“There's a sucker born every minute.”
-- Glenn Beck, Salt Lake City, July 6
SALT LAKE CITY -- The double rainbow arching directly over the outdoor stage could only mean one thing: God was smiling on Glenn Beck. Two hours after monsoon-like rains drenched and darkened Salt Lake Valley, and with weather reports still threatening an even chance of thunderstorms, Beck's fans celebrated the divine thumbs-ups in the clouds. As soon as the rainbows appeared, sounds of prayerful thanks rippled through the USANA amphitheater, a modest venue on the city's western outskirts. “It's God's message,” said a woman in a raincoat fashioned from a garbage bag. “I just knew He wouldn't let tonight get washed out.”
He did not. Aside from a few light sprinkles early in the unusually cool July 6 night, “Man in the Moon,” the inaugural event of Beck's new entertainment company, American Dream Labs, went off without a hitch. This included the execution of a high-wire upside-down flag folding ceremony that had failed repeatedly in rehearsal. After much internal debate, Beck finally green-lit the risky act after getting the meteorological message from his Number One Fan. “When I saw the double rainbow, I thought, 'Let's go for it,'” Beck told the crowd to cheers.
As with Beck's last three summer gatherings, conservatism's least predictable impresario promoted “Man in the Moon” as an historic turning point in the American saga. Like other Beck-identified turning points, this one came with a merch table and all the lean marketing muscle of a major-market NFL franchise. Sixteen thousand people from around the country, including Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens,answered Beck's call to support his stage and video experiment, buying tickets in a tiered system that spiked out at $1,500 VIP passes. Gold and Platinum tickets included premium seating and parking, a signed poster, and a 10 second meet-and-greet photo op with Beck.
Not included in the ticket price was access to three days of lectures and seminars at the Grand America Hotel. Those passes to talks by leading conservative authors and activists like Fox's Michelle Malkin and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) cost extra, the proceeds going to the Beck-affiliated charity, Mercury One. The morning of the main event, that non-profit helped raise money for the charity of businessman Jon Huntsman Sr., a long-time Beck ally and the father of the former Utah governor and presidential candidate. FreedomWorks, which pays Beck one million dollars a year for fundraising and media support, functioned as an unofficial co-sponsor of “Man in the Moon.” The night before Beck's show, theright-wing advocacy group hosted a “Free the People” event at the USANA amphitheater.
But nobody traveled to Salt Lake to hear FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe give his flat freedom rap, or listen to Rafael Cruz, father of Senator Ted, compare Barack Obama to Fidel Castro. The draw in Utah was the final night's premiere of Beck's latest creation, “Man in the Moon.” Tonight was not about restoring another vague concept like Honor or Courage, but celebrating the launch of Beck's new production company. As the sun set on the Wasatch mountain range, Beck described American Dream Labs' first offering as opening a new front in his media war to right and rescue the republic.
This is the front of popular culture. The Blaze octopus (web, TV, soon a radio network) would continue to base Beck's brand as a force in news and opinion; two years after losing his Fox gig in the wake of a years-long advertiser boycott, he is now attempting, with some early success, to muscle his way back into cable on his own terms. The Dream Labs, meanwhile, would function more like a faceless corporate movie studio, with Beck deliberately lowering his profile in the interests of growth.
“Our culture has gone off the rails,” Beck told the sold-out amphitheater crowd. “And nobody on our side has done anything about it -- until tonight.”
Over a violin accompaniment, Beck told of the young company's origins. The seed was planted in Beck's successful bid for an original copy of Walt Disney's first corporate prospectus. “Nobody even bid against me,” he said, hinting at yet another divine wink. In the manifesto, Beck read of the young Disney's desire to use “the facts and articles of American history” to entertain the masses. Yet, somewhere -- maybe around the time of Bambi's anti-gun message; Beck didn't say -- Disney lost his way. It now fell upon Beck to pick up Disney's mouse-pattern mantle and wear it with renewed purpose.
He announced that his team was already thinking big. Disney big. A sequel to “Man in the Moon” was in the works featuring a 2,000-voice choir and full symphony orchestra. Another project in development will tell the story of Tesla and Edison. The Labs' first commercial film is slated for Christmas 2014. Beck's final tease should have triggered peals of laughter, but it didn't. American Dream Labs, said Beck, was drafting plans to remake Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Not just the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, but Cecil B. DeMille's version of Moses and the Ten Commandments -- the four-hour, cast-of-thousands film landmark that has become synonymous with “epic.”
American Dream Labs would update DeMille's vision for a new century, Beck explained, giving it “an entirely new look, and tell it in an entirely new way.”
