Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson Are Elites in Populist Clothing

Donald Trump skipped the first GOP debate to chat with his courtier Tucker Carlson. Their conversation revealed the utter insincerity of their branding as opponents of the elite and the military-industrial complex.

Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson attend a golf tournament in Bedminster, New Jersey, July 2022. (Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Tucker Carlson asked Donald Trump if Jeffrey Epstein killed himself. It was a potentially explosive moment. Before being reduced to hosting streams on Twitter — sorry, “X” — Carlson was the biggest personality on Fox News. And he was asking a former president of the United States to weigh in on whether a wealthy sex trafficker, notoriously connected to a long string of famous names, including Trump himself, may have been murdered to stop him from spilling powerful people’s secrets. How would Trump react?

Carlson: Do you think Epstein killed himself — sincerely?

Trump: I don’t know. I will say he was a fixture in Palm Beach. . .

Trump went on to say that Epstein probably did kill himself, before pivoting to his favorite subject: his claim to have won the 2020 election. Both men politely pretended not to know that Carlson had derided that narrative in text messages that have long since become public.

“I will say he was a fixture in Palm Beach” was one of many bizarre moments in the forty-six-minute interview Trump gave as an alternative to attending the first GOP debate. Mostly, Trump rambled and Carlson let him. Occasionally, Carlson tried to inject a moment of drama — by asking about Epstein, or by pushing Trump to take seriously the idea that “the Left” was going to assassinate him or start a civil war. But Trump never quite took the bait.

Both men’s friends and supporters have spent the last several years portraying them as edgy populists, enemies of the ruling class and the military-industrial complex. In the conversation on Wednesday, though, neither of them pretended to be much of anything but what they are: the former CEO of a world-spanning empire trying to get his job back, and a media clown whose two goals were to create viral moments and flatter Trump.

Skipping the Debate

Chatting with his court jester instead of going to the debate in Milwaukee was an arrogant and antidemocratic decision — much like President Joe Biden’s parallel decision not to debate his challengers for the Democratic nomination. Depressingly, it now looks like Biden and Trump may not even debate each other in the general election.

In skipping the debate, Trump was merely acting like the calculating politician he is, knowing he has a big lead and not wanting to square off against other candidates in case the voters decide someone else came out on top. Safeguarding himself from that process is hard to reconcile with his original image from 2016 as a fearlessly unfiltered bomb thrower. On paper, though, his decision to stay away from Milwaukee could have had a populist edge to it — like, “Instead of doing a boring debate with a bunch of political hacks, here’s Trump sitting down with his fellow antiwar populist Tucker Carlson to have a Real Conversation.”

This, after all, is the image both men have carefully cultivated for themselves. In 2016, Trump ran as a different kind of Republican, promising not to cut entitlements and evincing a deep concern for laid-off workers in places like Youngstown, Ohio. And Carlson convinced a lot of people, even some who were appropriately repulsed by his demagoguery about immigrants, that he genuinely cared about American workers.

In reality, Trump governed like a regular Republican, cutting taxes for rich people, weakening workplace safety regulations, going after Medicaid and food stamps, and filling the National Labor Relations Board with hard-core union busters. The jobs he promised would come back didn’t. He was a president for the 1 percent. And Carlson’s populist rhetoric never matched his political positions, either, when the rubber hit the road. When the two of them sat down together on Wednesday, economic questions were simply absent.

As Branko Marcetic has noted, the candidates in Milwaukee were unanimous in calling to “slash spending, gut entitlements, shrink government, bust unions, and cut taxes for the rich — all while maintaining current funding for the cartoonishly large US military.” If the front-runner disagrees with any of those prescriptions, people who watched the stream on “X” didn’t get a chance to find out. Carlson didn’t bring them up.

Beating the Drums

What about the other half of the “antiwar populist” image — the “antiwar” half? As a candidate in 2016, Trump retroactively criticized the Iraq War and ricocheted at random between sounding isolationist notes and promising to “bomb the hell” out of America’s enemies and torture the families of suspected terrorists. As far as we know, he didn’t fulfill his family torture promise, but his record in office was far closer to the warmongering half of his campaign rhetoric than the antiwar half. Trump doubled the rate of drone strikes in Yemen, tightened sanctions on Cuba, tore up the nuclear deal with Iran, assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, and sent heavy weaponry to Ukraine that Barack Obama had rejected as too escalatory.

