Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Tucker Carlson for President Isn't a Joke
The Republican Party will never be rid of Donald Trump's movement
Among the liberals of America and those who detest Donald Trump most, Election Day may be the most ecstatic, holy day imaginable. Though anything is possible, Trump is on track to lose to Joe Biden—and perhaps lose very badly. While Trump was clearly underestimated in 2016, since he was the nominee of a major party running against an unpopular Democrat moored to a dubious familial legacy, he faces a very different terrain this year. COVID-19 is ravaging America and there is no one, beyond the most blinkered and idiotic of the hard right’s fringe, who believe he has done well to contain the virus. True believers of Trump, rather, deny the existence of the virus altogether, and pray their Sun-King can wish it away in time for NFL kickoff. Trump is no longer the unpredictable insurgent a few too many voters wanted to take a chance on; he is the incumbent president presiding over catastrophe, and it’s likely any Democrat with a pulse could knock him out in this race. Biden is a good fit for the moment because he carries the gravitas of Barack Obama’s presidency and enough voters, shell-shocked from four years of Trump, are desperate for any return to normalcy. 2016 was a change election. 2020 is its opposite.
What would happen if Trump is erased in a landslide? Democrats and never-Trump Republicans hope the outcome is something similar to what happened to George McGovern, the liberal senator who Richard Nixon obliterated in 1972. McGovern’s loss weakened the hand of progressives for a generation and convinced the Democratic Party, wrongly, to repudiate the New Deal legacy. A new class of Democrats preached appeasement of big business, globalization, and breaking from organized labor as a pathway back to power, and through Bill Clinton they seemed to be validated. But we know the arc of history is long and neoliberalism is now mostly discredited. There was a time when it was argued that if enough developing countries embraced capitalism, we’d all get rich and democracies would sprout across the world. That dream, in retrospect, was laughable. China is now a global superpower with the most sophisticated authoritarian government in human history. There are no free elections, no free speech. Dissent is ruthlessly put down. A Muslim minority is suffering literal genocide. Every citizen is surveilled every hour of the day. China, meanwhile, is fabulously wealthy. The trade off, in the United States, has been cheapr consumer goods and the collapse of traditional blue collar manufacturing.
All of this context is important for what is coming next. Unlike McGovern, Trump’s defeat is unlikely to cleanse the Republican Party of Trumpism. For one, Trump won’t go anywhere. Until he dies, he will be the dominant force in the party, dictating primary elections and weighing in daily on Twitter. He will either have his own Fox show or start a new network to compete. As Dave Wasserman has pointed out, the defeats of House Republicans are only strengthening the Trumpist wing. Moderates are disappearing altogether. Even the insurgents who thwart Trump-backed establishment players, like 24-year-old Madison Cawthorn of South Carolina, immediately pledge featly to Trump and promise their victories aren’t any kind of rebuke of Dear Leader. The politics of the two major political parties are dictated by primaries and no Republican will want to be outflanked in their devotion to the Trump agenda, which is largely popular with the most fervent, frequent voters. Though Trump’s overall approval ratings are increasingly miserable, Republicans still like him enough. Trump himself is a politician without a clear core, often flailing around on instinct, but there is a younger generation of Republicans who are taking on the core concepts of a conservatism that dates back to Trump’s ideological forefather, Pat Buchanan.
At the beginning of the month, Politico ran a story about Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the most popular cable TV pundit. A growing number of Republicans want him to run for president in four years. “Sixteen prominent Republicans interviewed by POLITICO said there’s an emerging consensus in the GOP that the 51-year-old Carlson would be formidable if he were to run,” Politico wrote. “Some strategists aligned with other potential candidates are convinced he will enter the race and detect the outlines of a stump speech in Carlson’s recent Fox monologues. Others, particularly those who know him well, are skeptical that he would leave his prime-time TV gig.” What Carlson ultimately does is anyone’s guess. He is handsomely compensated at Fox and may not want the hassle of a campaign, which will further expose his personal life and those working for him, like the racist writer who was recently fired. Whether the 51-year-old Carlson runs or not, he is absolutely the future of the Republican Party, a front-runner for tribune as Trump eventually recedes from the stage.
