The Tendentious Foreign Policy Worldview of Tucker Carlson
To the extent that Carlson held a coherent view of foreign policy, it was grounded more in bigoted fiction than fact.
The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World was not sorry to see Tucker Carlson forced out of Fox News. As a white guy raised mostly in New England who possesses a fashion sense that is at least preppie-curious, Carlson’s visibility seemed bad for the brand.
It remains unclear why he was fired. Multiple, competing explanations have been provided, ranging from the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal (suggesting Carlson was a misogynistic, egotistical prick) to Vanity Fair (suggesting Carlson had a messiah complex that influenced Murdoch’s ex-fiancé). It is possible that we may never know why Carlson was fired from his third cable news network, especially if Rolling Stone’s Diana Falzone and Asawin Suebsaeng are correct about Fox having an oppo file on Carlson).
To be honest, the reaction to Carlson’s firing is a far more interesting topic of conversation.1 For the first two decades of Carlson’s career, he articulated a standard GOP policy message. Around the time Trump was elected, Carlson embraced a more populist platform, loudly criticizing both libertarian public policy and liberal internationalist foreign policy.
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How genuine was it? I cannot claim to know what is in Carlson’s heart. If the text messages revealed from the Dominion lawsuit tell me anything, however, it’s that Carlson’s shtick was more for show and dough than credo. Or, to put it another way: about the least populist thing anyone could say in response to a journalist telling the truth would be, “it needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.” A populist who cares that much about stock prices is a pluto-populist at best.
Still, even if it was shtick, Carlson committed to the bit long enough for his message to earn some intellectual street cred. It was unsurprising to see those who relied on Carlson’s show as an outlet for their own idiosyncratic views bemoan his departure. The more interesting question was how cross-partisan that feeling would be.
The American Prospect’s Lee Harris and Luke Goldstein provided the grist for every pundit’s mill in their write-up of Carlson’s legacy at Fox. It was an equal serving of praise and calumny in looking at Carlson’s legacy, but the praise is what caught everyone’s attention. They wrote, “Carlson’s insistent distrust of his powerful guests acts as a solvent to authority, frequently making larger-than-life figures of the political establishment defend arguments they otherwise treat as self-evident.”
Most of the blowback to that essay revolved around Carlson’s economic ideology. The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World will defer to those with more skin in the game for that discussion. What intrigues me is the claim they and others have made about Carlson’s less interventionist foreign policy worldview. For example, Ross Douthat wrote that Carlson evinced “a skepticism about American empire.” In their TAP essay, Harris and Goldstein write:
In the past year, Carlson also broke with the Washington political establishment to express skepticism about the U.S. sending tens of billions of dollars in weapons and security assistance to Ukraine. He has questioned the prevailing insistence that the war “is not a proxy battle between superpowers” and that the United States is not at war with Russia. The television host censured the Biden administration after comments made by the president that indicated the goal of U.S. involvement in Ukraine was regime change, which White House spokespeople then had to walk back.
Carlson repeatedly invited on independent journalists and commentators critical of American military adventurism.
Perhaps not. It’s easy to oppose a policy position if you make up malevolent facts about it, and hey, guess what, Carlson did that on a regular basis. He suggested at one point that the United States wanted the war in Ukraine. He trafficked in racist conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement that lacked empirical foundation but appealed to those on the political fringes. No wonder one GOP senator told The Hill’s Alexander Bolton about Carlson, “He wasn’t troubled by whether something was true or not.”
It’s also hard to claim that Carlson was opposed to U.S. military adventurism; it’s more accurate to say Carlson preferred aggressive military adventurism closer to home. Carlson repeatedly called for using the military south of the border in Mexico.2 In 2019 he said on his show: “When the United States is attacked by a hostile foreign power it must strike back, and make no mistake Mexico is a hostile foreign power.” He echoed those arguments in 2022.3
In advocating for these policies, Carlson echoed the musings of Donald Trump. Yesterday Jonathan Chait concluded, “it is difficult to make a case for Carlson as the populist enemy of the Establishment that does not make the same case for Trump.” That holds with particular force with respect to foreign policy, and it might be the biggest lie that populist gadflies like to tell about the likes of Carlson and Trump. As previously noted in this space, Trump is as bellicose as Carlson when it comes to the use of force in Mexico. And as Matt Duss noted recently in Foreign Policy, the notion that Trump was opposed to military adventurism badly misreads Trump’s record as president: “Trump might not have started any wars, but he massively inflamed existing ones—and came close to catastrophic new ones…. Despite inveighing against ‘endless wars,’ Trump massively escalated the country’s existing wars, leading to skyrocketing casualties.” Reviewing Trump’s abysmal foreign policy record, Duss concluded: “If you think that demanding tribute from partners and client states is ‘anti-imperialism,’ then I’d suggest that word does not mean what you think it means.”
I do agree with Carlson on one thing he recently said: “When honest people say what’s true, calmly and without embarrassment, they become powerful. At the same time, the liars who have been trying to silence them shrink. They become weaker.” This, and not his alleged opposition to military adventurism, might explain why Tucker Carlson is weaker and smaller now than he was a week ago.
Ironically, in his racist motivations and his desire to deploy an expeditionary force to Mexico, Carlson resembles Woodrow Wilson — not a president that would ordinarily appeal to populists who oppose military adventurism!