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—Photography by Matt Nager

Right Winging It

Author, pundit, provocateur, Coloradan: Is Michelle Malkin's divisive voice the cure to what ails the Republican Party?

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The road to Michelle Malkin’s house is lined with red and orange boulders that look as if they’ve been plucked from a superhero comic book. Olive-colored brush covers a hillside lined with oversized homes; ragged scrub juts from the landscape at haphazard angles. For the best-selling author, prolific blogger, and conservative firebrand, it’s the perfect hideout.

Situated in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains, this refuge also appears to be the perfect incubator for the unapologetically blunt opinions Malkin is famous for espousing: She’s written an entire book in favor of World War II internment camps and suggested President Barack Obama’s group of advisers “smells and tastes like a rotten Chicago deep-dish pizza.” During her two decades as one of the nation’s leading conservative trash-talkers, the 43-year-old has been called everything from a political prostitute to a traitor to her Filipino heritage to—as Keith Olbermann famously quipped—“a mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick on it.” New York Times columnist David Brooks has called Malkin a “loon.” Geraldo Rivera said she’s “the most vile, hateful commentator I’ve met,” then added, for good measure, “I’d spit on her if I saw her.”

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Malkin’s been stalked, harassed, and threatened with rape and murder, and she’s had to retain security for some of her speaking engagements. Back at her old house in Baltimore, parents refused to let their children play with her daughter. Before she moved to El Paso County in 2008, Malkin wrote a blog post in which she printed the names of antiwar activists who’d reportedly vandalized the vehicles of military recruiters. Shortly afterward, someone posted her address online.

That won’t happen these days. Malkin and her husband have gone to great lengths to protect their family in Colorado, a fact I learned repeatedly in the reporting of this story. “It’s a matter of safety,” Malkin’s husband, Jesse Malkin, told me. “Too many details can put us at risk.”

Even so, on a cloudless morning late this past winter, I make a couple of turns and soon I’m at the base of Malkin’s residence, a beige, two-story stucco house with trees dotting the property. It’s a big place but not the largest on the street and offers a breathtakingly close view of Pikes Peak. I park and then follow the walkway that leads to her front door, push the bell, and wait.

Moments later, Malkin appears. She’s petite and is wearing blue jeans, large hoop earrings, and a chunky green sweater. Her black hair is pulled into a ponytail. She leads me to the kitchen table where we’re surrounded by her children’s artwork. Through a series of massive windows, you can see the pine-covered hillside out back. Down a hall to our right, Malkin’s 10-year-old, home-schooled son is singing in his room. “I wake up every day and I can see Pikes Peak, and think, ‘This is a glorious, beautiful state,’?” she tells me. “Having the sense of space, the physical imposition of it, the fresh air, the freedom. That resets my button every single day.”

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Malkin and her husband nearly lost Fortress de Malkin in the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, when flames swept down the hills and decimated more than 18,000 acres in 18 days. “We were some of the first people to evacuate, and it was horrible, thinking we might not be able to come back,” she says. In part because of that experience, there’s an even deeper connection between this place and her family. “It’s almost poetic,” she says, “for me to be in Colorado doing my thing.”

Four years ago, Malkin sold one of her political blogs, hotair.com, to the conservative media group Salem Communications for $2 million. The deal was the culmination of almost four years’ worth of work and further solidified Malkin as a queen in the political right’s corner of the Internet. Today, she maintains michellemalkin.com—where she reprints her nationally syndicated newspaper column—and is occasionally featured on Twitchy, a Twitter aggregation site she created in 2012 and sold last year for an undisclosed amount.

Though she recently ended her 12-year run as a regular guest on the Fox News Channel to focus on writing and to spend more time at home with her husband and two children, her brand is as strong as ever. At press time, Malkin had more than one million Facebook fans, and her Twitter account had 701,000 followers—more than Vice President Joe Biden (579,000) or tea party darling Texas Senator Ted Cruz (306,000). Currently, she’s working on her fifth book—this one an ode to American inventiveness and entrepreneurship titled Who Built That. It’s a bit of a departure from the liberals-as-nation-destroying-idiots narratives that have landed her on New York Times best seller lists three times and earned her a lifetime of critics. “I love American dream stories,” she tells me. “It’s cheesy, I know.”

Malkin’s also positioned herself at the center of what’s expected to be one of the most important and divisive off-year elections in recent memory. Even as she spreads the anti-Democrat gospel among longtime GOPers, she revels in her role as a contentious figure within her own party. She’s the self-styled libertarian-conservative whose sharp opinions, Twitter hashtag battles (#DonaldTrumpIsAPhony), and sarcastic columns railing lefty sweethearts such as Stephen Colbert (“Me so stupid. You so funny.”) seem intended to win over a younger generation attracted to impolite, bare-knuckle debate.

