Tucker Carlson, Your Boss’s Favorite “Populist”

Tucker Carlson likes to style himself a populist. But every time there’s a fight over something that might actually make life easier for working-class people, he never misses the opportunity to take the side of big business and the rich.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses "Populism and the Right" during the National Review Institute's Ideas Summit in Washington, DC, March 29, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The United States is a country where the lives and working conditions of the average person are shaped by business and oligarchy to a unique extent. US workers lack the benefits and protections that most of the world takes for granted. They pay some of the world’s highest prices for medicine and health care, in a system that leaves them sicker and financially devastated. And their communities are plagued by exceptionally high rates of poverty, debt, homelessness, and deaths of despair.

Over the past ten months, we saw a series of political battles over fixing or at least alleviating some of this — battles over raising the minimum wage, lowering drug prices, or keeping people housed in a pandemic, to name a few. They were battles that someone with one of the most watched cable news shows on TV could, in theory, have influenced for the benefit of working Americans.

So what has Tucker Carlson, the so-called right-wing populist who’s taken to criticizing corporate America, championing the working class, and calling for an economic system that puts people before markets, had to say about all of this?

The answer is remarkably little.

Watching Carlson’s show means wading through an ocean of passionate, angry screeds taking aim at all sorts of the usual right-wing bugaboos: mask and vaccine mandates, immigrants and refugees, critical race theory, crime, wokeness, trans people, and so on. What you won’t find — despite the host’s preferred self-image as a tribune of the downtrodden working stiff — is discussion of any of the pocketbook issues immediately pressing to most working Americans, whatever their backgrounds — the kind of issues you’d expect an actual populist would be focused on.

Populism for the 1 Percent

To be fair, over the past year, Carlson has, on occasion, discussed some of the major economic questions confronting the country. He just happened to take the side of employers and the rich on every one of them.

Take expanded unemployment insurance, a pathbreaking policy that actually began under Donald Trump, and which lowered US poverty, kept families afloat in a once-in-a-century crisis, gave many low-wage workers their first taste of a halfway decent living standard, and allowed them the breathing room to get off the hamster wheel and rethink their careers and life paths.

Not to Carlson. Despite his show’s paeans to the working class, he is firmly opposed to the measure, complaining in May that the government was paying people “up to $700 a month not to work” and blaming it for the country’s labor shortage — a claim repeated endlessly by corporate executives and neoliberal pundits, but one that facts on the ground consistently showed was untrue. (Even his fans were wise to this nonsense, with one commenting, “Who can live on 700 a month. Not a great point Sir. The rest was well said!”)

Carlson hasn’t run this segment again but has repeatedly gestured at it, vaguely blaming “their policies” for a continuing labor shortage without going into specifics. Fortunately for Carlson, Republican governors did as he wished, ending the expanded insurance early, as did Joe Biden, not bothering to try and extend the program.

What about the $15 minimum wage, then? Carlson might not want people to get money while they’re out of work, but surely he’d want them to get paid decently when they go back. And surveys show this is a policy with cross-party support, with more voters in solid-red Florida backing the wage raise this past November than either presidential candidate.

You’d be mistaken. When the Democrats were briefly pretending in February to want to enact a $15 federal minimum wage, Carlson opened his segment by citing a Congressional Budget Office report charging it would cause the loss of over a million jobs, and suggested the policy was a corporate plot against small enterprises, as “these big businesses would actually be in favor of a higher minimum wage if they thought it would drive their competitors out of business.”

“I mean, this is pretty much the last thing after a year of Covid and riots that small businesses need right now, is it not?” Carlson asked his guest.

That guest, by the way, wasn’t one of the tens of millions of workers trying to get by on the poverty wages paid by American employers, who Carlson waxes poetic about occasionally. It was hedge fund manager and former Dick Cheney advisor Neil Patel, who quickly concurred with his former college roommate by insisting that “the huge multinational companies that dominate Washington” were “mostly for” the policy.

Patel called for minimum-wage policy to be segregated by size of employer — $20 or more for big ones, $10 or less for small ones — and by geography. (Of course, many months later, Carlson would crinkle his brow and yowl about how those very people in the middle he’d supported poverty wages for were being hard done by price rises).

“That’s such a smart point that I’ve heard from nobody else: $30 minimum wage for Amazon warehouse workers, no minimum wage for the dry cleaner on your block,” Carlson told his guest. “I love that.”

Too bad if you’re one of the nearly 60 million Americans working for a small business — Tucker Carlson’s brand of economic populism doesn’t apply to you.

What about the eviction ban, another Trump policy that Joe Biden inherited and had to be strong-armed into making even a token attempt to fight for? At that point, millions of Americans were at risk of eviction, at a point when the pandemic was killing a thousand people a day.

You will not be shocked to learn Carlson’s main concern was the landlords set to throw these people out on the street. “Tenants are no longer required to pay their rent,” howled Carlson, raging that the government had “decided to nationalize America’s rental properties” (if only), and attacking “Sandy Cortez and the Squad” for not calling for a mortgage moratorium they in fact had called for several times — because “the banks are huge Democratic donors,” as he explained. “It is property owners who will suffer.”

Affordable housing, then? This is a time when not only are half a million Americans homeless but tens of millions paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, with much of it centered on California.

Wrong again. In September, Carlson attacked a pair of bills signed by California governor Gavin Newsom to encourage more multifamily housing as a way to deal with the state’s out-of-control affordability issues, but which Carlson charged would “abolish the suburbs.” Carlson had finally found something he could agree with the wealthy coastal elites on: keeping poor and middle-income people unhoused and out of the high-priced, single-family-home neighborhoods that profited from a tighter housing market.

