Joe Biden’s choice of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate was met with positive headlines in much of the mainstream media. While progressives were disappointed that Biden skipped over women like Elizabeth Warren and Stacey Abrams in favor of a more centrist candidate, most acknowledged the historical significance of a Black woman on a major party’s ticket. The announcement also revived questions and concerns that dogged Harris’ own presidential campaign—in particular about her work as the district attorney of San Francisco and as California’s attorney general. But the right-wing media ecosystem was predictably more negative. In many cases, the criticism was less focused on substantial policy critiques and instead directed at her identity as an ambitious Black woman, often in blatantly racist and sexist ways.
We’ll likely see variations on these arguments over the course of the election cycle, including from President Donald Trump himself. Here are the ways that conservative media (ranging from the respectable to the fringe) has been talking about Kamala Harris in her first week on the ticket.
1. She’s a radical.
Most of the newspaper editorials and cable news rants stuck to this theme: Harris is an extremist who will endanger Americans’ rights and way of life when it comes to health care, firearms, immigration, and environmental policies. While none have been quick to describe Biden as moderate, many have begrudgingly admitted that Biden was the “safest” choice among the spate of Democratic presidential candidates. The addition of Harris allowed them to attack the opposition with greater urgency—especially as so many appear to believe Biden might die in office.
Sean Hannity claimed that her nomination made the pair “the most extreme radical far-left out of the mainstream ticket of any major political party in American history.” The Washington Beacon ran pieces warning that “ ‘Moderate’ Kamala Harris Just Cosponsored Climate Legislation With AOC” and “Kamala Harris Brings Gun Confiscation Support to Dem Presidential Ticket.” The Washington Times proclaimed, “Biden Outsources His Agenda to the Radical Left.” The Federalist warned, “Why Kamala Harris’s Stealth Radicalism Is Worse Than Bernie Democrats’ Open Radicalism.” Several publications also made special note of her support for abortion. “Pro-Lifers Rip Biden for Picking ‘Abortion Extremist’ Harris,” proclaimed one Free Beacon headline.
These commentators criticized coverage of Harris by the mainstream media, particularly the description of her as a moderate. Several conservative outlets, including Fox News, ran stories with headlines disputing that the “moderate” label, which the New York Times and many other publications used to describe her, made sense for Harris.
Many commentators also tried to portray Harris as untrustworthy. “The panderer to the defund-the-police crowd once compared Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Ku Klux Klan, but was endorsed by police unions when she was California’s top prosecutor,” the New York Post gave as an example. Fox News host Tucker Carlson called her the “single most transactional human being in America.”
Some analysts did, however, push back on their colleagues. “She is not far to the left despite what Republicans are going to try to say,” Chris Wallace said on Fox News.
2. She wants to make the U.S. more like California.
There’s a tradition in some political circles of using California as a cautionary tale of the evils of progressive politics. Harris, a senator from California, has invoked some amount of that already.
Bill O’Reilly called her a “product of San Francisco values.” The California that “produced Ronald Reagan” was a “middle-class paradise of low-cost bungalows with great weather and fantastic public services,” Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote for the National Review. Now, it’s a poverty-stricken state where “even celebrities have to cheat to get their kids into its colleges.” Part of the issue is the prevalence of graft, which Kamala Harris allegedly “had no taste for going after” when she was attorney general. Harris as vice president would be a sign that Democrats in the White House wouldn’t be tough with regulations and cleaning up corruption. Several publications noted her connections to the tech world and deep-pocket donors. Or as the Federalist put it, she is “the swampiest of swampers.”
3. She’s a weak choice.
Eric Trump called Harris an “early Christmas present” on Thursday, citing her poor performance as a presidential candidate. On Fox, Ben Shapiro said that Trump should be “overjoyed” at the prospect of facing off against her. “President Trump should make it very clear that, at this point, he’s running against Kamala Harris,” he said. “He’s not running against Joe Biden. Joe Biden is a stand-in.”