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What may make her even more relevant these days is the fact the Republican Party is at a clear crossroads. From the corporate bailouts during the last gasps of the George W. Bush administration in 2008 to what today she sees as her party’s capitulation to progressives bent on ruining the country, Malkin’s been unafraid to lunge at anyone she perceives as incapable of standing up for what she calls “true conservative values.” Among those from her own party who’ve faced her fury are her former Fox colleague and Bush adviser Karl Rove—whose super-PAC has spent millions of dollars working against tea party candidates she’s supported—and Ann Coulter, the conservative author and pundit whose outspokenness often devolves into shock-as-value posturing. In addition to having called Muslims “rag heads,” one of Coulter’s more memorable outbursts came in 2007 when she said Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards was a “faggot.”

“Some people think I just say things to get a rise, that I’m part of the outrage industry, that it’s all manufactured,” says Malkin, who’s written more than 2,000 columns in her career. “My outrage comes from deeply held beliefs, but there are people for whom the criticism is true. I don’t think somebody who believes and lives a conservative life goes around with Tourette’s syndrome saying things like ‘faggot.’ It’s not good for conservatism. But it is good for the individual seeking publicity.”

In 2012, Malkin was among the first notable female conservatives to back Cruz in his senatorial run. This summer she plans to throw her support behind other like-minded, small-government Republicans in races against the old guard. That includes Colorado, where she’s recently endorsed Tom Tancredo—a former five-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives—in his primary run to challenge Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper. Tancredo, who is known best nationally for his hard-line stance on immigration, finished a distant second to Hickenlooper in 2010 as a member of the Constitution Party but rejoined the GOP the following year, lamenting at the time that his old-new party was the only game in town. “We’re independent thinkers, and people want that,” Tancredo says of himself and Malkin, whom he first met more than a decade ago. “Michelle has this incredible mind, and she’s brilliant, and she’s beautiful. She inspires people with her principled stance. You don’t move her. I like that. She’s take-no-prisoners, and that scares a lot of people, especially in the Republican Party.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Malkin shares that view. “I think established Republicans have kept arm’s length from me,” she says. “Even in El Paso County, I’ve been bad-mouthed by these politicians at the same time they want me at their fund-raisers. That’s disgusting. My sense is many of these party apparatchiks have no core conservative values.” She blames state party bosses for the mounting defeats that cost the GOP the governorship, two U.S. Senate seats, and both chambers of the state Legislature. “There’s no passion,” she says of Colorado’s ruling Republicans. “What animates them? At least with the niche, grassroots conservative movement, they’ve got iron-clad principles, bread-and-butter issues people should care about. The right to self-defense, the right to not have the government meddle in your children’s classrooms. Find something.”

There’s a story Malkin tells about her old Subaru that’s something of an allegory about how she ended up in Colorado. She had the vehicle back when she was a rising star at Fox News, making regular appearances on the cable network, guest-hosting The O’Reilly Factor, and riding Amtrak back and forth from her home in Baltimore to New York City while juggling her writing and her family life. As she tells it, the year was 2007 and she’d just arrived home from a taping in New York. “We lived on this big hill, and I pull up and see my son in one of the windows upstairs,” she remembers. “I get out and start running for the door.” In her rush, she forgot to engage the car’s parking brake. Malkin looked back just in time to see the Subaru rolling backward. “The driveways were stacked, so we were above the one next to us,” Malkin continues. “The car hit a tree right before it could fall onto the next driveway. I ran over and my neighbors’ kids were playing down there. If that tree wouldn’t have been there….” The neighbors laughed off the incident, but it was a wake-up call for Malkin. “Something had to change,” she says.

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Perhaps the only thing in her life that hasn’t changed over the years are her political beliefs, which she credits to her parents, Filipino immigrants who came to the United States in 1970 to seek greater economic opportunities. Malkin, then Michelle Maglalang, was born in 1970 and grew up in a small town near Atlantic City, where her mother taught public school and her father was a neonatologist at Atlantic City Medical Center. “Michelle developed from her surroundings,” says Carol Duffy, a family friend whose daughter grew up with Malkin. “That part of south New Jersey was pretty conservative at the time. And then her parents were hard-working immigrants who had these strong values around studying and family. But I think there was something else that made her who she is: heart, maybe luck of the draw. Who knows, but you could tell she was special.” Malkin wrote for the newspaper at her Catholic high school but planned to pursue a career as a concert pianist. She enrolled at the elite Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1988 but decided it’d be difficult to stand out among so many talented students. She became an English major and found her calling at a campus magazine run by her future husband.

