Politics

11.03.13

The Unmaking of a Conservative Pundit

Steven Crowder’s rise through the pundit ranks was meteoric. But the divisive right-winger has disappeared from Fox News and the conservative mainstream. What happened?

In December 2012, Fox News aired a video that would briefly obsess the conservative blogosphere. At a Right to Work rally in Michigan, one of Fox’s young contributors was punched in the face by a union member. It was evidence, a parade of Fox pundits stressed, of “union thuggery.” On Fox and Friends, anchor Steve Doocy wondered what his colleague had done “that so provoked the left.” But an extended version of the video, aired ironically on Fox News’ Hannity, revealed that the original clip had been edited, removing footage of the puncher being pushed to the ground prior to throwing a punch in return.

A Michigan county prosecutor refused to press charges, determining that the full video showed the union member acted in self-defense.

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Steven Crowder is always playing defense. Whether it’s against "union thugs” in Michigan, anonymous liberals on Twitter, or, most recently, his now-former employer Fox News, Crowder has had his guard up ever since he was a bullied middle schooler in Canada. Fox News is mum about why the 26-year-old conservative comedian lost his  contributor contract with the network, but lucky for Crowder, not being ready for prime time doesn’t mean his career is over. He’s carved out a niche in a conservative subculture largely unknown to those outside the movement.

If you haven’t heard of Crowder, you’re not alone. Before being scooped up by Fox News in 2009, his main stage was YouTube. Despite identifying himself primarily as an actor and comedian, his most recognizable role was a run as the voice of The Brain on the PBS kids’ series Arthur. But in the past eight years, the 26-year-old Canadian transplant went from self-producing politically-charged YouTube videos to appearing regularly on Fox News and writing a semi-regular column on Foxnews.com on topics like the benefits of abstinence and his own pre-marital virginity. By the time he emceed this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), it seemed like Crowder was on his way to becoming a mainstream conservative pundit.

But last week, after months of radio silence, Crowder laid into Fox News host Sean Hannity--and Fox News in general—during an interview with Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey, accusing Hannity of kowtowing to liberals like Anthony Weiner and Michael Moore, while adding complaints about his difficulty negotiating a new Fox contract. It was a strange way to resurface nearly seven months after his last television appearance. The next day, he posted a lengthy apology to Hannity on his Facebook page, with no mention of his broader Fox bashing. But it was too late. Breitbart.com reported that Crowder had been canned, quoting a senior Fox employee saying that he “was never that funny and...crossed the line more than a few times.” A spokesperson from Fox News confirmed to The Daily Beast that his contract would not be renewed.

“After high school I wiped the dust off my shoes and thought, ‘I’m never going to let that happen to me again. I’m never going to be afraid again.’”

Crowder described Fox News as “the only game in town” for conservatives, yet he seems poised to continue without the approval of the establishment and is currently being paid to rile up small conservative groups and Tea Party rallies. Daniel Cole, executive director of the Colorado’s El Paso County Republican Party, told The Daily Beast that Crowder was chosen as the keynote speaker for the group’s annual Reagan Gala dinner last weekend because he seemed like a good representation of the future of conservatism. The “young whipper snapper” wasn’t exactly what the crowd of 300, with an average age of 53, expected--but they didn’t hate it. While Cole noted that the loudest laughs in the room came mostly from the tables of college republicans, one of whom even asked how he could book Crowder to speak at his school, he got a phone call from a middle aged guest saying he “didn’t expect to be so thoroughly entertained.”

“For people who attend Republican dinners in El Paso County, he brings a different kind of energy,” said Cole, noting that past speakers have including failed presidential candidate Herman Cain and anti-tax guru Grover Norquist. “A lot of people in the audience, even those who were expecting something a bit more staid, recognized that Republicans need to start appealing to a younger crowd and they thought Crowder was a good way to do that.”

While all but disappearing from Fox, Crowder has done a number of these smaller gigs in recent months. Last month, the Virginia chapter of the grassroots conservative group Americans for Prosperity billed Crowder as one of the stars of a get out the vote rally. In August he spoke at the National Conservative Student Conference, a three day affair held at George Washington University featuring conservative luminaries like Newt Gingrich, Ken Cuccinelli, and National Review editor Rich Lowry. According to his speaker profile on the Young Americans for Freedom website, Crowder charges between $3,000 and $5,000 to talk about “current events, free speech, media bias, and political correctness.” 

