Q&A: The failure of the Washington establishment
In a wide-ranging interview with American Experiment’s John Hinderaker, Fox News host Tucker Carlson explains how Donald Trump is ‘a living middle finger’ wagging in the face of Washington elites— and how they should respond.
You started out in print media. You wrote for a number of magazines.
Tucker Carlson: Yes. For years. My father was a journalist. So I went into journalism. I was in print journalism for over ten years: newspapers, magazines, wrote a couple of books. And then kind of got sucked inexorably into television, really by accident, actually.
When you were writing, did you ever think you’d wind up hosting television programs?
Never. I never thought I would do TV. My father was a print guy who went into television. He was an ABC News guy. And I assumed I would never do that. He always made fun of TV. He was a literate person, and he considered TV an inferior medium. I never thought I would, but I had a ton of children and low income and wound up doing it on the side, and then enjoying it.
It’s a difficult medium to get ahold of. It’s hard to do it, actually, harder than most print people think it is, or at least harder than I thought it would be. I’ve done it for about 20 years, and I’m just starting to figure it out.
You’ve had shows on all three of the main cable news networks, starting out on CNN, then MSNBC, finally Fox. How would you compare them?
They’re completely different. Cable news is different. Cable news occupies a much more central place in the conversation than it did when I started, when magazines and newspapers really were the forums for people to hash out issues of the moment. Television had a role, but it was more an entertainment function at the time that I started. Now, for a bunch of reasons, some of which I don’t fully understand, cable TV has moved front and center in the public debate.
You were at MSNBC at the time it was transitioning to a far left news source.
I was hired as the main anchor on MSNBC from CNN. The plan was to mimic Fox and make it a kind of Pepsi to Fox’s Coke. And then a number of things happened. Keith Olbermann started attacking Bush and getting great ratings, and so MSNBC decided to change to the Leon Trotsky channel, which is what it is today. They were very nice to me about it. They just said, “Look. We’re changing our format, and you don’t fit. We’re firing you.” Which they did.
When I think back to your CNN days, I see Tucker Carlson wearing a bow tie. It may just be my perception, but it seems to me that the second incarnation, Tucker Carlson with the long tie, became a different persona: more aggressive, more hard-hitting. Is that right, or just my imagination?
I don’t know. I’m not very self-aware. I wore a bow tie from childhood. That’s how un-self-aware I am. I didn’t realize how much people hate you when you wear one. People scream obscenities at you in the train stations. I just thought it’s not worth being judged for my neckwear, so I changed it.
I can tell you this: that my views have changed a lot over the years. I feel like the same person, but I doubt I am. I don’t think any of us is over time. You change a lot. But America has changed a lot, and so a lot of things I believed 10 years ago, I no longer believe. And I’m happy about that because I think it’s important to compare your ideology to its results, and if it doesn’t work, you should abandon it.
What are some examples of where you’ve changed your thinking in recent years?
I always thought that the dividing line between liberal and conservative was economic. And that conservatives were champions of the free market and liberals were very suspicious of it. That really was the dividing line for a long time. There were other demarcations, but that was the main one. And I think the free-market argument won. It did, thanks to a lot of things, but liberals during the Clinton years joined in celebrating market capitalism.
I’m still for the free market, but the middle class is dying, and that’s not one man’s opinion. That’s a fact rooted in data. It’s shrinking in size. The life expectancy of blue-collar America is declining. That’s never happened. So you have to ask, what did we get wrong? What assumptions did we have that turned out to be untrue? Free trade brings prosperity? Yeah, but not to everybody.
Here’s the bottom line. In order to have a functioning democracy and a functioning market economy, you have to have a robust middle class. You have to be a middle-class country, period. It doesn’t work unless you have that, and we’re moving away from that, which is imperiling democracy itself. And why? I’ve been in D.C. for 35 years. I don’t know five people who are thinking about that. A lot of smart people, but deeply unwise and unwilling to revisit their previous conclusions.
What you’re describing is why we have President Trump.
