The Fox News host Tucker Carlson has gathered a dedicated following these past few years. Just a couple of weeks ago the 51 year old was widely regarded as the darling of both grassroot conservatives and the president himself. But whether he knew it or not, and despite a considerable overlap, his crowd was not as dedicated as the one he was about to provoke.
In a brief segment anyone interested in American politics will have seen by now, Carlson very gently cast doubt on the legitimacy of exotic claims by Sidney Powell, a late addition to the legal team Trump had charged with challenging the 2020 election result. These claims included speculations about an international communist plot to rob the president of victory by misusing voting technology; large accusations, then, whose revelation in court Powell insisted would be ‘Biblical’. Agreeing with her, Carlson remarked that they would count as the worst crime against American democracy in its history, if true.
Answering journalistic hunger, he had contacted Powell for comment, or for some foretaste of the evidence that was to be presented before a jury. But the attorney had rebuffed him, apparently angered by the request. Carlson related this rejection to his audience with the merest twinge of frustration, and then quite sensibly postponed the matter.
As I say, I do not know whether Carlson quite appreciated the nature of the reaction that was to follow, but it was coming either way. Twitter caught fire.
“You just ended your career, Tucker.”
“Tucker is deep state. Been saying this for years.”
“He was the last reason I was watching Fox. Guess the whole lot have sold-out. Buh-buy!”
Accusations of turncoatery and treason were thrown about with pitchfork enthusiasm. Viewers pledged never to watch the man’s show again, ending years of respect and admiration. The next video Carlson uploaded (on a different subject) received thousands of retaliatory downvotes. And even after another clip addressed the backlash, most refused to contemplate forgiveness.
“Apologise to Sidney!”
“Too little, too late, Friar-Tuck. Bye now!!”
“It isn’t just about you, young man! It’s about truth!”
Days later, the Trump legal team itself put daylight between their efforts and Ms Powell. Her claims were growing wilder by the hour, damaging the revisionist cause.
I haven’t seen many apologies to Carlson since then, though a few thousand are surely due; only some vindicated loyalists scolding those who too hastily turned their backs on him, and receiving few replies.
What, if anything, does this episode have to teach us?
For one, I’d say it confirms that the political right in America has as much of a problem with truth as the political left. Though, for some time, conservatives have delighted in watching the left violently divide itself into hostile factions of woke-corporatists and grassroots-realists – we might represent these two tendencies by personifying the former as Thomas Friedman and the latter as Matt Taibbi – the right now risks an equally disruptive tripartition of its ranks.
First, the Trump Fundamentalists – people for whom the man has replaced the agenda, or at least enjoys level billing with it; the exhilarated crowds at his rallies who adore his common wit, the way he draws blood from the detested liberal aristocracy. These crowds do not wish to hear contradictions of Trump’s narrative. They will boycott and oppose anything and anyone to protect it. Fox News is the most prominent entity to be gored so far. It won’t be the last.
Then there are the neo-cons, or corporate-internationalist right; cheerful war hawks, animated mostly by money and foreign policy. Think Marco Rubio, Charlie Kirk and what’s left of Lindsey Graham.
Thirdly, the Post-Trumpists; those who have reservations about the man, but hold fast to his principles; who want ‘Trumpism without Trump’. Prominent examples include Ann Coulter and (arguably) Pat Buchanan.
It would be bright-side thinking to believe these groups will soon settle their differences. Likelier, they will make for determined combatants in a jungle war of ideological succession; one that will absorb the energy of the Republican party for the foreseeable future.
Viewing the Powell dust-up in this light makes matters considerably clearer, though no less troubling. Foolishly or bravely, Tucker Carlson dared to deviate from the Trump line; and in doing so revealed a potentially crippling inflexibility.
Thumbing their noses at the old Republican mainstream, Trump Fundamentalists are already establishing a parallel media, manifesto and commentariat. QAnon, dark money, Satanism, George Soros, vaccines, 5G and electoral fraud are the central concerns – a far cry from the concrete disagreements over healthcare, immigration, and foreign policy that gave Trump his victory in 2016.
The Rubio-ist neoconservative faction will no doubt present its own case, making use of euphemisms for drone violence such as ‘ensuring stability’ or promoting ‘American leadership’; ultimately the same platform as Joe Biden, but with tokenistic dissent on healthcare and tax.
The Post-Trump deviation is the most interesting to me, and not just in an American context. Building on Trump’s victory over the corporate press, with its warped liberalism and mandatory denial of obvious truths; taking his better arguments further, tidying them up, separating the logic from the logician; walking back or denouncing his worst aspects; criticising his excesses; in other words, playing Khrushchev after the death of Stalin, seems to me plainly worthwhile.
What I fear will happen is that the right will shatter into fragments; incompatible factions, each with its own media, society and commentariat, drifting ever further apart, dividing and subdividing until no fight-ready unity is conceivable. Discord like this is ripe for exploitation.
If the ultra-loyalists and QAnonists are allowed to take the reins now, it will take years to dislodge them. Should Trumpism as a sentiment and set of ideas degenerate into the man’s whims and fantasies, any otherwise sturdy logic he rode to power on will be undermined.
Whatever the risks, a clash of conservative worldviews is sadly necessary.
I commend Tucker Carlson for not giving in completely to the wild panic engulfing the Trump right. He is doing a great service to conservatism, and to the goals the president promised originally to serve.