"White does not mean racist."
Tomi Lahren's face appears twice its normal size on a massive editing screen. On a dark Dallas soundstage, Lahren is recording one of her signature "Final Thoughts" monologues, the closing segment of her daily television show, Tomi. Her glossy lips twist into a grimace, dark eyelashes press into a glare, and manicured nails jab at the air as words fly out with the velocity of bullets: "Believe it or not, you can be critical of a black person or a black person's policies without being a racist."
Just 24 years old and already a viral star of conservative media, Lahren has become known on the right and left alike for her "Final Thoughts." The target of her ire today is the football player Colin Kaepernick, whose sitting during the national anthem she has previously judged as disrespectful to our country's police and military. On set, she preaches with increasing urgency to an invisible crowd: "America is great; it's great for all of us. When we say 'Make America Great Again,' we mean enough with this victimhood BS." The last two letters arrive punctuated with an audible disdain.
Posted later on Facebook, where Lahren has more than 3 million fans, the Kaepernick "Final Thoughts" video received 2.1 million views and was shared 38,000 times within a week (it's now up to more than 66 million views and 1.5 million shares). Viewers are far more likely to have encountered the commentator in a social media feed than on TheBlaze, the Glenn Beck-founded TV network that hosts Tomi. Her "Final Thoughts" segments have gone viral several times, from one directed at President Obama after a July 2015 shooting in Tennessee to another decrying Beyoncé's use of Black Panthers iconography during her Super Bowl performance. (Jay Z sampled the latter in a verse on the Pusha T song "Drug Dealers Anonymous.")
In September, The Daily Show's Trevor Noah described Lahren as "the least woke, most awake person" he had ever seen. Deadspin called her "a Facebook meme come to life." If attention equals fame on the internet, Tomi Lahren has become genuinely famous during this election cycle. She represents a shift away from partisan political commentary into a heightened, at times angry, and even disturbing level of discourse.
What makes Lahren such a powerful — and, to many, dangerous—pundit is her commitment to reaching her audience online, no matter the platform. Facebook Live, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram: "I love to go direct to viewer, every chance I can get," she says. "I'm always in the trenches with these people, and I'm happy to be there. This is not a 9-to-5 job."
Everything about Lahren, from her coiffed image to her impassioned performances and extreme views, seems designed to be amplified by social media, delivering rhetoric that demands to be shared either in horror or support. But never ignored. The "Final Thoughts" clips have become a viral vehicle in an election built as much on memes — Pepe the Frog, debate shoulder-wiggle GIFs, and hot-mic clips — as on policy proposals.
Though her videos are often perceived as a caricature of a hectoring young pundit, Lahren is no meme and is not joking. She means everything she says. A native of South Dakota, the daughter of military and ranching families, she takes as her personal and professional responsibility speaking for what she sees as the silent center of American politics.
"There's an entire chunk of this country that is largely ignored," she says. "You can call me racist, you can call me a bigot. If I have to do that to give voice to those people, I'll do it all day."
Lahren says she speaks for a group that steadfastly supports the Second Amendment, argues that Black Lives Matter protests are violent riots, and gives the United States' military and police forces the respect they are due. She is watched by millions, and for the many who identify with her in congratulatory comments—or are merely baffled by her performance—there are just as many appalled by the intensity of her rants. She says she is unfazed by the criticism.
"Feminists are mean, and the Black Lives Matter folks are dangerous," she says. "But it doesn't bother me because I don't put any stake in that. They're proving my point."
Over the past half century, conservative media has emerged from just this sense of disenfranchisement. "Republican Party elite long felt that the media was biased against them, and they were correct that most journalists were disproportionately liberals," says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. "Since 1950, there has been an effort to create an alternative conservative media infrastructure."
At first, talk radio was the chosen platform, with hosts like Paul Harvey and Fulton Lewis Jr. In 1987, the FCC under President Reagan ended the Fairness Doctrine, a provision that had required TV and radio stations to provide politically balanced coverage, preventing the rise of conservative-only outlets.
