One of the things I like about long car journeys, is there is time for extended discussion without feeling rushed. Car journeys are the perfect occasion for taking a deep dive into subjects that require hours to hash out. Thus it was during a recent trip to Yellowstone with my son, Timothy. We took a deep dive into geopolitics, analyzing the predictions of Peter Zeihan in light of global supply chains.
Another subject that came up, was Tucker Carlson. As a conservative, why am I not a fan of Tucker Carlson? Isn’t it fun to watch Tucker absolutely CRUSH liberals?
These are legitimate questions that Timothy and I were able to discuss during our drive. Shortly before that car journey, the same question had come up with one of my professional contacts.
Below is an expanded version of what I replied in both exchanges, as I was challenged to explain why I am not a Tucker fan.
Tucker Carlson: Not Really Conservative?
As Fox News has catapulted Tucker Carlson to fame and fortune, he has become a de facto spokesman for thousands of Republicans. Segments from his show—ranging from fiery exchanges with his opponents to monologues about current events—circulate in the millions. Given that his show is watched by 3 million viewers each night, he has become an influential thought leader, with enormous reach in shaping the viewpoints of Americans. By his own admission, he was influential in the election of President Trump.
Carlson, like President Trump, has found a unique ability to tap into what ordinary people feel through adopting a straight-talking, no-nonsense, common sense style. But what most of his fans do not realize, and what Tucker himself likely does not understand, is that he has colluded with some of the very axioms of political leftism, including much of the postmodern epistemology that undergirds identity politics. In crucial areas, Carlson lets the left set the terms of engagement and then unthinkingly goes along with their premises. (And here I must clarify that I am not claiming that all aspects of postmodernism are bad. That should go without saying, but is still worth mentioning.)
This is not immediately obvious to many Republicans, because they do not understand the background assumptions to political leftism in general, and identity politics in particular. Without understanding this history, we cannot truly grasp the assumptions that undergird contemporary political thought, nor where Tucker Carlson fits into the picture. Consequently, it will be helpful to offer an historical sketch, one which will admittedly be brief and oversimplified.
Where Did Postmodern Politics Come From?
Ancient pagans believed they were part of an unavoidable division between different races, tribes, and people groups. This came as an inevitable consequence of polytheism. In ancient polytheistic societies, each tribe, ethnic group, and nation believed themselves to be associated with particular deities that warred in the heavens with the gods of the other nations. The warfare between the gods expressed itself in fighting among the tribes to which they were attached. This is pervasive through the literature of the Ancient Near East, including Homer’s Iliad and the Old Testament.
Because the gods and their associated nations were locked in a zero-sum conflict for domination, each group sought to use violence to prove that their god was supreme over the other gods. This perspective brought very specific ideas of guilt and expiation, whereby one group could only have their guilt expiated by becoming the target of cathartic rage from their rival group. Accordingly, pagan justice involved one group triumphing over another. Because races and tribes were seen to be locked in inevitable conflict, justice for one group could only involve injustice to your group, and vice versa. In this primitive perspective, there is no concept of the common good that can unite people across groups, nor a normative framework that can be appealed to in the adjudication of disputes. All that exists is raw power.
In my upcoming book with Ancient Faith (the “gnosticism project” I’ve been working on for quite a while), I will be explaining how Christianity largely did away with this pagan perspective, at least in the lands influenced by Christian culture. The message of Pentecost was the unity of all men and women in Christ, and the ongoing work of creation against the forces of chaos and division. The gospel taught that a person is no longer defined primarily by their group, but by being a new creature in Christ. While Christianity did not abolish conflicts between groups (there is a long history of Christian nations warring against other Christian nations, let alone conflict between Christians and non-Christian nations), it redefined the terms of engagement. Thus, a recurring theme in political texts throughout the medieval era, which had been completely lacking in the ancient world, is that instead of justice being a zero-sum contest between warring factions, divine justice brings people of different tribes and nations to live in harmony with His order. By living in harmony with God, we are able to live in harmony with one another, at least in principle. Although the reality of worldwide harmony will not be realized until the New Heavens and the New Earth, Christians anticipate this by following Paul’s injunction in Romans 12:18 to try to live peaceably with all men.