For those who've dutifully followed Beck around the world in pursuit of promised miracles, the USANA amphitheater may have come as a disappointment. This was not the National Mall or the Western Wall, sites of two previous Beck events, but a homely concrete stage scheduled in the months to come to host Cypress Hill and the Rockstar Energy Drink Festival. How could this be the site of revelation when the urinals barely flushed and you couldn't get a hot dog for less than $7? Perhaps picking up on a frequency of doubt, Beck reassured everyone in his introduction that they were getting a world-historical twofer. Not only did they have front-row seats for the inaugural blast from his game-changing culture-war Death Star, they were about to witness a multi-media spectacle Beck described as “a new American art form.”
As he stood waving this promise of something never before seen, framed by the show's steampunk stage design, Beck appeared more than ever as a carnival emcee from another age. As my eyes drifted from the bow-tied Beck up to the wooden stage banner painted with an old-timey moon-in-the-sun motif, it hit me that this was his idea exactly. The throwback aesthetics, and Oz-esque narrator mock boasting of the show's technological feats -- in “Man in the Moon,” Beck had found a conceit allowing him bare his inner Barnum. This might explain Beck's recent embrace of his long-suppressed affinity for bow ties, and his inclusion in the script of Barnum's immortal slogan for a certain tradition of American showmanship, “There's a sucker born every minute.” It was in the character of a traveling tent barker that Beck rattled off the amazing technology and human wonders that populate his new American art form -- “a combination of projection mapping, on a scale that has not been seen before, pyrotechnics, flying by wire, and propeller, and good old-fashioned storytelling that has all but been lost since the death of Mark Twain!”
After placing himself in the trousers of Twain, DeMille and Disney, it was time to start the show.
“The Man in the Moon” is a history of Earth as told by the Man in the Moon. Beck plays both the Moon, who speaks in slow, elliptical observations, and an Oz version of himself, who cranks levers and jokes about his ego as he paces the show's speed-tour of geological, Biblical and American history. The story is told via projections onto a giant helium balloon flanked by two full-sized movie screens, supported by a few choreographed dance routines. The result is an impressionistic, visually engaging experience best suited for children under the age of 12 and older Beck fans on hallucinogens.
As a trial balloon for mainstream influence, the “Man in the Moon” is a qualified success. There is nothing in it to infuriate an ethnic group or trigger a boycott. While not quite rising to the level of “a new American art form,” the visuals helped sustain interest during otherwise dull recountings of Noah's Ark and Plymouth Rock. In 90 minutes, there is no progressive bashing. The closest thing to a political stance is the pro-Union perspective of a Civil War scene. The only historical figure to get an extended cameo on Beck's moon balloon is John F. Kennedy, a liberal Democrat. “Man in the Moon” even ends with a trick on conservative reflexes. The atomic bombings of Japan are depicted not as the heroic capstones of Allied triumph, but as bummers that signal a descent into darkness and leave the Moon despondent over the future of the human “beasts” on the planet he lovingly calls “Blue.”
This scattershot, sentimental, and apolitical depiction of human history ends with Beck in Moonface delivering a soliloquy in his best Deathbed Yoda voice. Over a sonic bed of Hollywood strings and horns adagio, the Moon utters a string of cryptic clichés about light and darkness, choices and destiny. The dialogue, which reads like a bag of fortune cookies written by Paulo Coelho, represents Beck's first real dramatic role other than himself.
The Moon isn't going to win any awards, but Beck's performance does evoke a sort of melancholy. Sounding like a broken old man giving his last will and testament, the Moon ends by scolding the human race for its arrogance, telling them, “You have tremendous potential. Potential for joy or hate. Light or dark. Life or death. But in the end you choose. What a gift. What a joy to witness. All of your wildest hopes and dreams and desires. All of the things you feel are impossible are in reality too small for your potential. Bright journeys and powerful dreams are about to dawn, but so are man's oldest nightmares. It will be your choice.”
A few seconds later, the big balloon fades to black. The show is over. American Dream Labs is born, the next stage of Beck's Republic reclamation project begun.
Only, nobody in the USANA amphitheater seems to appreciate the significance of the moment. The seconds tick by without any sign of applause. Now people are standing up, gathering their things. Those still in their seats appear to be looking around for some sort of explanation. They love Beck because they think he's funny, but tonight was not funny. They love him because they think he's a great patriot, but this, this Moon thing, it was no patriotism they recognized.
As the window for any kind of audience response closed forever, 16,000 thoughts turned to the subject of rental car location, and from there to the chances of beating traffic out of the gravel pits and subdivisions of Salt Lake's West Valley.
“Man in the Moon” may have proved Beck's ability to work with historical material in moderation. But even if American Dream Labs produces toned down products, he'll still face the hurdles of his own name, face, and ego, none of which have any mass appeal beyond the people who already love him. Most Americans who know anything about Beck don't like him, and he knows it. On Friday morning, he told a standing-room audience in the Grand America during a “Beck Unplugged” event that the best thing he could do for the growth of American Dream Labs was to disappear for a while.
