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How White Men Have Always Fought – and Thought of Themselves
The fallacies of Tucker Carlson discourse, what the Right *really* believes, and old-school white elite racism
Fox News firing America’s leading far-right media activist offers a chance to reflect on a few pervasive misunderstandings and willfully misleading narratives, not just about Tucker Carlson, but about the Right in general.
Legal filings in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation law suit against Fox News have so far brought us “Tucker Carlson’s Texts” drama in three acts. Act One: In late February, messages from within the Fox News world became publicly available and left little doubt that most prominent on-air personalities, including Tucker Carlson, as well as executives all the way up to Rupert Murdoch never believed in Trump’s election conspiracies – but decided to push them anyway and even suppress dissent and skepticism on the network. It was a revelation from the Shocking-but-not-surprising realm, and the public debate centered around how “fake” the whole rightwing media enterprise was, how everything people like Tucker Carlson were saying publicly should be dismissed as just an act, a cynical, purely opportunistic charade intended to placate the rightwing base. Act Two: On April 24, Fox News fired Tucker Carlson, its most successful host – which led to a lot of speculation about what, exactly, might have pushed network leadership to such a decision after sticking with and promoting Carlson’s extremist demagoguery for such a long time? What in those redacted portions of the filings could have possibly been so much worse than all the extremism Fox News had been all too happy to platform for years? Act Three: The New York Times got hold of one of the redacted texts and reported it on May 2.
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Here is that text message Carlson sent to one of his producers on January 7, 2021 – which, according to the New York Times, “contributed to a chain of events that ultimately led to Tucker Carlson’s firing”:
“A couple of weeks ago, I was watching video of people fighting on the street in Washington. A group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid and started pounding the living shit out of him. It was three against one, at least. Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight. Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it. Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be. The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it. I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?”
Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not this specific message really played any significant role in Carlson’s firing: The text is actually interesting – as a window into the mind of the racist white elite. It should be read as evidence that while Carlson did not fully buy into either Trump himself or his many conspiracy theories, he absolutely is a true believer in an underlying worldview of white supremacy. The public facade was very much an expression of what was underneath.
This interpretation stands in contrast to two counter-narratives that have been circulating about Tucker Carlson – and both encapsulate certain fallacies that are pervasive in common narratives about the Right. The first one is that extremists like Carlson may still be good guys in private, and that we should care; the second one is that their extremism is just for show, that it’s all purely a cynical act of opportunist careerism.
The “Privately a good guy” fallacy
In the wake of Carlson’s firing, quite a few people shared stories emphasizing what a great human the host supposedly was behind closed doors. To make a rather obvious point right away: Consider the source. The outpouring of sympathy and support came mostly from reactionary wannabe-intellectuals like Nate Hochman or rightwing extremists like Matt Walsh who provided heart-warming accounts of how Tucker called them to cheer them up when they were having a rough time or just to say happy birthday. I am not sure “America’s most famous rightwing extremist media activist has a soft spot for kindred spirits” is really the strong defense these guys seem to think it was.
But beyond just right-wingers sticking together: Whenever we come across any variation of this “But privately, he is a really good man” nonsense about a person whose political or professional record is indefensible, let’s remember that it’s either uttered in bad faith or indicative of a naive, very limited understanding of the world. What all such defenses have in common is that they don’t consider the awful person’s politics and the way they have chosen to use their power a dealbreaker (if they aren’t simply expressions of agreement with the powerful person’s politics, ideology, and actions, which we can safely assume is the case for Hochman and Walsh).
The “Privately, he’s a really good man” retort is either advanced in bad faith, an attempt to muddy the waters and distract from the indefensible politics and ideology. In Tucker Carlson’s case, it’s a deliberate effort to normalize and humanize a leading far-right activist and media extremist. Or, if it’s not coming purely from a place of bad faith, it might also be an indication of an astonishingly inadequate understanding of society and politics: A form of pseudo-analysis that is incapable of transcending the “But he was nice to me!” level of interpersonal subjectivity. Unfortunately, people in elite positions are often attracted to this type of apolitical ideology of pleasantries in their assessment of fellow elites, almost regardless of how much distance there (supposedly) is between them politically. They often seem to be animated by a feeling of kinship that draws on the shared experience of a small professional or political circle, similar cultural sensibilities and dispositions, and similar socio-economic interests that gravitate towards preserving the status quo. On this basis, elites often get along, at an interpersonal level, even if they are far apart in certain policy areas, and that takes on an outsized importance in their understanding of the people with whom they interact, to the point where it seems to override everything else. The U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, has delivered many a high-profile example of such “But he is my friend” nonsense.
