For years, Glenn Beck, the man known for the great deluges of words and ideas that spewed out of his radio and TV programs, kept a secret from everyone: He was dying. Or at least, doctors thought he was dying. In an appearance on his online talk show Monday, Beck admitted that since his days at Fox News he has been silently suffering from a mysterious brain illness that baffled doctors and left him writhing in pain, sleepless, suffering from vocal chord paralysis and seizures.
For 40 minutes, Beck tearfully described how his brain had deteriorated, how doctors had told him he would likely lose normal brain function in five to ten years, and how, in a Willy Wonka–style plan for corporate succession, he had discreetly selected an heir to shadow him and realize his grand vision if—or when—he could no longer remember it.
“We didn’t know at the time what was causing me to feel as though, out of nowhere, my hands and feet, or arms and legs would feel like someone had just crushed them, set them on fire, or pushed broken glass into them,” Beck told his audience. “Most afternoons my hands will start to shake or my hands and feet begin to curl up and I become in a fetal position,” he added later. “When it gets real bad my friends just kind of try to uncurl me.”
Beck is fine now. Doctors at a brain rehab center in Texas finally diagnosed him with adrenal fatigue and an autoimmune disorder, among other things, and after some lifestyle changes and a few months of hormone therapy—plus some help from God, naturally—Beck says his “brain is back online in a big way.”
But staring down a painful early death has a way of making people rethink life. And if you’re Glenn Beck, rethinking life means rethinking America—and specifically, how to save it.
In an exclusive interview with VICE this week, Beck described the illness as a “pivot point,” a seminal life event that fundamentally altered his worldview, pushing him beyond right-wing punditry and toward bigger, even more elaborate ambitions.
“When somebody sits you down and says, ‘Hey, you could be a vegetable in five years and not really remember the names of your children,’ that tends to focus you on Gosh, what am I doing? What is important to me?” Beck told me. Unconvinced that the conservative politics that he had been synonymous with for years could salvage our reeling democracy, he turned his attention to soft power, building a sprawling media empire aimed at reclaiming space in mainstream culture. And quietly, he transformed into Glenn Beck 2.0—a quieter, gentler version who calls for national unity and optimism and who wants Americans to try to love each other a little more.
“I am still the same guy who believes that the country is in trouble, but it has nothing to do with one party over the other,” Beck told me. “It has everything to do with all of us. We’re choosing this course, and I think we’re doing it blindly at times. And what we need to do is step back, look at that, and really choose what it is that we believe to be true, and does that tear down or lift up? I really want to get out of the tear-down business and into the lift-up business.
“I just lose more and more faith in being able to change things at the top,” he added. “We have to change things in the individual and the heart and with our kids. It has nothing to do with policies or politics and has everything to do with our humanity.”
To the casual Beck observer, all this might come as a surprise. The famed right-wing provocateur works under the mainstream media radar these days, and though he runs The Blaze, a news website and television channel, he is still mostly associated with Fox News. That’s where he became famous during the early years of Obama’s presidency, commanding the frontlines of the Tea Party and organizing daily field trips into the dark, apocalyptic mental landscapes of his conservative viewers (Fox host Shepard Smith used to tease Beck’s studio as “the Fear Chamber”). Beck’s show was many, many things, but it was not exactly in the business of lifting anything up.
But since leaving Fox in 2011, Beck has changed his tone, adopting a more conciliatory, even bored, approach to politics. Recently, he’s started apologizing for some of his rhetoric at Fox and for his role in helping “tear the country apart.” In our interview, Beck, who’s been in AA since 1994, describes this transformation in the confessional cadence of 12-step programs.
“I made a lot of mistakes in the past, as anyone does,” he said. “As I saw the trouble that we’re in and the role that I played in it, that was one of the reasons that I got on [Monday’s show] and why I’ve done interviews over the last year. It’s pretty hard to believe people when they say they’ve changed and I don’t believe people when they can’t tell me their pivot point.”
