The Limits of Tucker Carlson’s Anti–Free Market Vision

The Fox News host’s seemingly populist monologue was delivered for one specific audience.

Tucker Carlson on October 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Tucker Carlson Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Politicon.

In a monologue that aired on Tucker Carlson’s nightly Fox News show on Jan. 2, the right-wing pundit did something out of character: He leveled a radical critique of policies supported by Donald Trump and the Republican Party. A prominent host criticizing the right on its favorite network would be surprising enough. But the nature of Carlson’s commentary was shocking.

In the segment, Carlson spent more than 15 minutes making an anti-capitalist argument that, in part, might fit naturally into the socialist magazine Jacobin. “For generations,” he said, “Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking, while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars.” He added that mainstream Democrats too “generally support those goals enthusiastically.” The upshot was a broadside against the entire American ruling class, whose members Carlson dismissed as “mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule” and “don’t even bother to understand our problems.” Despite the parties’ differing emphases, he said, both Republicans and Democrats maintain a deep and abiding trust in the market’s power to solve social problems—even as this bipartisan consensus has unleashed unfettered market forces that have been devastating American industry and working-class families’ prospects for a generation.

In the wake of this speech, many right-wing figures broke with pro-market orthodoxy in ways that have long been unthinkable. Writing in National Review, J. D. Vance echoed Carlson’s claim that we shouldn’t treat the market as a religious dogma: “The market is not a Platonic deity, floating in the sky and imposing goodness and prosperity from on high. It is the creation of our choices, our laws, and our democratic process.” Ann Coulter went so far as to tweet her support for Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to raise the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent—and to suggest that it be applied directly to the Koch brothers. To put it mildly, the right-wing provocateur and the avowed socialist make for unlikely bedfellows.

Carlson’s monologue and the right’s reaction to it raise provocative questions: Are Americans witnessing the beginnings of an inclusive populist movement that transcends traditional divisions between left and right? Should leftists who have critiqued capitalism for years now think of the host and his supporters as allies against the billionaire class? Are workers of the world uniting?

Sadly for those of us hoping for radical economic reform, the answer to these questions is “No.”

Carlson himself implicitly dismisses such hopes, declaring in the end of his monologue that only Republicans can pursue the agenda he is calling for. More than that, he argues against the libertarian claim that “any deviation from market fundamentalism” is “a form of socialism,” adding that the measures he is promoting are the only way to prevent the “disaster” of socialism.

The key to understanding all this—and the limits of Carlson’s newfound populism—is understanding who benefits and who gets left out. At bottom, his monologue is less a screed against the market than a plea for Republicans to save white Americans from the effects that unregulated capitalism has long inflicted on nonwhites.

Carlson spends a portion of his case drawing these connections explicitly. He laments that trends like children born to single mothers or out of wedlock, the proliferation of crime and drugs, and high male unemployment have moved from black Detroit; Newark, New Jersey; and Baltimore to white, rural America. “This is striking,” he says, “because rural Americans wouldn’t seem to have much in common with anyone from the inner city. These groups have different cultures, different traditions and political beliefs. Usually they have different skin colors.”

This might seem like he’s promoting an inclusive form of populism, one that recognizes these problems as suddenly shared along class lines and across racial ones, to be overcome jointly. Acknowledging such a shared struggle would be particularly surprising coming from Carlson, a pundit whose racist remarks about immigration have prompted some advertisers to boycott his show.

Even more surprising is Carlson’s implicit retrospective rejection of how conservatives have denounced inner-city black communities’ perceived social “dysfunction” for the past 40 years. Carlson has since made that position explicit, describing his turnabout as being inspired by a change in the problems’ scale. In an interview with Vox reporter Jane Coaston, he posits that when diagnosing black urban poverty, it was all too easy for Americans to explain away the experience of a small minority group, but now, it’s more difficult to ignore the same trends when they hit growing portions of the population. In other words, now that post-industrial white communities are suffering much of the same troubles as the urban black ones, long denounced as “pathological,” it is not enough to blame a self-destructive “culture of poverty.” It seems as if Carlson might be a conservative who is at last conceding that a lack of economic opportunities would do damage to family structures and life prospects in any community, black or white.

But the way Carlson’s monologue concludes reveals his true concerns. He still trusts that some version of capitalism can deliver an idealized America: “A fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. A country whose leaders don’t accelerate the forces of change purely for their own profit and amusement. A country you might recognize when you’re old.” And in case the racist implications of that last description are unclear, he adds that his vision of America would be a “clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself”—a kind of inverse of his infamous claim that immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided.”

