Politics

Laura Loomer’s Horror Show

How the alt-right provocateur’s paranoid and bigoted fantasies drove her to a Republican primary victory in Florida.

Laura Loomer in a T-shirt that reads "Stop the Oppression," waiting for her turn to speak
Laura Loomer backstage during a “Demand Free Speech” rally in D.C. on July 6, 2019. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

I don’t like talking about Laura Loomer. I’m a Muslim American, and Loomer has built her career as a public figure around her express hatred of Muslims. She has already demonstrated she will say or do anything for attention, and it pains me to give her exactly what she’s craving by focusing on her. But Tuesday night, she won the Republican primary in Florida’s 21st Congressional District, a victory cheered on by the district’s most famous constituent, President Donald Trump. So I guess we have to talk about her now.

Loomer was born on the far-right internet, where shock jock personalities reign supreme. Her ascent from marginal alt-right provocateur to political candidate relied on exploiting the attention economy, and particularly on the trick of making her ability to repel people into a reason for others to tune in. Her success, though, is less about how cleverly she manipulates media than about how far someone can go as an unrepentant bigot right now.

This is, after all, a person who was crude enough to get herself kicked off Twitter in 2018, when the company made one of its gradual efforts to enforce its terms of use. The headline NBC went with said “Laura Loomer banned from Twitter after criticizing Ilhan Omar,” which neatly demonstrated the space in which Loomer had previously found room to operate—“criticizing” here meant Loomer had accused Omar of being a supporter of genital cutting, a homophobe, and an anti-Semite, solely based on vicious anti-Muslim stereotypes.

And Loomer’s feed had been a cesspool of violent racism and xenophobia long before she lost her account privileges. After the Halloween 2017 truck attack in New York City, she posted a picture of two women wearing hijabs, commenting, “Muslims are out in full force at the scene of NYC ISIS attack today rubbing it in everyone’s face. Aimlessly walking around in hijabs.” “I bet they’re loving this,” she added. In response to a report that 2,000 refugees had drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea, she tweeted, “Good. Here’s to 2,000 more.” After calling a Lyft and canceling it after seeing a Muslim name, she tweeted, “Someone needs to create a non Islamic form of uber or lyft because I never want to support another Islamic immigrant driver.” That tweet got her banned from using both ride-hailing apps as well.

What has marked Loomer among the various other bigots, trolls, and self-promoters of the age is her particular combination of shoddiness, viciousness, and delusional-seeming ambition. She got her start in unconscionable racism with attacks on Muslims when she was still in college at Barry University in Florida. In 2015, she recorded herself discussing with university officials her idea for starting a club called “Sympathetic Students in Support of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” then released the video with Project Veritas. Loomer’s video succeeded in inspiring nefarious headlines like “Barry University faculty accused of supporting Islamic State Terrorists.” It also resulted in Loomer getting suspended from the school and being named in a lawsuit for illegally recording the staff.

That was only the beginning of her career with Project Veritas, during the period in which the sabotage organization found it more and more difficult to successfully push far-right conspiracy theories into the mainstream news cycle. Chasing after the sort of media response she’d gotten in college, she went on to be involved in a series of miserably failed sting operations. In 2015, she was caught and exposed by the Clinton campaign for trying to entrap them with illegal donations and campaign violations. In 2016, she dressed in a burqa to a polling place and tried and failed to illegally request a ballot in the name of Huma Abedin, a Muslim American political staffer who does not wear the burqa.

These failures to embarrass her political opponents wouldn’t dissuade her. Seemingly giving up on trying to catch other people in the act, she instead opted to turn herself into the story. In 2017, she got her first big story since framing her university as a supporter of ISIS by storming the stage at a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in Central Park. She was arrested and escorted away from the stage as she shouted, “New York Public Theater is ISIS!” It was a widely reported incident, which evidently was what Loomer wanted.

Where Project Veritas had originally sought to humiliate its designated liberal enemies, Loomer pursued a program of what looked from the outside like self-humiliation, as her following kept growing. She tried to copy her success in the park by disrupting court trials, book signings, government hearings, and left-wing marches. She cheesily attempted to brand the disruptions as “getting Loomered,” which seemed tautological: She was doing these things to herself.

Yet she’d got her reward. The right wing championed her clownish activism, giving her primetime slots on broadcast television to boast about her trolling, and vocal support from Republican politicians. The absurd unreality of it all—in 2019, she traveled to Minnesota with the bungling hoax artist Jacob Wohl to film a fake documentary about how Minneapolis was under the rule of an Islamic law—became the whole point. Her chosen audience was deplatforming itself from shared political reality, into a paranoid and bigoted fantasy realm.

As an electoral matter, her current political aspirations are as unserious as everything else she’s done. She’s attached herself to the ballot in November the same way she handcuffed herself, wearing a gold star like a Holocaust victim, to the front door of a random Twitter office. Unlike Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, where the fanatical anti-Muslim QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene seems likely to win a seat in the House, Florida’s 21st is a secure Democratic stronghold.* The incumbent, Lois Frankel, raked in an impressive 75,202 votes, which makes Loomer’s 14,478 votes not very impressive at all.

But what we should take seriously is the fact that Loomer is receiving praise on her largely symbolic primary win from the highest office in the land. It’s unlikely that Trump’s decision to tweet support for a hatemonger masquerading as a victim of censorship will hurt his chances in the general election this year, considering that he himself has miraculously evaded consequences for his racist statements by simply stating that he is the least racist person that he knows. And it tells us a lot about what we’re likely to be left to deal with after Trump is gone.

In having to routinely shrug off the unconscionable racism and sexism coming from Trump, the Republican Party has been forced to choose between holding rank or risking being cast out entirely. Before now, it had been hard for me to imagine Loomer’s brand of edgelord provocation being acceptable within any fold of institutional politics. Even while anti-Muslim sentiment may have been more openly expressed than most other forms of bigotry, national politicians tried to at least maintain a facade of decency. Trump has turned his supporters against former Republican darlings like Mitt Romney and the late John McCain for tempering their support of his presidency with common decency. The Overton window for how extreme and racist one’s views must be before being rejected by the party has shifted considerably—so much so that at this point, it doesn’t seem that anyone can be too toxic to be a standard-bearer for the Republican Party.

Correction, Aug. 19, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Marjorie Taylor Greene’s last name.

For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.