Originally published for the New York Times.
During an episode of “The View” this month, Senator Elizabeth Warren explained her wealth tax plan for the top one-tenth of the 1 percent. Some viewers were quick to notice the presidential candidate’s sly and effective tactic while doing so: a deft rebuffing of the co-host Meghan McCain’s multiple attempts to interject. Ms. Warren never skipped a beat while ignoring Ms. McCain until she was prepared to engage in discussion with her on her own terms, to raucous applause.
Ms. Warren seemed to know what she would be up against when appearing on the long-running daytime talk show. Since Ms. McCain, a conservative, joined as a co-host on “The View” in October of 2017, she has become its most polarizing and predictable figure, the common denominator in the show’s most contentious round tables.
In the early days after her arrival, her on-air spats made for fun TV. Now it’s just exhausting.
It has become the norm to watch Ms. McCain, the daughter of Senator John McCain, square off against her co-hosts in a barrage of vehement exchanges — leveraging her political parentage, accusing her co-hosts of supporting infanticide, using her platform to push back against assault weapons bans and progressive immigration policy. The increasingly aggressive rejoinders by her co-hosts have escalated to the daytime TV equivalent of a cage fight for the viewing public, reflecting the frustrations of discourse in our current political climate under the magnifying glass of harsh studio lighting.
That tension could be taking a toll behind the scenes. On Monday, the conservative co-host Abby Huntsman announced her immediate departure from the show, citing plans to work on the campaign of her father, Jon Huntsman Jr., for governor in Utah. But it has been suggested that the move was also fueled by rumored discord between Ms. Huntsman and Ms. McCain, who were once considered to be allies on the set. (Ms. McCain has wished Ms. Huntsman “nothing but the best on her next chapter.”)
For some viewers, Ms. McCain is the privileged product of conservative nepotism, capitalism and the American military-industrial complex. That coalescence naturally renders her a villain to progressives, who envision her as the cathartic personification of a punching bag on social media. Conversely, each pile-on reinforces her self-written narrative of the long-suffering victim of censorship.
This dynamic is a high-wire act that Ms. McCain takes pains to use to her advantage as often as possible. When she appeared on the late-night talk show “Watch What Happens Live” in September, she informed the host, Andy Cohen, that every day she assumes she could get fired, because of “the tone of where we are culturally.” It’s a deflecting refrain that has been employed by standup comedians and political commentators alike — anyone bemoaning the rise of so-called cancel culture when facing pushback for harmful rhetoric.
And in December, when her co-host Whoopi Goldberg sharply told Ms. McCain, “Girl, please stop talking,” Ms. McCain took to Twitter the next day to rally “all the fellow conservative ‘girls’ who won’t be quiet.” The tweet was accompanied by a “Game of Thrones” Mother of Dragons GIF, implying that Ms. Goldberg’s use of the word “girl” was infantilizing rather than common black American parlance.
The injection of vitriol undercuts the substantive political critique that is supposed to occur during these segments. Every combative segment is immediately countered by a claim that it’s all just a harmless debate among friends, making the ostensibly organic on-air confrontations seem all the more performative, no matter how genuine the sentiment. The day after that particular clash with Ms. McCain, Ms. Goldberg opened the show by insisting that the nature of their exchange was nothing of concern, noting that co-hosts on “The View” have always “clashed and gone back and forth.”
Ms. McCain, for her part, reminded everyone that this is to be expected, as she is “hyper, hyper conservative.” This “agree to disagree” stance is frustrating and lies in stark contrast with the current political moment, when many are skeptical of the idea of civil discourse and who it is meant to benefit.
To be fair, “The View” has had its fair share of friction during the course of its two-decade run. Since its 1997 debut, the show has gone through nearly as many permanent co-hosts — 22 — as it has seasons, while representing a wide range of backgrounds and ideologies, including the prosecutor-turned-“Court TV” sensation Star Jones, the conservative “Survivor”alum Elisabeth Hasselbeck and the anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy. Infamously, Ms. Hasselbeck and the show’s co-creator and co-star Barbara Walters argued about women’s reproductive rights on air, prompting a behind-the-scenes fiasco where Ms. Hasselbeck almost quit in mid-show.
But compared with the conflicts with the current hosts and Ms. McCain, the on-air tenor was not nearly as fraught, and the audience not nearly as reactive to the pushback.
For years, the program has held tight to the idea of “civil disagreement,” embracing the need for debate and Ms. Walters’s original vision of bringing people to the table with different backgrounds and views. In truth, nothing about these recent viral incidents is either civil or revelatory, no matter how many avowals are made to that effect. And there’s a sense that some of the audience — which in recent years has included women in the 25-to-54 demographic watching at home and those who view the viral clips online — is growing increasingly weary of the farce. (Someone has created a Change.org petition to replace Ms. McCain with the frequent contributor and fellow conservative Ana Navarro, who has been celebrated for her moments sparring with Ms. McCain. As I write this, it has close to 9,000 signees and counting.)
In many ways, it echoes the comedian Jon Stewart’s notable 2004 appearance on the CNN show “Crossfire.” Mr. Stewart harangued the hosts — the liberal Paul Begala and the conservative Tucker Carlson — and accused them of being hacks. He argued that their performance of bipartisan debate only served the politicians and corporations, as opposed to their audience, who he believed deserved to be informed and assuaged of their palpable anxiety. “To do a debate would be great,” Mr. Stewart said. “But that’s like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.”
In the earliest episodes of “The View,” Ms. Walters would sign off with a line that remains a part of the brand to this day: “Have a great day, everyone, and take a little time to enjoy the view.” At the time, the show set the standard for a new era of women’s variety programming, one that embraced public debate, but still operated with the veneer of civility. Post-2016, we are presented with a platform that is devoid of the varnish of the genteel, yet is still asking us to take a little time to enjoy the view. The problem is, with Ms. McCain still on the show, there’s not much to enjoy.