Inside Tucker Carlson's Brain: The post-liberal intellectuals who are reshaping conservatism.

AuthorBirenbaum, Gabby

On February 22, as tensions that would soon spill into war mounted on the Ukrainian border, Fox News' Tucker Carlson opened his show--the most popular cable news program in the country--with a searing monologue ripping into the U.S. foreign policy establishment. At the center of it was a sinister question: Why should Americans hate Vladimir Putin?

In a series of rhetorical questions, Carlson asked:

Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs? "These are fair questions," he continued, coming to his point. "And the answer is no."

Carlson's defense of Putin immediately drew wide condemnation from liberals, who compared it to the way Donald Trump speaks about the Russian dictator. But another common theme of Carlson's is not so obviously illiberal. In early 2019, for example, he announced that

Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion. Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You'd have to he a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society. Carlson is hardly the only Republican striking this note nowadays. Republican Senator Josh Hawley regularly joins the show to denounce Big Tech monopolies. Senator Tom Cotton recently echoed Carlson's hostility to free markets in a speech in which, even while claiming the mantle of Ronald Reagan, he argued against "open borders, unfettered trade, and globalization," summing up with the peroration: "We are a nation with an economy, not an economy with a nation." In January, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy joined the new Republican rhetorical war on Big Business when he ripped into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying it had no place in today's GOP.

Where is this stuff coming from? Many of Carlson's ideas and attitudes are shared by the Barstool conservatives in Fox's core demographic, who are as alienated these days by "woke" capitalism and "forever wars" as they ever were by "feminazis" and "libtards." But in fulminating against monopoly and NATO expansionism, Carlson is often showcasing or channeling ideas from public intellectuals with perches ranging from the New York Times op-ed page to professorships at Harvard and Notre Dame. Many have pedigrees in Catholic conservatism, but one prominent member of their ranks is the author of a book of political philosophy whose back cover sports a lavish endorsement from Barack Obama. Another guest with whom Carlson has communed learned about the evils of monopoly capital through his love of back-to-the-land, organic hippy culture, while still another has a resume that includes working on bank regulation for Bernie Sanders.

Many other Democrats and progressives, though they loathe Carlson's positions on Putin and cultural issues, also share his views (often without quite realizing it) on many key aspects of political economy. AOC and Elizabeth Warren might hate Carlson's positions on abortion, gay rights, and immigration, but they share and influence his views on the need to beef up antitrust enforcement and rethink the kind of "neoliberal" trade policies that were embraced by the Clinton administration a generation ago. Meanwhile, even many of those aging liberal Baby Boomers, as well as many moderate conservatives turned Never Trumpers, share many of Carlson's critiques of "woke culture," whether they care to admit it or not.

Is there anything we can feel good about here? Throughout the history of democracy, progress has most often been achieved only when different factions come to the same conclusions for different reasons about some point or another. About 10 years ago, for example, many fiscal conservatives persuaded themselves of the need to shrink the prison population in order to cut government spending, while many religious conservatives began talking about prisoners as people worthy of compassion and capable of redemption. Liberals may have quarreled with some of the reasoning but embraced the conclusion. Subsequent bipartisan legislation led to a sharp drop in the incarceration rate.

Today, the stakes are much higher. At a time when liberalism is being tested by dictators and would-be dictators both at home and abroad, we cannot...

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