Right-Wing “Populists” Like Tucker Carlson Are Just Elitists in Disguise

Seeking to distance himself from rank elitism, Tucker Carlson called conservative luminary William F. Buckley one of the “great villains of the 20th century.” He’s right — but Carlson himself hasn’t broken with Buckley’s contempt for the working class.

Tucker Carlson speaks at the Turning Point Action conference on July 15, 2023 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

On a recent episode of his show, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro bemoaned the existence of a faction “on the Right,” who he said “sound very much like Noam Chomsky” and “very much like Bernie Sanders.” A flustered Shapiro said he didn’t know what to make of this phenomenon “other than . . . they’re just wrong.”

To illustrate this alarming development, Shapiro played a clip of former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson being introduced by libertarian podcaster and comedian Dave Smith. At one point in the clip, Smith brings up one of the most prominent figures in the twentieth-century American right: William F. Buckley.

Smith: I view Bill Buckley as one of, like, the great villains of the twentieth century.

Carlson [sounding very excited]: I couldn’t agree more.

Shapiro seemed offended. “Tucker’s a super-talented broadcaster,” he said, “and I think Tucker’s a smart guy” but “I would love for him to explicate why he thinks Bill Buckley was one of the worst forces of the twentieth century.”

As far as I know, Carlson hasn’t responded to this request. But I think I know why he might feel the need to distance himself from Buckley’s poisonous legacy. Carlson wants to be seen as a populist. He might have even convinced himself that he is one. And acknowledging that he’s still one of Buckley’s children makes it harder to pull off the act.

Right-wing populists like Carlson are tying themselves in knots to look like anything other than what Buckley was: an unrepentant elitist.

Who Was William F. Buckley?

In his befuddlement over Carlson’s Buckley bashing, Shapiro described Buckley as “the most prominent conservative of the twentieth century.” That might be an exaggeration — even if he meant “the most prominent American conservative,” Buckley was no more “prominent” than Ronald Reagan or even Rush Limbaugh. But there’s a straightforward case that he was more important. As the founder of National Review magazine, he set the basic parameters of movement conservatism in the United States. And without those parameters in place, we would not have gotten the versions of Reagan and Limbaugh that we did.

Later, Buckley popularized the Right’s ideas on PBS’s Firing Line, where he often crossed words with left-wing thinkers and activists like Michael Harrington, Noam Chomsky, and even the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party. Given Buckley’s politics, it’s more than a little ironic that Firing Line is a show that could only have existed on public television, where no one much worried that in-depth conversations about political ideology would bore viewers and cataclysmically result in fewer eyes on the next commercial break. But Buckley deserves credit for routinely exposing his viewers to contrary points of view. More than a few of his successors notoriously lack that courage.

Buckley’s ideology itself was a fusion of social traditionalism, Cold War militarism, and enthusiasm about the “free market.” His first book, God and Man at Yale (1951), was devoted in large part to attacking Yale University (his alma mater) for hiring professors he suspected of atheism, socialism, or both.

Conservative books about campus politics published in more recent decades tend to position themselves as defenses of free debate in what the authors describe as a stifling atmosphere of progressive ideological conformity. God and Man at Yale, on the other hand, is quite openly a plea for conservative ideological conformity. Buckley wanted Yale to fire all the Godless and/or Red professors — and you don’t have to read the book all that closely to realize that even Keynesian economics professors were far too “socialist” for him. He even suggested that the Yale Alumni Association be empowered to veto new hires on ideological grounds.

Buckley was a man whose contempt for ordinary people was unabashed — and my guess is that this is why Carlson wants to distance himself from Buckley’s legacy now. If Buckley didn’t even trust ultraprivileged Yale students around ideas that hadn’t been vetted by ideological censors, how do you think he felt about the working class?

In 1965, Buckley went to the Cambridge Union to debate James Baldwin on the proposition “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” At one point, Buckley acknowledged that of course racism could be unpleasant — but, he rhetorically asked, what did Baldwin want white people to do about it? A heckler made an obvious suggestion: “You could let them vote in Mississippi.” Buckley’s “witty” response revealed everything about the way he saw the world:

What is wrong in Mississippi, sir, is not that not enough negroes are voting but that too many white people are voting.

