‘Too controversial’ for Fox, Dallas’ Tomi Lahren may be Facebook’s most loved and hated womanTomi Lahren
(Dallas News) – The night of the Dallas police shooting. Five officers are dead. Thirty minutes away, Tomi Lahren sits in her suburban home with her dog. She scrolls through Twitter on her laptop, watching the news and boiling with rage.
She sees people tweeting #blacklivesmatter and celebrating the officers’ deaths as revenge for black men killed by cops. They started the war. I’m so mad, I’m willing to shoot a pig with y’all.
“Meet the new KKK,” she tweets. “they call themselves ‘Black Lives Matter’ but make no mistake their goals are far from equality.”
Lahren knows the Ku Klux Klan comparison is inflammatory, and she knows what’s coming next. At 24, she’s as accustomed to death threats as she is the adulation of millions of online fans. The outrage comes immediately. Just as loudly, though, so does the praise.
This is where Lahren is most comfortable — at the center of controversy, hated by hordes, loved by droves, speaking what she says she believes.
Lahren is winning the internet. She has become a culture war phenomenon popping up in Facebook feeds by the tens of millions. Her viral videos are at the nexus of the presidential race, a divided public and the fast-changing world of partisan media. She speaks in buzz phrases that resonate with her base, casting herself as a truth-teller even as she can casually brush aside nuance, context and history.
Officially, Lahren is a commentator for The Blaze, a right-wing media firm based in Irving and founded by former Fox News star Glenn Beck. The Blaze is online and can be streamed through DISH TV. But Lahren’s real audience is on Facebook. She has 3.2 million fans. Her average video is watched 5 million times. Donald Trump is lucky to get 1 million views. That may change. His campaign recently brought her on to help attract millennials.
“Everybody else is just so damn scared to be honest — and I’m not,” Lahren says on a recent Tuesday, sitting on a couch in The Blaze’s Las Colinas office, wearing a Navy dress and tan stilettos. “Whether or not you agree with what I’m saying, you’re watching, you’re listening and I’m either giving you an argument to go against or I’m giving you a voice. Either way, I’m an obsession.”
Lahren picks topics trending on Twitter, writes her 2.5-to-3.5 minute rants, called “Final Thoughts,” and then delivers them straight to the camera with emotion and, always, condescension.
Take her wildly popular diatribe against San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. She wrote her monologue in a stream of consciousness. “He said, ‘Oh, you know, I’m not going to stand for a flag that’s oppressing black people,’ ” Lahren says. “And then I start thinking of things, like, hey wait, weren’t you raised by two white parents? And hey wait, aren’t you half white? And hey wait, don’t you make $19 million a year in a country that supposedly oppresses black people?”
The video, posted to Facebook, has been watched 66 million times.
As The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah pointed out last month, that’s more than the sum of all the viewers of CNN, ABC, CBS, Fox News, MSNBC and NBC, plus the readership of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. “She’s only 24,” Noah said. “And she’s already angrier than 50 Clint Eastwoods.”
People flock to Lahren for the same reason they do to Trump: their bluntness and disgust toward the establishment. Both resonate with conservative voters who have long felt ignored by mainstream media and politicians, says Lindsey Ellefson, an editor at Mediaite.com, which covers political media.
Lahren’s platinum-blond hair and striking beauty don’t hurt, either.
“She’s an educated, conventionally attractive, articulate woman, so she draws in more viewers than someone who personifies the caricature of an unkempt wingnut ever could,” Ellefson emails. Lahren is also “much more abrasive and in-your-face” than cable pundits, Ellefson says. She runs her own show online, where she doesn’t worry about offending moderate viewers, bosses or advertisers.
Lahren deleted her initial tweet comparing Black Lives Matter to the KKK, but not because she doesn’t stand by it. She just didn’t want to distract from the officers’ deaths, she said.
The KKK, she said, did “some horrible, gruesome, disgusting things.” But Lahren believes that, if left unchecked, Black Lives Matter will lead to widespread anti-white violence reminiscent of the KKK’s attacks.
She ignores the fact that Black Lives Matter, with the stated goal of racial equality, calls for peacefulness and has condemned the killings of police in Baton Rouge and Dallas. Lahren also sidelines the historical context of the KKK, which enjoyed support from institutional, political and economic forces. In the early 20th century, Klan members controlled Dallas government. The State Fair of Texas hosted a Klan day.
“To argue that Black Lives Matter can oppress white people in a country founded on and mired in white supremacy in the same way that the Klan has oppressed marginalized groups is disingenuous and a lie,” said LaGuana Gray, an African-American history professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Lahren’s “pure fear-mongering” is a perfect fit for this election, she said. “These ideas that white people are persecuted and in danger from black and brown mobs are central to [Trump’s] appeal.”
