This Columbus Day weekend, I grabbed the voluminous Sunday New York Times from my lobby and immediately cast aside the Front Page, Business and the Week in Review while searching for Sports. This is the time of year I read every syllable written about baseball, preferring this subject to news concerning the fate of the Republic. I accidentally pulled out the Style section and was confronted by a large photograph of Ann Coulter on the first page. At first I thought it was intended to frighten readers, but Halloween was still three weeks away. Ann Coulter in the Style section -- how was it possible?
The article was about Ms. Coulter's struggle to reinvent herself, reminiscent of Madonna countering the success of competing female talents such as Britney Spears. Her position as the extreme voice of conservatism seems to have been outflanked by the Tea Party's addlepated stars like Christine O'Donnell, Sharon Angle and Carl Paladino. Cut off on her right, Ms. Coulter has become an opponent of continuing the war in Afghanistan and her colleagues' persistent suggestions that President Obama is a Muslim. But her greatest effort is to recruit homosexuals to the conservative cause. The article focused on her appearance at Homocon, an event celebrating the one-year anniversary of GOProud, an advocacy group for gay conservatives. She refers to herself as "the right-wing Judy Garland." Predictably, this appearance set off a fight in the blogosphere with Joseph Farah, the founder of WorldNetDaily.com and a former fan of Ms. Coulter. He terminated her gig as keynote speaker at his annual conference. Mr. Farah accused her of consorting with inherently sinful people. Ms. Coulter countered by calling him a fake Christian.
On reflection, the article was properly placed in the Style section. Ms. Coulter is one of many individuals who are more celebrity than pundit, providing entertainment rather than insights into policy. Mr. Farah's principal complaint was that her celebrity was being exploited. He was concerned with style, not substance.
The right wing celebrities carefully use language that is suggestive of outlandish positions and attitudes, including racial and religious bigotry, without overtly endorsing them. In her speech at Homocon, Ms. Coulter told the audience that gay marriage is not a civil right. "You're not black," she said. Since these celebrities are really in the entertainment business, direct assertions of antisocial opinions are dangerous. Such statements make the public uncomfortable and hurt ratings, book sales and speaking fees. (Although the message must be titillating for listeners who are sympathetic to these antisocial ideas.)
The conservative celebrities are driven by business considerations and the money at stake keeps them within specific boundaries between simply outrageous and down-right scary. News and entertainment have been genetically merged by Fox and talk radio into a new life form. In this new creature, the need to inform plays second fiddle. Relative profitability means that the entertainment gene will dominate the reporting of current events.
But Tea Party candidates are not constrained by corporate executives who keep them on the straight and narrow to maximize profits. They have always been rewarded by going beyond socially acceptable boundaries in their appeals to their few extremist constituents. The efforts of the Republican Party to hide their real opinions by scripting their messages -- or even withdrawing them from the reach of the media -- can only go so far. The candidates are burdened by their recorded statements and (especially in Mr. Paladino's case) the urge to revert to form whenever they see a microphone.
This is the year political theatre became reality. It is no longer about innuendo and bluster just to get attention. It may well be that the purveyors of this form of entertainment, such as Ms. Coulter, never anticipated that real candidates espousing wacky policies founded on hate and divisiveness could actually win the day. But now the electorate is in the grip of fear and cynicism. Like Dr. Frankenstein, the conservative entertainers have created a monster by fostering an environment in which outlandish and dangerous opinions are permissible as a form of protest. The outcome of the experiment will begin to unfold in the first week of November as we see if the public recoils from the game of antisocial behavior at the last minute. Perhaps we should be gathering the townspeople and arming them with pitchforks and torches.
As a baseball fan, I am susceptible to emotional nostalgia. The history of that particular game binds together generations, as it has my departed father, dutiful daughter, rebellious son and me. When I picked up the Style section by mistake, that old feeling actually returned. I pine for the day when Ann Coulter had no problem getting the public to pay attention because no one was as outlandish as she.
Wallace C. Turbeville is the former CEO of VMAC LLC and a former Vice President of Goldman, Sachs & Co. He is Visiting Scholar at the Roosevelt Institute.