On Wednesday evening, about 20 protesters from the leftist group Smash Racism D.C. gathered in the dark outside the home of Fox News host Tucker Carlson. They rang his doorbell and chanted threats such as “Tucker Carlson, we will fight! We know where you sleep at night!” One woman was heard on video saying she wanted to “bring a pipe bomb.”
Carlson wasn’t home, and neither were his four children, but his wife was. Carlson told the Washington Post that one of the protesters had hurled himself at the front door, cracking it, and that his wife locked herself in the pantry and called 911, thinking it was a home invasion. [Update, Nov. 16, 2018: Subsequent reporting has cast doubt on some elements of Carlson’s initial account to the Washington Post. The Post’s Erik Wemple visited his house and found that the door appeared to be in working condition, with no cracks visible from the outside, and both Carlson and his wife declined to answer further questions about that detail. One of the protesters posted his own account of the demonstration, which made it sound less directly threatening than Carlson had implied. A report provided to Slate and other outlets by D.C. Metro Police does not mention a crack in the door but does mention that the activists appear to have spray-painted the Carlsons’ driveway with a circled letter A.]
How you feel about that might depend on your view of Carlson’s character and politics. But it shouldn’t. The protest crossed lines that made it not only unethical but counterproductive to the causes it was intended to advance.
There are many very good reasons to dislike Tucker Carlson—perhaps even to loathe him. The Fox News host has argued against diversity, falsely claimed that South Africa planned to seize land from white farmers on the basis of skin color, and routinely stoked fears about immigrant crime and the migrant caravan. He has compared liberal critics of the white patriarchy to the Hutus who perpetrated the Rwanda genocide. Those stances have encouraged President Trump to play on white resentment and endeared Carlson to white supremacists such as Richard Spencer and David Duke.
With his Fox News program ranking as the top-rated show on cable news, it’s not a stretch to view Carlson as a leading enabler of the administration’s cruel and racist policies. Those include the separation of innocent children from their families at the U.S. border and their placement in detention centers. Carlson responded to that scandal by accusing liberals of caring “far more about foreigners than their own people.” Meanwhile, Carlson lives in a $3.9 million home in Washington’s Kent neighborhood, which he once boasted “looks exactly like it did in 1955.”
It’s understandable, then, that antifa activists would feel a desire to make Carlson taste the kind of fear that immigrants and minorities often feel in Trump’s America. Less understandable is that they actually did it. Less understandable still is that a surprising number of liberals, including a few respected commentators, dismissed, excused, or made light of their actions in response to the news Thursday.
First, to be clear, most liberals did not defend the antifa action against Carlson, and many denounced it. Those included several media analysts at CNN, and the network itself, which was recently the recipient of one of the pipe bombs delivered to liberal leaders around the country, allegedly by a white-supremacist zealot. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg, who countenanced the public shaming of Trump administration officials at restaurants, drew a line in this case. Even a senior analyst at Media Matters for America, a nonprofit dedicated to tracking and criticizing conservative media outlets such as Fox News, called the protesters’ behavior “way over the line” and “unacceptable.”
This seemed like a moment—rare these days—when liberals and conservatives could come together to agree on a common boundary. It was almost that—but not quite. For every denunciation, there was a slew of replies or quote-tweets that suggested Carlson had it coming. Some came from anonymous Twitter users and assorted randos, but not all of them.
Vox’s Matthew Yglesias is a sharp and provocative pundit, one who doesn’t mind breaking taboos (including some that are liberal doctrine), so his views shouldn’t be taken as representative of anyone else’s. Still, to see 1,600 likes on a tweet excusing “terrorizing” a media figure’s “family” was jarring. (He appears to have deleted the tweets.) It’s the kind of dehumanizing sentiment that liberals have come to expect from Trump and his supporters. It now seems to be infecting the other side.
Yglesias qualified his apparent defense of the harassment by calling it “probably not tactically sound,” but then pivoted to questioning why anyone would empathize with Carlson’s family rather than “his victims.” (For all of Carlson’s faults, it’s not fully clear who his “victims” are, nor why one’s empathy for them would be mutually exclusive with empathy for his family.) It was reminiscent of how Trump denounced the pipe bombings in one breath, then pivoted to blaming the “fake news” media in the next.
The thing is, you shouldn’t have to empathize with Carlson, his wife, or even his kids to see why direct threats of violence against the family of a controversial media figure, at his home, should stay out of bounds. It violates pretty much every common standard of practical morality, from the golden rule to “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Kantian ethics would tell you that “if I find someone’s political views reprehensible, I will go to his house and threaten his family” is a maxim that should not be universalized. Utilitarian ethics would tell you that it’s likely to do far more harm than good.
This isn’t to say that liberals have to pretend to be as outraged by this as conservatives undoubtedly will. There are more important and more disturbing things happening in the country right now. Policies that Carlson has championed have inflicted far more harm on vulnerable Americans (and, yes, foreigners) than the brief scare that his family endured Wednesday night.
But Carlson and his ilk thrive on the perception that liberals are hypocrites, that they lack basic decency, that they represent a threat to mainstream American values. They revel in highlighting isolated acts of violence by liberal activists or immigrants to rile up conservative viewers. By threatening his family, a handful of overexcited activists just handed Carlson a bucket of gasoline for that fire. The best thing that liberals could do in response is to throw water on it by making it clear they don’t condone this kind of act against Carlson the person—and keeping the high ground in the fight against his ugly ideas. That probably won’t short-circuit Carlson’s umbrage, but it would help undermine the “both sides” arguments that centrists and moderate conservatives are so fond of.
The truth is, there’s a lot less daylight between the ascendant Trumpist right and violent neo-Nazis than there is between the mainstream left and the violent wackos on their side of the spectrum (who, it must be said, seem less prone to acts of mass murder and terrorism). In a dark time for our democracy, what remains of that daylight is worth preserving.