The Christian worldview began to sustain considerable challenge during the age of revolutions that followed the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Starting with the French Revolution through to the various Communist revolutions that occurred throughout the twentieth century, there resurfaced the pagan idea that the world is an inevitable battleground for competition between warring factions, and that we cannot escape the conflicts tied to group-identity. For example, in the French Revolution there was a zero-sum struggle for supremacy between the aristocrats and those representing the common people and citizens. The Marxist revolutions, on the other hand, organized people based on their relation to the economy (for example, proletariat and bourgeoisie), and then taught that these classes are locked in a zero-sum struggle for supremacy. The Fascist revolutions of the twentieth century taught that there was an inevitable zero-sum conflict between races (for example, between the Aryan races and those of “impure” pedigree). In all such cases, there is no possibility, even in principle, for compromise; there is no common justice that can unite warring factions, because there can only be winners and losers. According to these post-Christian political philosophies, the group to which you belong automatically defines you, whether you want it or not. Significantly, what we know as “conservatism,” grew out of European thinkers opposing these revolutionary ideas. Men like Edmund Burke appealed to principles of the spiritual life and natural law that were transcendent and thus prior to mere group identity. (I have written about Burke in my Salvo column here and here.)
In the mid to second half of the twentieth century, group-based revolutionary ideas surfaced in postmodern theory via developments in French philosophy, German hermeneutics, and American social sciences. I tell this story in more detail here, but the bottom line is that thinkers in these disciplines began giving intellectual cover to the revolutionary impulse to use group-based identities as a basis for conflict. What emerged was the idea that we are all trapped in the micro-narrative of our particular group with no ability to pursue a common good and no common justice that can unite all peoples. There is no transcendently real or objective vantage point to assess competing constructions of reality (according to postmodern theorists), because everyone is trapped in the construction of their own group, locked in power games against the agendas of other groups. Consequently, we are all at conflict with one another, confined to the micronarratives local to our group identity, often defined in terms of race, gender, or sexuality.
Of course, postmodernism is much more complicated than implied by the brief sketch above. However, the key point I want to emphasize here is that postmodernism built on the revolutionary politics of the 18th and 19th centuries in offering a recapitulation of the pre-Christian state of affairs, where the world is the battle ground for a zero-sum conflict between competing agendas with no way, even in principle, to find common ground. It offers us a world where justice for my group can only be achieved by denying justice to your group.
This postmodern situation has led to various idolatries, including critical race theory, identity politics, and post-truth epistemologies like standpoint epistemology and perspectivism. Behind these various ideologies is the notion that all claims of objectivity eventually collapse into bids for power, because the world is a stage for a zero-sum conflict between groups, who are destined to merely talk past each other in mutual incomprehensibility.
As these ideas filter down to specific issues of American politics, this has produced the following three doctrines, all of which have been the subject of extensive (but ultimately incoherent) defenses in the academic and public discourse. I call these the three axioms of postmodern politics (and again, it should be emphasized that postmodernism is not entirely bad, though I will be arguing that these three axioms are bad):
- My identity is defined by my group.
- It is impossible for people of different groups to truly communicate with one another.
- Each group is locked in a zero-sum contest for power.
But what does any of this have to do with Tucker Carlson, who has been an outspoken opponent of identity politics? To answer that question, we need some more historical background.
How The Fall of Communism Led to the Fall of Conservatism
During the Cold War era, postmodern ideas were gaining traction of America’s central institutions via the work of thinkers and revolutionaries associated with critical theory and Gramscianism. This is a story I tell in my article “The ‘Quiet Revolution’ of Cultural Marxism.” Yet the conservative movement, while always struggling with the influence of the Enlightenment and a kind of conservative-liberal fusionism that had been present from America’s founding, remained largely uninfluenced by these types of specifically postmodern politics. One reason for this is that the fear of Communism helped keep the conservative movement from drifting too far towards the postmodern varieties of leftism, and another reason is that various thinkers (i.e., men like Russel Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr.) helped the movement remain tethered to its Burkean roots.