In December, I wrote a long essay about where I thought the GOP was headed, laying out my fears and who I believed would lead the party after Trump. Carlson’s emergence as a potential candidate is both a validation of my thesis and something of a departure, if Carlson indeed intends to discard is own past as a traditional free-market, supply-side Republican. My argument from last year, in essence, was that the next wave of Republicans, led by men like Mike Pence and Tom Cotton, would embrace the virulent cultural and social concerns that Trump exploited in his successful primary insurgency four years ago. The GOP will never be a party of immigration reform again. After Trump, no Republican can not run against immigrants, undocumented and legal alike. To win a Republican presidential primary, a candidate will need to embrace further restrictions on immigration and a return to the racist quotas of the first half of the 20th century. Ironically, the Republicans can look to ostensibly humane, liberal nations like New Zealand for inspiration. Jacinda Ardern, who is something of an international folk hero for the way she has tamed coronavirus, is sharing power with a far right, anti-immigrant party, agreeing to far stricter controls on immigration. For Republicans in the United States, support for restrictive borders will be a prerequisite to viability. This was the ideal Buchanan conceived decades ago in his proto-Trump presidential campaigns.
Joining this hatred of immigration will be unrepentant cultural conservatism. Carlson is breaking cable records attacking the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of statues. If Trump himself has occasionally embraced measured criminal justice reform, he otherwise harkens back to the unapologetic white backlash movements of the mid-20th century, calling for military in the streets and a return to a nebulously defined law and order. He is a less sophisticated Richard Nixon, literally crying out about the forgotten silent majority, though his base is neither silent nor a majority. Trump has also held the line on social issues: he remains a hero of evangelical Christians because he has appointed socially conservative judges and fully disregarded his past support for same-sex marriage and abortion.
Trump’s successors cannot give ground on these issues either. Future GOP candidates will name their own right-wing judges they want to appoint to the bench once they are elected, following Trump’s 2016 blueprint. There will be no concession on social and cultural matters, and how they bleed into the legal domain. See Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, another future presidential candidate who can simultaneously embrace European-style socialism to save the teetering economy and wage a public fight on behalf of the legacy of the Confederacy. Most Americans want the names of Confederate generals taken off military bases and streets. They want the statues gone. Like the swastika, the Confederate flag is a literal symbol of racism and oppression. But Hawley isn’t just speaking to people like you and me, who may nod approvingly at his deviations leftward. He’s got a future Republican primary to win. Those voters aren’t done romanticizing Jefferson Davis.
Carlson is very much in the mold of Hawley; or Hawley, undoubtedly a regular Fox viewer, is consciously imitating Carlson. Carlson is not opposed, in theory, to more government spending on roads, bridges, and public schools. Perhaps he only wants it for the “right” type of people—whites, non-immigrants. Carlson’s dog whistle is quite loud. Though he came of age as a country club Republican, Carlson has reinvented himself as an economic populist, since the Republican Party’s economic agenda has not been popular in a long time. Even the most ardent Republican voters, particularly of the white working class, want their Medicare and Social Security safeguarded and, ideally, expanded. No Republican complained about a $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government. A lot want another one. The old intellectual elites of the Republican Party, the Koch brothers and their various billionaire brethren, were smart enough to understand a soulless allegiance to austerity was not enough to win elections. It’s why the GOP, for so long, has leaned remarkably hard into social and cultural issues—bathrooms for different sexes, only saying “Merry Christmas” at Walmart, et cetera. These issues made up the Trojan Horse for the real Republican objective: starving local and federal governments of tax revenue. Hence the obsession with the federal deficit as an excuse to gut social safety net programs, even though the United States is an immensely wealthy nation with the ability to print its own money in perpetuity and fund whatever it wants to fund. This is what Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and John McCain and Mitt Romney all believed in, in one form or another—austerity for public schools and food stamps; socialism for the military-industrial complex. Carlson, who like Trump supported the Iraq War and later disavowed it, is not a neoconservative, and seems bent on crippling that legacy as much as he can. Hawley appears to be positioning himself in a similar way, raging against tech monopolies and backing new federal spending while deriding old liberal expansionist dreams like NATO. Where the Trump Republicans do seek some version of war, or at least an ill-defined harder line, is with China. China is a worrisome nation, to say the least. But any kind of legitimate military engagement would be catastrophic. We’ll see, soon enough, what Hawley is really after.
