Michelle Malkin girds for 2014 GOP civil war
By: Mackenzie Weinger
February 8, 2014 02:48 PM EST
Michelle Malkin doesn’t run away from fights, she runs toward them. And she’s running faster than ever headlong into the 2014 Republican primary battles on behalf of upstart conservative candidates who are mounting insurgent challenges to the GOP old guard.
Twitter is Malkin’s weapon of choice. Battles with her almost always devolve into wars, and those who follow the conservative social media scene know she has a proven formula online: Taunting quips from foes bring out the full force of her Twitter arsenal, with snappy replies, catchy hashtags and the mobilization of a legion of energized followers.
Malkin, 43, says she’s using her influence — and her confrontational approach — on behalf of candidates she deems worthy of it in this year’s midterm.
“I see the practically unlimited power that social media has to help push the issues and causes and people I care about,” Malkin told POLITICO in a recent interview. “I know what I’m good at.”
She’s focusing on backing politicians challenging establishment Republicans — for instance, she’s thrown her support behind Katrina Pierson, who is campaigning to unseat longtime incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions in Texas.
“Her race is just one of many that I have my eye on where this is the narrative, where you’ve got these tea party candidates challenging old incumbents,” Malkin said. “And you’re going to have [Karl] Rove throwing all of his money and American Crossroads throwing all of that money, plus the Chamber of Commerce, plus these ‘Main Street Republican’ partnership types who are funded by who? Big labor. And the tea party candidates, I think, are going to follow in the path of Ted Cruz and somehow be able to triumph over all of that money.”
Malkin added, “This to me is much more fascinating than the usual left-right battles, because this is a battle between fresh, young conservative blood and old, entrenched incumbent establishment.”
But her critics say that outside of the conservative media world, Malkin’s particular brand of outrage just doesn’t have the same impact as it once did. They say her style is to drum up fake controversies and outrage to promote her own brand, and experts question whether she has the clout to impact high-profile races, arguing that her influence might be felt more in less visible contests.
A Twitter member since 2008, with more than 660,000 followers, Malkin thrives in what she dubs a “battle space.”
Ask Donald Trump. After the real estate mogul blasted her on Twitter last year as a “dummy,” Malkin swung back by creating and promoting the hashtag “#donaldtrumpisaphony.” Ask some of her other sparring partners, like Alec Baldwin, who called her a “crypto fascist hater,” or rapper The Game, who called her “racist.” Malkin retweeted some of the most vitriolic messages his followers sent her way to her own passionate online circle — filling Twitter feeds with ghastly insults and slurs right from the keyboards of her opponents’ supporters.
In 2014, she’s also looking to use her clout with her band of followers as she throws support behind like-minded conservative candidates fighting in competitive races. “I’m much more interested in lower-level politics,” she said.
Malkin saw the decision to sell the Twitter curator Twitchy to Salem Communications late last year as making a good business move for the site, but also a way to get the media venture into a better position to influence the 2014 and 2016 elections.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said Malkin’s conservative media power can certainly translate into real world political influence — as long as she picks the right races to back in 2014. In the Pierson challenge, for example, “Malkin can certainly drive attention to the race, but in that situation it’s an uphill battle” against a well-funded incumbent, he said.
And after the defeats of Republican senators Bob Bennett and Dick Lugar to tea party challengers, many high-profile incumbents are now “on alert,” O’Connell noted, so Malkin’s influence would be best put to use in lower-profile races where upstart candidates need visibility.
“There’s no question that Michelle Malkin is beloved by the tea party and the conservative grassroots,” he said. “When she talks, they listen. The grassroots listens. It’s a testament to her own tenacity and also the media persona she’s built up.”
Her position in the conservative media world adds up to more than just a multitude of followers. She’s turned her online savvy into the thing most traditional news organizations have been struggling with: making money.
Malkin — who has lived in Colorado Springs for the last five years with her husband, Jesse, who she said serves as a CFO of sorts in their media business ventures, and their two children — started the popular conservative blog HotAir in 2006 and launched Twitchy.com in 2012. She sold HotAir to Salem in 2010 for $2 million, and the media organization also recently acquired Twitchy, whose sale price has not yet been disclosed. And with Malkin’s social media feuds, Twitchy, which she says she will still be involved with behind-the-scenes and in promoting its work, has offered the perfect platform for her synergy of business and branding.
She says 2014 has the potential to be a big year for the conservative wing of the blogosphere.
“I think conservatives are going to be re-energized again,” she said. “It’s just going to be a great opportunity, at least on my side of the aisle, for conservative journalism outlets.”
She’s carved a spot in conservative commentary circles, offering fiery rhetoric fueled by a “high intellectual position,” said Paul Levinson, a professor of media and communications studies at Fordham University.
“In many ways, she’s the current example of William F. Buckley, Jr., occupying that high, rational, conservative ground,” he said. “Because she’s not just someone like Ann Coulter who basically throws out firebombs and is more provocative than her logic can support. In the case of Malkin, she has very carefully thoughtout opinions. They’re often controversial, but she always has a logical explanation.”
She’s also developed a way of cutting sound bites to fill newspaper columns, tweets and TV appearances: Think of her labeling liberal women such as Sandra Fluke and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz with the term “femme-a-gogue,” dubbing President Barack Obama “thug-in-chief” and slapping The New York Times with the nickname “The New York Crimes.”