Exactly why. I just wrote a book on this (Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution, to be published Oct. 2). Happy countries don’t elect Trump. Desperate people elect Trump. I’m not criticizing anybody. My wife voted for Trump. I’m just saying when Trump gets elected, it’s a sign. You need to stop what you’re doing and ask, “How the hell did this happen? Where did we go wrong?” The people in charge failed. That’s why Trump got elected. He is a living middle finger wagging in their face. They should pause and reflect upon their failure, and they haven’t.
It’s amazing to me that when I start talking to people who hate the president, the first thing they talk about, invariably, 100 percent of the time, is his tweets.
The great thing about Trump is that often, without knowing it, he clarifies who’s on what side and what they really believe. The truth is the people in charge of every institution in the country other than the White House, and a lot of people in the White House who work for Trump but hate him and seek to undermine his agenda, they’re totally opposed to the America that I grew up in and the one that I loved and the one that was valuable to me and the one that served its own citizens. When I got to D.C. in 1985, I never heard one person debate immigration or trade. Not one time. There was an ironclad consensus from both sides that both were good and more of both was always better. Trump forced a conversation. No matter what you think of those, those are real issues. They’re much bigger than Stormy Daniels. No one would be talking about them if it weren’t for Trump, so God bless him.
What should we do differently?
In every decision, we should think through the most fundamental question in democracy, which is, what’s the best for the most? How do you help the middle class? That is the beating heart of the country, not how do you make Amazon return a higher dividend to its shareholders or whatever. You want people making between 150 and 35 grand. That’s your sweet spot.
When they start to die of obesity-related diabetes or fentanyl OD … 60,000 died that way last year, more than who died during the entire Vietnam War. That’s a siren going off, saying, “Whoa. Your policies are not serving the people they need to be serving.” The rich are fine. The poor, as Jesus said, will always be with us. The middle class is your concern. It was the concern of every successful president from FDR to Eisenhower to Bill Clinton, and all of a sudden, after Clinton—and I’m including Bush in this, by the way—the middle class dropped off the list of concerns for our elites.
Tucker Carlson Tonight is one of the top-rated shows on cable TV. I think one of the reasons you’re so popular with conservatives is that you have a lot of liberals on your show and you’re effective in taking them on over key issues. Why do you think they keep coming on your show?
I let them talk. The purpose is not to beat them in a debate. I’m a professional debater. I can beat them in a debate. That’s what I do for a living. That’s not the point. The point is to elucidate what they think. Sometimes, I call them ahead of time to try to convince them to come on, and I tell them exactly what I’m going to ask because it’s not a magic trick. I’m not tricking anybody at all. No one’s getting fooled. I ask the dumbest possible questions, and I let them answer. If they prevaricate, I jump on them a little bit, but then I try to let them talk if they’ve got something to say. I want to hear it because I think the public needs to hear it.
One of the main things I’ve learned is the left is not interested in debating at all, and not just the left, either. I would put the Republican leadership in the same category. The people who are benefiting from the status quo do not want to explain why these policies are good for the country, because they’re not good for the country. That’s why. And they don’t want to admit that. They would rather just shout you down and say, “Shut up, racist.” That’s the first arrow in their quiver. “You’re a white supremacist. You’re evil. You’re going to hell. I’m virtuous. You’re sinful.” Okay, great. That’s the theological debate. Let’s get to the policy questions. Why is this good for 320 million Americans? “Shut up, racist.” That’s kind of the course of the conversation most nights on my show, but I don’t want that. I really try to get articulate people who are not sideshow freaks who represent only themselves, but mainstream people who disagree with me and explain what they think. That’s really the goal. I do this every night. I don’t need to be dominant over some idiot every night. I don’t. I have a happy marriage. I have four children I love. I don’t need the self-esteem. I mean it. I really want to hear what they have to say.
How often do you encounter liberals on your show who are serious about issues, and who are willing to talk about them in a rational way?
Very rarely. Very. I run into some very well-meaning and nice liberals or progressives, whatever. But I almost never encounter any who’ve thought through the implications of what they’re suggesting or willing to face them head on and be honest about them. I think it’s pretty hard to justify, for example, their position on immigration except to the extent it helps them. In other words, what we’re doing doesn’t benefit most Americans. It benefits a small number of Americans who want cheap housekeepers, and that’s kind of what everyone in my neighborhood has got. They’re happy about that, and they don’t want that to be challenged in any way.
