Opinion | What Does Tucker Carlson Know That the Republican Party Doesn’t?

Competing notions of American national identity are coming to dominate American politics.

On Jan. 2, a searing Tucker Carlson monologue on Fox News resonated across every corner of the conservative movement.

“The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity,” Carlson told his audience. “Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence. Above all, deep relationships with other people.”

President Trump is one of the most dedicated Fox viewers in the country. Carlson went on:

Our leaders don’t care. 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.

Carlson, who is in a ratings race with both his Fox colleague Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, argued that many conservatives have scant understanding of the adversity faced by members of the working and lower middle class in America:

The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy. Both sides miss the obvious point: Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible.

Carlson pointed specifically to problems faced by rural white America, the crucial base of Republican voters: “Stunning out of wedlock birthrates. High male unemployment. A terrifying drug epidemic.” How, Carlson asked, “did this happen?”

You’d think our ruling class would be interested in knowing the answer. But mostly they’re not. They don’t have to be interested. It’s easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind.

Despite this failing of conservatism, Carlson contended that only the Republican Party can lead the country back to salvation:

There’s no option at this point. But first, Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion. Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.

The Carlson monologue became an extended subject of debate, which my Times colleague Ross Douthat also examined. For example, in “The Right Should Reject Tucker Carlson’s Victimhood Populism,” David French, a senior writer at National Review, argued that “it is still true that your choices are far more important to your success than any government program or the actions of any nefarious banker or any malicious feminist.”

“If an obscure senator gave this speech, he’d be famous overnight,” Kyle Smith, a critic at large for National Review, wrote the next day. “Carlson scores some major points, and like most great speeches this one can’t easily be dismissed as either left or right-wing.”

Carlson touched nerves well outside conservative circles. I asked Dean Baker, co-founder of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, for his response to the monologue. He replied: “It’s a bit scary to me how much of this I agree with.” Baker quibbled with some minor points, but

ignoring these off the mark comments, he is absolutely right that the leadership of both parties has largely embraced an agenda that serves the rich with little concern for average workers.

In addition to Carlson, one of the most engaged critics of the Republican establishment is Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of “The Once and Future Worker.”

In his book, Cass faults both parties, but his condemnation of the Democratic Party is far harsher than his critique of the Republican Party:

Republicans have generally trusted that free markets will benefit all participants, prized the higher output associated with an ‘efficient’ outcome, and expressed skepticism that political actors could identify and pursue better outcomes, even if any existed. Their labor-market policy could best be described as one of benign neglect.

Democrats, in contrast,

can sound committed to a more worker-centric model of growth, but rather than trusting the market too much, they trample it. The party’s actual agenda centers on the interests advanced by its coalition of labor unions, environmentalists, and identity groups. Its policies rely on an expectation that government mandates and programs will deliver what the market does not. This agenda inserts countless regulatory wedges that aim to improve the conditions of employment but in the process raise its cost, driving apart the players that the market is attempting to connect.

In a Salon review of “The Once and Future Worker,” Samuel Hammond, director of welfare policy at the libertarian Niskanen Center — a Washington a think tank I described last week — writes:

Indeed, far from the usual conservative manifesto, ‘The Once and Future Worker,’ is a scathing critique of globalization, open immigration, and the commoditization of labor — forces which Cass believes have ransacked working class fortunes across three decades of neoliberal hegemony.

Cass is eager to place himself at the disposal of both parties. He was one of 13 ideologically ambidextrous authors of a joint Brookings-American Enterprise Institute report, “Work, Skills, Community: Restoring Opportunity for the Working Class.” The November 2018 study pointed to areas of concord between segments of the right and the left.

The 13 authors found common ground on a set of proposals that call for both more spending and tougher work requirements. These proposals include expanding the earned-income tax credit to cover childless workers, including experimenting with a new wage subsidy; getting recipients of government subsidies back to work, including beneficiaries of means-tested government programs; and enlarging eligibility for the child and dependent care tax credit.

While it is possible, in theory, that Carlson and Cass could support Democratic candidates, they sharply disagree with the Democratic Party on the highly salient issue of immigration.

In his book, Cass writes:

The United States should limit increases in its supply of unskilled immigrant labor. This new approach would require first and foremost that criteria for allowing entrance into the country emphasize education level — attainment of a college degree, in particular.

In the case of undocumented immigrants, Cass’s policy would be to “require unskilled illegal immigrants to leave.”

Carlson is more extreme. On Dec. 4, Carlson told viewers that “a new analysis of census data shows that sixty-three percent of noncitizens in the U.S. receive some kind of welfare benefits,” before adding:

Every night, hundreds of thousands of our citizens, Americans, sleep outdoors on the street, they’re homeless. The country’s middle class is shrinking and dying younger. The third year in a row. Again, these are American citizens. Some of them probably think they should have first dibs on help from the government, but they’re not getting it.

