Last week Fox News political commentator Tucker Carlson gave his television audience an address that’s being heralded as Tucker Carlson’s Monologue Heard Around the World! What began as a critique of newly elected Senator Mitt Romney quickly turned to a pro-populist analysis of our current political and societal woes. You can watch the bit here or—if you prefer—read the transcript.
The most interesting thing about Tucker’s monologue isn’t anything he said, but the reaction to what he said. While the monologue is worth listening to or reading in its own right, this is hardly the Gettysburg Address. Yet the reaction in the conservative blogosphere is palpable. Whether they’re wholeheartedly endorsing of condemning Tucker’s message, everyone seems to want to get in on the action.
Every conservative podcast I listened to this week weighed in with their thoughts, and the Ordered Liberty podcast devoted the better part of TWO episodes to the matter. National Review writer Kyle Smith referred to Tucker’s monologue as a “great speech” and that, “if an obscure senator gave this speech, he’d be famous overnight.” He went on to suggest many of his colleagues would have “a lot to say about this monologue. I suspect a lot of people are going to have a lot to say about it. This speech is going to reverberate. I think it has the potential to take off the way Rick Santelli’s tea party speech did.”
Indeed, many people have had a lot to say. I haven’t seen such frantic antics since the time we were told the Segway scooter was going to “revolutionize human civilization” and the related fear that Al Qaeda was close to perfecting the Segway scooter technology.
When I read through Tucker’s monologue I was hardly blown away. He makes some good points, makes some questionable assertions with no evidence whatsoever, offers some policy suggestions that are worth debating but hardly a sure bet, and concludes by appealing to populist rhetoric. Let’s look at each of those briefly:
He Makes Some Good Points
Tucker rightly asks us to look beyond the here and now of the Trump administration and instead focus on what the country will look like after Trump, and what we’d want it to look like. He takes issue with the idea that the best measurement for the health of the nation or the success of our leaders is America’s economic prosperity saying, “does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country.”
He then counters that the goal for America is “happiness”. That’s certainly debatable, but he broadens the definition by stressing, “Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence. Above all, deep relationships with other people.”
Tucker further makes some shrewd observations about the inability to separate economics from other things that matter (family, faith, and culture), and how both rural/Red State and urban/Blue State America seem locked in the same challenges with the traditional Right and Left unable to satisfactorily address their needs. He further points the finger for much of this at declining wages for men and passionately argues his case.
He Makes Some Questionable Assertions with No Evidence Whatsoever
Woven throughout Tucker’s monologue is the curious idea that our leaders could fix all of this if they cared about us. But they don’t, so the problems remain. He insists we are “ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.”
He further accuses the “rich”—a term he never defines—as people who are “happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.” At no point does he offer actual evidence for the idea our rich are somehow more concerned about foreigners than fellow citizens. Which is just as well as it’s unlikely compelling evidence for that assertion even exists.
From mounting personal debts to drug addictions, Tucker seems convinced the “rich” could be doing a lot more but are instead either focused on impoverished people outside of the country or—far worse—profiting from our problems. “When you care about people, you do your best to treat them fairly,” he continues, “Our leaders don’t even try.”
He Offers Some Policy Suggestions That are Worth Debating but Hardly a Sure Bet
To his credit, beyond just accusing an ill-defined “rich” of not caring or trying, Tucker eventually does get down to some substantive suggestions. Although here, much of what he has to say is a mixed bag of reasonable but hardly a panacea. For instance, he decries payday loans given to the poor that they’ll likely never pay back. On this point he definitely has my sympathy. But he offers no practical solution for how to handle the poor’s very real need to borrow money other than implying someone somewhere is simply being greedy.
The same goes with drugs. While he passionately presents a strong case for why it should matter to us that much of America is addicted to drugs, he doesn’t seem to appreciate the complexities of the drug problem. Or offer any thoughts as to where we should go from here. Here again, he seems to be implying someone, somewhere, just isn’t doing something or caring deeply enough.
He Concludes by Appealing to Populist Rhetoric
“What will it take a get a country like that?” Tucker asks rhetorically, “Leaders who want it.” Throughout the entire monologue is a strong strand of populism—the notion that the right people would be just fine if it wasn’t for the proverbial “they”. In this case, the “rich” and powerful leaders who simply don’t care or want us to do better are to blame.
