In 2012, two months before President Barack Obama won a second term by defeating Republican challenger Mitt Romney, radio and TV personality Glenn Beck devoted a show to what he called “the truth” about Romney.
The truth, according to Beck in 2012, was that Romney, now the junior U.S. senator from Utah, was a man of exemplary character, whose many good deeds go unreported. To bring attention to them, Beck directed his staff to seek out what amounted to “Random Acts of Kindness by Mitt Romney” — stories of how Romney has quietly helped individuals and families who were struggling — and he featured them on his television show.
That year, Beck told his audience, “I believe Mr. Romney prays on his knees every day,” adding, “I believe he is being guided.” He also sent Romney his own first-edition copy of George Washington’s farewell address as a gift.
But Beck’s admiration for his fellow Latter-day Saint and, at the time, fellow Republican (Beck has since said he left the GOP) didn’t survive another year.
By September of 2013, Beck was saying that he was embarrassed to have voted for Romney. The next year, he said he regretted giving Romney the gift and complained that he didn’t get a thank-you note. Beck’s hasn’t let up. He says he considers Romney to be a RINO (Republican in name only), a progressive, and mocks the senator regularly on social media and on his syndicated radio show.
“Any day is a good day to complain about Romney but today is a little extra fun,” Beck said in February 2020 when he derided Romney’s vote to convict President Donald Trump in the first impeachment trial.
Beck’s crusade against Romney at times seems as vigorous as his campaign to, in MAGA parlance, “own the libs,” even though Romney has more in common with Beck than with progressive ideology. And both men are widely regarded as sincere in their religious faith and their passion for America’s founding principles.
Romney, however, declined to don the distinctive red cap that Beck came to embrace. In fact, he voted twice to convict Trump, becoming the first senator to break with his party in an impeachment vote.
But it’s too simplistic to say that the fraught relationship is all about Trump. Nor is it all about policy, even though Trump’s influence lingers, even in foreign affairs.
“It’s less about issues, and more about style,” said Robert Goldberg, a historian at the University of Utah who studies conservatism.
As such, it’s also about how the two men seek to persuade.
Romney, 74, came of age politically at a time when old-school restraint and across-the-aisle deal-making was valued; Beck, 57, when bombastic talk-radio hosts who used mockery as a weapon could become opinion leaders in conservative thought. These competing styles now do battle on the larger field of conservatism, which has splintered into opposing factions that George Washington warned of in that farewell address.
Origin of a grudge?
With an estimated 4.7 million listeners on 300 radio stations, Beck does not command the audience of Sean Hannity or the late Rush Limbaugh, whose shows air on twice the number of stations even after his death. And in Talkers magazine’s 2020 “Heavy Hundred” of the most important talk-radio hosts, Beck was No. 10, behind men with less name recognition, such as Joe Madison and Thom Hartmann of SiriusXM.
But with 564,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and more than 4 million followers on Facebook and Twitter, Beck is still a powerful voice in conservative media. When he questions whether Romney is actually a conservative, portrays him as an opportunist only interested in his own legacy, or calls him “the Newman of the GOP” (a reference to the nemesis named Newman on the TV show “Seinfeld”), Beck siphons support from Romney’s legislative proposals — and future votes, should Romney seek another term in the Senate.
Beck did not respond to interview requests, and Romney, through a spokeswoman, declined to speak about his relationship with Beck.
But Kirk Jowers, former director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and a longtime friend and associate of Romney, said that if there is animosity between the men, it seems one-sided.
“I have never heard, in any setting, Mitt Romney mention Glenn Beck’s name,” Jowers said.
Jowers does recall the incident from 2014, when Beck said on his radio show that he was upset he didn’t get a thank-you note from Romney after he sent Romney, via his son, his personal copy of Washington’s farewell address.
As Politico reported, Beck said, “I’ve never regretted giving anybody anything more than I regretted my gift to Mitt Romney. I’m still hung up on that.” This was nearly 18 months after Beck sent Romney the gift.