On Fox News, Ari Fleischer called her “not that historically exciting” to Black voters despite the fact that she’s the first Black woman to be nominated for this role. On the other hand, one of the major topics of discussion in mainstream conservative media was what her identity as a Black woman had to say about Biden and the state of the Democratic Party. Some argued that Biden had “backed himself into a corner” by announcing that he would choose a woman as his running mate, and that it became an inevitability, through the logic of the identity politics he had fallen trap to, that he would have to choose a Black woman.
Others complained that they would not be able to criticize Harris without being accused of racism or sexism.
4. She’s “nasty” and “angry.”
But plenty of the criticism of Harris was loaded with coded and not-so-coded language.
On Thursday morning, Trump told Fox Business that Harris was a “madwoman” because she was “so angry” during the Kavanaugh hearings. He also called her “mean,” “horrible,” and “extraordinarily nasty”—a term the public would remember being applied to Hillary Clinton.
“Nasty” wasn’t the only gendered attack used on Harris that hearkened back to the Clinton days. She was described as “mean,” “abrasive,” “overly ambitious,” “disingenuous,” and even a “viper.”
“In fact, in her Machiavellian campaign manipulations, she appeared deeply threatening,” Shapiro wrote for Fox. “At the very least, Biden should hire a food taster.” On air, he called her “mechanical, extreme, and manipulative.”
Some critics focused on her demeanor, which they found unappealing. (“Harris certainly wasn’t picked for her personal charm,” Carlson said.) In particular, they seem to be put off by her “grating” and “annoying” tendency to laugh at her own jokes.
The grossest remarks, including those made by Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Rush Limbaugh, mined her relationship with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren had to apologize to Harris after tweeting, “Kamala did you fight for ideals or did you sleep your way to the top with Willie Brown?”
5. She’s a bigot.
There were efforts to find offense at some of Harris’ previous actions, like calling her “nasty” over her grilling of Brett Kavanaugh, or expressing outrage that she once compared ICE to the KKK. But even more often, critics cited her “bigotry” against Roman Catholics. “Catholic Leader: Kamala Harris ‘Ringleader of the Anti-Catholic Bullying’ in Democrat Party,” ran one Breitbart headline.
This stems in part from a line of questions she had for a district judge nominee in 2018. The nominee was a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization that opposes marriage equality and abortion. “[S]uggesting that belonging to a Catholic group with millions of members, which has been an important charity in the U.S. for more than a century, renders an individual unfit to serve as a judge” made Harris “guilty of reprehensible anti-Catholic bigotry,” the National Review summed up.
6. She’s not Black enough.
Some critics have begun to tap into some of the absurd vein of attack they made against Barack Obama’s identity as a Black American. Numerous far-right pundits and conspiracists have argued that because Harris’ parents are Jamaican and Indian, and because she might have had white ancestors, she couldn’t claim the cultural identity of an African American.
7. She might not be a citizen (even though she is).
On Wednesday, Newsweek ran an op-ed by John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University, arguing that Harris may not actually be a citizen. Although the message hews closely to the birtherism conspiracy theory that Trump levied against Obama, Eastman’s argument was both slightly less direct and possibly more insidious: He said that Harris’ status is in question under an antiquated interpretation of the 14th Amendment because neither of her parents was a naturalized citizen when she was born. (Some conservatives have argued before against this idea of automatic citizenship for those born on U.S. soil. The Supreme Court has long held that they are wrong.)
Some conservatives understood this line of thinking to be racist and pretty much birtherism under a different guise. “Birther-esque Campaign Against Kamala Harris Reeks of Fear and Desperation,” one Washington Examiner headline proclaimed. (Newsweek defended the column as a matter of legal debate but did condemn birtherism of the kind Trump practiced as “vile lies.”)
The racist attack is already being adopted by members of the Trump campaign. Jenna Ellis, a senior Trump campaign adviser, retweeted a tweet with the op-ed. Later on Thursday, a reporter with the right-wing One America News Network asked Trump a question about the op-ed. In his response, he did not come anywhere close to disavowing the theory: “I just heard that; I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” he responded. “And by the way, the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer. I have no idea if that’s right, I would have assumed the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice president, but that’s a very serious… I don’t know about it, I just heard about it, I’ll take a look.”
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