Ten years ago, Ann Coulter was featured on the cover of Time magazine with an article entitled "Ms. Right." At the time she was a very big presence in the political media but the article pushed her into the realm of popular culture; thus, she became more than just a political bomb thrower. She'd always had the looks and the confidence, and now she had the imprimatur of the mainstream media. Coulter became a full-fledged star.
The article caused a tremendous stir. After all, Coulter was among the most flamboyant of the newer, edgier breed of right-wing provocateurs. In 2000, she had won the Media Research Center-presented "Conservative Journalist of the Year" award, and the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute gave her its annual conservative leadership award "for her unfailing dedication to truth, freedom and conservative values and for being an exemplar, in word and deed, of what a true leader is." It seemed as if she and her incendiary polemics were everywhere, from daily personal appearances on television, her weekly newspaper columns and a series of books that were extremely popular among right-wingers.
From 1998 to 2005, when the magazine cover appeared, she had published a series of books -- "High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton," "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right," "Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism," and a collection of her columns, called "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must): The World According to Ann Coulter" -- all of which were very successful. The theme of these books is obvious from the titles. She was famous for her cleverness in hating and baiting liberals. And in those heady days of conservative apotheosis, with sex scandals, stolen elections, terrorist attacks, unnecessary wars and liberalism on the run as never before, Coulter was the most deliciously vicious of all the haters. Among her famous quotes of the era were:
- The "backbone of the Democratic Party" is a "typical fat, implacable welfare recipient."
- "My libertarian friends are probably getting a little upset now but I think that's because they never appreciate the benefits of local fascism."
- "If you don't hate Clinton and the people who labored to keep him in office, you don't love your country."
- "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity"
- "Congress could pass a law tomorrow requiring that all aliens from Arabic countries leave... We should require passports to fly domestically. Passports can be forged, but they can also be checked with the home country in case of any suspicious-looking swarthy males."
And one of her most memorable (to me at least) was this one:
"We need to execute people like John Walker [Lindh] in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors,"
Coulter later clarified what she meant;
"When I said we should 'execute' John Walker Lindh, I mis-spoke. What I meant to say was 'We should burn John Walker Lindh alive and televise it on prime-time network TV'. My apologies for any misunderstanding that might have occurred."
If that reminds you of certain fundamentalists operating today in the Middle East, you wouldn't be alone.
"Slander" and "Treason" were filled with such vitriol. And they were also cited by numerous critics for their many inaccuracies. Coulter, like her talk radio funhouse mirror image, Rush Limbaugh, always slithered away from any such controversies simply by claiming that she's a comedian of sorts. Here's how that Time Magazine article illustrated her comedic talent:
People say that Jon Stewart has blurred the line between news and humor, but his Daily Show airs on a comedy channel. Coulter goes on actual news programs and deploys so much sarcasm and hyperbole that she sounds more like comedian Dennis Miller on one of his rants than Limbaugh. Consider an exchange on Fox News in June 2001 with Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist. At the time, Barbra Streisand had suggested that Californians practice more conservation, to which Coulter responded:
COULTER: God gave us the earth.
FENN: Oh, O.K.
COULTER: We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the seas.
FENN: Oh, this is a great idea.
COULTER: God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’
Coulter and Fenn were both laughing. But her rape-the-planet bit would later be wrenched from context and repeatedly quoted as Coulter nuttiness. “What p_____ me off,” Coulter says, “is when they don’t get the punch line.”
There was a lot of controversy over Coulter's words in that exchange, but the author of the Time puff piece, John Cloud, helpfully explained that it was only because they didn't understand the context. A lot of people believed him after reading that article, people like MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell who said in 2006:
Do not make the mistake of taking Ann Coulter seriously. She does fancy herself something of a comedian, a political comedian, and when you press her on a lot of these things, you find out that what's really underneath it is the intent to make a joke. Now, it's a joke that generally works only with the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. But she doesn't mean a great deal of what she says.
While the Time story gave Coulter cover for her noxious commentary, it caused John Cloud a world of hurt from critics who weren't as impressed with his light treatment of his subject. Media critic Brendan Nyhan wrote:
After working on Spinsanity for more than three years, I've seen a lot of bad political journalism. But John Cloud's article about Ann Coulter in Time still shocked me (note: it's not online yet for non-subscribers, unfortunately). It manages to bring together everything that's wrong with contemporary political coverage: the obsession with being counter-intuitive; the pervasive unwillingness to check facts; and the focus on "fairness" and "balance" rather than critical reporting. A non-journalist might ask an obvious question: Why write a cover article about Ann Coulter in the first place? It's widely understood that she's a shrill, destructive demagogue. But to Cloud the distaste that both liberals and conservatives show for her is "suspicious":
"Ann Coulter burns too fiercely for both the temples of the secular left--the New York Times--and of the religious right--[Jerry] Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church. But it's suspicious when conventional wisdom ossifies around someone so thoroughly. Why does she make so many people itch?"
