The Tucker Carlson scandal has reignited the debate over who gets to define conservative ideology, as yet another Fox News host has been exposed making unconscionable comments on the air.
“Arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old and a 27-year-old is not the same as pulling a stranger off the street and raping her.”
“[Iraq is] a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys — that’s why it wasn’t worth invading.”
“I just wanted to give [Alexis Stewart] the spanking she so desperately needs.”
“How is [Obama] black, for one thing? He has one white parent, one black parent”.
These quotes are not the deranged rantings of a fringe wing-nut extremist speaking into a tin foil microphone on an obscure internet podcast, but direct on-air quotes by Fox News host Tucker Carlson calling in to a radio show in 2006, which were recently revealed by Media Matters . Predictably, the revelation met with a polarized reception, with liberals calling for his head and conservatives trotting out the “free speech” argument.
What nobody is asking, however, is why anything Tucker Carlson has to say is necessary, to begin with. Who is he, and why does he get to be so consequential within conservative circles? Who anointed him keeper and promoter of American conservative values? Since when do he and his likes get to dictate the agenda for the GOP and effectively set an agenda for the entire country? Who decided in the first place, that conservatism should even be characterized by such nastiness?
To understand the seemingly novel concept of a conservative movement devoid of racial animus and misogynist energy, it is useful to point out that the GOP, which is America’s conservative party, has not always been aligned with such politics. It was, in fact, under Republican President Abraham Lincoln that chattel slavery in the U.S. was outlawed. This is not to say that the party had no racist members or leanings at the time, but instead to make the point that such energy was not always central to the existence of American conservative politics.
The journey of the GOP from being the party of Abraham Lincoln to the party of Tucker Carlson started in 1968 under the so-called Southern Strategy which correctly predicted that white voters in the south would vote Republican if the party adopted a racial dog-whistling approach in the post-Jim Crow era. As is too often the case with arrangements of political convenience, what was intended to be no more than an election gimmick took on a life of its own, and soon the GOP embraced a newfound reputation as the party of regressive and repressive social politics.
Over the past 30 years, this transition from political party to insurgent political ideology has been amplified by the emergence of a series of right-wing talk show hosts on cable television, notably on Fox News.
Whether it is railing against blacks and Hispanics using thinly-veiled racial code language, promoting homophobia, demeaning and harassing women, demonizing immigrants, or promoting an irrational fear of “furriners,” Tucker Carlson and his crowd are at the forefront of the effort using the cable TV platforms. Without so much as a conversation being had, it has become accepted that these unhelpful social attitudes are somehow intrinsic to conservatism, which in actual fact is primarily an economic ideology. Is this true?
While at least two generations of Americans have lived through a reality where the GOP has taken on an unfortunate identity as the party of the permanently angry ideologues, the reality is that these things are not analogous to conservatism. Or at least, they do not have to be. The Republican Party, as mentioned earlier, had a history before the Southern Strategy era, and there are a number of decent and commendable things to build a modern conservative identity on.
Away from all of the angry “-isms” now associated with conservative politics, it can be noted for example, that the growth of the US dollar into the world’s de-facto reserve currency was made possible by a masterstroke of conservative foreign policy under Republican president Richard Nixon.
The deal with Saudi Arabia that provided military hardware and cash in exchange for sustained Saudi purchases of American debt allowed the U.S. to carry out unprecedented levels of social investment by outsourcing the inflation risk of huge public borrowing, while also buying invaluable influence with the world’s most important energy exporter.
Conservative policy is also responsible for the creation of NASA, which was first proposed to Congress by Republican president Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. Thus it can be said that everything from the world’s first manned lunar mission in 1969 to present day America’s domination of telecommunication and space exploration technology is a success story of conservative politics. This is not only a positive message but also one that has more of a lasting impact than the next Tucker Carlson rant about blacks or Iraqis or transgender people or whatever tickles his hate radar this time around.
In an era when the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are making a significant impact on America’s political space, it would be a grave mistake to carry on with the sneering, dismissive posture that has characterized the Republican response to Ocasio-Cortez in particular. It is very important to understand that nobody is going to beat the AOCs of this world at their populist game.
