The Fox News host amplifies a debate the right needs to have.
The most interesting thing in conservative politics right now is not the government shutdown and Donald Trump’s flailing attempt to claim victory while being defeated on all fronts. Instead it’s an ideological battle over Tucker Carlson’s recent Fox News soliloquy, in which he accused his fellow Republicans of building an anti-family, finance-dominated economic system that might be “the enemy of a healthy society.”
Carlson’s monologue was an expansion of themes that have dominated his reinvention as a Trump-era populist — the general folly of elites, the unwisdom of the bipartisan consensus on immigration and foreign policy, the failure of Republican leaders to defend the national interest.
But in expanding on those themes he went somewhere that Fox hosts rarely go — from culture into economics, from a critique of liberal cosmopolitanism into a critique of libertarianism, from a lament for the decline of the family to an argument that this decline can be laid at the feet of consumer capitalism as well as social liberalism.
Just about every conservative worth reading was provoked into responding.
- One set of responses accused Carlson of a kind of conspiratorial socialism, which exaggerates economic misery, ignores capitalism’s fruits, and encourages ordinary people to blame shadowy elites instead of cultivating personal responsibility.
The other group basically said, no, Tucker has a point — the point being that market economies are inevitably shaped by public policy, that policies championed by both parties have failed to promote the interests of the working class, and that social conservatives especially need a framework of political economy to promote the institutions — family, work, neighborhood — upon which civil society depends.
If there is to be a healthy American right, after Donald Trump or ever, this is the argument that conservatives should be having. And it is especially an argument that Fox News should be highlighting, since Fox is frequently responsible for stoking populism but keeping it vacuous or racialized, evading the debates the right really needs.
Now let me attempt my own quick contribution. A key issue in the Carlson contretemps is distilled in this line from David French of National Review, one of the monologue’s critics: “There are wounds that public policy can’t heal.”
This is a crucial conservative insight, a caution for policymakers everywhere — but it can also become a trap, a cul-de-sac, an excuse for doing nothing. And that has happened too often for conservatives in recent decades: They’ve leaped to despair without even trying policy.
But in hindsight this was wrong, the feared inflation never came, and the economic recovery was slowed because of the Republican fixation on tight money. Of course, in the Trump era some Republicans have conveniently become dovish on inflation. But in the preceding eight years, wage-earning Americans suffered unnecessarily because of a wrongheaded right-wing counsel of despair.
A second example: While it’s true that family breakdown has deep and tangled roots, it’s also true that in the 1940s and 1950s, a mix of government policy, union strength and conservative gender norms established a “family wage” — an income level that enabled a single breadwinner to support a family.
Maybe it isn’t possible to recreate a family wage for a less unionized and more feminist age — but are we sure? Is there really nothing conservatives can do to address
- the costs of child care,
- the unfulfilled parental desire to shift to part-time work,
- the problem that a slightly more reactionary iteration of Elizabeth Warren once dubbed “the two-income trap”?
If marriages and intact families and birthrates declined as the family wage crumbled, perhaps we should try rebuilding that economic foundation before we declare the crisis of the family a wound that policy can’t heal.
A final example: Historically conservatism has been proudly paternalist, favorable to forms of censorship and prohibition for the sake of protecting precisely the private virtues that Carlson’s critics think government can’t cultivate. But in recent decades, the right’s elites have despaired of
- censoring pornography, acquiesced to the spread of
- casino gambling, made peace with the
- creeping commercialization of marijuana, and accepted the
- internet’s conquest of childhood and adolescence.
Yet none of these trends actually seem entirely beyond the influence of regulation. It’s just that conservatism has given up — once again, in unwarranted despair — on earlier assumptions about how public paternalism can encourage private virtue.
The deeper point here is that public policy is rarely a cure-all, but it can often be a corrective. And the part of Carlson’s monologue his critics should especially ponder is the end, when he suggests that absent a corrective that “protects normal families,” even the normal will eventually turn to socialism — choosing a left-wing overcorrection over a right that just says, Well, you see, we already cut corporate taxes, so there’s nothing we can do.
