Tucker Carlson’s economic populism scam

Tucker Carlson -- Jeff Bezos

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, we are told, is among the foremost avatars of right-wing economic populism. His fiery rants defending the working class against wealthy “elites” have led him to be described, with varying degrees of credulity, as “The Bow-Tied Bard of Populism” (The Atlantic), “The Populist Paladin of Primetime” (The American Conservative), and “The Preppy Populist” (Jacobin). It’s an ill-fitting mantle for Carlson, the millionaire son of a U.S. ambassador and scion of the Swanson frozen-food empire who draws his paychecks from the billionaire Murdochs. But it’s one that he's aggressively claimed, helping the Fox star to stand out from the right-wing media throng and even winning him praise from some on the political left.

It’s also a hollow sham. Carlson’s schtick is based on one weird trick: He typically ignores the context of the actual U.S. economic policy debate, instead rooting his “populist” rhetoric in culture war narratives. Those he disagrees with -- largely on the left but occasionally on the right -- are the despicable “elites,” from whom Republicans are the only ones who can “save us,” as he put it last month. Tuesday night’s broadcast shows how this works: Carlson and his guest portrayed Democrats as the party of rich people who hate working-class Americans -- without mentioning how President Donald Trump’s administration or Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden’s agenda impact either group.

Carlson pivoted off a report that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos had made $13 billion in a single day to accuse the left of being unconcerned with income inequality (the segment has garnered media attention because it led directly into Carlson’s hand-off to Sean Hannity, who seemed to defend Bezos on-air, then subsequently apologized on Twitter).

Video file

Citation From the July 21 edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight.

He contrasted the experiences of Americans who lost their jobs or their savings in the coronavirus crisis to the windfall for “Amazon CEO, Democratic donor, [and] owner of The Washington Post Jeff Bezos.” (Disclosure: My wife works for The Washington Post.) 

Both Bezos and Amazon’s political action committee have actually donated to members of both parties in virtually equal amounts. But the “Democratic donor” moniker laid the groundwork for Carlson to allege that Democrats are duplicitous handmaidens to unearned lucre.

“Twenty years ago, if that had happened, if a captain of industry had made $13 billion in a single day while the country got poorer, the Democratic Party would have had something to say about it,” he alleged. “Not anymore, because the people getting rich are members of the Democratic Party.”

“I'm not against free enterprise, but $13 billion in a day suggests something is skewed with the system, no?” he later asked. His guest responded that it demonstrates that “this isn't your parents' Democrat Party” but has instead become “a place for rich people and elites” who “really don't like average working people.” 

“But they like cheap servants,” Carlson replied.

A typical analysis of which party supports which groups might feature actual analysis of the policies they espouse. Who has “skewed with the system”? How have the economic policies promulgated by Trump’s administration impacted “average working people” or the “people getting rich”? What would a Biden presidency mean for either? 

These are not questions that interest Carlson.

Instead, the premise of Carlson’s segment is that Bezos’ gains -- achieved while Trump is president -- are evidence of malfeasance by the Democrats. He entirely ignores that the president’s signature legislative achievement is a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthiest, that his signature legislative failure is an attempt to strip health insurance from millions of working-class Americans, and that his plans for a second term are more of each.

As it happens, Bezos almost certainly does better under Trump’s current economic policies than he would if Biden’s agenda becomes law. Amazon paid $162 million in U.S. income taxes on $13.9 billion in income in 2019, after two straight years of paying no income tax at all. In response to the low tax bills of Amazon and other companies, Biden has proposed a 15% minimum book tax for firms reporting income of more than $100 million. Bezos could also see his personal taxes increase if Biden passed his agenda, which reverses Trump’s tax cuts on top earners, increasing the top individual tax rate to 39.6%, and closes loopholes utilized by the wealthiest Americans.

Working-class Americans, meanwhile, could benefit from the industrial policy proposal Biden laid out earlier this month, which seeks to spur domestic manufacturing with “Buy American” provisions for federal procurement. That’s the sort of policy that right-wing economic populists hoped Trump would support but that he never followed through on, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted. Indeed, when Biden laid out that proposal in a July 9 speech, Carlson’s Fox colleague Laura Ingraham accused him that evening of trying to “out-Trump Trump.” Carlson, however, ignored the content of Biden’s proposal entirely, instead airing out-of-context snippets from the address to suggest that the former vice president suffers from dementia. 

On Tuesday, Biden laid out a $775 billion investment in programs that support care for children, elderly Americans, and people with disabilities. He presented the proposal as a boon for struggling families that “are squeezed emotionally and financially” and “need help, but too often they can’t afford it.” That didn’t come up on Carlson’s show, which claimed that Democrats hate “average working people.” 

That's because actual policy prescriptions are inconvenient for Carlson’s phony populism. He’d rather just ignore them, prattle on about “elites,” and focus on leading what one of his colleague described as Fox's “white supremacist cell.”