Tucker Carlson’s war on the ruling class is a master class of misdirection

The pundit uses a simple formula for making his most outrageous arguments sound sensible

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Much like a world-class magician, Tucker Carlson is a master of the art of misdirection. Rather than guessing your card or pulling a coin from behind your ear, he uses rhetorical sleight of hand to sell a white nationalist worldview to unsuspecting viewers.

In October 2018, the Fox News host’s book Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. For some time, I’ve noticed Carlson’s regular use of the term “ruling class” on his Fox News show as something of a catch-all to describe the driving force behind all of society’s problems. It’s not a term he originated -- conservatives have been regularly using it for years to back whatever point they're trying to make.

My interest in the way Carlson wields the term in his arguments stemmed from the number of times I’d find myself nodding along to the beginning of one of the extended monologues delivered on Tucker Carlson Tonight only to end up baffled at what would inevitably be an extreme conclusion. I was fascinated by the way he used populist rhetoric to give the impression that there might be a hint of progressivism at his core, but I ultimately realized how empty those impressions were. Unlike others, though, Carlson seemed to deploy the language with a purpose, as a means to an extremist end. I needed to understand what was, essentially, a trick. He draws viewers in with rhetoric about a ruling class that looks out for the few at the expense of the many, but then defines who he sees as the “few” in a way that bewilders logic while promoting his own fringe beliefs. The trick is in the hope that you don’t notice the moment he makes that pivot.

I’d hoped that his book, with its promise to show how the “ruling class” is destroying America, would elaborate on exactly what he meant by the term. Unfortunately, it does not.

Carlson's book begins with a nod to Plato’s The Republic and its allegory of the “ship of state.” In fact, that’s where the title comes from. The idea is that we’re all aboard a ship that seems to be coasting along fine when suddenly a battle for leadership, plagued by incompetence, threatens to kill us all. Here’s how Carlson describes it:

Maybe there was a mutiny overnight. Maybe the captain and first mate fell overboard. You’re not sure. But it’s clear the crew is in charge now and they’ve gone insane. They seem grandiose and aggressive, maybe drunk. They’re gorging on the ship’s stores with such abandon it’s obvious there won’t be enough food left for you. You can’t tell them this because they’ve banned acknowledgment of physical reality. Anyone who points out the consequences of what they’re doing gets keelhauled.

Most terrifying of all, the crew has become incompetent. They have no idea how to sail. They’re spinning the ship’s wheel like they’re playing roulette and cackling like mental patients. The boat is listing, taking on water, about to sink. They’re totally unaware that any of this is happening. As waves wash over the deck, they’re awarding themselves majestic new titles and raising their own salaries. You look on in horror, helpless and desperate. You have nowhere to go. You’re trapped on a ship of fools.

That’s America. Carlson thinks we’re in big trouble and have been for some time because the ruling class is focused on its personal agendas. Who exactly makes up the ruling class? The closest Carlson gets to an answer is when he notes that a healthy society “would force a change of ideas or a change of leadership” but laments that ours has allowed “the same class of lawmakers, journalists, and business chieftains” to hold on to power. It’s exactly the type of vague language people use when describing bloggers who make less than the median household income as “elites.”

But, using his own definition, how is Tucker Carlson not part of the “ruling class”? He is inarguably one of the most influential voices in American political media. He has fame and he has fortune; in addition to his paychecks, which one would presume are on the higher end of the scale, his stepmother is the wealthy heiress to the Swanson frozen-food empire. Ship of Fools almost seems to go out of its way to not acknowledge Carlson’s posh surroundings, making his populist jabs at elites who’ve spent their lives insulated from hardship feel extraordinarily hollow and hypocritical.

In his book, Carlson does make a solid argument about out-of-touch, privileged tech overlords pumping out products they know to be addictive. (In fact, addiction was part of the plan.) He slams Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for unleashing an uncontrollable monster into the world, pointing to Zuckerberg’s upbringing to make his case.

There’s an argument to be made that our elected leaders -- influenced by a ruling class that presumably includes billionaires like Zuckerberg -- want to keep the masses glued to our phones instead of looking at the problems that affect our day-to-day lives.

The only issue is that his own status as a wealthy political influencer makes him the wrong person to be making that argument -- at least without fully acknowledging his background. If Zuckerberg’s affluent upbringing makes it impossible for him to relate to average Americans, as Carlson argues, doesn’t his own have the same effect?

Carlson has the ability to identify real problems, but he veers off course when he touches on solutions, using “ruling class” as part of a rhetorical sleight of hand to distract from his own extremist views on race and gender.

