Lauren Boebert, a Republican member of Congress from Colorado, is mean. She is a public bully who wraps her insults in comedy, in the flag, in Christianity. She has spent the past few days luxuriating in the hullabaloo that she created by lobbing anti-Muslim insults into the air during a monologue in front of her supporters. The subject of her derision was Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who is Muslim and who wears a hijab and who Boebert likes to imply is a terrorist or, at the very least, a terrorist sympathizer. Omar has responded by calling Boebert a buffoon. Boebert later posted a video describing the exchange.
When Boebert initiated a phone call to Omar, ostensibly to talk things out, it did not go well. The two women disagree on most every topic and probably couldn’t even come to terms on the weather. So when the conversation turned to the subject of an apology, Boebert refused to publicly make amends because she believed she’d already done so when she had instead simply said she was sorry if anyone in the Muslim community had the temerity to be offended by her suggesting that Omar was a suicide bomber. Omar recoiled and ended the call.
Boebert seems to relish the fighting and the acrimony as the ends rather than the means. Loathsomeness may well be the point.
Boebert isn’t alone in reveling in animosity. Her colleague, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), holds the women’s title on Capitol Hill for stirring up a firestorm, but Boebert is the woman of the hour.
She arrived in Washington this year promising via a video to stride the Capitol grounds armed with her gun. This was not just a statement in defense of the Second Amendment, it was also a declaration of her pugilistic intent. She had come to town to fight. She’s spent much of her time jabbing at a long list of perceived threats: legal abortions, vaccine mandates, mask mandates, critical race theory and government aid for the funeral costs of those who died of covid-19. Boebert considers payouts to grieving families to help them bury their loved ones in the midst of a pandemic to be akin to a slush fund.
Boebert has also spent significant time railing against the colleagues she calls the “jihad squad.” Boebert is intimately, audaciously mean. To see it displayed so blatantly, and seemingly with such glee, isn’t exactly shocking in this divided country, but it is exhausting. How does she have time to throw such petty foulness into the town square? Where does she get the energy? There are ample topics over which members of Congress could spiral into vicious debate. There are plenty of social ills and cultural dilemmas about which to rant and argue. And yet Boebert has chosen to say insulting, dangerous, made-up things about a colleague as a comedic riff while onstage.
If there’s any greater symbolism to Boebert’s spitefulness, it may be that it offers evidence that the mean-girl mentality comfortably shares space with bro culture. The old saw that women are more collaborative in their leadership style does not apply here. Boebert, 34, is a performer above all else. She’s part of a generation of legislators who arrived in Congress fully steeped in the language of social media. They posted videos of themselves offering up their skin-care routine. They’ve used Instagram as a public confessional. Boebert posted a video that included close-ups of her glitter-encrusted heels as she walked about Capitol Hill. And while their actual clout is limited, their reach is immense. They know how to attract followers and nab viewers and transform themselves into name brands within their sphere. They know how to build a fan base. They can go viral with ease as they recognize that every moment is a possible post. And Boebert uses meanness as a magnet.
But trolling is exhausting. It can take the wind out of you even if you aren’t the instigator or the target. Mean-spiritedness changes the atmosphere and the mood of the room. It’s not an invigorating intellectual argument that informs even as it enrages. It’s not an energizing and graceful debate that forces you to see someone’s beliefs in a new way. Trolling is hollow and cheap. It steals your appetite for engagement. It leaves you empty. It deadens us all.
When Boebert, who describes herself as a “strong Christian woman,” made her irreligious comments about Omar, she was moving around the stage as if she was in the midst of a stand-up routine. She was gesturing and miming as she told her tale. And as she went through her shtick, the audience laughed. Omar wasn’t in the room. She wasn’t waiting in the wings to respond or to punch back. Meanness rarely reveals itself face-to-face.
Omar has asked House leadership to punish Boebert. She wants other Republicans to reprimand her. To give Boebert a talking to. But when being mean is the goal, it doesn’t matter what the repercussions might be. You’ve already made folks squirm. You’ve already gotten sated on the room’s energy, on the chuckles and applause. The performance is finished. All that’s left is to take a bow.