Why Does Tucker Carlson Sound Like a Berkeley Leftist?
The war in Ukraine has exposed an ideological vacuum at the heart of American right.
In the Before Times, prior to Twitter and #BLM and Critical Race Theory, the one wing of the political spectrum that was reliably “America, love it or leave it!” levels of patriotic was the right. The most traditional and curmudgeonly conservatives, grumps like William F. Buckley and George F. Will who harrumphed glumly about the world in National Review, were also the most absolutely pie-eyed patriots. America was an exceptional and indispensable nation—in the words of Ronald Reagan, “the last, best hope of humanity . . . a light unto the nations.”
One of the post-woke political realignments that’s happened in the United States is the emergence of a New Right. This new movement—Trumpian in its isolationist America First attitude and deeply cynical about the country’s ability to act competently in the world—spans everyone from Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson to religious conservatives like Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule and the author Rod Dreher. Either more overtly (in the case of Bannon), or more implicitly in the case of religious conservatives who hold up countries like Hungary or Russia as aspirational, this emergent ideology breaks with the Reagan-style, small-government conservatism of the past 40 years.
One fascinating aspect of this New Right is that it shares a worldview with, of all things, the old hippie left. Two core tenets of New Right ideology are now:
The United States is incapable of doing good in the world, and historically has been a force for evil worldwide.
Everything that happens in the world is the direct result or responsibility of the United States.
The Ukraine situation makes this unlikely contradiction even more evident. The Putin fans among the New Right—in temporary retreat, currently sublimating their views as Ukraine skepticism—really think Russia some anti-woke exemplar worthy of imitation. Never mind that the church-attendance rate in Russia is far lower than the U.S., their birth-rate as low as any childless European country, and their abortion rate one of the highest in the world. Seen from the “trad” conservative perspective at least, Russia suffers from all the ills of post-modernity even more than the supposedly degenerate West.
This is analogous to the Berkeley leftists with whom, in my naive idealism, I often debated while in grad school 20 years ago. Whether older academics still under the influence of the 1960s, or younger students in the fashionable keffiyeh-wearing left, they all thought the communist Cuba that my family had fled was an egalitarian utopia that should serve as an example to America. In fact, the Cuban reality had about as much to do with egalitarianism as modern-day Russia does Christian values, both serving as little more than rhetorical cudgels in an America-centric discourse.
Of course, neither the Berkeley hippies nor the New Right seek out reality: Both stay snugly inside the bosom of the liberal capitalism they claim to despise, rarely venturing to their idealized Havana or Moscow. Certainly, they don’t choose to live there.
In another striking parallel with the New Right, the Berkeley hippie thought that every political event that happened anywhere in Latin America or the global South, from Chile to Nicaragua, was a masterfully executed CIA plot for which an American administration (probably Reagan) was directly responsible. The thought that events unfolding in Chile (or Ukraine, for that matter) might reflect another society's complex inner workings in which the U.S. was but one factor never even occurred. This is the supreme narcissism of the American activist class, left or right, thinking the entire world is downstream of domestic U.S. politics.
Likewise, with Ukraine we’ve got a swirl of uninformed chatter about supposed biolabs, the Orange Revolution (which happened almost two decades ago), and this or that U.S. official and his phone calls. All are quite irrelevant to the on-the-ground reality of the war right now. The New Right going on and on about State Department official Victoria Nuland and her famous phone call is exactly like a Chomsky-ite lefty going on and on about Kissinger’s overtures to Pinochet, as if the world simply dances to the tune of State Department phone calls.
This schizophrenia of the New Right is a strange mix of oikophobia—that is, hatred for one’s own country—and self-absorption. The term oikophobia was coined by cultural conservative Roger Scruton to skewer the British left. Nowadays, the right is just as infected with a withering opinion of the U.S. influence on the world as those with fading Che posters on their walls. It’s a recurring motif across all political discourse in America and the West more broadly, and it’s eating the Ukraine conversation.
Rather than grapple with a self-obsessed discourse that largely ignores reality, I spent last week reporting from Poland and Ukraine myself. It was more than a bit eye-opening: The refugee crisis on the border is enormous, Europeans have mobilized tremendously to handle it, and Ukraine itself is on a total war footing where all thought and action go toward victory over the Russian invaders.
On the way back, I was standing in line along with Ukrainian refugees to re-enter the EU zone at a desolate rural crossing point. After all the hours it took to get through, there was a collective euphoria (much stronger among the refugees surely than me) upon entering the European Union and NATO. The line between the worlds of war and destruction and desperation and that of order and safety and prosperity was very stark indeed.
Those who rail constantly against the global liberal order should step outside it every now and then. They might appreciate it more. After all, there’s no law of the physical universe that we must always live in democracies with rule of law. That’s the historical exception not the rule.
Certainly, the Ukrainians fighting for the right of their country to join that order think much more highly of it than almost anyone in America does now. The alternative is staring at them in the face, in the form of Putin’s encircling tanks.