The rise of Tomi Lahren, the media star lampooned as ‘white power Barbie’Tomi Lahren
(The Guardian) – In February, Tomi Lahren had yet another viral moment after she came out swinging at Beyoncé’s Black Panther-themed Super Bowl performance. The Blaze’s up-and-coming TV pundit opened with the view that Beyoncé was pushing the notion that “black lives matter more”. She pressed on with a characteristically acerbic three-minute tirade, referring to Jay Z as a drug dealer and suggesting that if Beyoncé wanted to protect black neighborhoods, she could “start at home”.
The video garnered millions of views, delighting her fellow hardline conservatives and outraging the left. She was later invited to reiterate her points on TMZ and in other mainstream outlets well away from the fringes of rightwing media.
By June, Jay Z had responded. He dropped a sample of Lahren’s broadcast remarks before his verse on Pusha T’s track Drug Dealers Anonymous.
Lahren views it as a feather in her cap. In a phone interview from Dallas, where her show is produced, she says “not many conservatives can say that they are a rap muse”.
Fewer can say that they have been personally called out by Jay Z, but the incident was no fluke.
Lahren’s steep, two-year rise from student journalist to national conservative media star has been propelled by her series of combative, widely shared Final Thoughts segments. On a normal day, her videos, pushing familiar conservative positions, get millions of views. But most of her big viral hits have come from putting pop culture under a conservative lens, and leveraging that to talk about the politics of race in the US.
As she puts it, she “goes hard at celebrities who use their platform to preach some narrative of social justice”. Just this month, she proved again that her formula works. Her takedown of NFL star Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest was posted on Facebook on 31 August. At the time of writing, after just three weeks, it had garnered nearly 65m views on that platform alone.
Political scientist Dan Cassino, author of a new book on Fox News, says this willingness to make “a rightwing criticism of pop culture” is one of the things that has so quickly developed Lahren’s profile: “It is a surefire way to inject yourself into the soft news cycle. That’s a niche that other people haven’t moved into, and she’s done a very good job of that.”
Her success is especially striking given that barely two years ago, the only videos she was appearing in were YouTube posts from The Scramble, the student newscast she hosted at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Mark Ciavolo was UNLV student body president at the time Lahren hosted the show, and was a regular guest. He’s also a conservative, and counts Lahren as a friend. “She’s been a consistent conservative voice as long as I’ve known her.” He says her role on The Scramble was more the even-handed host, but her views haven’t changed, even though “the delivery might vary”. He’s not surprised by her steep, post-collegiate trajectory. “Tomi is a very determined, strong woman.”
Lahren says her UNLV experience proves that she can do journalism, but that’s not what she’s doing now. “I fully acknowledge that I am not a journalist. I clearly have a point of view, I am very passionate about my point of view. I am a commentator.”
Near the end of her degree, in April 2014, she went looking for a journalism internship. The Blaze rejected her application with a form letter. She reached out to the fledgling One America News Network. CEO Robert Herring replied directly, saying they didn’t offer internships but she should come in and “we’ll see if there’s a job for you”.
The audition was successful, and at just 21, she was thrown in at the deep end, running her own show, On Point on OANN, which began in August 2014.
She developed the Final Thoughts segment, and began to think about how it could garner attention beyond the ranks of the channel’s small audience.
“I noticed early on that people liked my Final Thoughts, so that’s when we started pulling them and putting them on YouTube.”
Their quick cuts, discontinuous camera movements, and compression were perfectly pitched to the short attention spans of the social media era. So is Lahren’s forthright outrage. Lahren calls them “direct, succinct, easy to understand and easy to follow”.
In July 2015 she got her first brush with national notoriety, when she criticised Barack Obama’s reluctance to blame Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez’s shootings on a military recruiting centre and navy reserve base in Chattanooga on “radical Islam”.
Lahren’s boyfriend at the time was deployed overseas with the US military, so “it was something that really resonated with me, and I was very angry at the way the media was covering it.” With American flags streaming on a monitor behind her, Lahren said, among other things: “Radical Islam is becoming the rule, not the exception. Yesterday’s moderate is today’s terrorist.” She also called for a redoubled assault on Isis.
The next morning, her phone blew up.
“People from high school were texting me and saying ‘You’re going viral.’ I was the girl who eviscerated Obama.”
The video not only demonstrated that Final Thoughts was a winning formula: it brought her to the attention of honchos at The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s post-Fox News conservative media company. Having rejected her as an intern, they recruited her as a rising star.
In her new primetime slot, she is still intimately involved with the day-to-day production of the show, and she is dedicated to it. “I don’t have a family, I don’t have a boyfriend. I am in Dallas for one reason only, and that is to do this show.” She makes it back to her home town of Rapid City, South Dakota, only on the biggest holidays.
Her senior producer, Jessica Grose, works closely with Lahren. She came to The Blaze from long stints in daytime television, from TMZ to Oprah. She says they’re not just colleagues but close friends. Grose’s political views are less fixed, but she says that when she met her, “I knew that there was something insanely special about her.” Grose’s pop culture chops feed into Lahren’s issue and story selection.
