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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I had a dream that progressives and conservatives could overcome differences, that we could strip away reductive stereotypes and destructive rhetoric, that a path toward common ground was only a matter of choosing to believe that political opponents are not bad people intent on bad things, but good people disagreeing on how best to achieve good.

I co-founded a local group and Facebook page, Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society, dedicated to those goals, and spent a couple of hours every day talking to people with opposing partisan backgrounds and ideological reflexes. I thought if I worked hard enough, reasoned through each issue, addressed all objections, provided verifiable support for every claim, and, most importantly, built trust and friendship, that we could bridge our local portion of the political divide.

I was wrong.

I blame Ann Coulter.

Not just Ann Coulter, but Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson and all professional political pundits, who most definitely include Ms. Coulter.

I’ve not met her, but I once sat in a gymnasium of folding chairs twenty yards from her podium. James Carville, another for-hire-horseman of the Democracy apocalypse, was slouching at the other podium. I have no idea how much money my university poured on them to perform their political theatre skit, but let’s assume buckets. W&L stages a mock convention every four years. I’d watched a startled Newt Gingrich saunter onto that same stage to the thump of Rocky III’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the thunder of the improbably conservative student body. Bob Dole literally phoned it in, as he and his campaign faded into the static of his departing plane.

The Coulter-Carville show was 2012, within spitting distance of the first primary. Gingrich was duking it out with Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Rick wanted to eliminate the Department of Education. Newt wanted to go to Mars. Coulter, a savvy reader of conservative weather patterns, staked her tent in Romney territory. When asked about Gingrinch’s still-formidable polling, she performed a diplomatic pause and said: “He’s not attracting our more thoughtful voters.” And I thought: “Hey, this woman’s okay.” That was before she said “Chinamen” were taking our jobs, and that the audience of youthfully open-minded undergrads would someday be home-owners and not want certain unspecified kinds of people moving in next door.

That’s Coulter c. 2012. Coulter c. 2020 is a Gingrich groupie who regularly throws Romney under the wheels of her MAGA bus.

How do you explain her change?

You don’t. Because she didn’t. Ann Coulter today is exactly what she was then: a professional commentator paid to say things that appeal to her market audience.

Eight years ago that audience leaned Romney, so Coulter leaned Romney, entertainingly contemptuous of little Newt. Now her audience bleats in harmony with the Trump Twitter account, so Coulter swings hard right, out-Gingriching even Gingrich. So does Hannity and Limbaugh and Carlson and anyone else trying to make a fortune as a conservative pundit.

Despite its appeals to fixed traditions, “conservative” is a fast-moving target. A century ago Coulter and Co. were hocking the anti-American horror of women voting. A half-century ago they were demonizing John Lewis and Martin Luther King as pinko agitators hellbent on desecrating our founding fathers. Today they’re telling their revenue-producing viewers that Marxist pedophiles have infiltrated the Black Lives Matter movement and the Main Stream Media. They’re asking whether Democratic governors’ and mayors’ decision to promote rioting is a smart reelection ploy. If Biden is elected, Antifa will be invited to the White House, all borders will be open, all police departments will be eliminated, and the United States will become a socialist dictatorship. First-term Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they tell their thundering audience, commands the entire Democratic party.

There’s a word for all of that.  Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt calls it “bullshit,” describing a “bullshitter” as someone who “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” The pundits’ purpose is to please a conservative audience and so attract advertisers who indirectly pay them salaries. For Carlson that’s $6 million a year, for Hannity $40 million, and Limbaugh $85 million. Coulter isn’t currently holding down a salaried job, but her net worth is $8.5 million.

Do they actually believe Marxist infiltrators are plotting to overthrow America? I don’t know, and I don’t care, because I know they don’t care.

But a lot of people do care. I used to chat with them regularly on the Civil Discourse page. Most still absorb their political content from Fox News. I’ve spent literally years arguing that biased sources are the driving wedge of our two-reality political divide. Every time I criticize Fox News, I include MSNBC in the same damning sentence. I cancelled my internet subscription to the Washington Post and stopped skimming inflammatory headlines at CNN. I balance my daily New York Times reading with my daily Wall Street Journal reading. I study the polling data at both RCP and 538.

The Civil Discourse conservatives continue soaking in the comfort of daily Fox News punditry. As a result, they believe in Revolutionaries, Deep State saboteurs, and Socialist policies designed to eliminate capitalism and America with it. They’re not capitalist Coulters contorting themselves for profit. They’re sincere and sincerely patriotic conservatives incapable of thinking through complex national problems from multiple political angles. Unlike the pundits they parrot, they actually care about and believe in the truth of the bullshit they soak down to their DNA and regurgitate with foot-thumping certainty. 

So after two years of shepherding the politically diverse participants of the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society page, I’ve retired. The pundits won. My Facebook corner of the Internet is Coulter Country now, same as the rest.

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