To hear Lahren tell it, most of society’s ills stem from big government and the breakdown of families. That’s what’s driving people to Black Lives Matter, as she sees it: The protesters, funded by “rich white liberals,” grew up without good families and they want a sense of belonging. The government, led by President Barack Obama, is telling them that the police are to blame.
Lahren says she was blessed to grow up the way she did — in safe, small Rapid City, S.D., with her two “average, hardworking American” parents. She was an only child, and the three of them would eat dinner and watch the news together every night, while sharing opinions.
From a young age, Lahren was fascinated with politics. A straight-A student, she had a knack for argument, and went undefeated while on her high school debate team.
“She’s not just a talking head — this is what she believes,” says her dad, Kevin Lahren, who works as a maintenance manager for Target. Her mom, Trudy Lahren, works as a bank loan administrator. Now, they both get asked by people at work, at the grocery store, at the dentist’s office: Are you related to Tomi Lahren? They gets phone calls from around the country congratulating them on raising her.
Kevin Lahren’s grandfather came to America from Norway — legally, he’s quick to add. “Our family followed laws and came over. Now, we’re Americans from Scandinavian origin,” he says. “As long as you come here legally and then you assimilate with American culture, everybody’s welcome.”
Lahren’s family life was stable, but it wasn’t perfect. Her grandfather killed himself after years of struggling with alcoholism.
“People look at me and say, ‘You’re just some privileged Barbie, you don’t know what life is,’ ” she says. “I may not have gone through everybody else’s struggles, but I’ve gone through my own.”
She worked through college at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, selling women’s clothes at an Express, and majored in journalism and minored in political science. She also hosted a campus news TV show, The Scramble.
A few months before she graduated in 2014, Lahren applied for an internship at One America News Network, a budding conservative TV station. The CEO, Robert Herring, wrote back and said the network didn’t do internships, but he asked her to fly to San Diego to interview for a job. At 21, she landed her own show, On Point with Tomi Lahren.
A year later, she had her first viral video, in July 2015, when she called out Obama’s unwillingness to immediately blame “radical Islamic terrorism” for a Muslim gunman’s shooting of five military service members in Chattanooga, Tenn. The military has always been personal for her: Family members had served in war and, at the time, she was dating a Marine.
“I’ve had it with this failed strategy — this halfway, half-baked, tiptoe, be-friendly-to-jihadis mentality pushed by this administration,” she said.
Managers at The Blaze were watching. Last October, Lahren landed a job there and moved to a Dallas suburb. She doesn’t want to say where exactly, because “they want to kill me.”
At The Blaze, Lahren has been given even more freedom to say what she wants. After the Super Bowl in February, she attacked Beyoncé’s halftime show, saying it perpetuated “the great battle of the races” by promoting “the notion that black lives matter more.”
“[Beyoncé] just like President Obama, Jada Pinkett Smith, Al Sharpton and so many others, just can’t let America heal,” she said. “You keep ripping off the historical Band-Aid. Why be a cultural leader when you can play the victim, right?”
She then called out Jay Z: “Your husband was a drug dealer. For 14 years, he sold crack cocaine. Talk about protecting black neighborhoods. Start at home.”
Lahren was slammed by pundits, black Twitter and legions of Beyoncé fans. A few months later, Jay Z released a new rap song with Pusha T called “Drug Dealers Anonymous,” which mocked Lahren’s rant and sampled an audio clip of it.
Jay Z didn’t ask permission, but Lahren, who loves hip-hop, now says that was “the best thing of my life,” and she “always wanted to be a rap muse.”
Rappers are a muse for her, too. She blasts hip-hop in her earphones on her morning runs and mulls over her “Final Thoughts.” She makes notes in her iPhone of her ideas, editing her monologues while listening to rappers who would probably find those ideas abhorrent.
After finishing her show one recent afternoon, Lahren emerges from her set to meet some fans: five burly white cops from Charlotte, N.C. They were in Dallas for a baseball game, a break from working riots over the shooting death by police of Keith Scott.
“Police officers and me: two of the most hated people in the country right now,” Lahren says as she shakes their hands.
She’s a hero to them for her pro-police stance. They see the mainstream media as unfair to cops. They say their biggest fear, besides being killed, is ending up on a viral video. They acknowledge that some recent police shootings of black men have been questionable. But they see the news coverage as slanted — for ratings — toward sympathy for the dead person over sympathy for the officer who, they believe, could have just as easily been killed.
One cop thanks Lahren for her Kaepernick videos. Kids are being taught to hate cops, he says, not just by celebrities, but by their own parents. The officer says he recently tried to introduce himself to a black child, but the kid’s mom hurried him away in disgust.
“This isn’t how it has to be,” he says.