“What would happen if large numbers of Americans actually understood the federal tax code? All sorts of questions might arise. Why do we tax capital at half the rate of labor? That might be the first one,” he writes in Fools. It’s an excellent point worth considering. Why is it that the U.S. tax code is so needlessly labyrinthine? Why do so many loopholes exist for the mega-wealthy? How does the ruling class get away with this?

But his explanation has nothing to do with the problem. Carlson actually suggests that the ruling class’s focus on so-called “identity politics” is to blame for Americans’ ignorance about an unjust tax code:

Better to change the subject away from economics entirely. Identity politics is a handy way to do that. It’s not a coincidence that since the life expectancy of working-class whites in America has declined, elite attacks on working-class whites have escalated. White men now kill themselves at about ten times the rate of black and Hispanic women. Yet white men are consistently framed as the oppressors, particularly blue-collar white men.

His suggestion here is that the shadowy ruling class pits workers against one another to keep them too busy fighting among themselves to question real power in any meaningful way. The ruling class, as Carlson describes it, uses a divide-and-conquer approach to distraction by framing would-be economic allies as oppressors.

Of course, this is all wildly hypocritical, as Carlson touches on identity-based tropes to make his own points when convenient. In Chapter 5 of Fools, Carlson suggests that emphasizing difference of any kind is a nefarious plot by the ruling class to keep us blind to what’s really happening in the world. According to Carlson, “If you wanted to run a country for the benefit of the people who lived there, ... you’d deemphasize racial differences. You’d understand that in a society composed of many different ethnic groups, tribalism is the greatest threat to unity and order.”

In the next chapter, he makes precisely the opposite argument:

The sexes are not the same. Over broad populations, men and women have different talents and different interests. That is not an opinion. It is scientifically observable, as well as the conclusion of any honest person who pays attention. The differences are real. Pretending they’re not doesn’t change reality. Forcing an entire society to lie about the nature of men and women is bound to cause enormous problems. And it has.

The massive contradiction between these points goes to show that Carlson may not even actually believe his own arguments.

Another example of a similar pivot comes from the January 2 edition of his Fox show, when Carlson highlights the plight of the working class, noting that men’s wages have declined as manufacturing jobs dried up. He identifies a problem, and a very legitimate one at that, asking why the ruling class isn’t more invested in finding out why the same economic challenges facing inner cities are now hitting rural America as well. But here’s where Carlson engages in misdirection to substitute in questionable roots and explanations:

In many areas, women suddenly made more than men.

Now, before you applaud that as a victory for feminism, consider some of the effects.

Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don't want to marry them. Now maybe they should want to marry them, but they don't. Over big populations this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow: more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.

This is not speculation; it's not propaganda from the evangelicals. It's social science. We know it's true. Rich people know it best of all -- that's why they get married before they have kids. That model works.

The problem: legitimate. The explanation: absolutely bonkers. Women in the workforce who believe that equal work should result in equal pay aren’t somehow responsible for the downfall of the American working class. That really should go without saying. But the transition he makes from saying something that makes perfect sense to giving an explanation that simply reinforces his own political dogma is so seamless that viewers might not even catch the exact moment when things go completely off the rails.

A common tactic in Carlson’s misdirection arguments is to convince his viewers and readers that they are falling victim to misdirection -- just not his own. Take another example from Fools where Carlson discusses Working, Studs Terkel’s 1974 ode to working Americans. Carlson praises the book, which profiled people like machinists and doormen, for providing “a window into a world elites knew little about,” adding, “Liberals loved the book because it highlighted the dignity of working people.”

Here’s where Carlson makes his move to misdirect readers with a straw man about the book being unpublishable today. He says all of this without evidence:

If Working came out today, how many copies would it sell in Brookline or Marin County? Not enough to justify publishing it. Unless the machinist was transitioning to a new gender or fighting immigration authorities over an expired visa, modern elites wouldn’t care.

The message Carlson sends is clear: The “modern elites” don’t actually care about the average working-class people like you; they care only about others.

And while a reasonable person could conclude that it’s fellow elites who benefit from the system Carlson describes, he makes it clear that the fortunate few being served by the ruling class are gender, sexual, racial, and religious minority groups. In the world as Carlson describes it, these are the people responsible for your struggles; you are being ignored for their sake.

In Fools, Carlson points to the differences between the responses to 1911’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, an event literally sparked by a carelessly discarded cigarette that itself spurred the fight for better working conditions through organized labor, and the recent uptick of employee suicides and poor working conditions at one of Apple’s Foxconn factories in China:

In March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in lower Manhattan caught fire. Close to 150 people died, nearly half after jumping from upper floors onto the sidewalk. The fire started accidentally, when a garment worker dropped a lit cigarette into a bin of fabric cuttings, but the high death toll could have been prevented. ...The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union  swelled to become one of the most powerful forces in organized labor. For decades, what happened at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was a rallying cry of the progressive movement. …


The work at Foxconn is repetitive and hard, the pressure from management  unrelenting. Some workers have reported being forced to stand for twenty-four hours at a time. Others say they are beaten by their supervisors. Starting around 2010, employees at Foxconn plants in China began to kill themselves in alarming numbers.

