The Preppy Populist

Fox News host Tucker Carlson has transformed himself from bow-tied libertarian to economic populist. But his hostility to the politics of solidarity remains intact.

Illustration by James Clapham

“Working-class people of all colors have a lot more in common, infinitely more in common with each other than they do with some overpaid MSNBC anchor. And if you were allowed to think about that for long enough, you might start to get unauthorized ideas about economics, and that would be disruptive to a very lucrative status quo.”

On the face of it, here is a clarion call for solidarity of the working class, an exhortation to reject racial and cultural animosity and stand shoulder to shoulder against economic elites. It’s reminiscent of the words of Frederick Douglass, who wrote that the Southern landed elite “secured their ascendency over both the poor whites and the blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.”

But there’s a problem. The passage above was delivered by Tucker Carlson, the same Tucker Carlson who has said on Fox News that immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier.” The same Tucker Carlson who recently responded to Representative Ilhan Omar’s condemnations of American militarism by saying that Omar should be grateful her Muslim Somali refugee family was allowed into the country. He went on to say that her ingratitude was proof the United States should do more to either make immigrants assimilate or stop “importing people from places whose values are simply antithetical to ours.”

It’s not hard to prove that Carlson is full of shit. In fact, it’s pretty easy. But alongside the hateful nonsense, his populist rhetoric speaks to real anger at the status quo — and the combination seems to be resonating with people who could potentially be won over to the Left.

Even if we conclude that Carlson is insincere and manipulative, it’s worth trying to identify what exactly it is that he’s manipulating in the first place.


Solidarity Divided

Tucker Carlson is the second most popular cable news host in the country. His show on Fox News draws about 3 million viewers per night. If you’ve tuned in at all recently, you’ve noticed that Carlson has made a major departure from the conservative economic consensus. He rails against not just liberal cosmopolitan elites — standard fare for the conservative punditry — but indeed the wealthy and powerful more generally. He even dares to question capitalism by name — previously unthinkable for a Fox News host. “Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion,” he said recently. “You’d have to be a fool to worship it.”

His unorthodox perspective has rankled other conservatives, including the National Review’s David French, who, in an essay titled “The Right Should Reject Tucker Carlson’s Victimhood Populism,” argued that conser­vatives must not impress on people “falsehoods about the power of governments or banks or elites over their personal destinies.” In French’s view, Carlson is veering perilously into the left lane, chalking individual success and well-being up to politics rather than personal responsibility and virtue.

The destruction wrought by economic and political elites is the theme of Carlson’s latest book, Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution. A few months after its publication, he summed up its thesis on air, saying, “Our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.”

Yet Carlson’s rhetoric is also shot through with nationalism and xenophobia. Economic elites, he says, are engaged in a conspiracy of “demographic replacement.” As he put it during one recent episode, “Our plan here in the West is to just let the depressed people die off and replace them with people from other countries.”

Immigrants are interlopers, Carlson tells his viewers, and they are coming to take your jobs and destroy your quality of life. Are you unemployed or underpaid? That’s because it’s “easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind.” Does the American Dream seem to be slipping through your fingers? That’s because the “American piñata has been getting pummeled for decades and now it has finally come apart. Our national wealth is up for grabs by whomever gets here first, and they are coming.”

Of course, those who are coming are mostly nonwhite. And the Fox News host is keen to paint them as inclined to criminality, saying for example, “If you’re in our country illegally, a single crime is too many. I mean, talk about adding outrage to insult. Already breaking our laws, and then committing crimes.”

Contrary to his own sound advice, Carlson is “whipping up a racial frenzy” that divides the working class and forecloses on a strategy to actually improve wages and living standards for all workers.


From Preppy Libertarian to Economic Populist

What should we make of Carlson’s hypocrisy? As political scientist Adolph Reed once said, “Ideology is the mechanism that harmonizes the principles that you want to believe you hold with what advances your interests in the world.” Simply put, Carlson is a cultural reactionary at heart, but in a moment of growing working-class discontent, economic populism is the key to his phenomenal success. He’d be dumb not to make the switch.

Carlson wasn’t always a bleeding heart for the suffering native-born American worker. Until relatively recently, he was a bow-tie-wearing libertarian who, like French, sneered at the implication that the United States is not the land of plenty. In a 2012 interview with Highbrow Magazine he spoke of “poverty and instability” as “something that we don’t have in this country,” concluding flatly that “nobody’s poor in America.” Nor was he always so careful to disavow racism, calling Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys” in 2008.

He emerged from his chrysalis a right populist only after Donald Trump’s election. That’s because Carlson learned the correct lessons from Trump’s victory — that an antiestablishment hunger has been growing, and that the Democratic Party is uninterested in satiating it. By speaking to the real economic concerns of working people, the Right can outflank the center. It doesn’t matter if they follow through; Donald Trump hasn’t. The point is to make people feel heard, to channel their demoralization and pain for political gain by marrying vague economic heterodoxy to hard-line social reaction.