The story was picked up by other media, ranging from New York Magazine to HuffPost, the latter which described the incident as “the origins of (Beck’s) grudge against Mitt Romney.”
But after Romney reached out to Beck after hearing the story, Beck’s response was anything but grudge-like. As Beck told the story on TheBlaze, Romney emailed Beck, saying, “I am so sorry for the error ... I’m afraid that when you learn the reason I failed to send you a note, you will be even less happy.” Romney then admitted that he had never gotten the document and the family didn’t know what happened to it.
Contrary to Romney’s fear, however, Beck didn’t get angry, but commended Romney for his honesty. He wrote: “He went the hardest possible route ... his integrity and his personal sense of duty, I really like.”
He added, “It is nice to see. ... a guy I don’t agree with politically, but it is nice to see a man who has courage. ... There is nothing to gain by him telling me that. Nothing to gain.”
That reaction, in itself, was statesmanship: acknowledging differences while conveying respect. So how did we get to 2021, where Beck seems to use every opportunity to mock the man he once praised? And who believes, whether or not it is true, that Romney “hates my guts,” as Beck said in 2016 when suggesting that the GOP should draft Romney if Trump’s candidacy imploded.
Blame the medium, analysts say.
Beck is an entertainer who once described himself as a “rodeo clown” and who calls his show “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” Romney is an experienced politician and successful businessman. Although Beck does the finger-pointing, both men are known for changing their positions, said Donna Halper, a media historian who teaches communication and media studies at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Mitt Romney used to be my governor, and he historically has positioned himself whichever way the wind was blowing; I don’t say that unkindly,” Halper said, adding that Romney could not have been elected governor of Massachusetts had he not positioned himself as a moderate in the historically blue commonwealth.
But Halper said that when Romney began considering a run for the White House, his positions became more conservative and he began making Massachusetts a punchline, once telling an audience that being governor of the Bay State was like being “a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention.”
“It did not make us happy. And he had to walk away from Romneycare (health care reform Massachusetts adopted in 2006), the signature thing he had given us. He couldn’t even own it anymore,” Halper said.
Romney faced accusations of political opportunism since he ran against incumbent Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994 and Kennedy said of his opponent, “He’s not pro-choice, he’s not anti-choice, he’s multiple choice.”
But Halper noted that Beck has changed his position enough to be called a flip-flopper himself, most notably when he went from decrying the candidacy of Donald Trump in National Review’s “Conservatives Against Trump” issue in 2016, to apologizing last year on Twitter for what he said in 2016.
And in 2017, Beck embarked on what was called an “apology tour” to encourage Americans to be more understanding and empathetic and to repent of his role in the divisiveness.
“Beck has had a lot of versions of himself over the years,” said Brian Rosenwald, scholar in residence at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Talk Radio’s America.” “The key principle motivating a lot of this is that hosts know where their audience is. They are among the best gauges of that sentiment. And commercial motives — dollars and cents — drive these guys.”
Romney, meanwhile, has settled into a sort of “elder statesman” role, Rosenwald said.
“And (in Utah), he’s got a fairly unique electorate that is more mixed on Trump than most Republican electorates. That has pushed him towards trying to find common ground and sticking to principle at the same time that all of the incentives for Beck are pushing against accepting someone who seeks to find common ground or is anti-Trump.”
Romney, in fact, intentionally staked out a lane within the GOP, and within Congress, one that he said in Politico is a lane that “has almost no one in it” — supportive of many of the former president’s policies on the economy, trade and defense, but critical of his personal conduct and communication. But he has said that his votes to convict Trump were the product of conscience, telling the Deseret News in 2020 that “my personal and political interests lie in not convicting but exonerating.”
Chris Karpowitz, a political science professor at Brigham Young University and co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said in an email that Romney’s “incentives” are different from Beck’s — and a growing number of politicians.
