Bigger than Trump

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Tomi Lahren: the young Republican who’s bigger than Trump on Facebook

Media captionTomi Lahren: The young right-wing star breaking the internet

One of Facebook”s most popular conservatives burst into prominence with sharp viral rants against liberals. But how will her underdog attack style play under President Trump?

She”s a free speech advocate who tells her opponents to sit down and quit throwing tantrums.

An anti-feminist who admires strong women. A sharply partisan commentator who says she feeds people the truth. A rap fan who”s made an enemy of the Black Lives Matter movement. And a combative polemicist who says that all really she wants to do is start a conversation.

Meet Tomi Lahren: a 24-year-old Republican provocateur, a photogenic rising media star, a high-energy mass of contradictions – and one of the most popular commentators on Facebook.

Lahren presents a programme on conservative news outlet TheBlaze, but her fame stems mainly from one segment in particular. “Final Thoughts” are three-minute screeds delivered at blistering pace – she talks more than 50% faster than the average English speaker – directly into the camera.

They”re biting, outlandish, dripping with sarcasm and – depending on your political perspective – either righteous and rousing or obnoxious and infuriating.

Lahren”s videos routinely get more views than even those posted on Donald Trump”s official Facebook page.

Perhaps her most notable video essay took aim at mixed-race American football player Colin Kaepernick, who touched off controversy this year when he declared he would kneel instead of stand when the US national anthem is played before games. Kaepernick says the gesture is a protest against racial oppression, and it”s been the subject of fierce debate.

Lahren launched into her tirade against the athlete with characteristic snark.

“Colin, I support the first amendment, I support your right of freedom of speech and expression. Go for it bud!”

“If this country disgusts you so much, leave,” she continues. “It seems to me that blaming white people for all your problems might make you the racist.”

She goes on to rail against his background, wealth and athletic skill (a one-time rising star, Kaepernick has struggled in recent seasons) before concluding in a final flourish: “If you want to sit down, now”s the time, because you suck. But perhaps you should stand up for the anthem.”

The video has been watched more than 66 million times.

Final Thoughts has earned Lahren fans, trolls and plenty of opprobrium from liberals. “White power Barbie” is one common insult – there are many others that can”t be printed.

For those expecting an angry ideologue, meeting Lahren in person is somewhat disarming. In the cavernous TheBlaze studios outside of Dallas, she is relaxed, charming, and talking just as fast as ever.

Tomi (pronounced “Tommy”) grew up in a ranching family South Dakota and is of Norwegian and German heritage. She quickly adds: “First and foremost I”m an American.”

She says her parents weren”t particularly political but as a family they would watch the nightly news and discuss current events.

“That”s where I sharpened my skills at debate,” she says. “That”s where it really started, from a very, very young age.”

After studying at the University of Nevada Las Vegas she was given a show on the conservative One America News Network before being poached by TheBlaze. Traditional reporting, she says, is not for her.

“I never wanted to be neutral,” she says. “I never wanted to report on the news, I wanted to comment on the news, I wanted to make the news.”

Fair and balanced, she is not.

She takes a Trumpish tough line on immigration and Islam. She”s compared Black Lives Matter movement to the Ku Klux Klan, and in the Kaepernick video and others she criticises African-Americans for unemployment, drug abuse and other social problems. On women”s issues she hits at a popular theme on the right these days, that feminism was in the past a laudable quest for equality but has been taken “too far” by campus radicals.

“I believe in female empowerment, I like to lift women up, I like to help the women behind me, the woman in front of me,” she says. “I look up to Oprah Winfrey, I look up to women on the left, on the right, everywhere.”

Lahren says her rapid ascent on conservative Facebook has caused a few problems in her personal life. “It”s something that is difficult to explain to people, that if you associate yourself with me, that you might get some backlash, you might get some social media trolls,” she says. “I always have to preface every relationship with that.”

It cost her one relationship – the breakup became the subject of one “Final Thoughts” with a rather different tone. It got nearly two million views.

Image caption
Lahren is strongly in favour of gun ownership – something she”s not afraid to show off on her social media posts

During the US election, Lahren initially supported Florida Senator Marco Rubio but then swung firmly behind Trump. So has she ever changed her mind on other things, or perhaps thought she”s gone too far with one of her videos?

“Absolutely not,” she answers immediately. “I”m challenging the way people look at their world and the people have not been questioned in the past.

“I poke the bear.”

She is TheBlaze”s hottest social media property which makes for an interesting dynamic given the unusual journey undertaken by founder Glenn Beck.

Beck, who once revelled in conspiracy theories on his Tea Party-friendly Fox News show, has morphed into a Trump opponent who recently told the New Yorker: “Obama made me a better man.”

Lahren denies the differences cause tension in TheBlaze studios: “Luckily we have an environment where we can disagree.”

President Obama is a frequent target – so will her style change as a Republican enters the White House?

“I will always be the underdog, I will always have an uphill battle,” she claims. “I”m not going to criticise Donald Trump if he makes compromises, because compromise is being part of a good leader. However I will hold Trump”s feet to the fire, because there are too many Americans who are counting on him.”

And in the age of social media, she has put her finger on a key selling point: “Whether you love me or hate me, you”re still watching.”

Join the conversation – find us on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Video by Anna Bressanin.