Maybe because she's said an astonishing number of things that no reasonable person could possibly defend? Or because she's pathologically dishonest? Call me crazy, but the answer seems pretty obvious. I doubt Cloud is running around asking why both the left and right distance themselves from out-and-out racists -- is that "suspicious"?
Nyhan went on the eviscerate Cloud for letting Coulter off the hook for her continuous egregious lying (even though she admitted outright in the piece that when it came down to it she's always happy to delete a fact for a cheap insult). Cloud responded with a long diatribe against a fantasy "liberal attack machine" and an excuse that could be distilled down to this sentence contained within it:
"My story was not primarily about picking apart ... all 1,000 of Ann Coulter's columns or the hundreds and hundreds of pages that she's written in her books. My job in this story was not to be a fact-checker."
Cloud may have been damaged but Coulter ascended to even greater fame and fortune. Over the next few years she had to get more and more outrageous to raise any hackles. For a few years running she was the top ticket at CPAC, the conservative confab in DC where she would pack the hall with young fellows eager to hear her push the edge of the envelope with comments like this:
"I think our motto should be post-9-11, 'raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.'" (This declaration prompted a boisterous ovation.)
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.
She was riding high, perhaps the most famous polemicist of her day, the scourge of liberals everywhere and the fantasy of young conservative men's dreams. And then suddenly, she was nowhere. After having been relegated to a "debate" with her friend Mickey Kaus the year before, she was excluded from CPAC in 2015 where she'd been featured for 17 years. It seems that conservative organizations have been trying to have her dropped for a while but friends in high places had intervened. But the planners had had enough. She was very bitter about it, telling the Washington Examiner, "I might just show up anyway just to piss them off. I could be the Bibi Netanyahu of CPAC." She tweeted furiously:
She seems to think she's being ignored because of her strong opposition to immigration. Her latest screed is called "Adios America: The Left's Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole," and it is predictably horrifying. She appears to have lifted many of her ideas from white nationalists and anti-immigrant extremists and has moved from being a right wing polemicist to openly proselytizing for white supremacy.
She complained to New York Magazine's Annie Lowrey that she cannot get invited on TV anymore:
Coulter has found herself struggling to annoy, enrage, and otherwise provoke the mainstream media or the left. Bloggers have left her alone. Twitter has left her alone. The networks have left her alone. “Nobody will debate me!” she said. “There’s been no ABC, NBC, CBS for me on this book! This is my 11th New York Times best-seller. I write them myself! I research them myself! I’m the female Bob Woodward! If I were a liberal, I couldn’t write another book, I’d be so busy collecting awards! I’d be posing for the cover of Vanity Fair!”
She is equally upset with the Republicans:
“You’re making a big mistake,” she said, recounting the advice she had given Hill staffers earlier that day. “This isn’t how you win. There have been two Republican landslides in the last century: Nixon and Reagan. And it was by appealing to the white vote. Specifically, the white working-class vote. That’s your base!”
It's not as if Coulter is the only right-wing political pundit who is making this case. Talk-radio hosts such as Laura Ingraham are pushing nativism hard as well. But Coulter's style is much uglier even than theirs. For example, she spends a lot of time in the book trying to prove that Mexicans are prone to child rape.
Lowrey thinks Coulter is pretty much an act that's gone sour in the age of polarization and she may be right. She compares her to Donald Trump (who Coulter extols for his "immigrants are rapists" comments, which she believes he got from her) and there is a certain kind of scary-clown aspect to both of them. But I think it's something else -- she just isn't all that shocking anymore. And the reason is that, after all these years -- through which she and her fellow right-wing bomb throwers have been poisoning the discourse and polluting our politics with the most egregious dehumanization of just about everyone on the planet who doesn't look and sound like them -- nobody is listening anymore.
Today, Ann Coulter is just political white noise. Sure, she'll sell her books to the small group of people who can't get enough of her bilious humor and hatred but her days of being a mainstream pop culture phenomenon are over. Everybody's heard it all before. There's almost a whiff of noxious nostalgia about it now.
The question is whether or not there's anyone left in the Republican Party who can crawl out from under the pile of offal that people like Coulter have buried them under and say something new to America. For the first time in nearly two decades they are ignoring her provocations. Whatever else happens that's very good news.