The biggest political star of AM radio has long been Rush Limbaugh, who by 1991 was the most widely syndicated host in the country. Historically, conservative voters trusted traditional national news sources, according to Grossman, but by using devoted outlets and voices, Republican Party elites "were able to translate their skepticism of the mainstream media to the conservative public."
Fox News launched in 1996 as a competitor to the news organizations of major networks like ABC and NBC as well as the newer, liberal-leaning CNN and MSNBC. The channel set itself apart with its conservative viewpoint, which intensified in the wake of 9/11. Shortly thereafter, the network's ratings took off. Fox News also "innovated in sensationalism," Grossman says, with bombastic chyrons, attractive anchors with big personalities, and "framing every story as a big deal." The strategy created political celebrities like Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and Megyn Kelly, who have provided a model, if not a mold, for Lahren.
Though Glenn Beck had hosted a nationally syndicated radio show since 2002 (its slogan was "the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment"), his appearance on Fox in 2009 brought him to full national public attention. He drew ratings with his signature bluster, but his extremism threatened Fox's reputation and its relationship with advertisers. He left in 2011 to focus on TheBlaze, which had launched in 2010.
TheBlaze combines a cable TV channel that reaches 12 million households (as of 2015) with terrestrial radio and digital publishing arms. It's an attempt to consolidate Beck's audience as well as join a cadre of conservative media companies that have emerged to the right of Fox in the social media era, including Breitbart, Infowars, and RedState. The goal is not just to drive conservative viewers away from mainstream media, but to create a holistic alternative with a narrow, fervent audience.
Courtesy Tomi Lahren
Conservative punditry has evolved over the past six years. Social media's open broadcast space allows commentators like Lahren to be as outspoken as they like, currying favor with niche audiences who agree with them without needing to worry about those who don't, an exaggeration of the original conservative media pitch to tell the truth that liberal media doesn't give you. That Facebook groups and YouTube channels are less publicly visible than television and radio also means they face less oversight when they push the boundaries of taste.
TheBlaze occupies an airy building previously owned by Paramount in Las Colinas, a valley of hotels, mansions, and corporate complexes to the west of Dallas proper. The lobby is covered in murals that look like they were designed by a conservative Shepard Fairey. On one wall, a giant suited male figure with the words "The New York Times" for a face stomps on a smaller figure that has TheBlaze's logo for a head and is armed with a slingshot: a media David-versus-Goliath. The conference room is outfitted with sculptures of crosses.
The studio building is the property of Mercury Radio Arts, a company that Beck founded in 2002 and owns outright (he also founded TheBlaze and sits on its board of directors but does not operate it directly). MRA produces Beck's own shows and then licenses them to the network, while TheBlaze produces shows like Tomi in-house, creating a nominal divide between Beck and TheBlaze. The two entities mingle throughout the offices, which are decorated in a comfortable, vaguely steampunk style of Beck's choosing — it looks as though Restoration Hardware renovated an apocalypse bunker.
Lahren's set occupies one corner of the dark MRA soundstage. The vibe is Daily Show-lite, with a more feminine touch: a curved desk and display screen sit in front of the host's name in giant prop letters, jauntily rounded as if handwritten. Nearby is the perfect replica of the Oval Office that was used to shoot Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK. Beck has added his own touches, including a mounted rifle that hangs on the wall nearby artwork depicting Native Americans. The wide presidential desk holds a vintage radio microphone, where Beck broadcasts each morning. On the day I visited, the founder was busy on a neighboring set taping a show about his collection of American artifacts, including flags from the beaches of D-Day.
Despite the pageantry, TheBlaze is in need of a turnaround. Lahren is a key component. The company recently shuttered its Manhattan offices, and its web traffic is down by half from last year, to 8.7 million unique visitors in August, according to comScore. To solve the problem, the network is moving away from Beck himself.
"We're adding an expanding menu of voices in the conservative spectrum," says the company's senior vice president, Chris Gannett, who grew up in Dallas and recently moved back from New York to take the job. "Tomi is really resonating with this younger demographic, especially millennial males, and breaking the stereotype of the older, rich, white GOP member." If the internet is conservative media's latest, least-tamed venue to build an alternative to the mainstream, then Lahren is one of the biggest attractions yet.
