Our Homelander Moment, Our Homelander World
Ann Coulter is writing for the New York Times. How did we get here?
Just a heads up: there are going to be some light spoilers for Amazon Prime Video’s series The Boys in today’s newsletter.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the final scene of The Boys’ third season, in which Antony Starr’s Homelander reveals his true self to the public. Homelander, for those unfamiliar with the show or the comics of the same name, is a Superman-type character. He can fly, he’s pretty much invincible, he has super strength, and he can shoot lasers from his eyes. You know, standard stuff.
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To the public, he’s a hero. In private, he’s an awful guy with a god complex who absolutely resents his adoring public. He spends the first three seasons keeping his true, ruthless self from the public. He’s the kind of guy who will let a commercial jet full of people crash , allow saveable children to die, and follow it up by delivering George W. Bush’s Ground Zero speech nearly word-for-word. He plays the hero; he is the villain. Got it?
Over time, the cracks in his public persona begin showing, and the third season ends with him murdering a heckler in broad daylight at a political rally. His cover blown and the world now fully able to see the kind of monster he is, he stares stone-faced, anticipating horror. To his surprise, the crowd loved it. They love the monster that he is. They love him because he is a monster, not in spite of it. He flashes a big smile, and the season comes to a close.
It may not be subtle, but I love the show and its superhero-driven political satire of post-9/11 through present-day culture and power in the U.S. Here’s how the show’s creator, Eric Kripke, explained the scene last year in an interview with Insider:
Homelander is getting his followers so whipped up into a frenzy that, as we said in the writer's room, he literally kills someone on Fifth Avenue and people cheer for him, it's a sign of the devotion of his followers and it's not an accident that there's also a bunch of these well-meaning, lefty Starlighters.1
It's a hint of one of our big themes in season four, which is society as a whole is fracturing into these two factions and no one's listening to each other and the threat of violence just gets worse and worse every day. It's an appetizer of what all these superheroes are gonna be doing to society in season four.
There have always been people who have used shock tactics to attain fame and fortune, but it’s never quite been as incentivized as right now.
After HuffPost revealed that right-wing commentator Richard Hanania spent years writing on white supremacist websites, he seemed to actually gain support on the right. Elon Musk followed him, a bunch of right-wing accounts rushed to defend him against “cancel culture,” and a cadre of Silicon Valley dudebros applauded Hanania for supposedly claiming to emerge out of extremism (though he did no such thing, he merely found softer words to say the same thing).
All in all, it doesn’t seem like the story, a damning piece of journalism if there ever was one, actually hurt Hanania’s career. It certainly hasn’t had an effect on his supporters, of whom you would expect there to be a few “moderates” willing to go, “Oh wow, I’ve been supporting this white supremacist writer this whole time! I should reexamine my choices!” No, there was none of that. In fact, Hanania gained new Twitter followers at a faster pace than he had in the months leading up to the article.2
We are living in the Homelander moment, where people with horrific views come to realize that the public genuinely doesn’t seem to care — at least those who matter to them: the decision-makers, the benefactors, the pundits, and the politicians. None of it seems to matter at all, and I think that’s sad.
And before anyone goes, “Yes, but if they changed their opinion of him, that would be cancel culture!” I want to point out how hilariously detached that term’s present use is from how discussions about “cancel culture” in mainstream media began.3 At first, the argument against “cancel culture” was that people shouldn’t be judged on their worst moments, that people should have room to grow and change over time, that decade-old tweets that don’t reflect someone’s current beliefs shouldn’t be wielded as a weapon against them. And generally, I think that’s good. Yes, it is good to grow and change. But that’s not at all what “cancel culture” means when being discussed today.
Now, when people talk about “cancel culture,” it seems to be in a very “how dare you criticize someone’s currently held views and actions!” Just a couple of weeks back, I wrote about the fact that Hanania hasn’t actually abandoned any of his vile political positions on things like eugenics, race, gender, and sexuality. He’s cleaned up the language a bit, but he’s still pushing the exact same ideas he was championing while writing under a pseudonym.
It’s frustrating to watch. It’s frustrating because it means we can’t have substantive discussions about these ideas. Try it. Try to have a substantive discussion about Hanania’s views. The response will be, “Oh, so you’re against free speech!?” By turning every single discussion into a referendum on “free speech” (and using the extraordinarily flawed belief that criticism, boycotts, and protests aren’t also forms of speech), the actual ideas being pushed in major media outlets aren’t able to be challenged. Again, it’s very frustrating.
Wannabe shock jocks couldn't confidently cross at least some lines up until very recently. In 2018,
Fox News suspended Laura Ingraham Laura Ingraham took a “pre-planned vacation” during an advertiser revolt after she smeared school shooting survivor David Hogg. In 2019, Fox News suspended Jeannine Pirro for going on an Islamophobic tirade against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
This isn’t to say that there weren’t some benefits to being a rhetorical bomb-thrower.
Ann Coulter made a career out of being a deliberately incendiary bigot. Before that, she had some legit political and legal bonafides, having helped found the Cornell Review, working as a litigator and for the Republican Party throughout the 90s. It was from there that she shifted into her role as a shock jock in the style of Rush Limbaugh. Here's an excerpt from a 2003 article about her that appeared in The Guardian:
Who exactly has the vote who shouldn't have? "Women," she says, laughing. "It's true. It would be a much better country if women did not vote. That is simply a fact. In fact, in every presidential election since 1950 - except Goldwater in '64 - the Republican would have won, if only the men had voted."
As for her own life, she insists she would love to be a traditional 1950s woman - the kind Julianne Moore might play in the movies - if only she could meet the right man. If that happened, she would give up her work "instantly".
Some saw through Coulter’s nonsense. Writing for the New York Times in 2006, David Carr called her out for being the hateful phony that she is.
She has since suggested wistfully that Timothy McVeigh should have parked his truck in front of The New York Times, joked that a Supreme Court justice should be poisoned, and said that America should invade Muslim countries and kill their leaders. And she recently admitted that she is "no big fan" of the First Amendment that allowed her to say all of that.
Others, as Carr noted in that same column, bought into it (bolded emphasis mine):
Does she believe any of this stuff? I doubt she even knows. When I profiled Ms. Coulter a few years ago, I never figured out the line between her art and her artifice. She picked at her plate of lobster ravioli before serving up Fred Flintstone-size slabs of red meat. For the duration of the media opportunity, she was playful and on point, other than fibbing about her age, because she cares deeply about the franchise.
Her sincerity is beside the point as long as people keep taking the bait. Mrs. Clinton, who is the perfect foil for Ms. Coulter -- ambitious, allergic to irony, loathed by the people who will line up for "Godless" -- simply added fuel to a fire that she was presumably trying to douse. All manner of televised talkfests, including "Today," welcome Ms. Coulter's pirate sensibilities back aboard whenever she has something to peddle, in part because seeing hate-speech pop out of a blonde who knows her way around a black cocktail dress makes for compelling viewing.
Without the total package, Ms. Coulter would be just one more nut living in Mom's basement. You can accuse her of cynicism all you want, but the fact that she is one of the leading political writers of our age says something about the rest of us.
Fast forward to today, and you’ll find Coulter, the same person who, as Carr noted, said in 2002, “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building,” writing for the New York Times.
The Times is, sadly, a joke. Just like when Erick Erickson shot holes in a Times editorial calling for gun control in the wake of a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino and was later rewarded with space in the paper to make a very laughable case for trying to find “common ground” with people who hold differing opinions (Erickson has since suggested murdering his political opponents by throwing them out of helicopters), the Times has once again debased itself by gifting Coulter a platform to promote her Substack.