“I don't even want my name on my books anymore,” said Beck. “My name has been good for you guys, but bad for reaching the bigger populace. I play the moon in this, and when they came to me with the prosthetics, and they said, 'what do you want the moon to look like,' and I said, 'just not me.'” ... That's why I'm building the American Dream Labs, to try to get into the entertainment space as well. News is one thing, but news and elections is the last stop. Culture and entertainment are the first stop."
Beck's professed interest in branding plastic surgery, if not the witness protection program, is overstated. But he's clearly chewing on the conundrum of how to undo the damage of past self-inflicted wounds. How else to see his recent uncharacteristic public apology for “divisive” rhetoric? The fact that Beck's heightened image consciousness comes against a backdrop of enormous success suggests the scale of his plans. His new network, the Blaze, beat the odds; it is profitable and growing. His multiple revenue streams pulled in a reported $90 million last year, landing Beck 34th on Forbes' Celebrity 100.
All of which has whetted Beck's ambition and inflamed his lifelong dream of achieving an All-American, no-asterisks level of cultural prominence. As Beck climbed the ranks of talk radio and cable news, he was always thinking ahead, using each platform to build up and out. Successful radio and TV shows might satisfy a dutiful GOP caddy like Sean Hannity, but they could never be the endgame for a man who sees himself as a once-in-a-generation visionary and God-chosen talent with a destiny in the American pantheon. American Dream Labs is Beck's stealth bomber, designed to avoid tripping liberal media radar and penetrate deep into mainstream America -- that massive untapped market comprised of what he calls “the bigger populace.”
If Beck is serious about repositioning himself to build a new Disney or Dream Works, he may want to ponder a line from his grandmother that he likes to quote: “Show me a person's friends, and I'll show you their future.”
“Man in the Moon” hinted at Beck's ability to create politically bland and commercially viable mainstream entertainment products, the scenes found in the lecture halls and conference rooms of the Grand America was something else entirely. The weekend's educational component featured Beck's usual gang of anti-gay clergy, free-market ideologues, and evangelical propagandists.
If Beck is serious about communicating with the rest of America, he'll first need to understand why rabid homophobes like his friend Rev. Ken Hutcherson, an African American preacher who fought for civil rights in the 1960s, isn't widely viewed as a “civil rights hero” for our time. Hutcherson also probably isn't the confidante Beck needs to help him navigate contemporary realities of race and racism. This was obvious last week during the “Beck Unplugged” event, when a woman from San Diego noted the blazing whiteness of the ballroom and asked Beck how limited-government conservatives could diversify the ethnic mix of their movement. After fumbling for a few minutes, Beck responded by quoting Hutcherson, who once told him, "'You white people kill me. You're all being discriminated against, and you think it's privilege... And all the black people and all the brown people... everyone is just trying to get one from somebody else."
To recap, white privilege is a myth, and people of color are social parasites.
That this answer passed without challenge goes far toward explaining why words like “Republican,” “conservative,” and “Tea Party” carry negative connotations for most Americans, black and brown ones especially. The subject of overcoming the limitations of lexicon filled two lectures in Salt Lake by K. Carl Smith, who addressed overflow crowds in the Tea Party Express room. Smith's specialty is messaging conservative politics in the black communities, where the baggage plaguing words like “Republican” isn't all that different from the baggage weighing down “Glenn Beck.” Smith's solution for GOP victory is similar to Beck's answer for growing his new company: Stop using the word.
“Don't ever use the words 'conservative' or 'Republican' to describe yourself,” Smith instructed. “Always say you're a Frederick Douglass Republican.” This, in a nutshell, is Smith's trademarked Frederick Douglass Republican Methodology. “Frederick Douglass is the key to defeating the race card,” said Smith. “It's bullet proof. With the Frederic Douglass Methodology, any one of you can walk into a black barbershop or beauty shop and win the conversation. When they ask you if you are a Republican, say, No, 'I'm a Frederick DouglassRepublican. It's a powerful offensive technique guaranteed to gain control of the narrative.” When Smith finished, he had the Tea Party Express room in the palm of his hand. (His talks before white audiences don't always go so smoothly. At last year's CPAC, a white supremacist caused a scene by proposing to Smith that Republicans call themselves “Booker T. Washington Republicans,” an allusion to support for segregation.)
Smith wasn't the only speaker with a plan for getting minorities on the Liberty boat. A few doors down the Grand America's chandeliered hall, the thriller writer Brad Thor announced plans to fund a billboard campaign in black neighborhoods across the country. “There are good people in those communities who are not getting the opportunities they need,” Thor explained. “So I'm going to buy huge billboards that read, 'There's a limit to what the Democratic Party can do for you, and you've been seeing it for generations.'”
