Where’d Beck’s minions go?

WHERE’D BECK’S MINIONS GO?…. James Downie wrote an interesting piece this week, highlighting the “decline of Glenn Beck.” That the decline has occurred seems fairly obvious; what’s important is figuring out why the deranged media personality has stumbled so badly.

The premise of Downie’s case seems incontrovertible. Beck has lost more than a third of television viewers in just a year; his radio show has been dropped in several major media markets after its ratings faltered; advertisers have abandoned him in droves; and sales of his most recent book fell far short of his other titles from recent years.

Perhaps most strikingly, notable conservatives have given up on Beck, dismissing him as a ridiculous nut that makes the right look bad. Bill Kristol, Rich Lowry, John Fund, and Jennifer Rubin have all publicly criticized Beck, and Pete Wehner argued, “If conservatism were ever to hitch its wagon to this self-described rodeo clown, it would collapse as a movement.”

But the key is understanding why. Downie offers a compelling explanation.

Beck built a following by making outlandish, conspiratorial claims — about ACORN, Obama, and so on. (Bizarrely, his extremism may have augmented the number of curious liberal viewers tuning in: A Pew Research Center poll from last September found that 9 percent of Beck’s Fox viewers identified as Democrats, and 21 percent as moderates or liberals.) But “anytime you have extreme stimulus,” says Alexander Zaitchik, author of the unauthorized Beck biography Common Nonsense, “you’ll have diminishing returns.” Beck, says Zaitchik, was caught “in a vicious circle”: To keep viewers coming back, he had to keep creating new, more intricate theories.

Last November, in a two-part special that indirectly invoked anti-Semitism, he accused liberal Jewish financier George Soros of orchestrating the fall of foreign governments for financial gain. During the Egyptian Revolution, Beck sided with Hosni Mubarak, alleging that his fall was “controlled by the socialist communists and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Beck is now warning viewers not to use Google, accusing the search-engine giant of “being deep in bed with the government.” In recent months, it seems, Beck’s theories became so outlandish that even conservatives — both viewers and media personalities — were having a hard time stomaching them. Now, each new idea appears to be costing Beck both eyeballs and credibility. “At some point,” says Boehlert, “it doesn’t add up any more.”

Worse, it even leads to repetition. Kevin Drum noted the other day that he caught part of Beck’s show and found the host ranting about Van Jones again: “[Beck] either replays his greatest hits over and over … or he creates ever more convoluted alternate universes that are not just harder to follow, but are also increasingly hard to believe for an audience that basically just wants to hear that Barack Obama is Satan.”

This is all pretty persuasive, but there’s another way of looking at this. Adam Serwer argued yesterday:

I think the answer may be in this Pew poll Ben Smith flagged yesterday showing that the number of people “angry at the federal government” has declined by 9 percent. According to Pew, “much of the decline” comes from “Republicans and Tea Party supporters.” Republicans have calmed down, and Beck has stayed high-strung.

The whole Republican narrative is based on the idea that conservatives are the “real Americans” and that liberals and Democrats are illegitimate democratic actors who only gain power through illicit means. Beck and his chalkboard met the need conservatives had to persuade themselves of this in the aftermath of political losses in 2006 and particularly 2008. Republicans, having regained control of the House and excised the existential crisis caused by losing the presidential election, feel like things are “getting back to normal.” So they simply don’t have the same appetite for the kind of cathartic insanity Beck provides. It’s not really that Beck has really changed; it’s that Republicans don’t really need him anymore.

I agree with most of this, but not quite all of it. Looking at the numbers, Beck’s decline occurred throughout 2010, before Republicans had a successful midterm cycle, and during a period of ambitious Democratic policymaking. Things hadn’t quite gotten “back to normal” when Beck’s audience moved on.

But I agree that the larger societal developments have very likely had a real impact. There were times in early 2009, with the threat of a global economic collapse a little too real, that plenty of folks were thinking, “Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die. Time to stock up on canned goods and ammunition.” Beck’s madness spoke to those anxieties quite effectively.

And yet, we’re not there anymore. The economy’s growing; Democrats didn’t eliminate capitalism; there are no secret messages in the clouds implanted by Islamic gay communists. The country is slowly exhaling after a period of tumult.

It’s not just that Republicans don’t really need Beck anymore; it’s that Americans don’t really need Beck anymore, now that the intensity of the anxiety has passed.