Her first notable story—co-authored with Jesse Malkin—trashed the college’s affirmative action policies. Outraged undergrads soon dubbed her the “Eva Braun of Oberlin.” “She loved pushing buttons,” says Jesse, who was raised in Berkeley, California, but was undergoing his own political transformation at the time. “There was a toughness, an intellect about her that was built-in. She saw her words could have real power.” That she was negatively spotlighting a system designed to benefit students like her seemed as inconsequential to her then as it does today when she writes about the need for tighter restrictions on immigration. “I’m an American,” she says now, “and that’s all I’ve ever seen myself as.”

It’s that attitude that launched her career on Fox in 2001, after editorial-board positions at the Los Angeles Daily News and the Seattle Times, where her column was syndicated in 1999 when she was 28. On cable, she frequently played the sharp-tongued foil. One of her favorite on-air moments—and one that certainly raised her personal profile, but perhaps wasn’t one of conservatism’s finest moments—was the time she argued with Malik Zulu Shabazz, the then-chairman of the New Black Panther Party. He’d called her a “political prostitute” for Bill O’Reilly. She shot back in Malkin-ian fashion: “There’s only one whore on this split screen, and it’s you, Mr. Shabazz!”

During her tenure at Fox, she was controversial even on a channel that breeds controversial personalities. In the fall of 2007, Rivera made his “spit” comment about Malkin, then later went on O’Reilly’s show to issue a feeble apology. Malkin thought O’Reilly made her look weak when he said on-air her “feelings were hurt” by what Rivera had said. After a public dustup—she wrote that Rivera’s mea culpa was “a whiny, effeminate, blame-the-victim bleat”—Malkin became a regular on Sean Hannity’s program and was a mainstay for the next six years, even after her family’s move to Colorado. The change of venue was, she and her husband say, partly for security, partly for their son’s and daughter’s futures, and partly for their own sanity. “That was one of the great decisions of our lives,” Jesse told me. “Nine out of 10 people would have pushed for their television careers, but that’s not what Michelle wanted for us, for our kids.”

Malkin also worried she’d become someone she wasn’t. “It was like there was a fork in the road,” she says. “It really was that kind of monumental decision for us to escape that life. It was rejecting what we knew was abnormal, the narcissism. Jesse and I did not want to become what we despised the most, those Beltway barnacles who lose sight of why they came there in the first place. I wasn’t going to compromise myself and get comfortable. I didn’t want to stop fighting for what I thought was right.”

Malkin ended her contract with Fox last year and announced she was writing another book. Today, both she and Fox are quick to point out the relationship ended amicably. (A Fox News spokesperson said Malkin is “welcome as a guest at any time.”) “I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity Roger Ailes gave me,” Malkin says of the Fox News chairman and CEO. “It was just time to do something else.”

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The freedom Malkin gained moving west and quitting her Fox News gig has been tempered by personal loss. The most painful writing Malkin has done since arriving in Colorado has concerned her 18-year-old cousin, Marizela Perez, a college student who vanished three years ago near the University of Washington’s campus in Seattle.

Malkin says police think Perez killed herself and perhaps didn’t want to be found. The teenager had been clinically depressed, had recently broken up with her boyfriend, and had previously talked about suicide. In the moments before she disappeared, she purchased sleeping pills, orange juice, and trash bags from a local supermarket. “There’s security camera footage of her walking down the street; then she turns, and that’s it,” Malkin tells me. “She’s gone.”

Malkin continues to write extensively about her cousin’s disappearance on her website—years of frustration, anger, and unanswered questions there for anyone to read. “Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up and think about where she might be,” Malkin says. She’s made herself the chief advocate for Perez’s parents, who live in New Jersey, and has led several searches of the woods near the university’s campus with dozens of volunteers culled from friends and readers. When she thought police and college officials were moving too slowly, Malkin hired a private investigator, and she regularly searches online editions of Washington newspapers for articles on newly discovered human remains.

Most recently, she’s asked Seattle police to close the investigation, which might make accessing case files easier and could help direct the family to other leads. She’s vacillated between imagining her cousin dead or lost and hurt somewhere, perhaps caught in human trafficking. Any of the options are torturous. “All these things run through your head,” she says. “It’s never-ending. I can’t imagine losing a child and not knowing where the hell they are.”

As she sits at her kitchen table, she leans in and begins to cry. “If she committed suicide and is at peace…,” Malkin says, then pauses and takes a breath. “I don’t know. The idea of her suffering all this time—it opens up the hope she’s still alive, but it’s still a horrible option. One way or the other, it would just be nice to end this.”

Malkin pushes away from her kitchen table. “You want to see the rest of the house?” she asks. She leads me past the entryway and down the hallway where her son is still singing. I’m holding my notepad, and, Malkin being Malkin, she wants to cling to whatever shred of privacy her family still enjoys. “This,” she says, looking back at me, “is all off the record.”