The other wing of the Trumpists is less concerned with economic populism. Mike Pence and Tom Cotton rose to prominence as Tea Party-oriented politicians with dangerous, interventionist views on foreign policy. These Republicans pose the greatest threat to America’s future. For all the damage Trump has done domestically in his failure to respond to coronavirus, he has unsettled the global order far less severely than George W. Bush, though liberal intellectuals will have you believe spitting on NATO is a comparable crime to the Iraq War. For the most part, Trump has left in place a rotten status quo. American troops still police too many countries to count and military bases remain open across the world. Autocratic nations like Saudi Arabia operate with impunity; American presidents of both parties appease whichever violent dictators act in American interests. Trump, we hope, will leave office without having started a full-scale war. It is a positive development that the deranged John Bolton was chased from the White House and left to write a useless memoir to be devoured by the MSNBC set.
What’s frightening is that a Pence or Cotton White House would probably welcome Bolton back. Cotton craves war with Iran. Pence wouldn’t hesitate either to champion the causes of the old neoconservatives, undertaking new regime change wars that murder innocent civilians and waste the lives of American troops. This is what the darkest future of the Republican Party could be: a governing party imbued with all the hatred of minority groups and the social safety net, married to a belief in war at all costs. This GOP would still pay fealty to the memory of Trump. There is no version of the GOP that won’t. But it would not attempt to make Trump’s faux economic populism real. It would leave tech monopolies unchecked and reject new, desperately needed stimulus spending to save the economy. For the left, the good news is that there will likely be a four-year pause before we find out what itineration of the Republican Party is triumphant. Biden’s do-nothing, basement strategy campaign is a fine fit for the plague year. Biden can watch reruns of SportsCenter in Delaware and throttle Trump across America. But the former vice president is a doddering, uninspiring leader who could spur a Republican resurgence in the coming years. Under Obama, the GOP made massive gains in both mid-term cycles, taking advantage of diminished Democratic turnout to win the House and then the Senate. Democrats should start imagining now how they plan to motivate voters to come to the polls during a Biden presidency. Given Biden’s weaknesses and inevitable GOP gains if he serves as president, Democrats may only have a two-year period—2021 and 2022—to enact sweeping progressive change that Republicans will struggle to unravel. The genius of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society is how hard it has been, despite repeated attempts from powerful and nefarious politicians and donors, to undo them. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are with us to this day. Obama, for all his vision, did not move aggressively enough in his own two-year window, perhaps believing he would have far more time. His signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, has been a small step in the right direction, if for the expansion of Medicaid it triggered. But it was an unimaginative program that did not solve the healthcare crisis in this country; predatory private insurers are still determining who lives and who dies. Single-payer healthcare would be the ideal. If President Biden can implement a public option, abandoned by Obama and House Democrats a decade ago, the federal government would at least be able to compete with private insurers and slowly push them out of business.
Assuming they are defeated in November, revanchist Republicans will not be gone for good. A return is a matter of when, not if. It will be up to Democrats to move swiftly to save the country. Any hesitance—any watering down of legislation or attempts to appease the opposition—will cost us all very dearly. Republicans have always known, unlike Democrats, what exactly to do with power.