President Donald Trump may be the most successful conservative television producer in history, turning his ramblings and the vicious competition reality show that is his West Wing into must-see TV. But he’s hardly the only person turning politics into grim entertainment: On Wednesday, the provocateur Ann Coulter finally announced she wouldn’t be speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, after the kind of back-and-forth about free speech and security arrangements on which she thrives.
But if Coulter’s cancellation seems like a victory for the left, that assumption is a mistake. And the Berkeley brouhaha is the latest incident that has left me puzzled by why people who can’t stand Coulter and her ilk decline to use our most powerful weapon against them: our total and crushing indifference.
Coulter is like a distorted Tinker Bell: It’s not applause that saves her from fading out of existence, it’s shock and jeers. These days, her ability to elicit that reaction seems to be the main reason Coulter gets campus bookings in the first place. If it’s not, and if campus conservative groups have mistaken Coulter for any sort of serious or interesting thinker, than the campus right may be in even graver trouble than the campus left. Being willing to say anything deemed outrageous is not the same thing as having significant ideas.
This dynamic means that traditional protest tactics turn the people who oppose Coulter’s presence into her props. The bigger the demonstration, the louder the uproar, the more significant the threat of violence, the more proof Coulter has that she’s an exciting and dangerous figure conservatives can use to tweak liberals. If folks on the left refuse to be tweaked, much of the rationale for booking Coulter would disappear. You don’t need to fight to deny a platform to a speaker when you can, by remaining non-reactive, completely eliminate the rationale for booking her in the first place.
I understand the argument that hateful speech and serious misinformation shouldn’t be allowed to linger unchecked, like a miasma that corrupts everything it touches. But it only makes good sense to use different tactics with people who are open to debate and capable of shame, and those who, like Coulter, are essentially performance artists. And if you can’t keep silent about Coulter, the next-best thing would be to point out just how tiresome her act is.
Bashing Muslims, immigrants, the looks and style of liberal women, single mothers — I could go on, but why bother? — may, at various times, have placed Coulter out of the mainstream of America’s major political parties, or at odds with generally accepted politeness. But the thing about U.S. politics is that there have always been plenty of people who don’t have much regard for that mainstream.
Folks have been calling feminists ugly, single mothers sinful and selfish, and immigrants a threat since there were feminists, single mothers and immigrants available to disdain. These sentiments are nasty, and it’s a shame we haven’t addressed them with both culture change and public policy, but they’re also profoundly dull.
Someone who is so desperate to be seen as edgy that she’s referring to Trump as her “Emperor God” in an effort to cultivate a market among alt-right Twitter trolls isn’t a courageous radical, just a marketer chasing her shtick wherever it leads her. If liberals shouldn’t get pulled into the trap of providing Coulter with the animus she feeds on, college conservative groups, which often claim to be more intellectually rigorous than their liberal counterparts, should be embarrassed to be defending someone so utterly cliche.
Coulter may enrage liberals, but it’s conservatives’ money she’s getting rich off. A self-imposed period of silence about Ann Coulter would be good for liberals and conservatives alike.
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.