Tucker Carlson Is a Repugnant, Pseudo-Populist Fraud

Tucker Carlson likes to posture as a bold populist truth-teller. But when push comes to shove, he sides with the ruling class and bosses, not workers.

Tucker Carlson speaks during the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Feszt on August 7, 2021 in Esztergom, Hungary. (Janos Kummer / Getty Images)

Right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson has broken his silence for the first time since he was fired by Fox News at the beginning of the week. He released a short video full of scathing criticisms of the bipartisan establishment and the barren wasteland of cable news. It ends with a strong implication that we’ll be hearing from him soon in a new venue.

I’m sure that’s true. In 2023, no one with a significant following goes away just because they lose a job. He might end up with a smaller platform, but he’ll undoubtedly land somewhere.

But what message will he be promoting on the new platform?

The impression you’d get from the video is that Carlson is someone who worries about “war” and “corporate power” and sides with the working class. Or at least the native-born section of the working class — he mentions “demographic change” along with the other two topics when he lists important things we don’t see substantive debates about on cable news.

But it’s all hot air. He doesn’t even support a higher minimum wage. And he’s all too eager for a new Cold War with China. The truth is that while he’s deviated from conservative orthodoxy on some issues, at his core Tucker Carlson is the same preppy Republican he was twenty years ago when he was wearing a bowtie and defending the Bush administration on CNN’s Crossfire. “Heterodox antiwar populist” is the character he plays on TV.

From Neocon to Libertarian . . . to “Populist”?

The germ of truth in the myth of Carlson the Populist is that he really has shifted on some important questions over the decades. He’s defended Julian Assange’s right to publish information the Pentagon would prefer to keep secret, for example — a stance that would have been unthinkable during his Crossfire era.

Not all of this evolution is recent. Back in 2009, he joined the libertarian Cato Institute as a senior fellow. Cato’s press release skimped over his full-throated defense of Bush’s hawkishness in the early years of the “war on terror,” which notoriously included calling Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys” who should “shut up and obey” the United States because they “can’t govern themselves.” Instead of dwelling on his past positions, Cato in 2009 stressed that Carlson “became” a critic of “numerous Bush administration policies, including wasteful spending and the war in Iraq.”

Even now, that evolution away from neoconservatism is incomplete. Carlson often talks like a critic of the military-industrial complex when he discusses America’s global rivalry with Russia — a right-wing isolationist critic rather than a left-wing internationalist one, but a critic nonetheless. Compare, for instance, Carlson’s segment pushing back against the idea that we should “hate” warmongering Russian president Vladimir Putin with the attitude of socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, who went to jail for his fiery speech opposing US entry into World War I — but took it for granted that he should also denounce the German kaiser and show solidarity with his antiwar comrades in Germany.

But as Branko Marcetic points out, when it comes to America’s global rivalry with China, Carlson switches gears and becomes the biggest booster of the military-industrial complex. He’s suggested that America should be doing more to build up a “strong military and, yes, a strong CIA” to counter the Chinese threat. Connecting the two subjects, he’s said that “our main enemy is China” and that “the US ought to be in a relationship with Russia, allied against China.”

So the “antiwar” part of the “antiwar populist” image is more than a little dubious. But it’s true enough that he’s improved on civil liberties since his Crossfire days, that he went from supporting America’s wars in the Middle East to seeing them as misguided, and that he’s been dovish on relations between Russia and the United States.

That evolution was already well underway in 2009. But what about the issues where he’s supposed to have changed since leaving Cato in 2015?

A “Populist” Who Sides With Your Boss

Here’s what Carlson wrote about Medicare for All in 2019, well after his “populist” rebranding:

“Medicare-for-all” is actual socialism, for-real socialism. Health care spending amounts to about a fifth of the entire American economy. Elizabeth Warren demands total control of all of it — immediately. . . .

So how do you pay for “Medicare-for-all”? It’s not a minor detail we can settle later. It’s the single most important question about the program. Why do you think we don’t have it already? Because we can’t afford it.

Reality check: The reason we don’t have Medicare for All isn’t that the United States is less capable of making the finances work than other advanced democracies that have implemented similar programs. It’s that the bipartisan establishment Carlson rails against when it suits him does the bidding of the powerful and profitable private health-insurance industry.