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Despite his career as a polemicist, Crowder doesn’t identify as a political person--or even a Republican. “I’m a cultural person,” he says, often presenting himself instead as a comedian and actor. Nor does he identify with most people his age, assuming--as he has throughout his life--that most of his peers hate him. (Even when I told him I “was” a huge fan of Arthur, he assumed I was meant that I no longer liked the show, after discovering his tenure as “The Brain.”) His videos cover a range of topics--the influence college has on one’s political beliefs to an attack on those advocating marijuana legalization debate--but everything Crowder does seems like a jab at someone who wronged him in the past. Grade school bullies, the childhood best friend who dumped him when he refused to drink or smoke pot, the college professor who laughed at his comedic aspirations, the Hollywood manager who told him he’d never succeed in show business if he didn’t conceal his political beliefs.

Crowder is wary of journalists from outside the conservative world. Initially, he was open to the idea of letting me shadow him at CPAC, but changed his mind when I told him that I didn’t have any particular angle for my story. “Everybody has an angle,” he said. “The only time I say no to an interview is when someone says they don’t have an angle. I know right away that that’s not honest....That’s why I don’t have a problem with Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, because they are very straightforward about their points of view, unlike someone like Anderson Cooper or Wolf ‘Lowest Score on Celebrity Jeopardy Ever’ Blitzer, who try to act like as if they’re just delivering the news, because they’re not.” After chatting several times in March, I’ve been unable to reach Crowder. He has not responded to recent follow up emails, calls, or texts.

And his reluctance is understandable. Coverage of Crowder’s career has largely been critical, especially from left-leaning blogs like Wonkette, who referred to him as “everyone’s favorite bastard offspring of Dennis Miller and Phyllis Schlafly” and an “ignoble glass-jawed future Senator.” When describing him, Crowder’s detractors invariably place the word comedian in quotation marks. Save for the union fracas and one about Detroit called “Crowder Goes Ghetto,” none of his videos have reached a million views, making it hard to call him a YouTube star. As he acknowledges, “Half of the comments on my videos are calling for my death or people calling me JewFag, which makes no sense because I’m not Jewish or gay.”

Indeed, it’s easy to be put off by Crowder’s media persona. In a 2010 column, for example, he calls women who have premarital sex “floozies” and provides dubious data to statistics supposedly backing up some of the column’s controversial claims. When asked about his sources, he says defensively that he’s not responsible for adding links in his articles and asks in return, “do you really need proof that not having sex prevents STDs?” His YouTube channel is well-stocked with videos of Crowder mocking his ideological opponents, such as Occupy Wall Street protesters, gun control proponents, and college students.  In one video he pokes fun at the notion that condemning “Islamic terrorism” is ipso facto racist; in another he reads mockingly from the Quran, acting out passages, donning a turban, and wrapping himself in a white sheet. “I think that if every Christian acted like Christ, the world would be a better place. If every Muslim acted like Muhammad, according to modern law, they would have to be jailed,” he declares.

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Crowder was born in Detroit but raised “in a Christian household” in Montreal. His father grew up Christian, his mother Catholic, though neither of them very observant. It was after the birth of their first son, his brother Jordan, he explains, that his parents “got saved.”

“They made the decision to become disciples,” he says. “They both had baggage: my father came from a broken home and they hadn’t seen it done the right way, so they decided to do it right.” That notion of “the right way” is a recurring theme in Crowder’s worldview, regardless of topic.

His born-again parents imparted their faith onto Steven and Jordan, who also saved his virginity for marriage. “My parents were very straightforward about the fact that they were not abstinent before marriage--no one is perfect--but that it is the right way to be,” he said. “They were also very straightforward about sex, giving me ‘the talk’ at about four years old because they didn't want me to think about it as something that couldn’t be discussed, just something that is meant to be between a husband and a wife.”

Crowder says he became politically aware at a young age, attributing his conservatism both to the Christian values he was brought up on and his early experiences in the entertainment industry.  “My dad sat me down, gave me my first paycheck and explained what would be taken out for taxes,” he said. “The top tax rate in Quebec was something like 51 percent and I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, that’s my money!’”

A self-described comic book nerd who was both “woefully unathletic” and “a bit of a smart alec,” Crowder says he was bullied for much for his childhood. Being one of the only Christian and American kids at a Catholic school also did little to help him fit in. “We had a severely autistic kid in my class and I was always picked last in gym class, even after him,” he recalled. “Naturally, that made me feel pretty bad as an eight-year-old.”

