Commentary

Ballroom Blitz: High gloss couldn’t shine up Tomi Lahren’s dim rhetoric at UNM

September 26, 2022 4:30 am

Promotional fliers littered the carpet of a UNM Student Union ballroom where Tomi Lahren’s Turning Point USA appearance took place on Sept. 15, 2022, two days before the organization’s executive director Charlie Kirk gleefully welcomed special guest and anti-government conspiracy-monger Alex Jones to its national conference. (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

Alex Jones arguably set the rhetorical standard for Trumpist blowhards: Pontificate from a gut of roiling bile, as if facing off against a snarling mortal enemy. One of my friends onlooking as I watched Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren in an inaccuracy-riddled video she broadcast about her restive guest appearance last week at the University of New Mexico, hosted by the public school’s chapter of Turning Point USA, said Lahren reminded them of Jones

Theirs is speech in staccato, each point popped off rapid-fire from thinly contained rage. It feigns expertise, shellacked with contemptuous confidence that anything uttered is above reproach.

Ragged but Wright is a new regular column for Source NM by longtime local reporter, analyst and writer Margaret Wright. 

Sept. 15 was apparently Lahren’s first time in New Mexico, and it’s a beautiful time of year to visit Albuquerque. Homecoming festivities at our local university are approaching, and the weather on campus the night of her speaking event was lovely: mild temperatures and clear skies as backdrop for the students-only outdoor dance, also scheduled. A light show and DJs were setting up on the plaza adjacent to the Student Union Building where Lahren was slated to speak. Sounded like a nice way to bring UNM’s minority-majority community together early in the school year, on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Being out in public often feels like a low-grade fever dream since the SARS-CoV-2 virus unleashed, but everyone was in a jovial but anticipatory mood in the shade outside the SUB when I got there just before Lahren’s scheduled time. Skateboarders rolled up, joining a group of organizers introducing themselves and their preferred pronouns. 

I was curious to see who’d actually attend the event and whether Lahren might speak to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the right to abortion — a right that she openly supports. Lahren’s main shtick (and title of the show she hosts) is that she is “fearless.” She’s also a proud gun-toter and promotor of concealed-carry firearm active-wear for women, though the cordoned-off entry line into the student union ballroom for the event included a security guy checking bags, presumably for weapons, since they aren’t allowed on UNM’s campus. 

A table where TPUSA kids greeted ticket-holders was arrayed with high-gloss, full-color posters and fliers and buttons, courtesy of the millions of dollars of subsidization by rightwing donors and TPUSA-affiliated Christian organizations. The bag-checker and ticketers waved me through, but just moments later, actual UNM students who were also ticket-holders but not white-skinned like I am were denied entry. 

Every seat in the ballroom had its own sheaf of glossy handouts, mine with one proclaiming that “Farmers Are The First Environmentalists” (an eyebrow-raising proclamation in desperate need of citations). 

There were about 90 people among the congregants in the ballroom, maybe two-thirds of them young. The giddily nervous yet zealous buzz in the room reminded me of going to midweek youth nights at the evangelical Christian church my best friend in middle school attended, in part because because going was mandatory in her family and also because, she’d whispered, it was a good place for us to flirt with boys who didn’t go to our school.

A young man in a nice suit stepped to the podium and asked everyone to stand for prayer. 

The guy sitting across from my aisle seat eyed me broodingly when I didn’t arise nor join everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance, but the event’s lead student organizer assured everyone that Lahren’s appearance would be “covered in prayer.” Attendees also covered her with a standing ovation.

The Chronicle for Higher Education reported last year that while extreme rightwing views are usually met with vigorous backlash at public university campuses, “the aim isn’t so much political as it is quasi-religious. The messaging isn’t meant to attract a broad following and build political consensus, but to persuade conservatives to adopt a narrower ideology.” (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

Lahren’s in-person demeanor before the crowd was noticeably softer than her Queen Mean Girl exhortations for network studio cameras. Her actual words, however, were a disorienting mush of unsubstantiated declarations, bigotry, and phrasing so scattered that it contradicted itself. Despite her call to ignore the protesters outside, they were clearly the focus of much of her attention.

After initial reassurance that there weren’t more than 20 or 30 of them, Lahren launched in, almost milquetoast for a minute or two. Adult exposure to free speech is important, she said, as are strong opinions. She urged conservative students to form friendships with people they disagree with — even Bernie Sanders supporters. 

Careening onto the runaway Trump Train track, Lahren then proclaimed herself “Ultra MAGA,” meaning a staunch believer in “free markets” and national[ist] border security. The room erupted into near-unanimous applause when she asked who supported Trump.

“I’m not going to go there,” she said in reference to the 2020 presidential election results — a hat tip to the ongoing mass hallucination by Trump’s supporters that he won the 2020 presidential election. “But it’s worth exploring.” 

The real problem was that Trump supporters were lazy and complacent during his four years in office, “as he was battling for us,” she said, on the fields of, well, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Complacency is rife among Republicans with this year’s midterm elections fast approaching, Lahren warned, which means “it’s not going to be a red wave, but a red trickle.”