When AOC makes a bold left-wing comment calculated to set Twitter on fire, the worst response to this is the current “haha, this dumb Mexican broad thinks she can sit with us” posture adopted by Carlson and his cohort. This only turns decent people off and gives left-wing populists more evidence to support the “conservatives-are-dumb-sexist-racists” stereotype.
A modern conservative identity should take itself seriously enough to debate left-wing populists on the intellectual strength of their ideas instead of merely responding with right-wing populism, which gives liberals more ammunition. The next time AOC proposes a tax on farting or a nationwide $35,000 wage cap or something absurd like that, the modern conservative must be mature and serious enough to take her on and dismantle her argument using data, facts, and reason. Appealing instead to the nativist bigotries of a disappearing demographic of angry, Fox News-watching salt-of-the-earth is not a strategy.
The truth is that regardless of how tempting right-wing populism might appear as a way of getting quick and decisive results, it is not a solution in the long term because – to put it bluntly – nobody likes a bully. The election of Donald Trump may have seemed to be a vindication of the scorched-earth tactics of the wing-nut extremists who have arrogated the Republican party’s branding to themselves, but as the recent midterm elections showed, it is difficult to keep the majority of people in a heightened state of anger and paranoia longer than a single election cycle at a time.
It is no accident that while the GOP has seemingly decided to die on the hill of opposition to immigration and demonization of immigrants, a large number of voters have effectively chosen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – herself a symbol of successful American immigration – as their symbol of opposition to Trumpian messages.
It turns out that when you employ every trick in the book to make a guy who says stuff like “bad hombres” and “grab them by the p*ssy” president, people will logically stick up a middle finger to you by anointing a vocal woman with a Hispanic name to become their champion. It’s only human nature.
Apart from a minority of voters, nobody likes to constantly see performative cruelty carried out on others. Modern conservatism must as a matter of urgency do away with any policies and beliefs that serve no practical purpose except as red meat for Aunt Jill who thinks foreigners are planning to destroy America from within.
Modern conservatism must ask itself honestly if there is any point in co-signing the public mockery and humiliation of a teenager who watched his classmates die in a school shooting. What purpose does this actually serve other than to attract nasty, unstable characters and push away potential conservative voters?
It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that the GOP is facing an existential crisis when the current president is Republican, but the president himself is a case in point. Is Donald Trump a conservative in the classical sense? Is he a fiscally responsible, socially modest individual, or is he a brash multiple divorcee with a string of bankruptcies, lawsuits, and controversies as long as his arm? Has he always been a registered Republican or does he have a history of switching sides apparently on a whim?
Is Trump a suitable model on which to build the future of the GOP? What happens when America runs out of Laura Ingraham-watching voters as is currently happening? According to Nielsen data in 2015, the average age of Fox News viewers in the U.S. was 68. At the same time, it is predicted that by 2045, the white demographic will become a minority population in America for the first time in over 300 years. What effort is the GOP making to prepare itself for such change?
One obvious thing that the GOP could do right now is take advantage of the untapped potential of first and second generation immigrant communities, which are often steeped in classically conservative cultural paradigms but are forced to vote liberal because of perceived conservative racism and nativism.
This would entail publicly disclaiming Tucker Carlson and other assorted abominable people involved in the hostile takeover of the GOP. In one fell swoop, conservative politics could then experience a demographic renewal with an influx of energetic young conservatives from diverse backgrounds and disarm liberals of the “but Republicans are racist” talking point.
Such suggestions may seem trite coming from a self-identified liberal, but the reality is that America and the world, in general, need an alternative to populist politics which are all the rage now. The liberal response to the right-wing populism of Donald Trump has been left-wing populism of AOC. Eventually, the logical conclusion of the ongoing sequence of events is that America will at some point end up with President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which would not be a terrible thing in itself.
The problem, though, is that if this game of populist wing-nut loud mouth versus wing-nut continues unabated, it heightens the risk of creating a completely divided country with the possibility of significant civil violence. Anyone who is familiar with post-colonial Africa and South America will be familiar with this sequence of events on the road to civil war. Suffice to say, the solution to the current Donald Trump should not be a left-wing Donald Trump.
America desperately needs a political center, and to this end, it is imperative that the GOP rediscovers its identity outside of the toxic parameters it is being forced to operate within. This, however, is a conversation that can ultimately only be had among conservatives.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not represent those of, nor should they be attributed to, CCN.com.