The day after Tucker Carlson lost his job at Fox News, he got some praise from a surprising source: the progressive magazine The American Prospect.
The piece may have been titled “The Smuggest Man on Air,” but its thrust was decidedly more admiring of the host. Journalists Lee Harris and Luke Goldstein wrote that Carlson was “skilled at skewering comfortable pieties on the left and right” and that his “insistent distrust of his powerful guests acts as a solvent to authority.”
They praised Carlson’s criticisms of free market conservative dogma and the US foreign policy establishment, and only briefly mentioned what they termed his “obsessively nativist” messaging, which they said “alienated viewers who might otherwise have embraced his populist perspective.”
The backlash from some quarters of the left was swift.
Author Zachary Carter called the article “generally revolting.” Writer Kathleen Geier opined that the Prospect writers either must be “too dumb” to notice Carlson’s bigotry or shared his views. “Disgraceful and stupid,” Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo tweeted.
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie called the article “shoddy and unconvincing,” said Carlson’s show “was praised by literal nazis for its messaging,” and tagged the Prospect’s top editor, David Dayen, to ask why he published it. (Dayen soon issued a semi-apologetic editor’s note, saying the piece “fell short,” that he bore responsibility, and that he’d publish a response from other staffers soon.)
But, Dayen’s contrition notwithstanding, some on the left defended the piece. “This is the only piece on the left trying to understand how Tucker Carlson fit into policy discourse,” anti-monopoly activist Matt Stoller tweeted. “So of course most people hate it.”
The American Prospect has long championed a progressive agenda, with alternately wonky and crusading bents, and has helped launch the careers of many now-prominent journalists — including Bouie, Marshall, and others who are now up in arms.
The Prospect article and the responses to it have brought a long-simmering tension within the liberal-left coalition to a boil. That is: Are social justice politics — combating racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry — so important that any enemy of that project, especially one with views as virulent and influence as immense as Carlson, should be declared anathema?
Or are issues like challenging the US foreign policy establishment or corporate power important enough that it’s worth finding some common ground with people who espouse bigoted views — even people who espouse them quite loudly and often?
Why some on the left feel a little drawn to Tuckerism — and why others find that so abhorrent
The mainstream view of Carlson on the left is that he is a uniquely dangerous figure.
Some call him a “white nationalist” (and indeed, white nationalists have frequently praised Carlson for finally letting arguments they’ve long made into the mainstream). Others call him a fascist. He is believed to be not just a participant but a ringleader in a movement that threatens marginalized people’s rights and very existence. Naturally, if you believe this, any praise of Carlson or effort to find common ground with him sounds repulsive.
But some leftists think these claims about Carlson (which resemble claims made about Trump) are overhyped, as is the culture war in general. They tend to believe the greatest threats to the country do not fall so clearly along party lines and aren’t getting enough attention. They’re deeply troubled by the bipartisan US foreign policy establishment, and they think both parties remain far too corrupted by corporate power — and both those viewpoints got an airing on Carlson’s show.
Carlson, as I’ve written, did indeed break from the traditional GOP establishment on both of those topics, offering commentary that sounded quite different from that of other Fox hosts like Sean Hannity. This is the argument Glenn Greenwald has made in explaining his willingness to appear on Carlson’s show, and his increasing friendliness toward the populist right generally (once viewed as a crusading journalist of the left, he is now loathed by many of his former allies). Stoller, who defended the Prospect piece, has faced similar controversies over his attempts to work with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) on antitrust policy.
But critics of this viewpoint argue that Carlson’s economic rhetoric is phony — that, like Trump and like historical fascists, he pandered with phony populism for the cause of advancing an authoritarian and bigoted agenda that likely wouldn’t even do much about corporate power. Some argued that this was an example of the old left fantasy of a “red-brown alliance” between the left and fascists, something that never ends well for the left. Dayen nodded to this viewpoint in his editor’s note, saying he thinks right populists have “attempted to co-opt” the topics of “corporate predation and war.”
It’s fair to question whether right economic populism will ever amount to much more than rhetoric. The discourse over the Ukraine war is a trickier issue. Most mainstream Democrats and liberals wholeheartedly support Biden’s policy of arming Ukraine, arguing it’s a righteous defense of an invaded country against a foreign aggressor. Some on the left are more skeptical, fearing it will just result in a bigger, deadlier war, and want this aid rolled back. They wanted more of a debate on the topic but had few prominent allies in the media — except for Carlson.
Another important undercurrent here is, of course, feelings about “wokeness” and the social justice movement in general. Some leftists bristle at what they see as this movement’s tendency toward self-righteousness, censorious denunciation, and co-option by the “professional managerial class,” thinking it’s curdled into a new, dull conventional wisdom that they want to transgress. (Harris alluded before it published that her Carlson article would be controversial.)
“We have nothing to lose but our subscribers”— Lee Harris (@leee_harris) April 24, 2023
--@ddayen reluctantly approving the BASED article @lukewgoldstein and I have coming for you on Tucker ouster
Similarly, Prospect investigations editor Moe Tkacik tweeted, in defense of the Carlson article, that she was “So fuckin over the lazy philistinism that immediately denounces as cryptofascist anyone who entertains the notion that right wing populism might have an appeal beyond ‘bigots be bigoting.’”
Much of the controversy is about where the article appeared. Recently, under Dayen’s editorship, the Prospect has achieved new relevance by obsessively covering corporate power, the US foreign policy establishment, and corruption — zigging where other social media-chasing liberal digital publications zagged. But Dayen’s Prospect hasn’t been known for anti-woke, anti-social justice provocations, and this piece was so poorly received that he felt the need to publicly semi-apologize for it, saying he’d “work hard to earn back whatever trust has been lost.”
There’s long been an impulse among some on the left to argue that the right populists kind of have a point. This dates back to the dueling interpretations of the 2016 election, in which some commentators argued that Trump won because of racism, while others pointed to the Democratic establishment’s failures. It’s more recently been seen in the debates about whether wokeness has gone too far.
Praising Tucker Carlson may still be too hot a take for a progressive publication to stand by, but these fissures will likely continue to drive arguments on the left in the post-Trump era.