But Crowder’s misfit status didn’t end with grade school. “I spent a lot of my life afraid as a kid, even throughout high school” he says, recalling a “defining moment” in his life when a classmate, who Crowder says constantly bullied him, cornered him in a locker room. “I didn’t have anywhere to go and that was the only time I’ve ever punched someone in the face,” he says. “I was hesitant and I threw it out and then pulled back so I barely touched him, but he kept trying to push me.” Crowder remembers he was wearing skate shoes “with the big fat tongues” that were popular at the time, and he tripped over his loose laces. When he stood up, he says, the bully was surrounded by friends. Terrified, he walked away.

“That bothered me for so long, I can’t even tell you. It just feels horrible as a man to feel like you’re walking away as a coward ” he said. “After high school I wiped the dust off my shoes and thought, ‘I’m never going to let that happen to me again. I’m never going to be afraid again.’”

It’s what motivates him, he says, to go on stage or television despite overwhelming desire to puke or back out.

Crowder, who says he was a C+ student who didn’t try very hard, graduated high school at 16 and attended two semesters at Champlain College in Vermont. “By second semester, I was doing a lot of standup and slacking off. I just didn’t want to be in school anymore.”

Crowder began bouncing around between New York and Los Angeles, trying his hand at pilot season. He got a few gigs here and there--an episode of the ABC Family show “Greek” and a role in the Christian film “To Save a Life”--but quickly burned out and moved to Texas to work on parlaying the conservative material he was discouraged from using at comedy clubs into YouTube videos. It was this decision that would shift his career path. After posting a few videos, Crowder was contacted by a manager with whom he was about to sign; he asked whether they were a Stephen Colbert-style joke.

“I got to the the point where I thought, ‘that’s not right, it’s not fair. I have to be honest with myself,’” Crowder says. “There was this huge component of me that I couldn’t talk about. And that’s not just me, that’s a lot of people in the entertainment industry and a lot of kids at universities right now.”

But Crowder ignored the warning and continued to make his videos, producing them on his own until 2009, when he teamed up with the conservative website PJ Media, who upped the production values and ultimately attracted the attention of Fox News. Soon thereafter, Fox offered him a contributor contract, binding him to the channel and paying him a salary. “If you told me, at 20-years-old, that at 21 I’d be the youngest contributor signed to Fox News I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said. (Representatives from both PJ Media and Fox News did not respond to repeated attempts for comment.)

Chris Loesch is one friend with whom Crowder bonded over being part of the creative community’s ideological minority. “The first time I met Steven, we were in the hallway [at CPAC] and he was kind of holding court, making people laugh, just being himself,” recalled Loesch, a musician and husband of conservative pundit and former Breitbart.com editor Dana Loesch.

Loesch laments that while Crowder “is genuinely funny,” his form of entertainment doesn’t get a fair shake because it comes with a conservative message. “But he’s keeping it fresh. He’s putting a young face on it, which is different from what I would call the ‘Old White Guy Club’ that people see too often,” Loesch said. “The youth message is driving forward and Steven is definitely a vanguard of that. He’s right on the cutting edge and he takes a lot of heat for it.”

Not everyone agrees that Crowder’s comedy is cutting edge, or that he even qualifies as a comedian. During a 2010 appearance on the Fox News show “Red Eye,” comedian Amy Schumer responded to a dig from Crowder by questioning whether he should even call himself a comedian. “I go fishing a few times a year but I don’t introduce myself as a fisherman,” Schumer quipped. (Schumer declined to comment on Crowder for this story.)

“He’s being promoted because he provides a very good face for the right wing to reassure its older generation that 20-somethings don’t really support gay marriage and aren’t concerned about income inequality--you know, all those issues we hold dear as liberals,” says Stefan Borst-Censullo, who has written critically about Crowder for Wonkette.

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Fox might have hoped Crowder would help lure the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic, but it’s not even clear that he is what a mainstream conservative audience wants. After all, while Fox News may cater to a right-wing audience, it’s still business. Indeed, they kicked Glenn Beck to the curb when his extreme views started making advertisers uneasy.

“I’ve noticed a lot of people coming out of the woodwork to say how much he sucks,” a former Fox News employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Daily Beast. “It’s almost as if people were terrified to say he was terrible, but now that he’s persona non grata at Fox News, it’s okay to finally speak the truth.”

Crowder knows this take on him isn’t unique. In fact, he expects it. “I’m an apostate,” he says. “I’m a young conservative Christian who’s pretty edgy but never dirty.” He also knows that this doesn’t exactly appeal to most young people. Still, despite his banishment from Fox News, he seems to have found a world where his brand of humor and by-the-book conservatism is appealing. In fact, in the alternative universes of CPAC or the National Conservative Student Conference, where college-aged conservatives are, for a few blessed days, not a minority, he could even serve as something of a role model.