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Ann Coulter: The Jargon Vanguard

By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
July 16, 2001
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The last few years have witnessed the emergence of a new class of pundits. Many, regrettably, are prodigies in the aggressive political jargon that pervades our political discourse. Perhaps the most egregious is Ann Coulter, a nationally syndicated columnist and cable talk show guest. Her trendy tone of snarky cynicism is complemented by some of the most consistently emotional, subrational jargon in national politics, as shown by an analysis of her columns since January 1 of this year.

Background on Coulter

Coulter is an attorney turned professional talking head who was a major player in the conservative opposition to President Clinton. She wrote a book on Clinton called High Crimes and Misdemeanors and helped Paula Jones with her legal case, among other things. Like some others in the conservative press, Coulter's specialty has been attacking liberals; in fact, that has been the theme of all 28 of her columns this year (see the Townhall.com archive). Although one column mentions her "swooning" for President Bush during the campaign and that she remains "doe-eyed" (2/22), it's the only one this year that focuses on Bush.

Understanding basic Coulterism

Coulter's position at the vanguard of rhetorical manipulation makes a close analysis of her work worthwhile. Let's examine the rhetorical techniques she uses, which range from the simple to the sophisticated.

At the basic level, her columns often open with inflammatory attacks like calling Ted Kennedy an "adulterous drunk" (1/18) and joking that President Clinton had "crack pipes on the White House Christmas tree" (3/16). Also, she often brings up figures and organizations despised by the right, including Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (mentioned three times in two columns [3/8, 4/5]), the American Civil Liberties Union (4/19, 4/26, 5/17, 6/15), Hustler publisher Larry Flynt (1/4, 4/19, 5/17), actress/singer Barbra Streisand (1/4, 5/24 [omitted from Townhall.com listing], 6/28) and rapper Sister Souljah (3/29).

Most name-calling, however, is directed at Clinton, who is mentioned in 17 of her 28 columns (that's 61% - I'll omit a links list). Coulter calls him, among other things, a "celebrated felon" (3/29), a "known" felon (5/24), a "pervert, liar and a felon" (6/21), a "criminal" (1/11), "a flim-flam artist" (1/11) and a "prominent" criminal (3/29). More extended cheap shots include a "Thai sex tour" joke (4/12), a reference to a Thai "sex emporium" named after him (2/19) and this charming aside:

For the record, it is not illegal for a third party to pay legal fees. If it were, Bill Clinton would be bankrupt and Barbra Streisand would be in jail -- which, come to think of it, isn't a bad idea. (5/24)

Mean-spirited comments like this are interspersed through most of her columns. The validity of the accusations against Clinton is not the point. Coulter raises his name over and over as an emotional red flag to her readers.

Cutting-edge Coulter jargon

On a more sophisticated level, Coulter's writing is full of the sweeping generalizations attacking liberals that are the stock in trade of many conservative pundits. These arguments take a particular case (often presented in a distorted way) and use it to attack all liberals, erasing any some/all distinction. Here's one example from a column on the controversy over Ted Olson's nomination to be Solicitor General: "Liberals are always wrapping their comically irrelevant charges in a haze of lies..." (5/24) Or consider this dark statement in the context of a discussion about Jesse Jackson's affair: "Liberals always get a lot of credit for suffering, while never actually being made to suffer." (1/25)

Coulter's world is cartoonish. Liberals are "terrorists" (1/11) and a "cult" (2/22) who "can never just make a principled argument" (3/22). Their arguments are portrayed as hysterical (2/9, 4/5, 6/15), screaming (1/18, 6/21) or starting political World War III (2/9, 3/8). Meanwhile, as Coulter depicts it, conservatives are being persecuted ceaselessly. For example, when The New York Times urged Bush to "crack down" on anti-abortion activists who threaten doctors, she wrote this: "[i]n their darkest fantasies, this is what liberals claim McCarthyism was." (4/19)

Another tactic is simply associating liberals with lists of code words: the Democratic message is "socialism, class warfare and atheism" (1/4); liberalism is "the official government religion" and is "devoted to class warfare, ethnic hatred and intolerance" (6/15); "God has no part in the religion [liberalism] of sex education, environmentalism, feminism, Marxism and loving Big Brother" (6/15). Coulter seems to be unaware of the irony in her statement that "name-calling has been the principal argument liberals have deployed against conservative arguments". (2/22)

But Coulter doesn't stop there. She reserves her hardcore jargon for liberal criticism of conservatives, which she twists almost unrecognizably and viciously turns back against its proponents. Her "logic" in these cases simulates a rational thought process, but in reality is consciously irrational and emotionally aggressive. Consider this example in a column about potential Democratic opposition to Bush's judicial nominees:

After repeatedly accusing John Ashcroft of essentially belonging to the Klan and harboring a secret desire to take away women's right to vote and to murder them personally in back-alley abortions, the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee made it clear that there would be no more Mr. Nice Guy when President Bush sends up his first Supreme Court nominee. (2/9)

There is a tremendous amount of emotional, loaded language jammed into that dependent clause. In fact, no one accused Ashcroft of belonging to the Ku Klux Klan, let alone repeatedly (note the weasel word "essentially"). Some liberals did criticize him for being insensitive to racial issues, but, as I have argued, this overstatement of the charges against Ashcroft has been used to delegitimize race-based critiques of public figures. The right to vote/abortion canards are even more ridiculous.

Coulter continues later in the column:

Since liberals can't just say that they hate democracy because democracy requires persuasion and compromise rather than brute political force, they accuse any potential "strict constructionists" of being closet slavery supporters. Ludicrous ad hominem attacks on conservative nominees are then used as a basis for the respectable press to refer to the nominee as "divisive." You are "divisive" if you have been the victim of McCarthyite slanders from the left.

Again, she is using language that simulates rationality to make emotionally aggressive points here. Coulter creates the trope that liberals "hate democracy" - her argument supporting this point is that "[c]onservatives always knew they had to win at the ballot box; liberals prefer to skip voting and win by judicial fiat." Having made this assertion, she argues that liberals want to use "brute political force", an insinuation of repressed authoritarianism. Finally, criticism of conservative nominees is caricatured as accusations of supporting slavery and general "McCarthyite slanders". The conscious illogic of this paragraph is breathtaking.

One, unfortunately, of many

Why is Coulter so important? Even though most people haven't heard of her, she and other relatively young jargon-slingers like David Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin are gaining stature. As a result, the rise of aggressive political jargon is likely to continue, with predictable and pernicious consequences for American political discourse.

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Related links:
-Race and "Racial McCarthyism" (Brendan Nyhan, 4/23) - how the Ashcroft debate was turned around on liberals
-The Rhetoric of Uncertainty (Bryan Keefer, 4/30) - analysis of the controversy over judicial nominees; includes a quote from Michelle Malkin
-The Olson Reversal (Brendan Nyhan, 5/14) - my column on the Olson controversy
-Quotes of the week (Brendan Nyhan, 6/16) - features a Coulter quote
-Judging Judges: Framing the Debate Over Court Nominations (Bryan Keefer, 7/2) - analyzes a quote from David Limbaugh

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