I like watching Tucker Carlson Tonight — it’s hard not to. Carlson, who has worked for MSNBC, CNN and now Fox, is the network’s most charismatic host; he laughs so often at his opponents during debates that some end up laughing with him, seduced by Carlson’s endearing wit and deadpan delivery. He can come off as smug, if only from the unmistakable delight he finds in the self-implosion of some guests who can’t handle his passive-aggressive banter. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone — if relishing the televised meltdowns of self-righteous progressives is a moral shortcoming, I publicly confess my own depravity.
The 8 p.m. slot on Fox is symbolically, if not literally, an anointed hour in the world of conservative politics. Carlson has used the baptismal promise of the hour to forward his view of conservatism, or, rather, “conservative populism.” It’s not a distinction without a difference — many of Tucker’s broadcasts are laced with Bannonite rhetoric of class and power struggle, language that some conservaties remain uncomfortable with even in an era where Donald Trump captured the Republican nomination with nary a mention of spending cuts. The “middle class” is revered on Carlson’s show, not only as a socio-economic stratum but as a moral category. Trump’s election, to Carlson, was not only a referendum on the profound unpopularity of Hillary Clinton but a populist uprising against the established order. True enough, if only in a reductionist sense.
Tucker has become one of the forefront members of a class of thinkers attempting to intellectualize the Trump phenomenon and, in turn, reshape Republican politics and the coalitional loyalties of the party. If only the GOP weren’t adherent to ideological economic norms of the Reagan years and more readily embraced hawkish immigration policy and Wilsonian protectionism, Carlson posits, the GOP would build a formidable electoral majority. It’s a partial misreading of Trump’s popularity — Trump’s rhetorical appeal was stylistic rather than substantive, in many ways — but it’s an alluring narrative, and one that has merits all its own.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” was never a show riddled with orthodoxies — political or otherwise. As Carlson himself told The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins in a February 2017 interview, “I’m not much of an economic conservative, and I’m not conservative at all on foreign policy.” And it shows — Tucker spends almost entire shows decrying identity politics and berating congressional Democrats on their commitment to lawless immigration policy, but often farms out economic policy reports to Brit Hume or other contributors. This isn’t for lack of knowledge or intellect — Carlson spoke eloquently about his once-libertarian fiscal views for years — but because he has become highly skeptical of Republican orthodoxies on economics. Whatever its politics, Coppins’ piece most succinctly captures the seductive power of Carlson’s show: “Tucker Carlson Tonight” is “compulsively watchable” with a remarkable propensity for “viral moments.”
A less viral but a no less significant moment came last Tuesday on Tucker’s Jan. 9 broadcast:
“Now, if you’re conservative, it might be difficult to get your head around what is happening in this country. So much has changed — but here’s the bottom line. The federal government is no longer the main threat to your privacy and to your freedoms — you’ve grown up thinking that, it’s no longer true. Big corporations are the main threat to your freedom and your privacy…The Orwellian future is increasingly the Orwellian present, and tech barons are becoming our new commissars.”
This statement steps on a minefield of populist fervor and spits in the face of conservative. While Carlson has expressed repeated contempt for what he calls “the guardians of conservatism in Washington,” it’s worth asking whether his assertion is actually true. Do “big corporations” threaten your freedoms and privacies as a conservative more than the federal government?
Not until the end game of “big corporations” involves a gun and threat of incarceration, no amount of Orwellian technocratic double-speak or corporate political bias will surpass the capacity of the state to totally subjugate their opponents. It’s possible to create a new social media platform and to use the levers of the private market to boycott certain offending providers. It’s far more difficult (and bloodier) to stave off a despotic government. Even short of tinfoil-hat ideations of a tyrannical state, Mark Zuckerberg’s trite virtue signaling never remotely approached the decadence of the Obama administration dragging the Little Sisters of the Poor before the courts, or its politicization of the IRS to target conservatives.
This isn’t an isolated argument. Tucker has railed against Facebook and other social media giants for their platforms’ propensity to become addictive (something considered false only by those who don’t have a profile of their own), and advocates for congressional censure, citing the intentionally compulsive platform’s impact on children. Continence in this arena is something conservatives would have considered the facility of families and private individuals in the not-too-distant past; the new populist movement seems largely unsuspicious of the capacity of federal bureaucracies to stomp on the necks of private citizens’ freedom to be stupid — a liberty that is inexorably linked to the freedom to flourish.
“Big corporations” have more power today than they had during the Gilded Age, if only because they now control the Overton window of acceptable political dialogue in a way big steel companies never did. But that power never outstrips the deleterious capacity of the state, and the less than populist-conservatives acknowledge that the more likely they are to drift into wayward leftism, decrying the motives of private capitalism and the pillars of American liberty. Conservatives should love Carlson’s show for his enemies — all of the right ones, from the academy to Hollywood — but be privy to his deviations from traditional conservative principles.