But after the fall of Communism, conservatives no longer had a rallying point like they did during the Cold War. Moreover, as conservatism moved from a defensive posture to one with institutional clout during the Reagan-Thatcher years, many populist conservatives started to feel alienated. Although conservatism gained some traction by aligning itself with a new range of issues (i.e., low taxes, entitlement reform, small government, the importation of democracy abroad, and various social concerns), ordinary men and women with conservative impulses began to feel increasingly alienated from the new institutionalized, beltway conservatism. This created a vacuum in which those with a conservative impulses began latching onto new narratives for a sense of cohesion. Among the new issues –and this brings the discussion round full circle–is a type of tribalism that employs many of the thought categories of postmodern politics, including the second of the three axioms of postmodern politics mentioned above, namely:
- It is impossible for people of different groups to truly communicate with one another.
This assumption, which ought to have no place in conservative thought, is being propelled through a new type of popular pseudo-conservative discourse that draws heavily on standpoint epistemology and perspectivism. (I have discussed these epistemologies in more detail when describing qualitative research I performed which unearthed that many conservatives are using these epistemologies to defend a post-truth perspective.) It is also being propelled by a type of populism that eschews classic political virtues like consensus building, professionalism, and compromise, favoring instead a rhetoric of contempt in which politics becomes a tool for the assertion of dominance. This, of course, reached its apotheosis in Donald Trump’s appeal to a new type of right-wing identity politics and the growing defenses of violence amongst his supporters. But it has also become part of the taken-for-granted background of Fox News. And that brings us back to Tucker Carlson.
Back to Tucker Carlson
Fox News was created by the Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch and launched in 1996. It quickly grew to become the most dominant cable news network in America. Yet significantly, the company is owned by people who have no actual commitment to conservative values. Murdoch himself has been an outspoken fan of both Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is widely known that the current CEO of Fox News, Suzanne Scott, is concerned only with making money. And how does FOX make money? Their business model depends on keeping conservative viewers in a constant sense of crisis, feeding on an us-vs-them attitude towards their ideological opponents (i.e., CNN and the democrats). Thus, unlike conservative pundits in the past who actually tried to understand those with whom they disagreed (one thinks of William Buckley Jr’s show “The Firing Line”), Fox attracts combative pundits who collude in practice, if not in theory, with the second of the three axioms of postmodern politics, thus fortifying the assumption that the public square is a realm of mutual incomprehensibility, where questions are ultimately settled by who can shout the loudest. This business model requires a type of pseudo-conservative punditry that thrives on caricaturing what leftists actually believe, as we saw recently with Sean Hannity’s inexcusable misrepresentations of transgenderism while Sen Hawley was on his show.
The Fox News disaster reminds us that sometimes the medium really is the message; sometimes, while outwardly espousing conservative principles, your entire manner and modus operandi may be ceding ground to the left without you even realizing it. And Fox News has ceded ground to the left, essentially convincing tens of thousands of American conservatives that postmodern epistemologists got it right when they claimed it is impossible for people of different groups to truly communicate with one another.
Enter Tucker Carlson. As if in confirmation of axiom #2 above, Carlson’s entire modus operandi hinges on the impossibility of genuine communication across the ideological divide. This is ironic since this is the very same assumption that undergirds leftism in general and identity politics in particular, even though Carlson outwardly repudiates leftism.
For Carlson, the public square is merely a shouting match, and he makes sure he shouts the loudest. Appealing to the thoughtfulness of his listeners is less important than coming out on top and scoring rhetorical points against liberals. Consequently, when Tucker is confronted with an intelligent opponent who actually wants to have a constructive dialogue, he goes to pieces, retreating from reasoned argumentation to merely react. His ways of reacting include sarcasm, twisting someone’s words to redefine what they are saying, or simply cancelling his interlocutor. The latter occurred in his interview with Ed Gavin on police training.
I’ve never been a fan of Tucker Carlson, but this is just plain childish. When you build your career scoring points against liberals and then meet someone who actually wants to have an intelligent conversation, the only option is…CANCEL.https://t.co/gSlDdQ97vN
— Robin Phillips (@robinmarkphilli) May 11, 2021
Gavin was a thoughtful and well-informed guest, yet because he didn’t provide Carlson with fodder for a quick-win in a rhetorical boxing match, Carlson went to pieces and abruptly ended the interview. And that was not an isolated case – examples could be multiplied almost endlessly. Like his friend Donald Trump, Tucker’s interactions are fundamentally transactional – a zero-sum contest between winners and losers. This reinforces the plausibility structures inherent in postmodern politics, namely that society is the theater of mutual incomprehension among competing groups. And of course, if this is what we believe about politics in America today, then the old norms of fair play are out.