In his chat with Tucker, the only real hint of bragging about any sort of antiwar record came when Trump patted himself on the back for meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — thus, he said, preventing nuclear war. He glossed over the fact that nothing concrete came out of those meetings. Neither the United States nor North Korea has even made a “no first use” pledge on nuclear weapons. And even while touting this dubious accomplishment, Trump couldn’t stop himself from reminding the audience that these meetings, at best, deescalated tensions that he himself had heightened. “The press said,” Trump said, slipping into an impression of a stuffy journalist, “He said nice things about Kim Jong Un. Well, I also said horrible things — in the beginning.”

Even when criticizing the CIA as part of his general critique of the “deep state” being politically aligned against him, Trump felt the need to emphasize that he’d used the CIA to kill lots and lots of people. Bad people, he insisted, dangerous people — although it’s worth remembering that the rest of us have to take his word for it, since it’s not like the public is generally allowed to see the evidence against victims of CIA assassinations.

After Trump mentioned the Soleimani assassination, Carlson reminded the former president that he was sharing the glory with the CIA for his own accomplishment — something Trump never wants to do. The former president quickly corrected himself. “Really,” he said, “that was us.”

All of this is about Trump’s past militarism, though. Perhaps he plans to be more of a dove if he gets a second term?

He did repeat his claim that he’d support peace negotiations in Ukraine. This would be quite a bit of a reversal given Trump’s record in office, both on Ukraine in particular and on US-Russia relations in general, but I suppose it’s possible that he’d be true to his word if he returned to office. I hope so.

On the other hand, when it comes to (a) US policy in Latin America and (b) the other great-power conflict in the world today, the one between the United States and China, Trump’s message was very different. He and Carlson talked about allegations about Chinese military bases in Cuba, and, ominously, both agreed that this shouldn’t be “allowed.” What mechanism, you might wonder, would a second Trump administration employ to disallow it? Neither he nor Carlson ever quite said.

Citing US officials, the Wall Street Journal has claimed that China and Cuba have negotiated about hosting joint military training on the island. The United States has also alleged a Chinese “spy base” in Cuba. Carlson and Trump seemed to be going further, suggesting secret plans to permanently station Chinese troops on the island.

Indignantly, Tucker asked, “Why is China allowed to conduct imperialism in our hemisphere?” Presumably, only we should be allowed to “conduct imperialism” in what is after all “our” hemisphere. Trump agreed that this was outrageous, said it was a problem “all over Latin America” and not just in Cuba, and started rambling about the history of the Panama Canal.

Of course, the United States has a vast, globe-spanning network of military bases whose existence no one denies. Some are about as close to China as Cuba is to the United States. And whether or not it ever takes the form of a permanent Chinese military base, Cuba’s obvious motivation for military cooperation with China isn’t that it dreams of some Red Dawn scenario in which Cuba threatens the United States but precisely the opposite.

The United States sponsored an invasion of Cuba six decades ago at the Bay of Pigs, and since then has maintained crippling economic sanctions as well as sponsoring terrorism on the island. Of course Cuba wants a great-power patron to help protect it against future US aggression. One would think a couple of “antiwar populists” would want to deescalate the whole situation by lifting the US embargo and completing the process President Obama started of normalizing relations with Cuba. If they’re concerned about bases, there’s no reason future US-Cuba-China diplomacy couldn’t involve the US closing some of its bases around the world in exchange for winding down any forms of China-Cuba security cooperation it finds objectionable.

Instead, interspersed with his rambling reflections about all the people who were killed by “the mosquito” in the process of building the Panama Canal — and how appalling he found it that President Jimmy Carter relinquished permanent US control of the canal — President Trump ominously noted that Cuban “exiles” in South Florida wouldn’t like it if the US continued to allow Chinese-Cuban military cooperation because “that means they’ll never be able to go back.”

Got that? Antiwar Tucker Carlson is concerned about sole US control over “our hemisphere” being violated, and antiwar Donald Trump dreams of sponsoring a counterrevolution in Cuba after taking some unspecified action by which he would not “allow” Chinese bases there.

If these are the doves, we don’t need hawks.