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It's official: Americans admire Glenn Beck more than they admire the pope.
This news, at once unsettling and unsurprising, came from the Gallup polling organization on Wednesday. Beck, the new Fox News host who has said President Obama has a "deep-seated hatred for white people" and alternately likens administration officials to Nazis and Marxists, was also more admired by Americans than Billy Graham and Bill Gates, not to mention Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. In Americans' esteem, Beck only narrowly trailed South Africa's Nelson Mandela, the man who defeated apartheid.
The 45-year-old recovering alcoholic and Mormon convert has become the first true demagogue of the information age. His nightly diet of falsehoods and conspiracies on Fox, and his daily outrages on the radio, have propelled his popularity past even Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. His method is simple: He goes places where others are forbidden by conscience.
Death panels? Government health insurance for dogs? FEMA concentration camps? An Obama "civilian national security force" like Hitler's SS or Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard? An administration official advocating forced abortions and sterilization agents in drinking water? Beck trafficked in them all in 2009.
He also proposed on his radio show that people should read Hitler's "Mein Kampf" to prepare for Obama's health-care plan - and that's in addition to the 28 times the Fuhrer made an appearance on Beck's Fox show in 2009. The Anti-Defamation League identified the secret to Beck's success when it noted that he, unlike other prominent right-wing talkers, was willing "to give a platform to the conspiracy theorists and anti-government extremists."
His critics during his ascent over the year have compared the pudgy Fox News host to Father Coughlin, George Wallace and Joe McCarthy. Time magazine put Beck on its cover and asked: "Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?"
A better question might be: "Is Glenn Beck America?" All ages have their charlatans. The fact that Beck's stew of venom and fabrication has been such a triumph probably says less about Beck than about us. He has merely captured the moment.
There's scant evidence that Beck holds his zany views with any conviction - even if he often breaks into tears on the air to demonstrate his passion. At the very least, he has come to his views recently, after years as a morning-zoo radio DJ with libertarian leanings. The Atlantic's James Warren reported that the comedian Stephen Colbert recently spoke about the difficulty of lampooning Beck, reasoning that "if somebody doesn't believe what they're saying, it's very hard to out-stupid them."
But if Beck isn't a true believer, he's a brilliant entertainer, and he has calculated, correctly, that a large number of Americans would turn on cable news for more of the insults and conspiracies they get online.
In terms of the political culture, he's more parasite than host. Yet, by any measure, he's had a huge impact on the body politic.
Viewers: The former DJ is getting nearly 3 million a night, besting even the likes of O'Reilly among the viewers most valuable to advertisers, even though there are far fewer people watching TV during Beck's 5 p.m. slot than during prime time.
Cultural impact: At the New York Times, where Beck's frequent books often top the bestseller list, Motoko Rich reports that novelists are calling Beck the "new Oprah," and some entertainment industry executives consider him a possible replacement for Oprah herself.
Scalps: He single-handedly brought down Obama adviser Van Jones over the official's far-left past.
Followers: He launched the 9.12 Project, which held a large protest in Washington, was a major promoter of the Tea Party movement and is planning conventions and rallies in 2010.
In a hearing on "policy czars" by the Senate Homeland Security committee this fall, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., declared that Beck had forced them to hold the hearing. "This all began from a rant by He Who Shall Not Be Named," she said. The chairman, Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., insisted the topic had come up before "it got to be a hot topic on the airwaves, particularly from He Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned, who is my constituent and longtime acquaintance, since he had a morning radio show in New Haven, Connecticut."
Lieberman didn't mention that he wrote a letter of recommendation that helped get the high-school-educated Beck into a non-degree program at Yale. Beck quit after just one course in religion - and now this theology dropout has earned a status in America more exalted than the Holy Father's.
As Glenn Beck likes to say: I fear for my country.
Dana Milbank is a political columnist for The Washington Post.