A tough new Dick Cheney biopic is triggering some conservatives. Have they learned nothing?
So instead, I am summoned to a more urgent, if distasteful, task: to try and explain why anyone in the conservative movement (or anywhere else) would want to normalize Dick Cheney—let alone flat-out cheer for him. After all, this was a man who left office with an approval rating as low as 13 percent.
.. That’s lower than Richard Nixon when he resigned, lower than Jimmy Carter when he was replaced by Ronald Reagan. It’s as low as Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression and as low as Barack Obama among Republicans and conservatives.
Even today, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both have triple the approval ratings that Cheney left office with.
.. To plagiarize what Andrew Sullivan famously said about Hillary, anyone with Cheney’s destructive track record towards his own movement should have been drummed out “under a welter of derision.”
.. We don’t have to be “ordered” to remember and revere historical figures like Reagan, MLK, and JFK, or be shamed into doing so. But who the heck did Dick Cheney ever benefit outside of the corporate-crony one percent?
- What small, non-monopoly business did he ever give a chance to grow?
- What did he do to improve our schools and police?
- What did he do for balanced-budget conservatism, as he overruled Alan Greenspan and his own treasury secretary, gloating that “deficits don’t matter”?
- How did Cheney make us more secure, with Iraq and Afghanistan all but ruined, Iran and Syria feeling stronger every day,
- and ISIS having wrought its destruction—and with Osama bin Laden still livin’ large for two-and-a-half years after Cheney retired?
- How do you defend someone who literally went to the Supreme Court to keep the minutes of his infamous 2001 energy task force meetings secret (they were co-chaired by Kenny-Boy Lay during the height of Enron’s rape of California’s power grid),
- while at the same time suggesting the outing of a truly top secret CIA agent (Valerie Plame) just to get revenge on her journalist husband?
- How did Cheney uphold Ronald Reagan’s mantra of curbing big government excesses when he justified warrantless surveillance and straight-up torture?
- And what lasting benefit did Dick Cheney bestow on the conservative or Republican brand, with Barack Obama winning the biggest landslides since Reagan and Bush Senior?
It was my respected colleague Kelley Vlahos who solved the mystery of why some members of the Beltway press just can’t quit Cheney: “because they still won’t admit that the war was wrong.” Bingo. Expecting the U.S. to export insta-democracy to decidedly non-Western cultures? Putting overwhelmingly Christian and Jewish “viceroys” in charge of historically Muslim nations? Gee, what could possibly go wrong…
.. As chilling and thrilling as Christian Bale is as Dick Cheney, perhaps no scene in Vice is as squirmy as Richard Dreyfus’s impersonation of Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W., when he stands in front of a CGI map in the War Room and smirkingly announces, “There is no exit strategy. We STAY!” (If that scene didn’t actually take place, it might just as well have.)
.. Still, there are scenes in Vice that come close. For a biopic about a man who defined the adage “personnel is policy,” it’s fitting that director Adam McKay, who has a strong comedy background, chose actors who are known for being funny just as much as for their work in dramas. Those include Sam Rockwell as George W., Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld. (Reuniting Bale and Carell also indicates that McKay rightly sees Vice as an unofficial prequel to his financial meltdown dark farce The Big Short.) Like the aforementioned W., McKay’s Vice is a sometimes frenetic, sometimes eerily calm black comedy satire. And like Josh Brolin in W., Sam Rockwell plays George Jr. as an easily played and comical doofus. There’s no doubt in this film as to who the real president was from December 2000 to the end of 2008
.. Watching Bale as a terse, leering, manipulative young reactionary as he grindstones and plays people against each other from the late ‘60s to his Bush-Cheney heyday, one is struck by his shameless entitlement. Cheney uses movement conservatism and old boy connections as his own Uber. If Christian Bale is a slim and athletic man trapped in a fat and ugly body, Cheney sees himself as the Richelieu or Machiavelli of his own real-life movie, trapped just one step behind the real decision-makers—until he finally gets that chance to ride his horse from Aqueduct to Santa Anita.