You have been forgotten by elites, Carlson says. You have been forgotten in favor of immigrants.

This message is tailor-made for his audience. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” airs on Fox News, which has the most conservative and whitest audience of any cable news channel, but also the poorest. Nearly two-thirds of Fox News viewers make less than $75,000 a year, and a third make less than $30,000 a year. Some Carlson viewers are just along for the culture-war ride, relishing the opportunity to hear him call Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “a moron, and nasty, and more self-righteous than any televangelist who ever preached a sermon on cable access.” But Ocasio-Cortez is known for sermonizing against economic inequality, which has a natural appeal for someone struggling to pay bills. Carlson reaches a settlement with them, allowing that Ocasio-Cortez has a point that the “economy at its core is badly distorted.”

Since he began to admonish economic elites, Carlson’s career has taken flight. And that’s because his message is suitably responsive to the political reality. Since the recession, the nation has been gripped by a populist mood, but earlier attempts to reconcile conservative ideology with that mood ran aground. The Tea Party slid into ideological chaos, its libertarianism and commitment to small government proving incompatible with the reality of a deteriorating quality of life.

The populist mood persisted and found expression on the Left. There was Occupy Wall Street. There was Black Lives Matter. And then, most fearsome of all, there was the Bernie Sanders campaign, with its unexpectedly popular message of democratic socialism — even in Fox country. It was up to a few clever conservatives to rethink the movement’s strategy. The smartest among them have always known that conservatism’s long-term survival hinges on preventing the working-class portion of its base from heeding the siren song of the Left.

Enter Donald Trump, a man apart. A billionaire, yes, but one who had little reverence for the stodgy experts whose graphs proved the struggling worker was a loser worthy of his lot. Trump spoke of the need to stay out of costly and stupid military adventures while people back home struggled to put food on the table. He promised to stop trade deals that bled jobs from whole regions, leaving husks of towns beleaguered by poverty and drug addiction and engulfed in gloom.

The conservative establishment insisted that this carnage was inevitable and fair. In 2016, in the heat of the presidential primary, the National Review published an article that read, “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets.” The article further taunted their denizens, saying, “Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.” Liberals, for their part, said many times over that working-class Trump supporters got what they deserved — that economic distress was the deplorables’ punishment for their gullibility and congenital racism.

In this climate, Trump, an obscenely wealthy real-estate and entertainment magnate from New York City, miraculously emerged as an anti-elitist — and once Bernie Sanders was out of the running, the only anti-elitist on offer. Trump legitimated people’s perception that they were being screwed and also, for more than a few, indulged their cultural prejudices. Those liberals who have mocked the idea that “economic anxiety” played a role in the election outcome, declaring that the term is little more than a sneaky euphemism for racism, are missing that the Trump campaign artfully interwove those two dis-tinct forces. Here, albeit in clumsy packaging, was the winning formula. And win it did, rescuing the conservative ship despite the GOP’s own best efforts to sink it.

Carlson was paying close attention.


The Nature of the Threat

At its core, Carlson’s nativist rhetoric is a powerful weapon against a social-democratic agenda. Sandwiched between monologues about unaccountable aristocrats, Carlson warns viewers that immigrants “stream north to America’s generous welfare state,” crossing borders in search of “free healthcare, free education, subsidized housing, food stamps.” He accuses them of “plunder.”

Never mind that immigrant workers, including most undocumented immigrants, do pay taxes to fund the programs they use — with even more paying into programs like Social Security ($13 billion) and Medicare ($3 billion) that they themselves never get to use, subsidizing them for everyone else.

Throughout the history of modern capitalism, this rhyming couplet of manufactured scarcity and social contempt has been integral to defeating progressive reform movements and eviscerating social safety nets. If it’s not immigrants sponging off the system, it’s black people on welfare or homeless people with free Obama phones. The message is always that a robust welfare state is a giveaway to undesirables, whoever that may be at the moment, and is best avoided so as not to encourage their laziest, greediest tendencies.

It’s impossible to ascertain how much of Carlson’s own economic populist rhetoric he believes, given the vast array of motives that might be driving his ideological shift. In the end, it hardly matters. What’s important is that he represents the canny adjustment of the conservative project to the realities of the present moment — replaying the old Gingrich- and Bush-era classics wouldn’t get them anywhere with the public today.

What Carlson is responding to is a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the neoliberal established order, amorphous but indisputably powerful. The Left must respond to it, too.

This means, among other things, that we can’t simply camp out on the other side of the culture wars, firing live rounds at opponents who ought to be on our side and considering that sufficient. Like Tucker Carlson on his better days, we must insist that working-class people have more in common with one another than with economic elites, no matter our differences. And then, quite unlike Carlson, we must decline to viciously scape-goat people who belong in that coalition, opting instead to invite them into shared struggle on the basis of that common interest.