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Tomi Lahren Played Trevor Noah and Charlamagne — and Won

When engaging with a right-wing pundit goes wrong in a post-fact world

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The right-wing online anchor Tomi Lahren has spent a full week in the mainstream news. In the most remarkable Daily Show interview of Trevor Noah’s run, Lahren sat across from the host to disparage the Black Lives Matter movement as “rioting and looting and burning” and spout fabricated statistics about police violence — articulations that Noah only lightly, gracefully challenged. Lahren told Noah — and, more importantly, his audience — that “a black man is 18.5 times more likely to shoot a police officer than a police officer is to shoot a black man.” It is an unruly misstatement (Lahren says “times” instead of “percent”) of right-wing think-tank research that conservative bloggers mistakenly attribute to the FBI. But now you’ve got to hear both sides.

TMZ caught Noah and Lahren grabbing drinks together in New York after taping the show. The following morning, Lahren was scheduled to sit with The Breakfast Club radio show hosts Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy for an interview. As the initial response to the Daily Show airing rolled in via online media, Lahren’s publicist reportedly shut the Breakfast Club interview down. “I just want to get people to know Tomi,” Charlamagne later told TMZ. “I want to get know Tomi. I don’t know what Tomi’s about.”

It’s not particularly difficult to discover what Lahren’s all about. She hosts a nightly program called Tomi, and Charlamagne himself appeared on it this past February to discuss Beyoncé’s controversial Super Bowl 50 halftime performance of “Formation.” Lahren’s rant against Beyoncé, Jay Z, the Black Panthers, and Black Lives Matter was her earliest moment in the mainstream media spotlight, and she’s sown further discord throughout the year with her explosive criticism of Colin Kaepernick.

Lahren and Charlamagne are both self-styled, loudmouth provocateurs; game recognize game. Four days after her Daily Show interview went viral, The New York Times published its first profile of Lahren, and so she’s walked away from all of this with a higher Q rating as the second coming of Glenn Beck. Meanwhile, in the past few days, Lahren has posted two photos to Instagram: one of her striking a pose with Charlamagne in a hallway, and another in which she holds a cupcake that she thanks Noah for sending her. Given these arguably flirtatious hints, many observers have chosen to interpret the two photos — plus the TMZ footage of her and Noah, and her walking with Charlamagne in Times Square — as proof that these dudes have entertained Lahren’s politics for the brief affection of a pretty, blond, white woman. Alternatively, you might understand this whole ongoing saga as two more experienced media figures mistaking Lahren’s ignorance for weakness; perhaps they both expected to fluster Lahren with facts and jokes, and thus embarrass her in a spectacular manner. In any case, Noah played himself, Charlamagne played himself, and Tomi Lahren beat the game one-handed.

Wednesday morning, Noah went on The Breakfast Club to debrief with Charlamagne and Co. about how this has all played out, and to defend his decision to host Lahren on his esteemed national platform. At one point, Angela Yee says that Lahren’s popular appeal is incomprehensible given how messy and false she is, and Noah responds, “We live in a post-fact world now.”

There’s no honor in Noah setting himself up to lose an unfair fight; even if the consolation prize is the media telling itself that, actually, he won. Noah and Charlamagne have both positioned themselves as curious, civilized men doing everyone, including Lahren and the people whom she disparages, a favor by hearing her out and then stumping her with a steady handful of counterarguments. But that’s not how Lahren works, nor is it really how democratic politics work. Lahren doesn’t persuade people. Lahren engages people. She enrages people. She mobilizes people. And, in this case, Lahren has exploited the difference between conviction — which liberal pundits fetishize — and mobilization — which conservative pundits just straight-up do — to enrich herself and amplify her nonsense at the expense of the many glorified fact-checkers who will lose ground to her in the long run. Tomi Lahren thrives off visibility and conflict, regardless of whether any particular exchange favors her on a rhetorical level or not. In a post-fact world, neither Sorkinese eloquence nor reflexive triangulation will save you from people like her. Like Beck and Rush Limbaugh before her, Tomi Lahren lies dramatically to get attention; this approach to media is nothing new. But in the wake of Trump’s election, the liberal instinct to engage with the lies of firebrands like her will repeatedly backfire.

In a series of tweets Tuesday evening, Charlamagne discounted the efforts of black and Latina women, specifically, to counteract right-wing pundits such as Lahren, as if Charlamagne himself hadn’t just booked space for her on his own radio program. Wednesday morning, Charlamagne apologized for overlooking black media critics, especially the many black women who criticized him for his tweets, and Yee promised to invite more of these voices to speak on The Breakfast Club. In his own Breakfast Club interview, Noah compares his interview with Lahren to Collision Course, Jay Z’s album with Linkin Park. It is an irony lost on no one but the people in the room that Collision Course was, in fact, a bad premise for some bad music, as pointless as it is unlistenable.