Iowans may have come to the right-wing Family Leadership Summit to hear Fox News host Tucker Carlson pitch himself as a potential 2024 presidential candidate during his keynote address on Friday. But what they heard was a bitter denunciation of the foundation of American greatness — its existence as a credal nation defined by shared principles like liberty, equality, and democracy.
“If I were advising a politician, I would say — the first thing I would do: ‘What is America?’ ‘Well, America is a physical place. No, it’s not an idea,’” he sneered. “Anybody who says ‘America is an idea’? Please. It’s not an idea; it’s a place. I live there. I don’t live in an idea. I don’t live theoretically. I get out of bed and there’s like a ground underneath me. There’s, like, soil.”
But while Carlson may be aiming at Biden, the argument he is making is far more radical than a typical partisan slap at a Democrat. America’s founding documents established the United States as a credal nation, not merely a country defined by its people and its territory in the traditional European model.
The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Americans have struggled to live up to those words since they were first penned — the declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, and most of its signatories owned slaves, and at its founding, the nation sharply constricted the right to vote. But at the time, they nonetheless represented a revolutionary sentiment. And over the centuries, some of our greatest leaders have stressed that the United States stands apart from other nations because of those values, while urging Americans to secure those rights to a greater portion of its citizenry.
At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, an early event in the women’s rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton modeled the Declaration of Sentiments adopted by attendees on the Declaration of Independence, stressing that “all men and women” share the same rights enshrined by the founders.
Frederick Douglass, in his 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” likewise urged white Americans to consider that the “great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence” had not been extended to Black Americans held in bondage.
Eleven years later, in his Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln described the United States as “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He urged the public to commit itself to ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a century later, urged his countrymen to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and extend civil rights to Black Americans.
But Carlson scoffs at all this.
When you discard the relevance of America’s ideals, it becomes easier to denounce its diversity, and to cast aside the liberal values and democratic processes undergirding it.
What remains is Carlson’s vision of America as simply “a place,” one populated by “legacy Americans” like himself. It’s one that places him on the side of the white nationalists who chant “blood and soil,” and against the critics who describe that bigotry as “blasphemy against the American creed.”
And whether or not he seeks the presidency, that vision will further shape the direction of the Republican Party and the country towards the values of European nationalists and away from its own historic principles.