“Though an increasing number of elected officials seem to judge themselves by the standards of media viewership, Romney has put forward a number of serious policy proposals. These proposals have generally been quite consistent with traditional conservative values, but they’re not meant as merely clickbait or as fodder for the culture wars,” Karpowitz said.
Alternately, “For someone like Glenn Beck, the goal is to increase the audience and keep them tuned in.“
While the talk-radio audience isn’t monolithic, some of the most popular hosts, including Hannity, Mark Levin and Dan Bongino, supported Donald Trump. Paul Matzko, the author of “The Radio Right,” has argued that talk radio was just as important as Fox News in creating Trumpism. However, in January, Cumulus Media, which has 416 radio stations across the country, told its talk-show hosts that they would be fired if they said the election was stolen from Trump, The Washington Post reported.
Like fellow Latter-day Saint Glenn Beck, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have had a complicated relationship with Trump. Nearly 80% of Latter-day Saints voted for the Republican ticket for president in 2004 and 2012, according to Pew Research Center. But, in 2016 Latter-day Saint support for the GOP ticket dropped by 17 percent. And yet, by 2020, Latter-day Saints — much like Beck’s own journey — had largely returned to their pre-2016 levels of support for the Republican standard bearer, comprising Trump’s second largest religious bloc in 2020.
Karpowitz said that as far as the Beck and Romney’s common faith goes, “it is probably quite healthy for any church when its membership includes a diversity of political perspectives,” not only within one party, but across party lines. He cited the most recent general conference address by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s First Presidency, who said “no party, platform or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences” and that the church is not aligned with one party.
“By definition, a worldwide church is meant to include a wide spectrum of people, perspectives and backgrounds. The gospel message is meant to be universal, and neither political party is likely to match gospel values perfectly,” Karpowitz wrote. “That fact means that members of the church will likely always be in an uneasy relationship with contemporary political alignments and that different members may emphasize different elements of those alignments.”
For that reason, President Oaks’ emphasis on how people should navigate differences of opinion is important, Karpowitz said. The church leader and former Utah Supreme Court justice said, “On contested issues, we should seek to moderate and unify.”
But as Karpowitz noted, “seeking to ‘moderate and unify’ is not what sells” in today’s polarized media.
A ‘remarkable consistency’
Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah who studies American conservatism, said that when it comes to core issues such as abortion, guns, small government and low taxes, both Romney and Beck “have this remarkable consistency of attitudes.”
“But then you have Romney, who is seen on both sides of the aisle as a compassionate conservative, running up against somebody who has now latched onto Donald Trump.”
Trump has become a dividing line between Romney and Beck, as well as the whole of the GOP, Goldberg said. But the friction is not just between Trump supporters and the so-called Never Trumpers, but also between people who support many of Trump’s policies, but not his style.
“President Trump has made conservatism, Republicanism, more complicated than it was before him,” Jowers said, adding that he believes that Beck represents the more extreme end of conservatism, while Romney represents a more pragmatic form of conservative governance.
“At the most basic, it’s part of the fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and what type of party the Republicans will become.”
Some scholars have called for the resurgence of a civil religion to inform and calm contentious matters of political debate, the sort of thing that George Washington urged in that farewell address that Romney never received.
“With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles,” Washington said to the Americans of 1796. He went on to describe competing interests of different geographic regions but encouraged Americans to guard themselves from misrepresentations that “tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”
As Syracuse University political scientist Dennis Rasmussen writes in his new book “Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders,” Washington feared that the new republic might not last a generation because of budding factionalism, which he decried.
“I would say that Washington’s primary concern was fighting among political parties but that intra-party feuds would also have worried him. Really, he took any kind of factionalism to be a sign of a bad character and a danger to the republic,” Rasmussen said in an email.
Now on the cusp of its 250th birthday in 2026, the republic has survived, although it’s unclear if Beck’s copy of Washington’s farewell address did.
It’s been reported that it was last seen being read by Romney’s wife, Ann, on a plane in 2012.