I take no issue with the idea our leaders have failed us, or with the idea there is much that could be done on their account that likely would absolve some of our problems. But the idea that our lives can only improve when “they” care enough for us is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong. I’ve written a great deal on the dangerous of populism. You can read it here, so I’ll spare you the digression.
And with that, Tucker excited the conservative talking heads from coast to coast. Look, I don’t want to sound critical of Tucker’s monologue overall. I have my disagreements, but it’s a fine speech. However, it’s hardly THAT good. It’s not as if the 24/7 news cycle provides little for political pundits and commentators to pontificate over. I still contend it wouldn’t—ordinarily—be worth all the attention it’s received. But these are not ordinary times. And that, I believe, is precisely why it’s making waves.
As a political commentator who’s—shall we say—comfortable defending Trump and Trumpism, Tucker is in a position to offer to the rest of traditional conservatives something they’ve been practically begging for ever since Trump ran for office: an intellectual defense of Trumpism, or at least national populism. To that end, Tucker has provided us with at least two things in his monologue: 1) an actual argument and, 2) clearly defined fault lines emerging on the Right. Let’s look at each of those things closer:
Tucker Provides an Actual Argument
Many a conservative critic of the Trump movement has bemoaned the fact that they’re more than willing to engage in civil debate if only the other side would offer something that approached an actual argument. Far too often “defense” for what the president is doing or faith in the Make America Great Again! mindset boils down to little more than asserting highly debatable things to be true and name calling. I’m not trying to be meanspirited, but it is exceedingly rare for those who support Trump to respond to critics with coherence or clarity.
Tucker’s monologue might be thought of as an intellectual defense for the sort of nationalist populism Trump seems to represent. Look, I’m not saying it’s a particularly brilliant or insightful argument. But it’s not like there’s much competition. To be honest, the only other time I can recall something that looked anything like an actual argument was way back in 2016 with the anonymous Flight 93 Election Claremont Institute article arguing for support for Trump when he was running.
Conservatives have been chomping at the bits for opportunities like this. Like an astronomer anticipating the arrival of the a distant comet, conservative pundits long for the chance to engage in debate. It’s what we do. Conservatism is well versed in doing battle in the war of ideas, just as conservatism fails in the war of emotional impulses.
Tucker Identified the Fault Lines
Whether it was intentional or not, Tucker seems to have stumbled around some truths:
The fusionism that held the conservative coalition together in the 1950s appears to be coming to an end.
No one really knows how to hold the coalition together now.
Namely, new fault lines are emerging, not between the traditional “Right” and “Left”, but between globalists vs nationalists, free trade absolutists vs free market absolutists, and those who view national policies that benefit the nation as a whole worth pursing vs those who are more sensitive to the impact on communities that seem left behind by the new economy.
I believe part of the reason Tucker’s monologue has become such a sensation is precisely because it strikes at ground zero of much of the divide on the Right today. For that he deserves credit. Where we take the conversation from here is on us.
And that presents a challenge. Already many pundits have torn apart Tucker’s monologue, analyzing it bit by bit. You have David French’s rebuttal on how the right should reject Tucker’s version of “victimhood populism”. Earlier this week I heard a conservative commentator take issue with French taking issue with Tucker on the basis that it’s not as if we should just be ignoring the impact the decisions our leaders are likely to have on a macro scale. I believe they’re both right (or both wrong) in a sense, depending on how far you take the arguments. Ben Shapiro weighed in, objecting to Tucker’s apparent attack on the free market. And J. D. Vance responded to Shapiro’s piece, siding with Tucker’s views.
I recognize the irony in my response to the responses to the response—we’re getting into a Russian doll situation—but I do think this endless descent of argument and cross-argument presents a powerful challenge and a powerful opportunity for conservatives. The challenge is that the fault lines are real. The circumstances that held the conservative coalition together for some many years—from a common enemy in the Soviet Union to general agreement on economic policies—have changed so significantly it’s difficult to foresee what might work in the years ahead. And, for that reason, these internal debates pose a potential threat to the entire coalition, potentially shattering it for good.
But, as I said above, conservatives have always held their own in a fight over ideas. When ideas are what’s being debated, conservatism wins. When emotions and base impulses rule the day, conservatism—to say nothing of society at large—is the worse off for it. I hope Tucker and those of his ilk will continue to engage in a debate of ideas. Just as I hope traditional conservatives such as myself will always be able to provide answers that win the hearts and minds of people everywhere.