Though Tucker Carlson’s abrupt departure from Fox News remains unexplained, it has all the earmarks of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s long-standing habit of dumping anyone, be it employee or wife, who no longer serves the interest of his personal fancy or vast business empire. Since Carlson was a leading voice of Trumpist populism, his humiliating ouster was predictably bewailed by his hard-right fans (including former Trump speechwriter Darren Beatie, known for spreading conspiracy theories about the January 6, 2021, coup attempt and for consorting with white nationalists). Conversely, many progressives, like my colleagues Joan Walsh and Elie Mystal, were understandably gratified by the sight of a racist, misogynist demagogue getting his comeuppance (for whatever reason).
But the range of political responses to Carlson’s downfall includes one major anomaly. There are a few prominent voices who identify as in some way anti-establishment (either anti-war or anti-corporate) who have lamented Carlson’s forced exile from Fox. These voices claimed that Carlson’s show was one of the few major media outlets that allowed for a critique of big business and the national security establishment. Glenn Greenwald, a fierce critic of American foreign policy, hailed Carlson as “unique because he was one of the only actual dissidents on TV.” Greenwald contrasted Carlson with the more conventional GOP partisan hack Sean Hannity. Journalist Lee Fang agreed, tweeting that “Glenn Greenwald’s point about libs hating Tucker & ignoring Hannity is right. Tucker is the only major media conservative figure to diverge, criticize US wars abroad, corporate & Wall St power, inequality. Hannity is normie GOP and doesn’t remotely provoke as much lib interest.”
Greenwald and Fang’s positive view of Carlson was echoed in a surprising place: an article in The American Prospect, written by Lee Harris and Luke Goldstein. The American Prospect is known for its sober and deeply researched articles advocating left-liberal policy solutions. In the Biden administration, the journal distinguished itself for its willingness to hold the Democratic administration to task when it strayed from the progressive agenda either in policy or appointments.
Normally, The American Prospect isn’t a place where Carlson’s brand of rabble-rousing would be celebrated. But Harris and Goldstein wrote a veritable encomium, where the deposed news host was repeatedly referred to on familiar terms as “Tucker.” Harris and Goldstein did acknowledge that “Tucker’s willingness to challenge and mock ruling elites went alongside an obsessively nativist message that alienated viewers who might otherwise have embraced his populist perspective. His popularity with a wide audience begs the question why other nightly news shows that attacked him didn’t raise the same critiques, without the nativism.” But, bracketing what they call “nativism,” Harris and Goldstein praised Carlson for “tapping into populist insights, cutting through left- and right-wing echo chambers and putting hard questions to corporate executives and members of the political establishment.” They claim that “in the past year, Carlson also broke with the Washington political establishment to express skepticism about the U.S. sending tens of billions of dollars in weapons and security assistance to Ukraine.”
Harris and Goldstein’s article caused a minor brouhaha in the world of progressive journalism. It was roundly thrashed by figures like New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall, and John Maynard Keynes biographer Zachery Carter. Getting to the heart of the matter, Bouie noted that “you cannot disentangle Tucker’s so-called populism from his expressed belief that the state must preserve the integrity of the white race.” In answering these critics, American Prospect editor David Dayen published a response acknowledging the merits of these critiques.
While the Harris and Goldstein article was flawed, the question of how the left should respond to Carlson’s anti-establishment politics remains important and worth airing. As such, the article deserves engagement. The American Prospect also published a stronger response in the form of a searching rebuttal by Harold Meyerson and Tisya Mavuram.
There are two important questions raised by the Harris and Goldstein piece: Is Carlson really an anti-war economic populist? And can his occasional radical stances on war and economics be separated from his larger politics with all their bigotry?