Thor had come to Salt Lake planning to discuss the craft of writing and his latest book. But Beck asked him to talk politics instead, resulting in the spectacle of a visibly uncomfortable Thor making dated comments about “the Maoist Anita Dunn” and “the Communist Van Jones.” Sensing that his talk was in shambles, he rerouted and pulled out a sheet of one-liners in the structure of Jeff Foxworthy's “You might be a Redneck...” routine.
After the last of these -- "You may be a progressive if... You think capitalism oppresses people and socialism sets them free" -- Thor again grew serious and expounded on the difference between socialism and communism for his audience, a good chunk of which was taking notes. Socialism, Thor said, was “when someone chooses to live under a system of social equality and dictatorship.” Communism, on the other hand, was “what comes after you've lived under a dictator so long, you evolve to the point where you're no longer hardwired to be selfish, as God willed.”
A peppy Blaze employee rose to urge everyone follow Thor to the exhibit hall where he would sign copies of his new thriller, Hidden Order. An hour later, the line for his signature was as long as ever.
The most popular attraction at “Man in the Moon” was the Independence Through History Museum set up over two rooms in the Grand America. Tickets ranged from $15 group tours, to $1,000 tours led by Beck and pseudohistorian David Barton. Aiming to show “the light and dark side” of American history, the exhibit featured letters written by John Adams and interned Japanese citizens during World War Two. It contained Napoleon's pocket bible and Charles Manson's shotgun. When the scheduled tours sold out, more times were added, which also sold out. At the “Unplugged” event, Beck spoke of plans to take the museum on the road as a tie-in for the “Man in the Moon” tour. The $20 million cost of the venture only seemed to steel his determination to raise the money. Doing so would require resolve in the face of what he imagines to be a progressive movement where money is never a problem. “We're fighting things like the Tides Foundation with billions of dollars,” Beck said. “The money [for the museum tour] is already starting to come in.”
Among the suspects of likely donors is Beck's friend, the businessman and philanthropist Jon Huntsman. Among the weekend's events was a Saturday morning “Walk for Hope” to raise money for the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. If people like Huntsman stepped up, Beck imagined the museum tour on an endless crusade across 50 states to educate and enlighten Americans about their (Christian-flavored) heritage. “We'll travel to every school, every home school, every county and state fair that will have us,” Beck said. “I could go broke -- I have everything on the table for this.”
Beck wasn't the only one with everything on the table. The “Man in the Moon” exhibit hall featured more than 100 tables crowded mostly withsmall conservative business and entrepreneurs. Self-published authors worked the room hawking Second Amendment fan fiction and anti-Obama spoofs of The Cat in the Hat. They competed for dollars with half a dozen makers of conservative political tees -- “Sure you can have my guns. Here, let me give you the bullets first” -- and as many dealers of survival seed packets and emergency food buckets.
I was perusing the products of one of these, Texas Ready Seed Banks, when its proprietor, a friendly woman named Lucinda Bailey, introduced herself. Along with her survival seed business, she also repped for a California maker of designer bomb shelters. When I told her that her basic model was bigger than my apartment, she thought I was joking. She shrugged when I asked how business was going. “I got a better response at last year's Beck event [Restoring Love] in Arlington [Texas],” she said. “This is a little different crowd. I probably would have been better off staying in Texas, where I do five gun shows a week and can't even keep up.”
After a pause, she took back what she said about staying in Texas. The previous evening she'd dined with Beck's director of marketing -- “that was worth the trip right there,” she said. The duo talked survival seeds, but mostly Bailey pressed Beck's people to extend an olive branch to the radio host Alex Jones, who has accused Beck of stealing his schtick. “The bad blood between Glenn and Alex needs to stop,” Bailey said. “I want to get all the Patriots together.” Then she picked up a packet of Texas Ready's “Piggy Bank” starter seed kit, and added, “And I want to feed them!” She recounted how she once had an appointment to teach Alex Jones and his staff to grow 2,000 pounds of food, but they cancelled at the last minute.
I could have talked survivalism and Alex Jones for another hour, but we lost each other in the swirl of conservative small enterprise. A writer of patriotic children's books thrust upon me a copy of his latest illustrated Freedom Fairy Tale for children, titled Communism and Socialism: Two Things You Don't Want Sneaking Up on You in the Dark. With my other hand I accepted a flyer from a patriotic composer whose album, Bill of Responsibilities, touted a lyrical collaboration with Glenn Beck. As she was telling me about the ways Beck inspires her music, I watched as behind her a rep from Thorn Pest Solutions placed a three-inch Giant Cave Cockroach into the palm of a young girl in a wheelchair. She beamed like it was a butterfly.