Later that month, Carlson escalated his claim that immigration was too costly for Americans:

It’s indefensible, so nobody even tries to defend it. Instead, our leaders demand that you shut up and accept this. We have a moral obligation to admit the world’s poor, they tell us, even if it makes our own country poor and dirtier and more divided.

These comments proved highly controversial, to say the least. According to Business Insider, 16 companies stopped advertising on “The Tucker Carlson Show.”

Michael Massing, a New York-based writer who often reports on the intersection of media and politics, watched Carlson for several nights after the January monologue in an attempt to assess where Carlson really stood. In a Feb. 2 article in the Guardian, Massing wrote:

Overall, his show continues to transmit Fox’s toxic blend of race-baiting and reality distortion, through which it has done so much to poison the American mind. What, then, to make of Carlson? Is he a cynic? A hypocrite? A headlong pursuer of ratings? Perhaps he’s best described as a charter member of the same ruling class that in his monologue he indicted for working so intently to divide and confuse the American people.

In addition to the discrete conservative factions Cass and Carlson represent, there is another dissident wing of conservatism, represented by the Niskanen Center, which attempts to appeal to moderates and centrists of both parties.

“Working within the broad and diverse intellectual tradition of liberalism, we are fashioning a new synthesis that closes the rift within that tradition that emerged over the question of socialism,” Brink Lindsey, the center’s vice president for policy, wrote in an essay seeking to explain the broad goals of the organization.

Lindsey, in contrast to Cass, is far more critical of the contemporary right than of the left.

Over the course of the 21st century, the conservative movement, and with it the Republican Party, has fallen ever more deeply under the sway of an illiberal and nihilistic populism — illiberal in its crude exploitation of religious, racial, and cultural divisions; nihilistic in its blithe indifference to governance and the established norms and institutions of representative self-government. This malignant development made possible the nomination and election of Donald Trump, whose two years in power have only accelerated conservatism’s and the GOP’s descent into the intellectual and moral gutter.

Despite his severe view of the Republican Party, Lindsey contends that the goal of the Niskanen think tank is the “reimagining of the center-right”:

It is our goal to make the case for a principled center-right in American politics today that is distinctly different from either movement conservatism or its degenerate, populist offshoot.

One question, of course is, what kind of policy options a center-right think tank can offer to disaffected voters on matters involving race and immigration, subjects that help drive the very polarization they regret.

One of Tucker Carlson’s own primary concerns is immigration — and, as a likely subtext, race.

Carlson argues that capitalism is “not a religion but a tool like a toaster or staple gun.” He is focusing attention, in fact, on the godless capitalism that Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center, described in “How Godless Capitalism Made America Multicultural” — a problem that Wilkinson correctly points out affects “all wealthy, liberal-democratic countries.”

Wilkinson explains:

The project of fashioning an ethnoreligious American identity has always been in conflict with a dominant and defining American impulse: to get rich. The United States has always been a distinctly commercial republic with expansionary, imperial impulses. High demand for workers and settlers led early on to a variegated population that encouraged the idea, largely traceable to Tom Paine, that American national identity is civic and ideological rather than racial and ethnic.

Contemporary political polarization reflects the intensification of the endless struggle to integrate America and, more recently, to assimilate millions of newcomers, some legal, some not.

Wilkinson addresses this conundrum:

Assimilation is an issue not because it isn’t happening, but because it is. The issue is that the post-1968 immigrants and their progeny are here at all. And their successful assimilation means that American culture, and American national identity, has already been updated and transformed.

This process can be very hard for some people, especially white voters over 50 (a strong Trump constituency) to accept:

Swift and dramatic cultural changes can leave us with the baffled feeling that the soil in which we laid down roots has somehow become foreign. Older people who have largely lost the capacity to easily assimilate to a new culture can feel that the rug has been pulled out from under them.

The result, according to Wilkinson, to whom I will give the last word, is that

rapid cultural change can make a truly common national identity hard to come by, if not impossible. It’s not clear to me how important it is to have one. But it does seem that a badly bifurcated cultural self-understanding can have very dramatic and potentially dangerous political consequences. David Cameron imperiled the integrity of the entire European Union by fundamentally misunderstanding the facts about the evolution of British national identity and putting it up for a vote. Donald Trump, you may have noticed, has called for a referendum on American national identity, and he’s getting one.

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Thomas B. Edsall has been a contributor to The Times Opinion section since 2011. His column on strategic and demographic trends in American politics appears every Wednesday. He previously covered politics for The Washington Post.  @edsall

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