This month at a Republican Party event in Vero Beach, Fla., conservative polemicist Ann Coulter poked fun at Sarah Palin, alluded to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's comically bad debating skills, and made headlines: "The conservative movement does have more of a problem with con men and charlatans than the Democratic Party," she said. "I mean, the incentives seem to be set up to allow people -- as long as you have a band of a few million fanatical followers, you can make money."
The insight that the conservative movement is plagued by entrepreneurial hucksters is hardly a new one. Human Events advertising, Glenn Beck's relationship with Gold Line International, the K Street Project, Sarah Palin's fantastically successful effort to cash in after leaving the Alaska governor's mansion: what Sean Scallon at The American Conservative dubbed "Conservative Inc." is widely lamented. What's unexpected is hearing this admission from Coulter, who has made a career pandering to conservatives with shocking comments that she adeptly turns into attention and paychecks from... well, Human Events, among many other sources.
Today Coulter is still writing columns that turn the rhetorical equivalent of a flamethrower on liberals. Her most recent book bears the characteristic, self-parodying title, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America, and the effect of her work is still to cast more heat than light. But there are more and more heretical statements making their way into her oeuvre. She defended the health care law Mitt Romney passed in Massachusetts. "If only the Democrats had decided to socialize the food industry or housing, Romneycare would probably still be viewed as a massive triumph for conservative free-market principles," she wrote, "as it was at the time."
Remarking on the socially conservative agenda of Rick Santorum, Coulter caustically observed that he "genuinely does not seem to understand the Constitution's federalist framework." In a television appearance, she suggested that voters in South Carolina's Republican primary were too emotionally immature to vote their interests. She even defended CNN's John King when he was criticized for asking Newt Gingrich about his affairs, and she pointed out that the former House Speaker was only going on the attack against the liberal media to distract from his own shortcomings. Since when do conservative polemicists object to Republican politicians doing that?
Coulter's heresies transcend the internecine squabbles of GOP primary season. After turning against the War in Afghanistan, she took aim at Bill Kristol and his hawkish allies. "Didn't liberals warn us that neoconservatives want permanent war? I thought the irreducible requirements of Republicanism were being for life, small government and a strong national defense," she wrote, "but I guess permanent war is on the platter now, too." It's almost as if she's had a sophisticated grasp of movement conservatism's least defensible pathologies all along.
Perhaps that's why the backlash has thus far been relatively muted. Every plugged-in conservative tempted to insult her knows that she's dangerous, knowing better than most where the bodies are buried. She's nevertheless been called out on Fox News and conservative talk radio. If she keeps up her critique of foreign-policy hawks long enough, they'll perhaps dredge up her politically incorrect comments about Jews and imply that she is an anti-Semite. Then again, there's a sense in which Coulter can never lose by being attacked: the whole logic of her career is that being talked about is all that matters, even if you're being mercilessly savaged.
Perusing the books Coulter has written, I see that she drummed up attention by calling liberals liars in 2003, "treacherous" in 2004, "godless" in 2007, brainless in 2008, "guilty" in 2009, and "demonic" in 2011. You can see her problem. Where do you go from demonic? She hasn't the capacity to shock liberals anymore. But conservative hucksters? She can totally get attention attacking them.
There are less cynical explanations. Maybe she's just tired of holding her tongue about the idiocy she sees on "her own side." Wouldn't you be? I can't imagine it's very much fun, especially if your self-mythology involves always speaking your mind, those who take offense be damned. Yet another possibility is that Coulter has always been an amoral ideological warrior and only now grasps that hucksterism among conservatives is killing the movement. Whatever the cause, she's got me wondering what she'll say next for the first time in years. I hope its more uncomfortable truths that help spur the Right to confront its pathologies. I fear that once the primaries are over, she'll just start shilling for Romney and get predictable again. After getting rich through years of poisoning public discourse, what sort of redemption would that offer?