Let's all laugh at Ann Coulter, right-wing performance artist

Really, laugh -- her right-wing shtick is the same high-level performance art as Stephen Colbert

Published October 24, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

Ann Coulter                         (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Ann Coulter (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Before the publication of her book “Mugged: Racial Demagoguery From the Seventies to Obama,” I was slated to interview Ann Coulter. The protocol was significantly more formal than that for even better-known celebrities. But I answered the oddly specific questions I was asked as I'd been rushed a copy of the book. I couldn't shake a lingering feeling that something would go awry. It did.

After I sent the advance questions, Coulter went missing. I attempted to track her down and got an apology from a press agent, coupled with a message suggesting I try again. I didn't. I knew Coulter wouldn't answer anything I asked sincerely, and my tongue-in-cheek questions about race and crime may have approached the edge of acknowledging this a bit too obviously. Her act relies on the interviewer playing it straight. I wasn't offended. Ann Coulter is a genius; she had bested me in advance.

Liberals know Ann Coulter as a vicious pundit with a propensity for saying the most hateful thing possible without being yanked off-air. Republicans know her as a fearless advocate for conservative values who eschews political correctness in her quest for truth. They're both dead wrong.

Ann Coulter is a particularly unique brand of polemic performance artist, some would say satirist. Imagine Stephen Colbert with a profound mean streak who doesn't let anyone in on the fact it's a charade. Coulter has managed to do this by playing it relatively straight as a bona fide conservative commentator who bolsters the image with numerous best-selling books.

Most people aren't aware that Coulter had a career as a journalistic voice and lawyer prior to her current incarnation. She helped found Cornell University’s student paper the Cornell Review, obtained a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, and practiced law in New York City. Her work as a litigator for the civil liberties organization Center for Individual Rights and assistance in crafting deportation legislation with Sen. Spencer Abraham may give an idea of her ideology.

Coulter got her break with the book ”High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton.“It's a wordy, legalistic affair with a tone unrecognizeable in the Coulter of today. Serious and higher-minded, the book became a best-seller. What happened next began the birth of the Ann Coulter we know today: She released "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right" in 2003. The drastic tonal change occurred without explanation.

Dripping with cynicism, she started lobbing fireball quotes at the left, each designed as little more than open provocation. Whether this was always the plan is hard to decipher. But Coulter had indisputably morphed into a phenomenon. The right was excited, but perhaps they should have exercised more caution.

Researchers accused "Slander" of playing fast and loose with the facts, most specifically a demonstrably false passage stating that the New York Times ignored the death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt for days. Coulter acknowledged the error shortly after and removed it from the paperback edition of the book.

Thus began the descent, or arguably ascent, of Coulter into fact-flexible parody. She crafted deliciously malicious word-bombs and tested them out on an unsuspecting public. She lobbed one of her first bombs in an interview with George Gurley of the New York Observer.

"Is your tape recorder running? Turn it on! I got something to say ... My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building."

The gleeful malice signified a new turn for Coulter. She seemed less interested in her notion of justice but significantly more concerned with inflicting outrage on the American public. Society was stupid, and she was going to screw with it.

In a way, Ann Coulter ceased to be any semblance of a genuine conservative fighter the moment she became known as a major conservative voice. Facts were replaced with detached, often hilarious, political rhetoric that amounted to little more than hot polemic air. Take this quote from “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)”:

"Like the Democrats, Playboy just wants to liberate women to behave like pigs, have sex without consequences, prance about naked, and abort children." (2004)

Around this time her tone on Clinton had become even more hyperbolic: "Well, he was a very good rapist. I think that should not be forgotten" [New York Observer (Jan. 10, 2005)]. Along this line, she unleashed what was arguably her most controversial quote while addressing CPAC in 2007:

"I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word "faggot", so I -- so kind of an impasse -- can't really talk about Edwards."

While liberals had a collective meltdown, this quote could be attributed to Lisa Lampanelli with no fanfare whatsoever. It's a matter of context. Ann Coulter had found the perfect recipe: treating news spaces as comedy platforms where she could deliberately make ridiculous statements to infuriate liberals who would be too dense to notice what was going on. But her performance requires equal condescension to conservatives, without whom the Coulter brand would disappear. Coulter knows her performance hurts the right, and she clearly doesn't care.

Coulter also knows that some readers are on to her. To toy with them, her books contain extensive absurd endnotes that read like a middle finger to thinking people. In ”Mugged,” her treatise on race, Coulter attempts to exonerate Mark Fuhrman, who was convicted of felony perjury during the course of the O.J. Simpson trial. Fuhrman lied under oath about using the N-word. Coulter attempts to discredit the ruling, and she specifically casts aspersions on witness Kathleen Bell's testimony. Her source discrediting Bell according to the endnote on page 290: Mark Fuhrman! Fact-checkers balked at her usage of a convicted perjurer as the only source to discredit a witness in his own conviction.

This is not an isolated example, rather a representative one. Coulter's endnote game is legendary. One of the most egregious examples is her claim the Bill Clinton refused an offer from Sudan to bring Osama bin Laden into custody. She cites two articles by the Guardian and Associated Press, neither of which support her claim, which was even debunked by the 9/11 Commision.

Coulter is often dismissed as a schoolyard bully, but the only thing that really separates her from any mainstream comedian is the platform. Perhaps this is why Coulter counts noted anti-conservative comedians Bill Maher and Joy Behar among her personal friends, appearing with them on-air numerous times over the years. All three are individuals who find large swaths of the American public stupid beyond repair and make a living out of taunting them. Highlighting absurdity by viciously lobbing it back at people is the heart of political comics' gold standard: George Carlin.

Ann Coulter is among the best comedians working today. She has seemingly zero ideological skin in the game. Notice that no matter how exasperated or belligerent any panelist becomes with her, Coulter appears endlessly bemused. Also of note are the endless anecdotes from behind-the-scenes players who express head-scratching confusion at how a seemingly poised and kind backstage individual morphs into a maniac when approached with a live camera.

Some might call Coulter's public game cynical, even malicious. But Coulter serves as a fantastic object lesson in media distortion and the ability to manufacture outrage. Perhaps if she does it long enough, people will actually start thinking. If not, I'll still be having a laugh. Now if you'll excuse me, this America-hating sodomite socialist needs to get up to speed on her latest rehawking of past outrageous columns: "Never Trust a Liberal Over Three -- Especially a Republican."

By Chris Sosa

Chris Sosa is a managing editor at AlterNet. His work also appears in Mic, Salon, Care2, Huffington Post and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisSosa.

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