In fact, the year before Carlson wrote this, the libertarian Mercatus Center — hardly primed to back such proposals — crunched the numbers on Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All plan and found that it would be more cost-efficient than the current system. (They tried to bury that finding by emphasizing how much money it would cost rather than the fact that this price tag is less than our society spends on health care right now.) A middle-income taxpayer who currently has private insurance might pay a higher tax rate, but the combined cost of their current taxes and their current premiums, co-pays, and deductibles would be greater than that higher tax bill.

You might think a “populist” like Carlson would care about putting more money in the pockets of ordinary people. You’d be wrong. He prefers to spout insurance-industry talking points.

Similarly, Carlson is opposed to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Talking very much like the Cato Institute senior fellow he used to be, he claimed in 2021 that the wage hike would cost the economy a million jobs. He awkwardly tried to turn this into a “populist” talking point by claiming that “these big businesses would actually be in favor of a higher minimum wage if they thought it would drive their competitors out of business” and saying that he’d be fine with raising the minimum wage for large firms but not small ones.

Similarly, in a conversation last year with Amazon Labor Union leader Chris Smalls — whom Carlson seems to have invited on his show in the hopes that Smalls would take the opportunity to criticize progressive congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with whom Smalls had previously argued on Twitter — Carlson casually said that he’d never been “particularly pro-union” but that he’d like to see Amazon owner Jeff Bezos have his business unionized.

These attempts to split the difference between libertarianism and “populism” are telling. At best, the regular people Carlson sympathizes with when he rails against Wall Street or corporate America aren’t the working class. They’re small-business owners. If you’re one of the sixty million Americans who works for a small business, Carlson wants you to continue to earn poverty wages to prop up your employers against their larger competitors.

And even that might be giving him too much credit. He claims he’d favor a hypothetical à la carte minimum wage hike on big companies, but the top-line consequence of his position is that he rejects attempts to raise the minimum wage in the real world — and thus lands on the side of big corporations that like wage rates just fine as is.

Carlson’s response to the baby formula shortage last year wasn’t to blame the profit-seeking greed of the giant companies that manufacture the great bulk of the product in the United States. It was to blame a government program that provides vouchers for low-income mothers to buy formula.

Carlson wrote:

The problem right now is that the Abbott Nutrition Company has made the baby formula for the vast majority of WIC contracts. The government had all its eggs virtually in Abbott’s basket. Unfortunately, Abbott just closed its plant in Sturgis, Michigan because of contamination, and that means that millions of people who used WIC to buy Abbott products are forced to buy competing formulas and they’re doing it all at once.

Got that? Carlson doesn’t even pause to ask why the contamination happened, what this had to do with Abbot’s lax safety practices, or whether more regulation might have helped stop this from happening. He just homes in on too many poor mothers getting baby formula with government vouchers as “the” problem leading to shortages for everyone else.

But perhaps most telling of all is Carlson’s response to the fentanyl crisis. The supposed antiwar populist’s preferred culprit for the tens of thousands of fentanyl death every year isn’t widespread poverty and despair caused by decades of capital running roughshod over a disempowered working class.

Instead, his preferred story about the roots of the fentanyl crisis can be summarized in one word: China.

Carlson Versus His Viewers

Many of Carlson’s admirers assume that he was fired for one or more of his genuinely heterodox positions — like opposing US intervention in Ukraine. But right now, evidence strongly suggests that he was let go for more mundane reasons.

Multiple lawsuits against Fox implicate Carlson in one way or another, and in some of the text messages and off-air videos that have recently emerged, Carlson expresses opinions that are embarrassing to his employer. Some involve insults directed at Fox News management. Others reveal a severe gap between how he talked about Trump and claims about election fraud on air and how he spoke about these subjects in private. Still others include off-camera jokes about his “‘postmenopausal fans’ and whether they will approve of how he looks on the air.”

Carlson is, in other words, the kind of brave truth-teller who thinks very little of his audience and avoids telling them things they don’t want to hear. And the kind of antiwar populist who longs for a full-fledged Cold War with China and opposes raising the minimum wage.

What he really is, at the end of the day, is a clown. This is a man who devoted multiple segments to ranting about “woke” candy manufacturer Mars Wrigley changing its animated green M&M to make her less sexy.

He might have lost his gig at Fox, but I have no doubt he’ll be reapplying his clown makeup and setting up a tent at some other circus soon enough. Tucker Carlson isn’t going anywhere. We should be so lucky.

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Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

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