.. The other key role among these garbage men is Amy Adams’ take-no-prisoners performance as Lynne Cheney. Mrs. Cheney had the straight-A brains and Ph.D.-level drive to be a powerful judge or executive in her own right, and was, according to Adams, a better “natural politician” than her husband. But as a card-carrying member of the Phyllis Schlafly/Anita Bryant/Beverly LaHaye-era Right from rural Wyoming, Lynne had less than zero plans to transform herself into another bra-burning icon. Instead, “she lived her [considerable] ambitions through her husband,” as Adams said. Adams even added that compared to the iron-fisted Lynne, her husband Dick might have been the “velvet glove”!
.. And as these Cheney-rehabilitating articles prove, Lynne wasn’t the only one who got off on Dick’s raw exercise of power and privilege. Watching Dick Cheney at work must have been intoxicating for a Dwight Schrute or Montgomery Burns in his small pond, for someone who coveted the kind of vulgar bullying power that Cheney wielded. It was no accident that Stephen Bannon famously and semi-humorously put Dick Cheney in his own hall of heroes, behind only Darth Vader and Satan, citing Cheney’s peerless talent at “disrupting” established orders... And if you’re a Never Trumper, just recall that a key reason Trump and Ted Cruz were the last Republicans standing in 2016 was because Cheneyism had so discredited the old “conservative” establishment... Sorry, I’m just not there for conservative writers infantilizing Cheney and going all triggered snowflake at what big meanies the Hollywood libr’als are being to him. Christian Bale said it himself: “[Cheney’s] a big boy…he says himself he has no remorse, no regrets, he’d do everything again in a minute.” Exactly.
But they also include a typical conservative cluelessness about black grievances, a performative and commercialized Americanism that parodies healthy civic life, and the toxic identity politics that Donald Trump is constantly encouraging. And then, of course, the N.F.L. is particularly vulnerable to Trump’s demagogy because its business model depends on gladiatorial combat whose medical risks it has been desperate to hush up.
.. So the N.F.L. owners have a multilayered problem, cultural and financial and political and medical, to which a simple why-don’t-they-respect-free-speech solution seems woefully insufficient.
.. Everything about the intersection of sports and race relations and the Trump presidency is simply toxic, and expecting free speech to flourish where those rivers meet is like suggesting that a Superfund site cleanup begin by planting daffodils in the most polluted stretch.
.. There’s a similar problem with debates about free speech on liberal college campuses. Yes, it’s obviously bad when speakers are denied a platform, threatened and shouted down. But if every protester suddenly fell silent, the atmosphere in elite academia would still be kind of awful — and not only from a conservative perspective... Meritocracy, materialism and smartphones would still induce mental breakdowns among bright young climbers. The humanities would still be in existential crisis and possibly terminal decline. A “hedge fund with a library attached” model of administration would still prevail. An incoherent mix of ambitious scientism and post-Protestant moralism and simple greed would still be the ruling spirit.
Much of recent left-wing campus activism has to be understood in this depressing context — as a response to a pre-existing crisis, an attempt to infuse morality and purpose into institutions that employ many brilliant minds but mostly promote incurious ambition and secular conformity.
Which suggests that the dissident, “dark web” intellectuals who have gained a following by warring with those activists ultimately need (as some of them seem to intuit) a competing moral and metaphysical vision of their own, not just the procedural freedom to say some stuff that is politically incorrect.
A classical liberalism that only wants to defend its own right to argue — because that’s what John Stuart Mill would want or something — will end up talking only to itself. If you want a healthy culture of debate, it’s not enough to complain that Marxists and postmodernists are out to silence you; you need your own idea of what education and human life itself are for.