Will the Real Right-Wing Populists Please Stand Up?
Talk is cheap when it comes to the politics of Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson.
In the 2017 edition of Toronto’s Munk Debates - supposedly the prestige television of debates - former Trump consigliere Steve Bannon went up against his fellow Republican David Frum on the proposition, “Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist, not liberal.”
It was hardly must-see-TV. Frum threw around a lot of vague rhetoric insinuating that Bannon was a fascist. Bannon retorted with equally hazy talk about the virtues of working-class “deplorables.” Frum is a better rhetorician than Bannon, so if we’re going to play this game, I guess he “won.” What’s striking, though, is that almost no specific policy disagreements were even mentioned.
The reason is that Trump loyalists, including Bannon, don’t actually disagree about much with their right-wing anti-Trump counterparts. Frum hates Trump’s rhetorical strategy, and he’d probably like a return to the comparatively more moderate immigration policies of George W. Bush, but he hardly objects to Trump’s tax cuts or the administration’s effort to pack the judiciary with pro-plutocracy judges. Meanwhile, Bannon wants to revive the GOP’s historic commitment to protectionism in favor of U.S. businesses. He unsuccessfully urged Trump to revive the Clinton-era upper-income tax rate and spend some of that money on infrastructure, but that’s about as far as his deviations from market orthodoxy go in practice.
Red Scare 1, Frum 0
This April, Bannon appeared on Red Scare, a Brooklyn-based podcast hosted by self-described “bohemian layabouts” Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova. The announcement was met with howls of outrage. Anna and Dasha had violated the left’s taboo against “platforming” those seen as dangerous reactionaries.
The two co-hosts have engaged with socialist thinkers like Mark Fisher and Slavoj Zizek, but they don’t seem keen on being called “leftists.” I suspect they might associate the term with nerdy DSA members with beards and glasses. (For the sake of full disclosure, I should admit that I’ve just described myself.) But anyone who watched Bannon and Frum’s Munk Debate and listened to Bannon on Red Scare knows that the latter exposed Bannon in a way that Frum not only didn’t but couldn’t.
The Red Scare girls were friendly and flirty during parts of the hour-long conversation about the pandemic, health care, and his eccentric ideas about a “fourth turning.” But the longest section of the interview was spent returning over and over again to a single issue as Bannon squirmed and evaded and occasionally mumbled conciliatory things about what a complicated issue it was and how maybe they had a point but…well…you see...
The question he had so much trouble answering was, If you’re such a “populist,” why don’t you support Medicare for All?
I define “populism” as a rhetorical posture that pits ordinary people against some elite group. This can take many different forms. The “Moral Majority” who did so much to elect Reagan and the Bushes deployed culturally populist rhetoric about, for example, decadent Hollywood types undermining the values of salt-of-the-earth people who live in the middle of the country. There’s no doubt that much of the contemporary right is “populist” in this cultural sense, or even that in the Trump era the populist pitch often involves talking about economics. But if “economic populism” means supporting policies that would actually benefit ordinary people at the expense of the one percent, it’s far from clear which right-wing “economic populists” we’re talking about.
Steven Bannon sounds edgy when he talks about “deconstructing the administrative state,” but in practice, this has amounted to little more than what conventional Republicans mean by deregulation. When Anna and Dasha ever so gently removed his mask, they exposed a man who politically resembles a moderate Reaganite.
To be clear, there are historical and global examples of politicians, movements, and even whole political parties that have combined some degree of economic redistributionism with elements of social conservativism. If there was some Republican Congressman who, for example, combined support for Trump’s border wall with support for a $15 minimum wage, or a Senator who wanted to wage the culture war by restricting trans people’s access to bathrooms but who was willing to make the class war less one-sided by repealing Taft-Hartley, things would be more complicated. But that’s not a problem for those of us who supported Bernie Sanders’ movement and hope for the revival of a “labor populism.”
Trump talks a lot about America being humiliated by free trade pacts, but his bilateral replacement deals aren’t much to write home about. The Republicans who FDR rightly called “economic royalists” in the 1930s were more protectionist than Trump. And in many other policy areas, he makes no attempt whatsoever to posture as populist. As I write this, the President is busy assuring suburbanites that they won’t have to worry about having low-income housing built in their neighborhoods.
So who are the real economic populists on the contemporary American right?
The answer I hear the most is Tucker Carlson.
Carlson’s Hollow “Economic Nationalism”
The position for which Carlson is best known is his strong support for cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Is this a “populist” position?
There’s a fairly obvious sense in which harassing and deporting low-income workers is the furthest thing in the world from meaningful “economic populism”—especially since Carlson sometimes frames the issue by telling his viewers that immigration makes the country “poorer and dirtier.”
Nonetheless, Carlson’s huge audience is by no means entirely middle class and his appeal isn’t just about ethnic demagoguery. As much as liberals try to make the phrase “economic anxiety” a punchline, Tucker really does use populist rhetoric when discussing economics and this is a real component of his appeal. In a widely cited segment in 2019, he poured scorn on “Austrian economics” and praised a statement by Elizabeth Warren about the importance of “economic patriotism.” So it might be reasonable to wonder whether his support for harsh crackdowns on the immigrant working class is motivated by a genuine concern with the economic condition of the native-born working class.
Looking beyond his rhetoric, Tucker Carlson is a political hypocrite. He attacks high drug prices but rejects Medicare for All. He criticizes corporations like Amazon for paying poverty wages but he doesn’t support a $15 minimum wage. He has characterized universities as pricey liberal indoctrination factories but avoids any attempts to make them more affordable or democratic. He appeals to nostalgia for high-paying industrial jobs when criticizing free trade pacts, but he doesn’t want to change labor laws to make it easier to rebuild the strong unions that enabled workers in those industries to make a decent living.
Even when discussing Warren’s “economic patriotism,” the only specific policy proposals Tucker Carlson agrees to are “more apprenticeship programs” and a vague commitment to the federal government “buying American where possible,” positions also supported by neoconservative stalwart Marco Rubio. In a nation where tens of millions of people lack health insurance, calling this “economic populism” amounts to shoving dirt down our throats and telling us that we should be grateful to eat so well.
The respectable Never Trump types and the right’s fire-breathing “economic populists” are mostly separated by words. Anyone who wants to actually do something about the inequality Bannon and Carlson milk for their political rhetoric will have to look elsewhere.
a nuanced interesting approach and logical of course, as is a characteristic of this writer. I am not a philosopher (always found the subject very hard) but like his work.
Always struck me that the main difference between “Populist” and establishment right wingers is the difference between coke and Pepsi. It’s branding and advertising, not a distinct policy or ideology. I highly recommend people interested in this check out Thomas Franks’ new book on the history of populism and America’s attempt to build a social Democratic Party in the 1890s on.