Lahren nods. “I feel so badly for these communities because they’ve been so brainwashed,” she says. “We were coming together until eight years ago, and now we’re coming apart. Why is that? It’s because of President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Loretta Lynch.”
As Lahren talks, she gestures with her hands. One of the officers asks about the meaning behind a tattoo — “11;” in black ink — on her inner wrist.
“Eleven is my lucky number,” she says. “And the semicolon reminds me to keep going when I could stop.”
After the officers leave, Lahren smiles. It’s people like them, she says, that make all the insults and hate worth it.
“They don’t get a voice,” she says. “They have to go out in those communities every day and have people spit in their face. If I can be the punching bag, that’s what I’m meant to do.”
Lahren does a lot of punching, too, in segments that rarely if ever concede the other side might have a point.
“She’s feeding these people red meat — they love it, and she gets her clicks,” says Jeff Pearlman, an author and journalism professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., who has followed Lahren’s rise. “She symbolizes the 140-character world we live in now, where you have a hot take, you put it out there and people heart it or retweet it. There’s no heft behind it, there’s no investigative work behind it, there’s no research behind it. But this is how I feel and you’re going to love it and I’m going to give it to you.”
Lahren says her deeper purpose is to bring the country together and solve problems, and it can only be realized through honest talk about the root causes.
“The truth hurts,” she says. “I’m saying things that need to be said. It’s like when you have problems in your family and you sit down at the dinner table and you don’t talk about them and you just pretend that everything is cool. But that doesn’t mean the issue went away. It doesn’t mean that you’re together. It means that you’re quiet. Big difference.”
The contradiction at Lahren’s table is this: She makes a lot of noise about America, but people such as Kaepernick and members of Black Lives Matter should just shut up and be grateful.
“She’s not trying to bring people together if she’s throwing oil on wounds and creating bonfires with her mouth,” says Yanick Rice Lamb, chair of the Media, Journalism and Film Department at Howard University. “She’s dismissive of racism, which is also dismissive of the legacy of slavery. There are a lot of things that haven’t gone away. That’s why she’s doing the opposite of what she says she’s trying to do.”
Lahren spends most of her free time at home, with her Chihuahua mix, Kota, whom she adopted from a Dallas shelter and named for her home state.
“Yeah, I have millions of views, thousands of followers, likes and retweets, but guess what: I still get lonely,” she says in an August video. “My professional life is taking off, thanks to all of you. I am so blessed. My personal life? Eh, not in such a great place right now.”
Lahren’s best friend in Dallas is her producer, Jessica Grose, who used to work for TMZ and Oprah. They like to go sit on Uptown patios like The Rustic and have a few beers and some chips and queso. Lahren’s had trouble making friends in Dallas, though, because most young adults seem to be living off their parents’ money, and are obsessed with flashy cars and clothes. She says she doesn’t care about fancy things, though she does drive a luxury car: a pearl-white Cadillac ATS. The Blaze reportedly gives her a $40,000 allowance for clothing, but she says she still shops at less-expensive stores.
People may look at Lahren and see “Fox News,” but she says she’s “too controversial” for the cable network. She wants to start her own media empire, and is inspired by the career paths of Kim Kardashian, Oprah Winfrey and her boss, Beck. She could run for office, though her higher priority is having a family.
Trump is reportedly interested in starting a Trump TV network after the November election. Lahren seems like an obvious pick. Her contract is up in a year, and she doesn’t see herself staying in Dallas. She wants to be in a city that’s more of a media hub, like New York. She says Trump hasn’t reached out about that, but from her side, she wouldn’t rule it out.
“I will only work for a network or organization that lets me have a full and free voice,” she says. “Whether that’s Trump or some other network, that is my litmus test.”
For now, she is happy to keep doing what she’s doing. On Wednesday night, she co-hosted a debate show for Trump’s campaign on Facebook Live, widely seen by media insiders as the “soft launch” of Trump TV.
Viewership fell when Rudy Giuliani talked about Clinton’s emails. But when Lahren appeared from her red couch at The Blaze, people tuned in. She furrowed her brow and gestured with her hands as she said Clinton would welcome Syrian refugees who could be terrorists. Angry orange emojis floated across the screen.
“Now, she says they’re going to be vetted, but FBI Director James Comey said himself that there is no way to vet these people,” she said. “And he’s also the same man that let her off the hook.”
Within a minute, Lahren had boiled away political and historical complexity, not to mention deep human suffering, and left behind a perspective likely to resonate only with those who already agree with her.
Then she smiled.
“I’m glad that we’re making debate coverage great again, and I’ll see you tomorrow night for more ‘Final Thoughts.’ God bless America.”
The emojis floating across the screen had turned from angry faces to a slew of thumbs up, and lots of hearts.