By the time Lahren arrived at TheBlaze in late 2015, her political identity was already fully formed, down to the "Final Thoughts" that have made her famous. Her beliefs aren't the product of a particular experience or education. She's always been this way, she says, ever since her childhood in Rapid City, South Dakota (a Republican-voting presidential election state since 1968). "It's not one moment that I all of a sudden became interested," she says. "Some kids like sports, some like music. I like politics." Even in regular conversation Lahren's voice retains the hastiness and timbre of her show, the words slotted one after another until the thought is completed in a sudden stop.
Lahren's family has a deep bond with the American military. Her grandfather on her father's side, a Marine during World War II, fought in Iwo Jima and the Bougainville Campaign. Her uncle fought in Vietnam. Two of her cousins are officers in the Marine Corps. Tomi's grandfather on her mother's side was vocal about his political views, arguing against big government, high taxes, and entitlements.
"She would complain about her grandfather talking about politics all the time," Kevin Lahren says. He was surprised — shocked, in fact — to see his daughter become so passionate about it years later.
Tomi grew up an only child, wandering outdoors in the Black Hills outside of Rapid City. She wasn't terribly social, according to her father, who says she never had a best friend apart from a cousin with whom she was close. "She wasn't into that clique thing."
School was her priority. She carried a 4.0 grade point average throughout her time at Central High School, participated in student government, and dominated debate competitions, where she bested seniors as a freshman. "It's hard to win an argument against her," says Kevin, who had hardly any parenting conflicts with his daughter because, he says, Tomi was perfectly well behaved. "She was more adult than I was."
The family watched ABC World News Tonight together, and Kevin would sometimes pause the broadcast to make an argument or provide details he felt were missing from the major networks. "I decipher in their broadcasting what's true and what's not true," he says. "I need to know what the enemy is up to." Initially, Kevin wasn't a Donald Trump fan, but after Ben Carson and Marco Rubio dropped out of the race, he got onboard, thinking that even though Trump isn't a politician and has no government experience, he'll be fine if he surrounds himself with smart people. "He could be the worst guy in the world and I wouldn't vote for Hillary," Kevin says. "It's unbelievable to me that she's not in prison." There are the emails to consider, he says, and Kevin has read the rumors that the Clintons stole art and furniture from the White House when they left the last time around.
Watching anchors like Diane Sawyer, Tomi says she felt that they didn't understand where she and her family came from. "Every time there was a shooting, I would have to hear them, someone who's never bought a gun, handled a gun, or experienced being around a firearm telling me that so-and-so used a deer or a hunting rifle, or a military-style assault weapon, and I would look back at them and think, 'You're ridiculous,'" Tomi says. "They proclaimed to be centrist, but are not." Kevin has a gun collection; he won't say how large because he doesn't want the government to look into it.
Lahren chose the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for college because it offered in-state tuition after she applied for residency following a year of matriculation. She held down a full-time retail job at Express after her freshman year, and is still paying off student loans. While at UNLV, she studied political science and broadcast journalism. "I never wanted to be a reporter," she says. "I've always wanted to be a commentator. So I used journalism, I use media, I use broadcasting, to convey political science." Lahren hosted a panel show at UNLV TV called The Scramble; clips reveal a drier, more anodyne performance than what's in 2016 Tomi, but she still outshines her fellow student panelists.
Lahren graduated in 2014. After she was initially turned down for an internship at TheBlaze, she approached One America News Network, a San Diego-based conservative channel that reaches 15 million households. OANN didn't have an internship program, but the network's CEO, Robert Herring, suggested Lahren do a screen test. It went well: "He asked me if I would like to start my own show," she says. They called it On Point With Tomi Lahren. At 22, she became one of the youngest pundits on national television.