“How is this improving anyone’s life?” asked Carlson. “It won’t. It means demolishing homes to put up rental units.”

There are legitimate criticisms of the bills, some of which Carlson actually latched on to — namely that they’re largely an expansion of market-rate housing that may not do all that much for housing affordability. And he was right that they’ll benefit the developers who give big to Newsom’s campaign. But it’s telling that Carlson’s main gripe isn’t this but that the state’s idyllic, suburban-style neighborhoods will now have more higher density rental units. Predictably, he had nothing to say when Newsom sided with his developer friends to kill a push for rent control last year.

Okay, but what about the sprawling, Bernie Sanders–authored reconciliation bill the Democrats spent months half-heartedly trying to pass? Once upon a time, before the party caved to corporate interests, that bill had all manner of provisions that someone interested in the economic security of American families would support: expanding Medicare to cover more people and treatments, letting the program negotiate for lower drug prices, free community college, and universal childcare and pre-K, to name a few. But for months, a blade dangled over these programs’ future, care of corporate Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Surely Carlson would have used his considerable platform to push back, no?

By this point, you probably won’t be surprised to learn Carlson barely even mentioned the bill or any of these individual provisions. In fact, the only times Carlson has talked about the bill have been to vehemently oppose it. Back in April, he issued the standard neoliberal talking point that the bill wasn’t about physical infrastructure but about “social engineering,” and that the viewer would have to pay for it through tax hikes, because “Biden wants to just punish you.” The latter argument was especially curious, since at that point the only tax hike announced was one on corporations, which two-thirds of Americans supported. But it does suggest who Carlson’s actually talking to in these segments.

Once again, Carlson squared the circle of pretending to champion the working class while opposing policies it would benefit from, all by simply pretending those policies were something else — a “race-based redistribution plan,” as he put it in April. Later, in September, with many of the bill’s most important provisions under threat from a full-scale corporate assault, Carlson simply didn’t bother talking about them at all, instead zeroing in his outrage on one line that mandates fines for businesses with unvaccinated workers.

Inflating Inflation

There is one other key to Carlson’s opposition to these bills. It’s not totally accurate to say Carlson never really talks about pocketbook issues because, when it comes to both these bills and other instances, Carlson has spent this year obsessed with government spending and its supposed contribution to current inflation woes. “Two trillion dollars sounds like a lot for anything,” he said in April. “Won’t that kind of spending cause hyperinflation?”

In reality, the inflation we’re seeing is happening all over the world, a product of a web of pandemic-driven supply chain disruptions and interruptions in global fossil fuel production. But blaming government spending is the favorite pastime of neoliberals determined to make this economic recovery as lopsided as the last one — neoliberals like Larry Summers, the chief architect of Barack Obama’s bank-friendly economic recovery, who Carlson now cites for his complaints about federal spending. “No government in the history of the world has ever spent more money than Joe Biden is spending right now,” Carlson has said, echoing the complaints of Wall Street hucksters like Steve Rattner.

A frequent target of Carlson’s, to illustrate the disconnect between politicians and the Americans hurt by inflation, is gas prices, usually a pivot point from which to demand favors for the fossil fuel industry (on behalf of their workers, of course). Yet while Carlson is consistently furious about the hurt that higher gas prices inflict on people, he’s had absolutely nothing to say on the far more exorbitant cost surges that routinely gouge and bankrupt Americans — of skyrocketing drug prices or from the privatized, insurance-dominated health sector.

Carlson seems just fine with those: he’s called Medicare for All “demented” for growing the size of government, longing instead for the days when politicians simply talked about “who can run the country most efficiently.” Nor has Carlson ever said anything about the embattled PRO Act that would have helped workers unionize, despite his claims to support the workers of union-busting multinationals like Amazon.

Jet-Wing Populism

So let’s review. Tucker Carlson’s economic populism consists of

  • fearmongering about spending and the size of government;
  • opposing the $15 minimum wage;
  • complaining about checks to unemployed people;
  • ending an eviction pause out of concern for landlords;
  • favoring wealthy homeowners’ interests over the need for affordable housing;
  • a total lack of concern over unionization and extortionate medicine and health care costs; and
  • an overwhelming obsession with a variety of culture war bugbears.

Carlson, in other words, is an exponent of the same shopworn neoliberal ideology that’s dominated the two major US parties for the last forty years at least. He’s an “economic populist” as long as that term means slipping in terms like “working class” here or there, or throwing out lines that suggest a vague animosity to banks and big business from time to time. But if it means supporting any of the actual policies that would make a meaningful difference to people’s pocketbooks? Forget it.

Hats off to him, though. Like his old friend and fellow cable news celebrity Rachel Maddow, Carlson is a skilled television performer who’s perfected a formula to emotionally manipulate his audience. Both anchors have defended themselves in court by explaining that no reasonable person actually believes the things they’re saying on air — a lucrative bit of fraud that nets each of them millions of dollars a year.

His shtick is the bread and butter of business-friendly politicians: divide the working class on fault lines of race and cultural issues, and package a defense of the interests of business and the wealthy in lazily pseudopopulist terms, so that the “haves” who watch you feel like they’re the put-upon little guy, and the “have-nots” think you’re on their side.

But as we’ve seen with Carlson’s coverage this year, sooner or later you have to take a side on an issue. Siding with the rich and powerful once might be an exception. When you do it again and again, maybe you’re just another corporate stooge.