And Republican strategist Liz Mair said Malkin, with her “solid media platform” and standing as an “important voice” for many on the right, shouldn’t be discounted on the wider stage beyond the conservative media world.
“What will that translate to, if leveraged in support or opposition to particular candidates? We won’t know that for sure until we see exactly what she does, or what the outcomes are, but I would advise people not to be dismissive,” she said.
Her critics suggest her battles, even those passionately fought, come down simply to a desire to elevate her own brand and build what amounts to Michelle Malkin, Inc. There’s no intellectual depth to what she’s doing, they charge.
Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters, has sparred with Malkin — and her followers — online over the years. Most of the campaigns that Malkin’s followers have waged against him have been “innocuous” and a “comically stupid waste of time,” Boehlert said. But a few have escalated into what he described as “insanely hateful campaigns” where he was “getting phone calls at home from nut job readers.”
“She realizes she has this rabid audience and she needs to feed them,” he said. “When I see her on Fox with these sort of badly scripted attack lines, she sort of comes across as like a bad actress. I’ve sort of given up hope that she actually believes in any of this stuff. It does seem like bad off-Broadway theater, her stuff. I have sort of a hunch that it’s all a façade and charade at this point.”
Her followers say nothing could be further from the truth, and that Malkin puts her deeply held conservative beliefs into action with tactics designed to get people behind her causes and to try to give those on the right a megaphone both online and in office. And to Malkin, any suggestion to the contrary is laughable.
“I think a lot of people on the other side of the aisle that consider themselves my opponents or enemies somehow,” Malkin said. “They consider themselves great social media engagers, but when somebody formidable actually engages them and they have no answer for it, suddenly they resent it. This is a very common narrative … I imagine that there are people who will blame me for divisiveness … [but] most of the time if I have some heated blowup on Twitter, it’s because I’m actually trying to respond to some falsehood or something I think ought to be righted, some ridiculous claim someone was saying.”
John Amato, founder of the left blog Crooks and Liars, charged that she’s been at the heart of stirring up stories that amount to outright falsehoods. He pointed to the Jamil Hussein controversy in late 2006, where Malkin was one of the leading conservative bloggers who questioned the existence of an Associated Press press source who the Iraqi government later confirmed existed, as well as her posting personal contact information of members of a UC Santa Cruz anti-war student group online in the same year and “stalking” Graeme Frost, a seventh grader in 2007 who gave one of the Democratic Party’s weekly radio addresses to support a state health insurance program he said his family benefited from.
“It’s interesting with conservative bloggers – they can make up anything and then once it’s proven wrong or it’s just a complete lie, they just move on like nothing happened,” Amato said. “When they do stuff like that, they actually put people’s lives in danger.”
“I can’t honestly believe that she actually believes a lot of the things that she says, but she’s doing it to score political points,” he added. “Why else would she be driving around a 12 year old’s house? She stalked Graeme.”
But Malkin said she’s been on the receiving end of some disturbing threats from those that oppose her views. “I had to move several times in 2006 and 2007 because people had targeted me over blog posts that they didn’t like … I’ve been accused of being a stalker for being persistent of some debate point, and it hasn’t stopped me.”
Occasionally with those across the aisle, her bombastic approach to social media can become a productive conversation.
One person who engaged with Malkin on Twitter is Jose Antonio Vargas, a writer and the founder of Define American who has been vocal about his undocumented status and has waged a campaign to get news organizations to stop using the term “illegal immigrant.”
“It’s just so rare to see a woman of color as a columnist, and so I started reading her” in 2001, said Vargas, who first detailed his “life as an undocumented immigrant” from the Philippines in a 2011 essay in The New York Times. “I was just kind of fascinated by her. And fascinated in a way that I wanted to understand where she was coming from.”
Malkin — the daughter of first-generation immigrants from the Philippines — took on his story in a column, “‘Undocumented’ folly: A liberal reporter’s illegal alien sob story” and last year the two went back-and-forth discussing immigration in 140 characters in what Malkin deemed “the last time I had a meaningful exchange with someone from the other side of the aisle,” with Vargas saying “we were trying to have an actual conversation.”
Malkin said that to many of her “enemies,” she is simply seen as a “totem or caricature or a cartoon” of an angry, aggressive conservative. Those close to Malkin say it is par for the course for people outside the conservative media world to misunderstand her as a media figure and on a personal level. Katie Pavlich, the news editor for Townhall.com and a Fox News contributor, said she had long admired Malkin from afar before getting to know her personally. One of the first times they met was at the conservative blog conference RightOnline in 2012, where the pair did a book signing together and Pavlich saw first hand the influence that Malkin wields over the conservative media landscape.
“I think she gets unfairly targeted, and I think that people because they hate her politics so much, they automatically hate her,” Pavlich said. “And she’s actually a really funny, kind, loving, humorous person who’s really willing to help a lot of people out, and I’ve seen that through my work with her and the work that she’s done with a lot of other people.”
This year, stepping back from Twitchy and from doing commentary for Fox News, Malkin’s now “hyper-focused” on her fifth book, which will be published by Glenn Beck’s Mercury Ink later this year. She describes the book, which has the working title “Who Built That,” as “sort of like six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but six degrees of whatever cool 19th century inventor is out there.”
After her book is released, Malkin says she will always be one news cycle away from another new media venture or the next Twitter showdown.
“My motto has always been to prevail, and that the answer to speech you don’t like is more and better speech. Which is why, after 20-some years, I’m still going,” Malkin said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated the year Richard Lugar lost his primary election.