It was at OANN that Lahren first went viral. On July 17, 2015, her "Final Thoughts," a format she developed for On Point, covered the shooting deaths of four Marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez. In the monologue, she urges President Obama to bomb the Middle East. "Yesterday's moderate is today's terrorist," she declaims as an American flag waves on the video screen in the background. "I care that our commander-in-chief is more concerned with Muslim sensitivity than the honor and sacrifice made by these Marines." The video received more than 1 million views in a week. Lahren was asked to appear on Fox News to reiterate her statements.
In the Black Hills, Kevin Lahren started getting threatening phone calls asking if he was Tomi's father. "When it's your daughter they're talking about and they're saying vile things, that bothers a parent," he says.
The pattern has repeated since Tomi has become a public figure. When she tweeted in July 2016, "Meet the new KKK, they call themselves 'Black Lives Matter,'" her words spread quickly and far beyond her base. Harassment and death threats followed in tweets and phone calls. (She later deleted the tweet.) Later that month, her home address as well as her parents' were leaked online.
"I do worry about her," Kevin says, "living in a big city and being as vocal as she is. No matter what you're speaking about, no matter what side you're taking, somebody's going to be upset with you."
Others see Lahren's broadcasts as symptoms of entrenched white racism that recasts the nation's conflicts in its own terms to discount the suffering of other U.S. citizens superficially unlike them. "People like Tomi, they assume the actions of BLM are anti-police, and they're not," says Yesha Callahan, senior editor at The Root, who first noticed Lahren after seeing her critique of Beyoncé online. "These people are anti-police brutality. You'd think any sane and civilized person would be against police brutality. But the operative words here are 'sane' and 'civilized.'"
In this season of highly pitched political anxiety and anger, the Trump campaign provides cover to blatant extremism in the rest of the right. "This political season has given them the balls to lash out and let their racism be known," Callahan says.
In Lahren's worldview, police are being killed by black and brown people more often than the other way around, and that's what matters most. "She doesn't seem to be able to even grasp the idea that there is racial inequality in America or that there is white privilege when dealing with police," says Lawrence Dow, a junior at Howard University and editor-in-chief at Odyssey, a social publishing platform. If Mike Pence (a talk radio host before he was governor of Indiana) was said to be gas-lighting the country when he denied factual statements about Trump in last week's vice presidential debate, Lahren appears to have the same approach: If you say something loud enough, and enough people are listening, it must be true.
Tomi airs five days a week, mingling four or five guest interviews with monologues and the requisite "Final Thoughts." Lahren stays home in her Dallas apartment most mornings to finish writing the show, then sends her script and interview notes to her executive producer, Jessica Grose, and arrives at the office in the early afternoon for taping. The process is one of stream-of-consciousness. "This stuff comes very freely," she says. "It's raw emotion and passion. I just go." Every word uttered on camera is her own. The show has no writing staff, just Lahren, Grose, and two other women who book guests and procure multimedia.
The afternoon of the Kaepernick segment, Lahren is running late, striding into the office at 4 p.m. wearing a lace cut-out dress, precipitous high heels, and heavy makeup, her formalness in marked contrast to the rest of her colleagues. She had planned a "Final Thoughts" listing all the reasons that Trump isn't racist, but Kaepernick popped back into the news cycle, so she made a last-minute switch.
Grose, dressed in a striped shirt with a large giraffe silhouette and jeans on the day of my visit, came to TheBlaze after working mostly in Los Angeles on shows including TMZ, The Ricki Lake Show, and The Rosie Show. "My background is daytime talk shows and entertainment news," the 31-year-old says. "I don't come from [a] political background; I've never been a super-political person in my life." Still, she met Lahren, instantly connected with her, and decided to take the job. The timing was good, she says. "It's an election year. It's the best year I could have picked to dive into this type of content."
Grose's background informs the show's presentation. "I think a lot of people get confused. We're not trying to be the news; we're trying to provide commentary on the news," she says. Lahren often notes that she does not think of herself as a journalist.