I reject this type of separation between private actions and professional work – I reject it for Tucker Carlson, regardless of how many birthday calls he has made or how many times he said “Hello! How are you?” with a smile in the cafeteria. I reject it for all people in positions of power and responsibility. You’re a great soccer coach? A friendly neighbor? Good! But that doesn’t insulate you from being judged by your professional actions. I really don’t care much about the supposed “decency” of powerful people if it’s entirely irrelevant politically. If you are in a position to influence the lives of millions of people, I will judge you by what you choose to do with that power.
The “It’s all just an act” fallacy
There is, at first sight, a way to read the text message that supposedly led to Tucker Carlson’s firing as just more evidence of how fake his TV persona was: He had doubts about the rightwing political violence, he knew how bad these MAGA goons were, but once he was on the air, he took their side anyway and continued to stoke the flames! But I disagree. The focus should not be on the hesitation and self-doubt as indicators of a functioning ethical compass underneath all the propaganda. Not only did it evidently not steer Carlson in a more ethical direction and was therefore rendered entirely irrelevant by what he chose to do with his power and platform. It's also crucial to unpack the racist ethics and worldview that is captured in “It’s not how white men fight.” There is nothing fake about the kind of old-school racism that this sentence oozes.
“It’s not how white men fight” posits a world that consists of white and non-white: The white man is noble – the Trumpers in Tucker’s story are scolded for not living up to the nobility of the white race, for their “dishonorable” brutality which is associated with the character and behavior of people of color. After all, in this view, “They” are the savages, “We” are not. Obviously, this supposed nobility has never actually resulted in any kind of ethical code of conduct for how the white man has interacted with those who do not reflect his image. But Carlson stands in the tradition of white men who have always been obsessed with their own nobility – and worried about being dragged into the mud by subjugating those they considered savages. Every violent racist oppressor has uttered such thoughts: The slave owners in the American South worrying about the terrible, but, as they often claimed, heroic task of having to discipline the human beings they considered property; European colonizers mythologizing the burden of the “civilizing mission” that, in their mind, elevated their brutal conquest to a benevolent calling; Heinrich Himmler, in 1943, expressing his proud gratitude to a group of SS officers for having “remained decent” through all the genocidal raging. This text, rather than being further proof of Carlson not *really* believing the racist demagoguery that was his show’s sole purpose, demonstrates how profoundly the public persona was grounded in a fundamentally racist worldview.
The fact remains that we have evidence of Tucker Carlson deriding the conspiracy theories about the 2020 election being stolen as lunacy. But it’s important to distinguish: Has Carlson displayed a breathtaking level of cynicism, opportunism, and careerism? Yes! That does not mean, however, that he rejects the underlying vision that animates the reactionary political project.
In general, I don’t think it’s productive to think about the American Right – or any actor’s motivations, really – in terms of opportunism OR ideology, cynicism OR conviction. Ideology circumscribes the realm of opportunity; it defines the boundaries of opportunism. Careerist cynicism is usually in line with an animating worldview. To focus on rightwing elites like Tucker Carlson not *really* believing this or that conspiracy theory is to obscure that they are true believers in the underlying “Higher Truth” of the conservative worldview: That only white conservatives – and the party that represents them – are entitled to rule in America, that every attempt to level traditional hierarchies is fundamentally illegitimate. In this, Tucker Carlson is no different than the many powerful Republican elites like Mitch McConnell who, I have no doubt, despise Donald Trump. But all the reasons why they initially united behind him in 2016 still apply. They may consider Trump crass or crazy, just as they probably aren’t super comfortable with extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene or with how close the Republican Party has gotten to fascistic militants like the Proud Boys. But they certainly don’t consider any of that a dealbreaker. And that’s not just because they are opportunistic, cynical, and power-hungry – although they are all that too, as they understand they can’t win elections or get ratings without the base, and the base loves Trump / Trumpism. They also understand that, as crass or radical or outrageous as they may find anyone in the MAGA universe, they are ultimately pursuing the same political project as Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and all the other extremists – fighting to uphold a traditional elite order and white Christian patriarchal rule. Nothing Trump has ever done has betrayed this project or the “Higher Truth” of conservative politics.
Tucker Carlson is not a man who believes in nothing. Nor is he just a blindly committed ideologue. In him, as in so many others, ideology and opportunism are reinforcing each other in dangerous ways. But never doubt that Tucker strongly believes that it his prerogative, as a wealthy white man, to be at the top. He is committed to fighting for a world in which white elite men like himself get to do as they please. In service of this project, this “Higher Truth,” any level of cynicism or shameless lying is not only justified, but urgently necessary.
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