The main event on day one of the wonky nerdfest known as Politicon in Pasadena, California was undeniably the showdown between conservative shit-stirrer Ann Coulter and progressive CNN pundit Van Jones.
In fact, so many of the conference’s attendees wanted to check out the debate that organizers had to move the event to a bigger room. As it turned out, a panel about Hillary Clinton featuring names like Paul Begala and Wendy Davis was not nearly as big of a draw and was relegated to the smaller space.
The line to get into the debate, moderated by newly-crowned Politico Playbook co-editor Anna Palmer, snaked around the convention hall corridors, causing the show to start about 30 minutes late. Among the audience members were former MSNBC host Touré and The Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore, who told me, “If there’s anything here worth eavesdropping on, I figured this was it.”
Those two left-leaning media figures were representative of a crowd that was, for the most part, firmly on Van Jones’s side. Though the former Obama administration “green jobs” adviser and current CNN commentator may not be as well know as Coulter, he got an enormous ovation upon being introduced while Coulter received only a handful of groans.
The country is about to embark on a general election in which each nominee has a higher unfavorable rating than any who came before them. Democrats will be voting against Donald Trump perhaps even more than Republicans will be voting against Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Jones is probably hated by the right almost as much Coulter is reviled by the left.
Yet it was Coulter who had the first applause line of the panel when she said “Bernie [Sanders] is right” to challenge Clinton on the corruption of money in politics and what she views as the former Secretary of State’s too-cozy relationship with Wall Street. “Both parties are serving the rich and not serving the voters,” she added. Echoing her good friend Bill Maher, Coulter predicted that the UK’s Brexit vote could be a seen as a precursor to her preferred presidential candidate, Trump, getting elected in the U.S.
However, any good will she may have gained was undone moments later when she received a loud chorus of “boos” for claiming that Cesar Chavez was the one who coined the term “wetbacks” to describe Mexicans crossing into the U.S. illegally (he wasn’t—The New York Times first used the derogatory term in 1920).
Those types of intentionally provocative statement riled up both the audience and Jones, whose voice started to resemble that of a bad Bill Cosby impersonator as he became more and more agitated.
Countering Coulter’s argument that President Obama has not been tough enough on immigration, Jones pointed out that many undocumented immigrants refer to him as the “Deporter in Chief” because he has deported more people than any president who came before him. “It is not true that we have an open border, it is not true that the president hasn’t done anything,” he said, decrying the “fact-free” environment in which this election seems to be taking place. Jones argued that since Obama strengthened the border through executive action, it was only right that he also attempted to ease deportations the same way—before those efforts were undone by a hobbled Supreme Court.
When Coulter predicted that immigrants would make up a significant portion of Trump’s voters, Jones pushed back, joking that immigrants are bound to love that Trump is “being so tough on their cousins and parents.” If that were true, he said he would be “worried” that he is “overreacting” to Trump’s blatant racism. Instead, what he is seeing is culturally different Latino groups, who previously did not see much in common with each other, are now coming together as one in opposition to the type of anti-immigrant hate spewed by Trump. Even Cubans, he pointed out, who are not typically friendly to the left, oppose Trump by enormous margins. “Either all of them are mishearing you, or somebody is saying something horribly offensive,” he said to loud applause.
To this, Coulter only doubled down, arguing that liberals only think their policies will help immigrant communities and once again predicted that Trump would get the same 30 percent of Latino voters that George W. Bush and John McCain got before him. (For the record, Bush actually won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004; Trump trails Clinton by 40 points among the group in one recent poll.) Coulter was greeted with hearty laughter when she added that Trump will “definitely get more of the African-American vote” than Republicans who came before him did.
On this point, Jones surprisingly agreed, saying, “You guys shouldn’t laugh at that.” If Trump were a “more disciplined candidate,” he said he may be able to exploit a “weakness” in the Obama coalition. Namely that Hillary Clinton must get 90-92 percent of the black vote in order to win, something he called an “extraordinary requirement.” With anyone other than Trump, that might have been a big problem for Democrats.
This was one of the few points on which Coulter and Jones nominally agreed. The rest of the conversation was dominated by a difference of opinion on the topic of political correctness, a characteristic Coulter has said she values in Trump, even if on Saturday she said it is not among his most important strengths. Jones got one of the biggest cheers of the day when he said, in response to the debate over political correctness, “It used to be called civility.”
For the most part, things remained civil inside this packed room at Politicon on Saturday afternoon. Political junkies from both sides of the spectrum were itching for a fight, but in the end Coulter and Jones managed to make their points without ever literally coming to blows.