On the first point, there’s every reason to view Carlson’s alleged anti-war politics and putative politics as a fraud. It’s true that Carlson worries about escalation in the Ukraine/Russia conflict and has pushed for diplomacy. But his position on that issue is based not on any aversion to militarism but a belief that the United States should focus its firepower on other enemies, notably Mexico and China. Rather like the late Gore Vidal (who, alas, made this argument in the pages of The Nation), Carlson wants an American-Russia alliance against the non-white hordes. International relations scholar Daniel Drezner observes, “It’s also hard to claim that Carlson was opposed to U.S. military adventurism; it’s more accurate to say Carlson preferred aggressive military adventurism closer to home. Carlson repeatedly called for using the military south of the border in Mexico.” Drezner calls attention to a 2019 show where Carlson said, “When the United States is attacked by a hostile foreign power it must strike back, and make no mistake Mexico is a hostile foreign power.” Carlson has also repeatedly declared that China is a bigger threat than Russia and should be the focus of foreign policy ire.
As for economic populism, Carlson is far more likely to criticize big corporations for “wokeness” (in other words trying to keep up with changing social mores) than union busting. His populism is the kind that worries about gender ambiguity in M&Ms candy—not rampant inequality. He’s all too quick to revert to GOP business-class norms when there is a partisan battle. Business Insider reported on a telling moment in 2021 when Carlson “accused President Joe Biden of proposing a tax hike on wealthy Americans to ‘punish’ them.” This was a tax on people earning more than $400,000 per year—hardly a fitting target for proletarian outrage.
But taking Carlson’s stances one by one hardly does justice to his politics. He needs to be seen holistically and historically. His occasional populist and pacifist sentiments only exist in the context of a politics that aims to take justified anti-establishment outrage and harvest it for far-right ethnonationalism.
As Meyerson and Mavuram note, the problem with the Harris and Goldstein brief on behalf of Carlson that it fails “to note the roots of Carlson’s positions, in a broader sense failing to note that opposition to neoliberal orthodoxy is an element of both progressive and fascist politics, and hence, depending on whence it comes, not automatically worthy of celebration. The piece failed to take into account Carlson’s racism, xenophobia, misogyny, disdain for democracy, affinity for autocrats and autocracy, habitual lying, and demands to Fox management that they muzzle or fire reporters who had the chutzpah to acknowledge that Joe Biden had won the 2020 election.”
The strategy of selectively borrowing left-wing ideas in order to bolster a program of nationalism, racism, and gender conformity is not new. As Meyerson and Mavuram rightly observe, this is a familiar tactic of fascism, which typically emerges in a time where establishment politics are in crisis and the public is open to multiple solutions.
The career of the early-20th-century painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis offers a telling case study—one that prefigures not just Carlson but also the many formerly left thinkers of the current moment who are trending right. A friend and ally of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Lewis was an innovative artist and novelist whose experiments were energized by the same abundant originality evinced by his contemporaries Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. In the 1920s, angered by the stuffiness of the English establishment, Lewis was a radical critic of the political order, which he saw as a business-dominated oligarchy. But by the early 1930s, Lewis had redirected his anger toward the left and became a fellow traveler of fascism, authoring a shoddy 1931 book praising Adolf Hitler as a peacemaker.
In his brilliant 1979 study Fables of Aggression, the literary critic Fredric Jameson underlines the way that Lewis’s protofascism of the 1930s drew its energy from selective populism. Jameson argues, “Protofascism may be characterized as a shifting strategy of class alliances whereby an initially strong populist and anticapitalist impulse is gradually readapted to the ideological habits of a petty bourgeoisie, which can itself be displaced when, with the consolidation of the fascist state, effective power passes back into the hands of big business.”
Borrowing from the model presented by Jameson, one might say that Carlson offers a politics where wokeism (or “Marxism”) is cast as an existential threat, mainstream liberalism/conservatism as the discredited status quo—and a politics of lower-middle class resentment against supposed corrupt elites as the solution.
The goal of such a politics is to take the fully justified anger that many people feel toward the status quo and redirect it into a politics that supports nationalism (with attendant wars against China and Mexico), racism, sexism and homophobia. Contra Tucker Carlson’s apologists, his “nativism” isn’t just a regrettable aberration. It’s the core of his political project. For that reason, you do not under any circumstances have to hand it to Tucker Carlson.