These days, politics can seem a lot like a comedy show.
Just this election cycle, we’ve seen Ted Cruz eat bacon off a machine gun, Donald Trump discuss his penis size on national television, Jeb Bush beg his audience to clap, Lindsey Graham voluntarily smash his cell phone, and Hillary Clinton frantically ask for an update on gefilte fish.
So when politics actually becomes a comedy show, it’s bound to be entertaining.
It’s Tuesday night, and two Business Insider colleagues and I have tickets to a debate at New York’s Comedy Cellar. The topic: “Is American Conservatism hostile to women?”
When we shuffle into the standing space reserved for the press, the room is full and the the C-Span cameras are already rolling.
On the right is Ann Coulter, conservative author, political commentator, and vocal supporter of Trump, joined by Dr. Carol Swain, a conservative Vanderbilt professor who caused an uproar when she penned an allegedly anti-Islam newspaper column.
On the left is Sally Kohn, a liberal political commentator who’s ranked the 35th most influential LGBT person in the media (though she insists she’s not the 35th gayest — she’s much higher on that measure). Next to her is Dr. Janus Adams, a progressive author and the founder of BackPax children’s media.
Smiling in the middle is Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, the moderator, who assures us that she’ll be as neutral as Switzerland.
The debate begins, and the panelists have hardly finished their opening statements when the conversation veers immediately toward abortion. The conservatives invoke the horrors of murderous abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell while the liberals beseech the government to keep its hands out from between a woman’s legs.
It isn’t immediately clear who is winning the political argument. The crowd is young, urban and diverse — the liberal burns get louder cheers than the conservative ones.
But Ann Coulter is probably the funniest. She dominates much of the conversation, arms gesticulating wildly, sipping from an enormous Starbucks cup that may or may not actually contain coffee. Parker has to make sure the others get a chance to talk.
But she quickly loses control of the conversation. Unable to properly manage the panelists, she cuts in occasionally with her own views, prompting an audience member to shout, “What happened to Switzerland?”
“I’m taking a break from Switzerland!” she cries.
And they have barely even started on Trump.
Coulter reminds us she was one of the first to throw her support behind the controversial businessman. She praises his penchant for political incorrectness and reminds us that he insults everyone — black or white, male or female, gay or straight, disabled or non-disabled. He’s developed a “platonic ideal of non-discrimination.”
Kohn, meanwhile, doesn’t want to tell her seven-year-old that she shouldn’t talk like President Trump. Trump doesn’t discriminate — unless you’re Mexican or Muslim.
Over the next hour and a half, we hit guns, Black Lives Matter, abortion some more, immigration, Libya. Hillary Clinton and her emails are fiercely decried, Donald Trump and his wall and his Muslim ban are forcefully shouted down. I think to myself that it’s probably sexist to call it a catfight — but at times, there’s really no other word for it.
The audience is getting rowdier. I’m standing near the bar, where I can observe the steady stream of drinks fuelling some spectators’ unsolicited participation in the debate.
Then, the conversation takes an interesting turn when Coulter compares Black Lives Matter founder Al Sharpton to former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. It’s unfair, she says, that Trump has had to denounce Duke, who he has never met, “117 times” — and Duke’s speeches have never led to anyone’s death. Hillary, on the other hand, has not had to denounce Sharpton, whose speeches have prompted riots and even deaths.
The audience erupts — did Ann Coulter just defend the Ku Klux Klan? — but, like Trump, she doesn’t walk back on her controversial statement. She defends it until the debate moves somewhere else.
Later, when we interview her, she doubles down on her comment.
“I’m drawing the conclusion… that when Al Sharpton gives a rally you have people die, get mugged, have their cameras smashed, be robbed. That never happens at a David Duke event or I’d promise you, I’d know about it,” she said. “I think I’m being very clear. David Duke gives a speech. Al Sharpton gives a speech, people die. That’s what I’m saying. Those are facts.”
She has a few other tidbits for us as well: Israel should be placed as a buffer between the US and Mexico. Trump’s wall will lead to thousands of new jobs in construction. Immigration should be like Tinder: she’d swipe right or left based on looks, height, IQ and ability to speak English.
In person, Coulter is similar to how she is on stage: brash, aggressive, vehemently controversial but actually pretty friendly. Kohn, who we spoke with before the event, is calm, patient, and — to the chagrin of Coulter’s brand of conservatism — politically correct.
In lots of political debates, there are moments of sunshiney goodwill and agreement between the arguing parties. Think of this year’s Republican debates, when the war of words between Donald Trump and Jeb Bush could only be halted by the reminder that, yes, everyone on the stage would be a better president than Hillary Clinton.
But this time? Not really. Swain tells Kohn that she likes her and thinks she has the best intentions — but Hillary Clinton still hates America. No one will admit that the other side’s presidential candidate really has the country’s interests at heart.
I’m a millenial. I can’t remember a time when American politics weren’t incredibly polarised. But this debate seemed to me like a pretty good representation of how each side has trouble hearing anything the other is saying.
At the very end, a somewhat subdued Parker asks us to cheer for who we think will win in November. The responses are eerily similar to the candidates themselves.
A singular bellow from the back of the room, coming from a man whose visibly embarrassed girlfriend is physically restraining him.
A polite smattering of applause and mostly high-pitched cheers.
Let the general election begin.
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