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Tucker Carlson and the Folly of Debating Bigots on Their Terms

Tucker Carlson.
Tucker Carlson. Photo: Fox News

Tucker Carlson is best known for furrowing his brow and squinting his way through white nationalist diatribes, a performance he is paid millions of dollars to repeat every weeknight on Fox News. But from 2006 to 2011, the 49-year-old could be found calling in regularly to the “Bubba the Love Sponge Show,” a shock-jock radio program. Recordings of Carlson’s calls — which were published on Sunday and Monday by Media Matters reporter Madeline Peltz — showcase a trove of racist and misogynistic views, child-rape apologia, and a prurient interest in the sexual behavior of teen girls.

Among the lowlights: Carlson’s characterization of Martha Stewart’s daughter Alexis as “cunty” and his description of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton as “two of the biggest white whores in America.” During one call, he stated that, were he in charge of making laws, Michael Vick “would have been executed” for dogfighting, but Warren Jeffs — a Mormon fundamentalist who is in prison for arranging marriages between adult men and girls as young as 14 — “would be out on the street.” Regarding queer sex among girls at his daughter’s boarding school, Carlson quipped, “If it weren’t my daughter I would love that scenario.” He called Arianna Huffington a “pig,” described Iraqis as “semi-literate … monkeys,” and said that women in general are “extremely primitive, they’re basic, they’re not that hard to understand.”

Where most public figures would respond by conveying regret or offering context, Carlson has only dug in his heels. “Rather than express the usual ritual contrition, how about this: I’m on television,” he wrote on Sunday on Twitter. “If you want to know what I think, you can watch. Anyone who disagrees with my views is welcome to come on and explain why.” But those familiar with Carlson’s on-air behavior know that this is a self-serving dodge. He routinely berates his guests with bad-faith arguments and false equivalences en route to the second-most-watched show on cable news. Sparring with Tucker Carlson on TV is good for Tucker Carlson, Fox News, its shareholders, and not many others. Theirs is a formula that animates a thriving strain of conservatism — one that pairs conditional values rooted in the naked pursuit of self-interest with the fetishization of debate.

There isn’t much left to say about the rhetorical contortion that allows conservatives to rationalize their support for Donald Trump. But Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, summed it up nicely in his assessment of Vice-President Mike Pence: “I used to believe … [that] at least he believes in our institutions and was not personally corrupt,” Buttigieg, who is running for president as a Democrat, said on Sunday at a CNN-hosted town hall during the SXSW Conference and Festival in Austin. “His interpretation of [Biblical] scripture is pretty different from mine … His has a lot more to do with sexuality … But even if you buy into that, how could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn-star presidency?”

One suspects that Buttigieg already knows the answer to his question. Any pretension of family values and moral rectitude that conservatives claim is strictly nominal. The right wing has no monopoly on betraying one’s values out of convenience. But Trump’s status as a serial liar, a grifter, an adulterer, and an admitted sexual predator suggests that the corruption and amorality of the vessel is actually immaterial to those who claim fealty to God and family above all else. All is forgivable as long as Trump pursues key parts of their agenda — the appointment of conservative judges, tax cuts for the wealthy, and draconian anti-choice legislation, to name a few.

Carlson’s purpose is to facilitate the journey from clinging to a relatively plausible moral compass to nakedly pursuing personal enrichment. His role is to troll its detractors. He is part of a cohort for whom “debate me” has become a rallying cry. Fellow conservative media personalities like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos have given the phrase totemic meaning, claiming as self-evident the folly of liberal and leftist thought. Their evidence is the unwillingness of those who disagree to debate them. “Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in a typical response to one of Shapiro’s challenges. One is inclined to forgive would-be interlocutors like Ocasio-Cortez: Shapiro argued in 2017 that Steve King isn’t racist and thinks that Trump won in 2016 because liberals are too mean to conservatives. Yiannopoulos believes that transgender women are mentally ill; CPAC rescinded its invitation to him after it learned that he had defended sex between adult men and 16-year-old boys.

Precedent suggests that these are men who are willing to argue the inarguable for argument’s sake. But whether consciously or unconsciously, they are also expressing a particular theory of conservatism. It was articulated by political theorist Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, and paraphrased recently by Tressie McMillan Cottom in her book, Thick. “The act of being conservative necessitates an undesirable progress against which it can rebel,” Cottom writes. “It is provoking and reactive because without progress there is no reason to prefer the lack of progress.” For these men, the reaction is the point. Subjecting any hint or perception of progress to public ridicule is of dual utility for them: It helps manufacture the tension they require to exist, for one — but making liberals squirm is also its own reward.

It brings to mind a telling exchange between Senator Lindsey Graham and the New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich from February:

“The point with Trump is, he’s in on the joke,” Graham said. I asked Graham if he is in on the joke, too. “Oh, 100 percent, 100 percent.” He laughed. “Oh, people have no idea.” I asked him to explain the joke to me. “If you could go to dinner with us. … ” he said, shaking his head.

The joke, as I understand it, is that this is politics, but it’s also fun. It is entertainment — and lucrative entertainment at that. This frame explains why Carlson is so comfortable musing about “white whores” and the sex his 14-year-old daughter’s friends are having and responding to calls for accountability with an invite to hash it out on TV. He knows that the merits of calling women “cunty” and “primitive” are not actually up for litigation. (Though he may indeed believe that they are “cunty” and “primitive.”) Nor, I’d imagine, does he intend to litigate them. His aim is to promote his own agenda by turning controversy into televised spectacle. It is to transform words with real-life stakes and victims into chances to bloviate about the liberal media, leftist hypocrisy, or any subject of his choosing. All he needs is an audience and an opponent. The result looks like a debate, but follows few of the format’s ground rules.

In reality, it is a commercial for Carlson’s worldview presented under the false pretenses of parley. The immediate goal is apparent: to earn plaudits — and ad dollars — by way of a conservative audience that requires constant reassurance of its own righteousness. But the endgame mirrors the goal of conservatism writ large: to justify and maintain a system of dominance and subjugation, rooted in whiteness, patriarchy, and the pursuit of material wealth. Carlson’s banner contribution to this legacy is simply to ask: Why not have a laugh and get paid in the process?

Never Debate a Bigot on Their Terms