I don’t think I’m breaching journalistic code when I say her home is entirely normal. Carpet and hardwood. Lots of light. No effigies of Obama burning in the shower; no Nancy Pelosi dartboard in the basement. I also don’t think it’s a violation to report Malkin’s son is a preternaturally talented young musician.

Malkin uses the word “prodigy,” which seems hyperbolic until you see the kid’s home studio—the ukulele, the violin, the piano, the drums—and then listen to him as he sings into his microphone. As we watch her son as he records a track, Malkin asks that I not use his name—or his stage name—in this story.  She says she’s conflicted about promoting her son’s talent because of the potential repercussions. “I have conservative friends in Hollywood,” she tells me later. “Actors, singers, artists, and they have to cloak themselves because of the fear they might be blacklisted. And those are adults.”

It’s almost noon and the youngest Malkin has a music lesson in 20 minutes. The three of us load into the family’s Honda Pilot, which has a cracked windshield, and hustle down the hill and toward Colorado Springs. Malkin Jr. is wearing an orange T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, and he sits quietly in the backseat while his mother lists his accomplishments. He’s performed at events locally and gotten attention for his work nationally; he’s taken up dancing and has begun producing some of his own songs. (Jesse—a Rhodes Scholar who now is a stay-at-home dad—does most of the production, shoots video, and works logistics for his son’s recitals and other performances.) Little Malkin tells me he enjoys singing almost anything. His mother looks in the rearview and gives a mock sigh. “Everything, except country,” she laughs. “The one type of music where it’s an advantage to be a conservative.”

A few minutes later, we pull up to the studio. We’re late. Malkin’s son hurries inside to a back room while she and I sit down on two ancient floral-print couches. Malkin shows me a video of her son at a dance recital a couple of weeks earlier, then explains again why it’s important to keep her son as anonymous as possible. “People will use his relationship to me to hurt him,” she says. “He doesn’t need to be dragged into that, not now.”

I ask why she doesn’t come out publicly, why she doesn’t force the issue and use it as a test against her critics.

“Believe me, it’s been extremely tempting to make the experience an object lesson,” Malkin tells me. “I’m just bursting with pride. There are so many times when I wish I could tweet out a link to his latest video….”

You can’t hide forever.

“That’s true,” she says. “We’re just making it up as we go. Once he’s an adult, if he wants my help, and I’m still of some use, I’ll pull out all the stops. For us now, I think staying the course and just equipping him with a great foundation is the right way to go.”

It’s a very un-Malkin-like stance. Instead of running headlong into the wall, she’s content to see if it’ll come down on its own. She thinks about that often, the cost-benefit of how much her family has to pay for her voice—how much she stands to gain from her 24-hour-a-day contemptuousness.

Even after leaving Fox, she’s as willing to push buttons as ever. Today, Malkin’s most controversial political fight just might be with Republicans over the legalization of marijuana. It’s a position she’s felt especially qualified to debate as a Coloradan, but perhaps even more so as the daughter-in-law of a woman who’s battling metastatic melanoma. This year, Malkin wrote about her experience at a Pueblo pot shop where she and her husband bought marijuana-infused crackers, pre-rolled joints, and a vaporizer pen for her mother-in-law, Carole Malkin, a one-time author from California who now lives near Colorado Springs and has dealt with severe weight loss and pain since her diagnosis this past winter. “A month ago, with encouragement from all her doctors here in Colorado, she applied for a state-issued medical marijuana card. It still hasn’t come through,” Malkin would write in March. “But thanks to Amendment 64, the marijuana drug legalization act approved by voters in 2012, we were able to legally and safely circumvent the bureaucratic holdup.” Although Malkin was showing off her state’s pro-pot law as a triumph for enterprising, free-market Americans over incompetent government bureaucrats, her words still caused a stir among the pearl-clutchers within her party.

“This is going to be an acid test for where the right is going to land,” says Malkin, who’s backed marijuana reform since her days at the Seattle Times. “Every time I listen to Fox News now, Bill O’Reilly is screaming about pot in Colorado. I turn on the radio, and it’s my friend Sean Hannity bemoaning all of Colorado under the pot haze. They’re going to be the Archie Bunker, ‘Get off my lawn, we’re all going to hell in a pot cloud’ crowd. If that’s the face they want to put on the Republican Party, then R.I.P. We’re dead.”

November’s elections will provide some clarity as to the direction of the GOP. And although she’s moved from the East Coast political echo chamber and into her own conservative bubble, there’s no question Malkin will continue to be a contentious voice, even in the conservative movement. “Anybody who’s in public life has to pay a price,” she says over the rhythmic tapping from her son’s drum lesson. “Some people perceive me as a bomb thrower. But, you know, it’s not my natural state to be a pain in the ass.”

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