Speaking of key election issues, “I don’t care what you think about immigration,” Lahren said before affixing the racistinvasionlabel to the influx of migrants entering from across the U.S. southern border with Mexico. Immigrants are welcome here if they follow legal processes, Lahren said, conspicuously failing to note that Republicans want to make legal immigration even harder for all newcomers, including refugees and asylum-seekers. She blamed an unnamed “they” for funding the traffic of illegal drugs like meth and fentanyl into the U.S., adding that “these criminals are paying the minimum price to get in.” 

Someone in the back of the room got up and walked out, the din of protestors outside suddenly overpowering.

“Are people going wild out there?” Lahren ventured a little gingerly. “It seems like quite the hubbub.” The assembly outside had grown to about 100 people, someone reported. Their chanting was now distractingly loud. A woman sitting behind me turned to her neighbor with a thrill in her murmur: “I love it.”

To my mind, a fearless speaker would have opened the now-barricaded doors, tranquilizing any oppositional chanting with oratory gravitas. Lahren instead activated the Terrible Stand-up Comedy function on her mic.

“They’ve come to reimburse us for our gas bills. …. Maybe they’re re-enacting an insurrection. … I like their odds, because they don’t know what bathroom to use.” Any resultant titters were drowned out by the yelling outside. About half an hour had lapsed, and Lahren and organizers pivoted to Q&A. 

“How do you handle all this backlash?” 

“We hold ourselves a level above,” was Lahren’s response — phrasing that for me triggered a new flashback, this time to the image of coup-attempting Trump supporters scaling the scaffolding over the U.S. Capitol building. Extra jarring as Lahren incited applause for law enforcement.

“What are [the protestors] going to do?” asked Lahren, “assault us?,” which prompted some in the audience to exchange quick glances. Another attendee stood up to ask about Lahren’s perspective on the World Economic Forum and “globalists” exploiting COVID to fast-track their agenda. 

“Destroying the nation from within is what’s happening,” she replied.

What about the FBI’s search and seizure of documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate? Lahren said that she doesn’t disparage law enforcement and also, what about Hunter Biden’s laptop

Outside, the crowd started yelling, “SHUT! IT! DOWN!” The ballroom doors shuddered.

“I’m a little worried about that door now,” Lahren said as the next attendee holding the Q&A mic went on a barely comprehensible rant about official categories and notifications of classified documents uncovered at Mar-a-Lago. 

“There’s a lot we still don’t know, and it feels very political in nature, but yeah, I think that more will be revealed,” said Lahren, still distracted. “I’m going to have them reassure us again that we’re safe and that they’re not going to get in here. … I know it’s loud, but it’s alright, we’ll talk louder.” Asked about her first impression of New Mexico, Lahren said that while Albuquerque looks beautiful, it’s also like other cities across the U.S.: overrun with “crime” and “lawlessness,” or, as Lahren immediately qualified, people who are unhoused. 

True to her reputation as a provocateur, Tomi Lahren told supportive UNM students earlier this month that she takes pride in offending people across the political spectrum because it inspires them to be active—or, she added, “reactive.” (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

“I was just in Nashville, Tennessee, and quite frankly, the homeless population is getting out of control. Same with most major cities across the country — lawlessness and people feeling entitled to do whatever the hell they want, because they thought there was this cloak of protection around them.”

During her next answer on public safety, her words sped up as the chanting outside got even louder. “Police feel like their work means nothing when the people they arrest are immediately released. … Crime should be the No. 2 issue, behind the economy, for the midterms. Major cities across the country are less safe under Democrats.” A crew of jocky guys across the room started chanting, “USA!, USA!, USA!,” and the young man at the audience Q&A mic joined in, his fist raised. 

Someone outside pulled the fire alarm.

“I want you guys all to promise me that you’re not going to fall for the s*** they’re trying to do, to pull you guys into being violent,” Lahren said, suddenly sounding like a harried wine mom. “When they talk about this, they’re going to say the liberals went bats*** crazy, and they’re going to say that everyone in this room was respectful, patriotic and decent. Promise me that you’re going to do that. We’re not going to fight with them. We don’t need to.” 

There was a call for a group photo before Lahren’s exit. “Everyone raise a sign that’s either next to you or on a chair,” one organizer exclaimed. “We’re going to display a lot of patriotism in this picture real quick!” 

Lahren was then unceremoniously ushered out the back into a utility kitchen. 

Chanting outside switched back to “F*** YOU, FASCISTS,” and church youth group energy in the ballroom ramped up, including kids singing. The UNM student sitting in front of me who described himself as conservative but not a member of TPUSA said a bunch of the other young attendees looked like high schoolers. 

An excruciatingly long time (about half an hour) later, UNM cops ushered everyone out the back of the ballroom. People filtered out furtively, from a dark utility room onto a dark loading dock, thanking the chaperoning police. All in obedient line with what Lahren said that night about the impulse underlying her crowd — more of a trickle than a wave. 

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Margaret Wright
Margaret Wright

Margaret Wright is a freelance journalist whose previous work has appeared at the Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico Political Report, Santa Fe Reporter, KUNM News and Popula, among other local outlets now shuttered. Homesickness besets her if she’s outside of the high desert for too long.

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