithetical to the aims of Dr. King, who saw the federal government as the necessary guarantor of the rights of African-Americans and who in the weeks before his death was advocating for labor unions and the “Poor People’s Campaign” for jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children.

Does anyone really think that Beck and Palin would regard such measures collectively as anything other than socialism?

Certain aspects of the rally—all mentioned in the trio of Weekly Standard articles—gave it a veneer of non-partisanship: its stress on the non-objectionable “God and Country”; the ban on signs; the lack of specific references to political parties; even proceeds from the event to be designated for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

But all of this contrasts with the lack of progressive speakers who could have balanced the more conservative Beck and Palin, not to mention the use of the “Restoring Honor” label itself, which Professor Mansfield bluntly admitted was “a jab at President Obama.”

In retrospect, the irony of that “jab” is glaring. 

Whatever his real shortcomings as a leader, President Obama has conducted his private life without the sexual scandals that plagued a predecessor (Bill Clinton) and the current occupant of the Oval Office, and his administration was largely free of the ethics violations that characterized administrations of both parties going back nearly 40 years. Beck and Palin would have been better advised to employ that "Restoring Honor" tag now for the individual seeking reelection rather than a decade ago.

The best way to illustrate the fundamental shortcoming of Restoring Honor, though, is to contrast it with the March on Washington

Religious conviction animated most of those on the official program (King, John Lewis, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz) as surely as those at “Restoring Honor,” but they were there to promote concrete objectives—passage of civil-rights measures, ending school segregation, enforcing the 14th Amendment, and minimum-wage and fair-labor legislation.

On the other hand, “Restoring Honor” was centered around themes—God and Country. They were not only unassailable (were liberals really against either?), but also, for that reason, unmeasurable.

Beck, for instance, had proclaimed, "Something beyond imagination is happening. America today begins to turn back to God." How to begin to assess the truth of that? What constitutes turning “back to God”? Who decides what that even is?

In producing a return to God, Beck and Palin might have done better to dispense with smarmy self-congratulation like this in favor of painful self-examination. 

They might have asked how many people might have been turned off by the religious right's near-incestuous embrace of political power, or how so many leaders of religious-affiliated institutions had alienated their faithful through their own financial and/or sexual corruption (seen most recently with Jerry Falwell Jr. and, in the past few decades, with the American hierarchy of my faith, the Roman Catholic Church).

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