Partly this has to do with Carlson’s personality and style. Yet behind his childish smile and fake laugh, more sinister (even nation-destroying) forces are at work. I have an interest in the dynamics of nations on the verge of internal collapse, and one of the factors I observe form history is that political discourse retreats from attentive communication to a rhetoric of contempt, with the consequence that the only remaining option for adjudicating disputes is bloodshed. For example, in his book America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Noll showed that in America’s antebellum period, the problem wasn’t simply the intractability of two opposing positions, each of which claimed to represent the true legacy of America’s founding; rather, the problem was the mutual incomprehensibility that arose from a complete breakdown of communication, and the consequence emergence of a type of zero-sum politics in which raw power became the only arbiter. This, of course, led to the deadliest war in American history. The same thing occurred in the Spanish Civil War, which Rod Dreher discussed in a fascinating 2019 post. Dreher’s post included a string of links to scholarship showing that, historically, zero-sum approaches to politics have spelled the end of political stability. Basically, this scholarship shows that when rival factions begin ping-ponging off each other’s excesses to justify the surrender of fair play, then this delegitimizes the system in the minds of both citizens and lawmakers. Then, once the system becomes delegitimized, this paves the way for the collapse of order; public discourse collapses into a shouting match of mutual incomprehensibility and violence becomes the only remaining mode of conflict resolution.
In the state of affairs I just sketched – namely, in a nation on the verge of breakdown where the aforementioned dynamics begin to emerge – the primary spokesmen will typically not be the most thoughtful people, but the angriest. And Tucker Carlson is angry at the world. He had a rough life that seems to have primed him to the type of anger he gives vent to on his show. Consider, his mother left him and his brother when he was six years old. Then, while trying to attend university, he was turned down from sever prestigious universities. After graduating from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he tried to enter the CIA and was turned down. He finally turned to journalism, where he was able to make his big break. All to say, he has had a rough life, and it is understandable that he is now so angry. And, of course, he is angry (understandably) at what the God-hating elements of our society are doing to corrupt the youth and systematically erase all vestiges of Christianity from public life.
For the millions of people whose view of the world is mediated through him, Carlson’s angry posture is just what they want. They do not want to spend their evenings listening to a program like Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio Journal that will help them be more reflective, more contemplative, more thoughtful; rather, they want someone who will support the groupthink of the pseudo-conservative echo chamber; someone who will offer the comfort of giving voice to their rage. It is a very understandable temptation. But we have to be careful lest even believers inadvertently return to the pre-Christian state of affairs where catharsis is achieved by making one group the target of rage. We have to be discerning lest the very severity of the new battles we face (battles over the very meaning of what it means to be a human being) entice us to collude with the fundamental axioms of postmodern leftist politics discussed above, particularly the assumption that it is impossible for people of different groups to truly communicate with one another. Ultimately, we need to resist Satan, who is using postmodern politics to try to return us to a pre-Pentecost state of babel, where mutual incompressibility between different groups is not merely an observation, and not merely a phenomenon of the sinful condition, but an inescapable norm that we should flow with.
In America today, hundreds of thoughtful conservatives are pushing back against the pre-Christian dynamics that threaten to engulf America in a pagan, pre-Pentecost state of affairs. These conservatives thinkers are undermining the very foundations of leftism in general and identity politics in particular by showing that it is possible for people of different groups to truly communicate with one another. They are showing that competing groups are not locked in inescapable conflict. They are demonstrating that by using cognitive empathy and intellectual virtues we can understand and communicate with our political enemies. These conservatives thinkers are using the doctrines of the image of God and common grace as a basis for consensus-building even with the God-hating elements of our society. Through the work of these thinkers, many people are coming to Christ! Through the work of these thinkers, many are leaving the false gospel of Wokeism. This type of thoughtful conservative discourse is happening in books, podcasts, Youtube videos, conferences, and in the universities–and most of it is available to anyone with a simple smartphone. Yet amazingly, most conservatives I talk to are not aware that this discourse is even happening, and often people I talk with remain incredulous when I inform them of the existence of this discourse. It is not hard to understand why: this thoughtful discourse is being drowned out by louder voices – voices like Tucker Carlson and Fox News.