By Jack Hunter

His talk-radio brethren have less of a problem with his histrionics than with his evolving libertarianism

Warning that popular talk radio and Fox News host Glenn Beck was “Harmful to the Conservative Movement,” Peter Wehner wrote on Commentary‘s “Contentions” blog in September: “he seems to be more of a populist and libertarian than a conservative, more of a Perotista than a Reaganite. His interest in conspiracy theories is disquieting, as is his admiration for Ron Paul and his charges of American ‘imperialism.’ (He is now talking about pulling troops out of Afghanistan, South Korea, Germany, and elsewhere.)”

Wehner is not alone in his criticism. When Beck told CBS News’ Katie Couric, “John McCain would have been worse for the country than Barack Obama,” fellow radio talker and New York Times bestselling author Mark Levin fired back: “to say that he would be worse than a president who’s a Marxist, who’s running around the world apologizing for our nation, who’s slashing our defense budget … to say he would be worse is mindless … incoherent, as a matter of fact.”

Beck has been criticized from both Left and Right for his melodramatic, sometimes conspiracy-minded, intermittently bizarre style. But his conservative critics seem most offended not by Beck’s manner but by his deviationism. He won’t stick to the ideological script.

Conservative radio and TV punditry has a strict set of ground rules. Whatever Democrats are up to is bad; Republicans aren’t perfect, but they are worth cheering for and at least deserve the benefit of the doubt. Rush Limbaugh’s occasional guest host Michael Medved reflected talk-radio orthodoxy perfectly when he said, “For those Americans who want to fight back against the menacing expansion of government and the insanely irresponsible spending of the Obama administration, there is only one way to succeed: electing more Republicans to high office.” But as Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic notes, Beck is an exception: “Beck claims to be non-partisan. Conservative, yes, but disdainful of the GOP, with no vested interest in seeing Republicans return to power.”

During the George W. Bush years, Beck’s politics were less differentiated from those of other radio talkers. He deferred to the Bush administration, promoted militarism as patriotism, and called the day’s news along partisan lines. When Ron Paul received national attention for questioning America’s interventionist foreign policy during a 2007 GOP presidential primary debate, Beck called Paul “crazy” and asked, “how did this guy get on stage?” At the time there were no complaints about Beck from the likes of Wehner and Levin — because Beck sounded much like them.

Sometimes he still does, mashing recycled neoconservative jargon with wild-eyed panic about the growth of government power under Obama. But however politically incoherent or ideologically imperfect his rants may be, Beck, unlike other conservative media celebrities, seems to have learned something from the past eight years. He said in September:

I am becoming more and more libertarian every day, I guess the scales are falling off of my eyes, as I’m doing more and more research into history and learning real history. Back at the turn of the century in 1900, with Teddy Roosevelt — a Republican — we started this, ‘we’re going to tell the rest of the world,’ ‘we’re going to spread democracy,’ and we really became, down in Latin America, we really became thuggish and brutish. It only got worse with the next progressive that came into office — Teddy Roosevelt, Republican progressive — the next one was a Democratic progressive, Woodrow Wilson, and we did … we empire built. The Democrats felt we needed to empire build with one giant global government … The Republicans took it as, we’re going to lead the world and we’ll be the leader of it … I don’t think we should be either of those. I think we need to mind our own business and protect our own people. When somebody hits us, hit back hard, then come home.

When he made headlines by saying that McCain would have been worse than Obama, Beck explained to Couric, “McCain is this weird progressive like Theodore Roosevelt was.”

Beck has devoted much airtime to warning about the dangers of “transnationalism” and “progressivism.” His notion of the latter seems to be inspired by Ronald J. Pestritto’s American Progressivism: A Reader, a book Beck recommends on his website. His take on progressivism shows a characteristic mixture of conspiracy theory, ignorance, and, when you least expect it, the truth. On a show in June, he warned: “Now, the progressive movement, this is so insidious … I mean, for instance, and I don’t want to get into this, but Woodrow Wilson, nobody knows anything about. One evil son of a bitch. And nobody knows it. Nobody really knows what the progressive movement is because they’ve controlled history.” He said in May: “I have to tell you, the answer is to get away from the two-party system because they are both progressives.”

Beck gives a less sensational account of progressivism in his recent bestseller Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, in which he explains: “The Progressives on the right believed in Statism and American expansion through military strength, while the Progressives on the left believed in Statism and expansion through transnationalist entities such as the League of Nations and then the United Nations.” On “transnationalism” Beck adds, “Under President Bush, politics and global corporations dictated much of our economic and border policy. Nation building and internationalism also played a huge role in our move away from founding principles.”

Beck is hardly a noninterventionist, and he still makes hawkish statements similar to those others on the Right side of the dial. But in revisiting the foreign policies of Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt and questioning the “expansion” of “progressivism … through military strength,” Beck sets himself apart from the conservative retreads still promoting Bush’s overseas agenda. Beck has embarked on an ideological journey that is unfolding before a large national audience (he’s third in the talk-radio ratings, behind Limbaugh and Hannity), and the host himself seems unsure where his wanderings will take him. But they have already led him, and his listenership, away from the familiar shores of movement conservatism.

Beck gets credit for this from some unexpected sources. The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan, for example, says, “I do think that Beck deserves some kudos for putting defense on the table as an issue for small government conservatives.” For Peter Wehner, on the other hand, Beck’s, “populist,” “libertarian,” and anti-imperial deviations remain troublesome: “My hunch is that he is a comet blazing across the media sky right now — and will soon flame out. Whether he does or not, he isn’t the face or disposition that should represent modern-day conservatism.”

Wehner may be right — Beck’s zany disposition should not be the public face of today’s conservatism. But clearly neoconservatives and Bush administration alumni like Wehner should not be the face of conservatism, either. As Daniel Larison has noted, “The faction most responsible for the GOP’s political failure is national security conservatives. Yet within the party, they remain unscathed, their assumptions about the use of American power largely unquestioned, and their gross errors in judgment forgotten or readily forgiven.” Now is the time for conservatives to ask questions, reexamine their assumptions, and own up to some gross errors.

Beck has been the only A-list conservative pundit willing to capitalize on the sentiments of Republicans disgruntled with their own party, and the only one to address the taboo subject of Bush-era foreign policy. Plenty of others continue to bash Obama-only Beck has been willing to make conservative discontent retroactive. Other hosts continue to promise future Republican victories in the face of Obama’s plummeting popularity, but Beck continues to ask, “what’s the point?” And while it might be true that Beck doesn’t always ask the right questions, he deserves some credit for being the only guy asking any questions while the rest of the right-wing infotainment industry refuses to acknowledge any mistakes at all. Far from being the worst of conservative pundits, Beck, despite his outrageous antics, may be the only one of them who is mentally alive.

Jack Hunter broadcasts as “The Southern Avenger” for 1250 AM WTMA talk radio in Charleston, S.C. and is a columnist for the Charleston City Paper.