Translated from Buckley’s polite and formal style, that’s, Oh, don’t worry. I hate poor people of all races.

Did Carlson Ever Really Stop Being a Buckley-ite?

It’s clear enough why Carlson might not want to be associated with this legacy: his whole schtick is that he does care about ordinary people. Buckley presumably would have loved to restrict the right to vote to people who could flash their Yale diploma (or their country club membership card) when they got to the polling place — and, in his languorous and half-ironic way, Buckley had no problem saying that.

Carlson, on the other hand, claims to hate the “elites.” He says he’s all about “the working class.” But, is he?

There was a time not long ago when Carlson made no such claims. As Shapiro pointed out in the segment we started with, “Tucker might not like National Review now” but “he certainly liked writing for them back in the ’90s.”

Even in the early 2000s, Tucker cohosted Crossfire along with fellow conservative Robert Novack and their deeply mediocre liberal counterparts James Carville and Paul Begala. I sometimes caught the show back then, and I can’t remember Carlson pretending to be anything but a straight-down-the-line George W. Bush Republican.

I can vividly recall Carlson and Begala arguing about Bush’s policy of “indefinite detention” of suspected terrorists. Begala’s centrist view was that they should be neither indefinitely detained nor allowed access to the real judicial system but instead tried in regular military courts. Carlson was all for “indefinite” legal limbo.

Back then, he supported the war in Iraq. In a repulsive bit of leaked audio that came out much later, he once even called Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys” who should “shut up and obey” the United States because they “can’t govern themselves.” By 2009, he’d moved away from these neoconservative roots to become not a right-wing “populist,” but a libertarian. That was the year he became a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a free-market fundamentalist think tank.

He had by then become a critic of the Iraq War, and I do think that some of his post-neocon evolution has been genuine. He’s defended Julian Assange’s right to publish information the United States finds embarrassing, for example, and that really is a significant shift from any position you could imagine Carlson taking in the early 2000s. Even there, though, his evolution has been uneven. As I noted back in April when Carlson lost his show on Fox:

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 . . . 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.”

If Tucker’s evolution away from the views he held when he was writing for the National Review has been incomplete even on questions where you’d expect a Cato Institute libertarian to be better than a standard conservative, what about the issues where you would expect a “populist” to be better than a Cato Institute libertarian? He certainly isn’t a cultural “libertarian” and doesn’t pretend to be one; his posture on these matters is that he defends wholesome middle-American values against cosmopolitan degenerates. But what about opposition to the economic agenda of the elite — the actual, literal elite, defined in terms of access to wealth and economic power, not just people whose values can be rhetorically dismissed as “elitist?”

It’s exactly here, at the economic core of the worldview Carlson inherited from Buckley, where the alleged transformation is most empty. Does he support a higher minimum wage? A stronger labor movement? Medicare for All? Universal childcare? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

What Carlson does now that he didn’t in National Review or on Crossfire or in his time at the Cato Institute is find a way to weave “populist” concerns into the way he talks about many of the issues. In 2019, when J. D. Vance came on Carlson’s show to tell him that the phenomenon of some Democrats now endorsing Medicare for All wasn’t really a “lurch to the left” but a gift to “the professional class” because Medicare for All would mean that the government was paying doctors, Carlson didn’t roll his eyes. He told Vance that this idea, which he’d never “considered” before, was “fascinating.” He seemed to embrace Vance’s general premise that left-wing ideas are all schemes to benefit middle-class professionals. (Reality check: doctors’ salaries are unusually high in the United States and would probably go down a bit if we adopted an egalitarian system like Medicare for All, which would guarantee everyone access to health care.)

Similarly, when Carlson resists the idea of a $15 minimum wage, he doesn’t outright say, “Employers’ property rights are sacred, so they shouldn’t have to pay one penny more than the wages people are desperate enough to accept.” He says he can’t support it because it would be bad for ordinary people who own small businesses — never mind that the end-of-the-day consequence is that the sixty million Americans who work for small businesses won’t secure a living wage.

Carlson has come to find unvarnished presentations of his economic beliefs embarrassing, and he does his best to add some varnish. But he has yet to sever his Buckley-ite ideological inheritance where it counts.

By analogy: You might find your father embarrassing. You might never call and never visit. You might deny being related to the old guy if anyone asks. But he’s still your dad.