The Corner

Tucker Carlson Misfires with his Analysis of Conservatism for Politico

The Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson has written an interesting piece over at Politico magazine, in which he both praises the rise of Donald Trump and takes a series of shots at those who have criticized that rise (including National Review). As one might expect from a writer of Carlson’s caliber, the essay is worthwhile reading, particularly on the question of the GOP’s neglecting a key portion of its traditional base. But — and this is a big “but” — there is a great deal that strikes me as being wide of the mark. In particular, I think that Carlson overextends his thesis and, in consequence, draws some sweeping conclusions that are not yet supported by the facts. This segment, for example, strikes me as being dangerously hasty:

It turns out the GOP wasn’t simply out of touch with its voters; the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed. For decades, party leaders and intellectuals imagined that most Republicans were broadly libertarian on economics and basically neoconservative on foreign policy. That may sound absurd now, after Trump has attacked nearly the entire Republican catechism (he savaged the Iraq War and hedge fund managers in the same debate) and been greatly rewarded for it, but that was the assumption the GOP brain trust operated under. They had no way of knowing otherwise. The only Republicans they talked to read the Wall Street Journal too.

If you’ll forgive the expression, this is a post-mortem without a body. At present, Donald Trump has the theoretical support of a plurality — not a majority — of Republican primary voters. Indeed, at present, most Republicans prefer someone else. As of today, not a single vote has been cast. As of today, the nomination could go one of three or even four considerably different ways. If Trump ends up as the nominee, then it may well be fair to say that the Republican party has been proven to be “out of touch with its voters” and that, in 2016, “the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed.” But if he doesn’t? Well, then this prediction is going to look really quite odd. It is one thing to say “there is a sizable portion of GOP voters who are unhappy with the status quo”; that much is demonstrably true, and was noted well in National Review’s recent editorial. But it is quite another thing to presume that those voters are “the GOP” per se. Unfortunately, Carlson does precisely that.

As far as I can see, the Republican party remains a broad, often uneasy coalition that consists of a host of often warring groups. If, as Carlson’s logic requires, we must consider whomever is leading the pack to be the indisputable face of the party, we are going to have a rather schizophrenic primary season. What will happen, for example, if Marco Rubio wins Iowa, or, by way of attrition, makes it through to the nomination? Should we then conclude that immigration apostasy doesn’t matter after all? What if Cruz takes an early lead, perhaps becoming the favorite after a solid showing in the early states? Should we then start writing paeans to the appeal of hard-edged constitutionalists? And, most important of all, what if Trump flakes out? Should we then presume that the people Carlson is correctly drawing our attention to don’t actually matter after all? To all three questions, the answer is: “Of course not!” Rather, whatever happens, we should accept that the GOP contains multitudes and we should use our critical faculties to scan the data for meaning. There is no virtue in writing obituaries for men who look a touch pale.

Carlson is equally overzealous when dealing with the so-called establishment:

They’re the ones who’ve been advocating for open borders, and nation-building in countries whose populations hate us, and trade deals that eliminated jobs while enriching their donors, all while implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change.

I’ll accept Carlson’s point about trade. That has indeed been a point of contention on the right for a while, and it has indeed been resolved repeatedly in favor of the “white collar” contingent. (For the record, I think the free-traders have the better argument.) But who, pray, is “they” when it comes to “open borders”? Name them. And who is to blame for the Iraq War’s having been popular at the time? Are we really supposed to believe that, back in 2002, the “establishment” forced military action upon the Jacksonian contingent that is now rallying around Trump? Hardly. Sure, Trump criticizes Iraq now — as, for that matter, do I. But he’s not the principled representative of a longstanding anger or usurpation; he’s a con artist who came in late and is channeling a sentiment that has, in hindsight, arisen across the conservative coalition. All but the most bellicose Republicans have disavowed nation-building — indeed, even the more hawkish Marco Rubio did so last night. If Republican voters have become more dovish of late, that is their prerogative; but it seems odd to take their past mistakes out on the contemporary crowd.

Carlson also suggests that, for years now, the GOP establishment has been “implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change.” Even if we were to take this at face value — and I don’t — one would nevertheless have to ask: “And Donald Trump is the answer to this?” Donald Trump, who has boasted about not being from Iowa; who never, ever mentions gay marriage; who refused to back pro-lifers until a couple of years ago; and whose opposition to “demographic change” has been so strong that he slammed Mitt Romney for being too harsh on illegal immigration and promises to let most of those he deports back in? Come now. There is a kernel of a point here — namely that Republican politicians often have different priorities than one of the groups that vote for them — but Carlson is stretching it to the breaking point.

As for Carlson’s claims about fundraising, I would suggest that he rethink this line of attack. He slams:

the conservative nonprofit establishment, which seems to employ most right-of-center adults in Washington. Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? Billions, certainly. (Someone better at math and less prone to melancholy should probably figure out the precise number.) Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation: Salaries, bonuses, retirement funds, medical, dental, lunches, car services, leases on high-end office space, retreats in Mexico, more fundraising. Unless you were the direct beneficiary of any of that, you’d have to consider it wasted.

Leaving to one side that Carlson himself is not averse to raising money for his projects — or to being a fixture within this firmament — this critique is, once again, overly general. By blithely lumping older and more productive organizations (say, the Heritage Foundation) in with the array of ScamPAC organizations that we have seen crop up recently, Carlson indicts the whole movement on the back of its few bad actors. There are, of course, a host of self-interested figures within conservatism, and there is an awful lot of cynical waste. But if Carlson wants to see this in action he should look no further than to Trump’s own spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, who, per the Daily Beast, is exactly the sort of “direct beneficiary” that Carlson so decries. As a general matter I have no problem with conservatives taking on the scammers and the charlatans within their midst. But to do so while pimping the biggest scammer and most ambitious charlatan of them all . . . well, that’s a little bit too much to take.

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