But you can’t say that the average person is getting anything out of this. It’s destroyed schools across the country. It’s made the country itself unstable. Forty-four percent of all California households don’t speak English at home. How do you have a cohesive country with that? It’s caused a ton of problems here in Minneapolis, I’m aware. And no one’s allowed to say anything. Shut up and obey. Maybe you think we need to move all of Mogadishu to Minneapolis. Maybe we do. Maybe there’s some justification for that, but here’s my only point. Tell me what it is. Explain it to me. How am I going to be happier and more prosperous when we do that? When the last Mogadishan lands at Minneapolis-St. Paul, why should I celebrate? And “shut up, racist” is not a real answer. That’s all I’m saying.
You said earlier that the free-market argument really was over.
Oh, it’s over. Capitalism lost because the people in charge didn’t pay any attention to the effects at all, and so with the average millennial it is far less likely that his parents are married or own a home, he owns his own car or they own two cars. We’ve saddled people with overwhelming levels of debt—student loan debt primarily, but other kinds, too—that we’ve basically crushed an entire generation of kids. And they’re really angry.
When people don’t get married and don’t buy homes and aren’t rooted in the society long term, they’re volatile and scary, and their politics tend to be crazy. It’s really bad. You don’t want to ever let that happen. We let it happen. We didn’t pay any attention at all. All of that money was transferred to the Baby Boomers, and they’re about to feel the effects of that because economic populism is the future. I don’t want it. I’m just telling you. I’d bet my house on it. Bernie Sanders is going to seem moderate compared to the next guy.
What should we do about entitlements?
I think it’s over. I think we’re going to get some kind of revolution, actually, because of this. Hopefully, it will be a soft economic revolution. Conservatives actually are implicated in this. There was a debate in the early ‘80s when economists said, “Actually, you can’t afford this.” Reagan said, “Well, you can if you increase the debt load,” and that’s what he did. Conservatives bought into that, and supply-side justified it. I was for it. I’m not attacking it. I’m just being honest about it. The truth is economics is a species of physics. It’s natural law, and you can’t continue doing the impossible forever.
So I don’t really know. I don’t think we’ll ever adjust our expectations downward except by force. And so at some point, the government’s going to be insolvent, and China will be entirely in control. I don’t know what happens then.
You used the phrase “white supremacist” a little while ago. I assume, like most people on the right, you’ve been called a white supremacist at some point. The bar for that is really low.
I don’t even know what it means, actually. To the extent I understand it, obviously I’m nothing like that. I don’t feel that way at all. I don’t see the world primarily through the lens of race. The left does. On college campuses across the country, there is segregated housing, segregated eating spaces, which the administrations of various schools defend. Really? Did they miss the whole civil rights movement?
The people pushing racial separatism, who are pushing racial conflict, are almost exclusively on the left. And because everything is Freudian transference, they blame the other side for it. In other words, if you want to know what the left is like, listen to what they say about the right, and it’s them completely. “Oh, they’re fascists. They’re racists.” Really?
Are conservatives the ones saying that we ought to award jobs and college admissions and contracts on the basis of race? Really? Our whole government, our private sector, every big company, every university, is organized around racial discrimination explicitly, and nobody says anything about it. You’re like, “Oh, you can’t talk about that.” Really? Because why? It’s insane, actually, and here’s the reason it’s bad. I’m not saying this because I’m obviously on the wrong end of it, though that’s a perfectly fine reason to be against it as far as I’m concerned.
But no. The real reason to be against it is it inculcates tribalism, which is the thing that you don’t want in a diverse society. The question our elites should be brooding on, but they’re not because they’re selfish and stupid, but if they weren’t, is this: what holds us together? A country with no common history or language? Religion? Why do we remain a country? What do we have in common? Countries don’t hang together by inertia. They break apart
If you’re going to make the country super diverse, you need to think about what is the glue? And they haven’t. Instead, they’ve picked at the race scab consistently because it helps them maintain power, and it keeps the population from asking obvious questions like, “Why is the tax code fair? Why are we taxing capital at half the rate of labor?” “What? Shut up, racist.” It’s a way to make people be quiet. It’s a way to move their attention on to something else. It’s a distraction, but it has terrible consequences in the end.