Tucker Carlson’s interview with Dave Rubin on the Rubin Report is perhaps the most personally-revealing Carlson has given since taking the helm of his wildly-successful show, Tucker Carlson Tonight.
Carlson has been labeled—or better yet, smeared—as a nationalist, populist, and even an “ethno-nationalist” in the two years since he’s jumped on the Trump train. By all outward appearances it seems he has, if not become the President’s cheerleader or whisperer like his fellow Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, styled himself as the intellectual defender of Trump’s populist agenda.
But on The Rubin Report (and in his Politicon debate with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks) Carlson surprisingly rejected the label of “populist.” This might strike people who have followed Carlson’s meteoric rise as either disingenuous of confusing: Just how can Carlson, a staunch defender of the President’s populist policies in intellectual terms, reject populism as a whole. Certainly Steve Bannon, another self-implied “Trump whisperer,” has no scruples about referring to himself as a populist. Why therefore Carlson’s lilly-footedness on the use of the term?
The probable answer to this question might become clearer if we take Carlson at his word. Let’s assume that he does in fact shun the label not out of fear but out of wanting to style himself accurately and avoid misperceptions. Can Carlson defende populist policies without being a populist himself?
The answer—Yes, of course, if we consider populism as an attitude rather than an ideology! As Carlson describes populism, it is a symptom of poor stewardship on the part of the ruling elite. In this way Carlson shows himself to have adopted the same attitude toward populism that the philosopher Russell Kirk took toward conservatism, seeing it as a disposition more than a rigid set of permanent policy prescriptions. Populism is a response, a reaction to mismanagement; the revolt of the masses, so to speak. But the fundamental difference between conservatism and populism, by Carlson’s lights, is that the latter is not a viable, long-term alternative for a nation whereas the former is. Carlson notes that populism has the potential for—and in the case of Trump, has already resulted in—revolution.
But this is exactly why Carlson does not view populism in a wholly positive light. As a self-identified student of history, he says he recognises the danger of populism precisely in its revolutionary quality. All revolutions involve an overturning and destruction of the old order to make way for the new. Carlson tells Rubin he is not at all persuaded by Nietzschean arguments that destruction must take place before renewal—he instead takes a truly Kirkian stance on the subject, valuing reform of flawed institutions and the preservation of institutional knowledge above radical change. He admits that his view is the result of his understanding of unchanging human nature: man is simply not accustomed to, nor tolerant of, constant social flux. This is why Carlson so strongly advocates against not only illegal immigration, but also those policies which permit mass, unfettered immigration and change the fabric of America too quickly. If Carlson can be called a “populist,” he is only a “populist” by coincidence, insofar as he agrees with the common man that something must be done immediately, and that it must be achieved by mass action and a strong leader.
This is exactly the point at which Carlson reckons with Trump, whom he admires personally. Carlson says he views Trump as an avatar of the American people, warts and all, and that as this avatar he is able to accomplish what our ruling elites are too timid to dare or dream of. Trump is the outsider par excellence—his ability to question established norms in governance is an existential threat and personal embarrassment to the ruling elite; he pulls down their institutional ways of doing things while also revealing their own incompetence and inability to solve problems vexing to the masses (such as immigration).
However, Trump’s very ability to upend convention leads to chaos, and chaos is is not desirable for any society wishing to remain stable. Trump’s hostile relationship with the press, for instance, is not the status quo any individual bent on keeping the country from whirling itself to pieces would like to maintain.
But to read Trump as an agent of chaos and nothing more is incorrect, Carlson seems to suggest. Trump’s function is not necessarily to solve the problems elites would like to ignore or cannot solve themselves, for the very simple reason that some problems are insoluble at the macro-level. (How, for instance, could a tenable solution be proposed for the nation-state of Iraq, which is neither a nation nor a state but a vacuum which draws into its gaping maw the blood and treasure of many local tribes, neighboring countries, and the United States?) Carlson himself admits that Trump serves to provide the public and the elites new and unique perspectives on vexing and even insoluble problems. Trump, because of his ignorance as to how the greasy cogs of “this town” work, is inclined not to lean on bureaucrats but on his own intuition, which is the common sense of the people. For the tenured technocrat working in the State Department the fact that many member states of NATO do not pay what they have promised is not an issue given the U.S.’s outsized financial and military power; but for the scrimping and saving mind of the average American and Trump, the national debt is an all-too-pressing concern.
But what can the mere introduction of new perspectives produce if Trump and the forces of populism continue to destabilize the country? What is to be done if a populist president is merely the prelude to a solution and not the solution itself. What is to be done if we do not wish to decline or implode?
Ultimately Carlson points to the Chinese model of governance as a beacon for America’s statesmen. “There’s no country I kind of despise more than China,” Carlson told Rubin, “but one thing I do admire about China is that its ruling clique thinks long-term about stability. That’s their overriding concern…they understand how important continuity and stability are to the society, so they think deeply…I wish we thought that way. I think we’ve too internalized libertarian economics as a model for everything.”
Chinese leaders, Carlson claims, have brought China from the brink of communism to the heights of capitalism precisely because they were engaged in long-term planning for the benefit of the country as a whole—not for themselves, or oligarchs, or a transnational elite.
This far-sightedness which is the essence of statesmanship is at the heart of Confucianism. A true ruler with the mandate of heaven will not agitate solely for his own interests (as did Mao did when he devastated the peasant and academic classes) but for those of his own people.
What is more, such statesmen will not engage in the fanciful daydream of “exporting democracy” to the benighted peoples of the world. Rather, they will focus on leading their own people by example:
“The Master said: Guide them with policies and align them with punishments and the people will evade them and have no shame. Guide them with virtue and align them with li and the people will have a sense of shame and fulfill their roles.” (Analects 2.3)
Where is the proof of the wisdom of political paternalism? Under Confucianism the Chinese state has outlasted all other empires. The only hiccup in Chinese history has been the collective insanity of the Maoist regime, which (unsuccessfully) attempted to eradicate the philosophy of Confucius to make room for communist ideology. It is telling that the current Chinese president, Xi Xinping, recently published a book praising Confucius, and often quotes from the philosopher as part of his governing philosophy. Under President Xi, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is simply capitalism with Confucian characteristics.
America does not yet have a mature set of far-seeing statesmen. The Trump administration is still a populist insurgency in its youth, unused to governing and still finding its way. Trump himself is no moral paragon himself, although he is profoundly moral in one aspect: his rejection of many monied interests in both political parties. Perhaps Trump is only, if not clearing the ground entirely, opening up a space for such future leaders and showing the way forward, as Carlson suggests.