Lahren, Grose, and the rest of their small production team are all young women – unusual in any media company, and a surprise in a conservative outfit. That doesn’t make her a feminist, though. In her view, that movement has been “hijacked”, and has become “passively aggressively anti-men”.
This view might seem to contradict her independence and intense ambition. But historically, according to Professor Ronnee Schreiber at UC San Diego, conservative women have often been prominent in holding anti-feminist positions, not only as a movement strategy, but because “it’s a media story, and it helps conservative women get media attention”.
When asked to nominate a single quality that explains the speed with which she has become successful, Lahren quickly replies: “Fearlessness. I am fearless.” Others who share her conservative views use the same adjective. Ciavolo, her college friend, says Lahren “has been fearless in the way she’s presented her message”.
Glenn Beck, her boss for just over a year, says via email: “Tomi speaks her mind and is fearless. At this point in history people are looking for people that say what they believe, regardless of the consequences.”
Lahren agrees with his analysis: “There are too many conservatives who are terrified of being labelled. They’re afraid of being labelled and they’re afraid of being not liked. I do not bullshit, I am genuine and authentic. I don’t say these things to go viral or to be controversial, but I say things that a lot of people wish they could say but are fearful of saying.” One of the labels some conservatives shrink from – and it is one that critics have freely applied to Lahren – is racist. She says commenters have repeatedly lampooned her as “white power Barbie”.
It’s undeniable that her notoriety has come from incidents where she has taken on topics related to immigration (she describes herself as a “hardliner” on the topic) and anything associated with or inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, which in one segment she compared to the Ku Klux Klan.
Cassino, the political scientist, thinks that like Donald Trump, Lahren may be both an example and beneficiary of a sea change in the way conservatives talk about race. “There was an unspoken rule in the conservative movement for a long time, which they learned from Richard Nixon: you do not talk openly about race. It was seen as toxic to talk about it in anything but dog whistles.”
Twenty years ago, conservative commentators would talk in code about it, in terms of “welfare”, “inner city crime”, or “family breakdown”. But in the last five to 10 years, Cassino says, “it has become acceptable for conservatives to talk about race in concrete terms”.
The election of Obama, for example, led to arguments that talk of racial inequality was overblown, and eventually to criticisms of the president in terms of his racial identity. All of this precisely coincides with Lahren’s formative political years.
Like Trump and many other conservatives, Lahren puts this change down to a weariness with political correctness. “For too long, white people have been told that they can’t talk about race, and that only some people of colour can talk about race. I don’t buy that.”
She insists that she is not racist, but also that “there can’t be a group of people in this country who are blamed for the ills of minority communities and then not allowed to speak or defend themselves.”
This appeal to white grievances is similar to the one made by the Trump campaign. Even if more conservatives are more willing to talk bluntly about their own racial views, there is still, for their audiences, a frisson in this that gets attention.
Lahren has lately become a more enthusiastic supporter of the Republican nominee after her first choice, Marco Rubio, lost. A big motivation is her dislike of his opponent. “I am #NeverHillary all the way down,” she says. “You may not like what Donald Trump says, but I don’t like what Hillary Clinton does.” Trump’s excesses, she says, are forgivable as the flourishes of a performer. “I’m a performer, too,” she says.
Part of that performance is self-presentation, and her appearance is something that has attracted the ire of critics, including, she says, feminists. Certainly, it’s been suggested that she is where she is because of her looks. “I take care of myself,” she says. “Do some people watch me because they think I’m pretty? Maybe, sure. But more are watching because they appreciate what I am saying.”
Her gender and age, however, do differentiate her from a sea of middle-aged, male conservative pundits – the kind of guys Cassino says are a dime a dozen. Just as important are her broadcasting talent and her ability to “seize this political moment”.
As to whether Lahren’s moment will last beyond our current political season, one consideration is that The Blaze, her employer, has had well-reported financial difficulties. The subscriber base is small, but it is also suffering from the same problem that led to the departure of Glenn Beck’s still-popular show from Fox News. That is, an inability to attract big advertisers to support programming which is perceived as extreme.
Lahren says she is committed to The Blaze, and is full of praise for Beck, but at some point she may be forced to find a new perch. According to Cassino, this may not be easy. “The messaging she’s doing is going to make it very difficult for her to get mainstream advertisers. Like it or not, what you say on television is dictated by the likes of Procter & Gamble and Chevy,” Cassino says.
Especially on issues of race, Lahren is speaking in terms corporate clients might find difficult to associate themselves with. And if she changes her messaging, what happens to her “fearless” and “authentic” conservative brand? This is not something Beck is worried about. In his email, he added: “As long as she continues to be authentic, continues to seek knowledge, and is true to herself – even when she feels compelled to go against the grain, and her audience – she will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.”
Lahren clearly understands why and how her Final Thoughts videos work. “I’m very controversial, and I don’t back down from being controversial,” she says. She is able to articulate 2016’s conservative anger, and target its sources, in a way that seems fresh.
It’s hard to see that anger dissipating, whatever the result of the election, but even if it does, Lahren may be around for a long time. Like American conservatism itself, she is supremely resourceful and adaptable.