In other words, Carlson is still envisioning a clear racial hierarchy—and he still trusts in some version of capitalism to deliver that. He wants to restrain the excesses of capitalism that are causing social disruption in white communities, but it is telling that to accomplish this, he does not call for any direct welfare subsidies or government job guarantees. This is because the right—aided and abetted by significant portions of the center and even the left—has long associated these programs with nonwhites, whom they view as parasitic and morally degraded for using them.

This view of welfare as the sole province of minorities is incorrect and deeply ironic, because social welfare programs—starting with the New Deal and continuing through the Great Society—were primarily oriented toward benefiting white families over nonwhites. In her recent book Family Values, Melinda Cooper provides a valuable account of how this ahistorical view of the programs came about. Strange as it may seem from Carlson’s contemporary perspective, the free market push of the Reagan revolution was part of a broader attempt to assert so-called traditional values after the upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s. Demonizing welfare programs would become essential to the pro-family, pro-market, and anti-minority agendas that were intertwined in those years, which was exactly the time that the conservative movement became so unfailingly pro-market. Social welfare programs—which, again, had for most of the postwar era favored white families—were cast even by nominally liberal publications like the New Republic as a source of family breakdown and social parasitism on the part of minorities. These ideas converged on the figure of the “welfare queen,” the black single mother who was supposedly using public funds to live in luxury while defying all moral norms.

In this context, removing public subsidies would expose people more directly to the vagaries of the market economy—creating the very unregulated system that Carlson now views as undercutting traditional norms. For years, this was seen as the best possible way to reinforce family structures. Pro-market economic thinkers like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker argued that government social welfare spending leads directly to family breakdown by loosening the bonds of dependence between parents and children. Hence, cutting the social safety net would be pro-family, because it would force people to remain close to their kin in order to maintain access to the private safety net of the household. In some ways, these thinkers have been proved correct, most clearly in the phenomenon of young adults living with their parents for much longer than in previous generations—a direct result of the decline in public funding for higher education that led students and their families to bear more of the cost of education.

In these arguments, black Americans—who for most of the country’s history had been excluded from social welfare programs—were recast as virtually the sole beneficiaries of state largesse. This view was bolstered by widespread hiring discrimination in the private sector. That discrimination meant that state employment had traditionally been one of the most reliable paths into the middle class for blacks. So cuts in government spending would leave more black people trapped in the permanent underclass. Nevertheless, politicians and pundits joined in blaming the struggles of the black community on individual moral turpitude rather than the policy agenda that had so sharply tilted the playing field.

Now, public budget cuts and unfettered capitalism have begun to afflict white families and communities, as union power has declined and companies seek ever-cheaper sources of labor abroad. Just as it happened in black communities, the lack of economic opportunity has made the traditional family model more and more unattainable for whites. So now, Carlson is calling for those forces to be restrained—but not replaced. In other words, he still shares the same stated goals as the original Reagan revolution—family stability and prosperity for the white majority—but he sees that, under current economic conditions, meeting those goals today will require different tools than in the 1980s. In other words, what animates Carlson’s critique is not so much his opposition to capitalist predators as his alarm at who has become their prey.

What might have seemed like a more inclusive and hopeful form of populism, then, turns out to be a complaint that the tender mercies of the free market were fine when they only harmed nonwhites, but now that they are harming whites, something has to give. And this recognition, in turn, helps to clarify what populism is really about on the right. It is not about being in favor of “the people” in the sense of the nation’s general population that stands opposed to the wealthy and powerful. It is about deciding who “the people” are, who gets to count as worthy of concern. When black communities are collapsing, the right is happy to use victim-blaming rhetoric to justify ignoring the problem—or even making it worse, through mass incarceration. When something similar happens to white communities, the same conditions are an emergency demanding state action. Despite Carlson’s claim that the right-wing response to the black community was solely about population size, it is noteworthy that he does not propose a single policy targeted at struggling black communities such as Flint, Michigan—much less toward Puerto Rico. Given Carlson’s history, these omissions suggest that inner-city blacks are merely a prop for him to head off further charges of racism.

In short, it’s clear who really counts as “people” in this form of populism. If we are to expect something like socialism from populists of Carlson’s ilk, we should not be surprised to find that it is a socialism of a distinctly white national character. No one on the left should allow themselves to be misled on this point: Proposing to use the same tools is no grounds for alliance when those tools are being used to realize radically different visions.