“Now that we have gotten this clean bill of health, I want to make sure I’m spending all the time that I have been given to do things that are empowering and uniting and good,” he went on. “I think we have an opportunity to really change the way things are done in all arenas. I’ve spent a lot of time really doing some serious thought on, How do we do radio now? How do we do television? What kind of television do I want to do? Do we want to try to put some of these stories on film? What does the future look like? Where do I want to leave a mark?”
In the past few years, Beck has transformed into a conservative media mogul and red-state lifestyle brand—a sort of avuncular Oprah Winfrey-Arianna Huffington hybrid for people who go to megachurches, bury gold in their backyards, and read critical biographies of Woodrow Wilson. His media footprint is sprawling, including an online television network with 300,000 paid subscribers, the third-highest rated radio show in the country, a wildly successful imprint with Simon & Schuster (including 12 bestselling novels of his own), a movie studio, and a clothing company. He is also richer than ever: According to Forbes, he earned $90 million last year, which is more than Oprah and much more than he ever made doing cable news.
As the Glenn Beck Industrial Complex has mushroomed, Beck has also fashioned himself as a tech disrupter, intent on putting “old media”—that is, liberal media—out of business. There is an element of libertarian futurism in the newfound optimism of Beck 2.0 that hints at his old anxieties about America’s moribund freedom.” What gives me hope is Silicon Valley,” he told me. “The vision of the future, and it’s not some ‘flying car’ future, this is real, life will change as we know it in the next five to ten years. There’s a real reason to feel optimistic about tomorrow.”
“Instead of telling dystopian stories,” he added, “we also need to look at the good side, look at what we can do: Man can be healthier, more well-connected, and we can end so much pain and suffering in a very good way and turn everything around… I really think that the freedom that is within our grasp is the exact kind of freedom that our Founders hoped someday we would find, but never understood the route that would get us there. Now, with technology, man can truly be as an individual is free.”
With his health issues now in check, Beck said he plans on reshaping his media empire around his softer, more hopeful vision of America. Since announcing his illness Monday, he’s rolled out a series of new media projects based around Beck’s new love-and-hope message, including a national #IChooseHope event, when the Blaze website and television channel will black out bad news entirely and encourage viewers to share their feel-good stories. The goal, Beck said, is to reclaim the country’s cultural narrative.
“I want people to be able to see and understand, and I mean this for the right and the left, that family-friendly doesn’t have to mean sappy crap,” he said. “Things that are clean doesn’t mean that they’re not gonna be good or dynamic.”
As with most of Beck’s media empire, this new vision is inspired by his idol, Walt Disney. “Disney knew that the world was about to change,” he said. “You could tell a Disney story right off the bat… It was hopeful. It had a brighter tomorrow. That’s not great for everybody, and that’s fine, but somebody’s gotta be out there in a contemporary way just telling great stories. And by the selection of our stories, it will tell a greater story about who we are, and what we believe in.”
How Beck plans to execute all this isn’t totally clear. And while Beck has a devoted following, it’s not likely that relentless optimism and historical narratives will put Beck back into the mainstream. But that may not be the point. Beck seems to have made peace with his self-imposed exile, content to build a parallel media universe around his new vision for America.
So far, that includes a three-part miniseries on Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, a feature film about the life of Santa Claus, and a stop-motion animation series about history. There’s another feature film in the works as well, but Beck won’t give any details except that it’s called The Revolutionary, and that “our intent at this point is it will not be in English.” He told me he also wants to do a series on Crazy Horse, to “set the record straight on what America did to the Native Americans.”
“That, coming from somebody like me, is confusing to people at best. But it shouldn’t be, because it’s the truth,” he said. “We can correct American history, tell the truth about ourselves that’s not all Red White and Blue Rah Rah, but still, in the end, if you understand it, will deepen and enrich our experience of America, while inspiring people. It’ll be great.”