After Lahren takes her seat on set, on top of a heated pad that is the only protection from the soundstage's chill, the guests begin to roll through as Grose and her team coordinate from the control room. There's a Skype conversation with Shawn VanDiver, a left-leaning Huffington Post blogger. The conservative commentator and former politician Lieutenant Colonel Allen West visits in person. Lahren's interviews have the intensity of a Wimbledon tennis match; words aren't exchanged so much as volleyed past the opponent. Still, she sends her questions in advance, and says she makes sure to book a diverse group of guests with whom she agrees and disagrees.
"I invite Black Lives Matter activists, I invite feminists, I invite transgenders," Lahren says. "I never want any of my guests to come into an interview feeling like it's a gotcha moment, because it's never intended to be that way."
But the monologues are her bailiwick, when the camera centers on her and she can speak without interrupting anyone. Her polished appearance is part of the effect. Despite a $40,000 fashion budget, she still buys clothes from her former place of employ, Express. During taping, she constantly runs a hand through her waves of bleached-blonde hair. "People can call me stupid and a bimbo, I look like a porn star, whatever they want to," she says. "But I put in a lot of work. So if they want to say that my looks invalidate the work that I put in, that's probably the least feminist thing I've ever heard."
Lahren is a sharp writer, although her sentences sometimes twist into Sarah Palinesque constructions where the second half of a sentence seems to have been spliced into the middle of the first. She appreciates a good zinger, and grins on set from her desk when it lands, like when she calls out Kaepernick for not being on the field much lately. The laughter is a soothing agent for the message. "Mostly I'm a smart-ass, and I enjoy making jokes," she says. "People love to laugh."
After recording the show, Lahren walks out of the soundstage and sits on a low couch in the main corridor. Her hands are ice-cold from the set. The show starts airing at 7 p.m. ET, shortly after it's recorded, and the "Final Thoughts" clip goes up on Facebook. She grabs her phone to tweet it out, then reads the responses aloud with a certain grim satisfaction.
"I think Tomi Lahren is a dangerous racist and it honestly makes me so upset. Her wretched voice reaches so many ears."
"Every time I see Tomi Lahren on my feed I want to vomit."
"Bitch, what do you know about being black and being in the hood?"
In the office atrium, Lahren looks more human than when she's onscreen, clutching her cardigan tight around her shoulders, legs folded underneath her on the couch. Outside of work, she mostly hangs out at home with Grose and the producer's younger sister, eating pigs in a blanket and watching The Real Housewives; she and her Marine ex-boyfriend broke up when she moved for the job. She doesn't have time to go out that much anyway, unlike the Dallas "nerds" she describes partying every night on their parents' money. She never had any of that, and anyway, she has a show to write.
Though she inflames controversy, Lahren says she's most interested in dialogue. She laments not being invited to appear on liberal shows like The Young Turks. Open dialogue could help fix our country and bring out that silent, stable center, she says, if only we would let it happen. "Talking to each other about it. Saying, 'Why do you have fear? Why do they have fear of you? Why are we not able to talk to each other as black and white people?'" Lahren says. "There's fear on all sides." Lahren sees the harassment as proof of her audience — "You can tell by the hate tweets that I reach everybody" — as well as evidence that the people who oppose her aren't really listening.
But it doesn't matter that dialogue isn't forthcoming. Whether he gets elected or not, Donald Trump has created a model for anyone "bold enough to break out of the norm," Lahren says. Despite the rumors of a Trump media organization emerging should he lose the election, Lahren's priority is independence. "I wouldn't join any news network unless it gave me the ultimate freedom and creative control," she says. The strategy only makes sense: On the internet, there is no ABC News. There is no Fox News. There isn't even TheBlaze. There's just Tomi, speaking to the camera. Lahren is on contract with TheBlaze for one more year. After that, "I want to do more with digital. I want to have an outlet where no one tells me no," she says. "I get more Facebook views each night than all of the Fox personalities combined, and my salary is crumbs compared to what they bank."
Until then, Lahren is content to unleash her vision of the world and all that is wrong in it, regardless of who is watching or why they're doing so.
"I'll sit back and I'll do my 'Final Thoughts' and millions of people watch them, and if you don't have me on your show, that's fine. I'll get my word out," she says. "I have no problem reaching my audience."