Workers hanged themselves, took poison, jumped from windows. There was very  little news coverage of any of it until 2012. That year about 150 Foxconn workers at a plant in Wuhan climbed to the roof of their factory and threatened to commit mass suicide if conditions didn’t improve. The company responded by installing circus nets beneath the railings.

All pretty grim. Yet when was the last time you heard a politician decry Apple’s treatment of workers, let alone introduce legislation intended to address it? When was the last time a group of socially conscious hipsters from Brooklyn protested outside the home of Apple CEO Tim Cook?

Never, of course. That’s because Apple, like virtually every other big employer in American life, has purchased indulgences from the church of cultural liberalism. Apple has a gay CEO with fashionable social views. The company issues statements about green energy and has generous domestic partner benefits. Apple publicly protested the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The company is progressive in ways that matter in Brooklyn. That’s enough to stop any conversation about working conditions in Foxconn factories.

Indeed, the whole point is not to talk about Foxconn factories. As Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen points out, the ruling class’s “insistent defense of equality is a way of freeing themselves from any real duties to the lower classes that are increasingly out of geographical sight and mind. Because they repudiate inequality, they need not consciously consider themselves to be a ruling class.”

Carlson’s argument hinges on the assumption that if not for companies like Apple showing concern for issues within the realm of “cultural liberalism,” people would be up in arms over the mistreatment of workers in China. His argument makes it easy to resent the groups that promote things like gender equality and diversity as complicit in the mistreatment of workers, of playing the role of useful idiots to evil corporate plots.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that there’s no reason to believe that there are people giving Apple or any other country a pass on human rights abuses overseas because of steps the company has taken  to address culturally liberal causes at home. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire happened in New York City, not Wuhan, and the truth is that Americans simply don’t prioritize issues happening abroad the way they do those in their own backyard.

Carlson refers to champions of social justice-related causes as a “diversity cult,” suggesting that employers and politicians care more about hitting seemingly arbitrary diversity metrics than about actually finding answers to problems faced by the workers. The messaging is meant to evoke a sense of suspicion within his audience and readers, a reactionary distrust of identity-based initiatives, playing into zero-sum fears that the success of one group will always come at the expense of others. In truth, he’s just using this approach to disguise his actual message while setting workers against one another.

Carlson stirs righteous anger based on a ruling class serving the few and not the many. He doesn’t want his audience to realize that he is part of that “few,” which is why he puts so much effort into misdirection.

When Dutch historian Rutger Bregman sat for an interview with Carlson, Bregman showed exactly what happens when you start to peel back the layers of Carlson’s deception. Invited on Tucker Carlson Tonight to comment on a video in which he schools elites at Davos, telling them to “stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes,” Bregman turned the tables on Carlson, calling him a “millionaire funded by billionaires.” Carlson’s angry, dismissive reaction was both predictable and illustrative of just how fragile the narrative he spins tends to be.

After the interview, Carlson sent Bregman a note:

I loved what you said at Davos, so I had high hopes for our interview. But you turned out to be far dumber, more dogmatic and less impressive than I expected. You’re professional academic (sic), so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it was still disappointing. Also, for what it’s worth, you’re an asshole.

For Carlson’s magic trick to work, you need to be distracted. You need to be looking at his left hand as he palms a coin in his right. This is why he needs you to feel anger and resentment toward groups that are unrelated to the arguments he makes. He needs his audience to keep its anger at a light simmer and aimed at people of color, women, trans people, Muslims, immigrants, and others. It simply doesn’t work otherwise.

You may be wondering to what end Carlson’s arguments serve, and what kind of messages get trafficked through under the guise of populist concern. The answer: ideologies that reinforce the status quo, such as white supremacy and men’s rights activism.

White nationalists need someone to spread their ideas into the mainstream, and Carlson’s been playing that role for some time.

While his book denounces “identity politics” as tribalism, Carlson writes that “it does make for effective electoral politics, and that’s the point. There’s no faster way to mobilize voters than to stoke their racial fears while promising to deliver for their particular tribe. It’s irresistible.”

But Carlson stokes those racial fears for his own tribe of aggrieved white male viewers on his Fox show nightly, and as he says, it does indeed make for some very effective electoral politics.

Carlson’s penchant for white nationalist dog whistles has been well-documented. His journey from mainstream conservative voice to fringe-right megaphone has been so gradual that longtime fans might not even notice. It’s no accident that white supremacist podcasts cheer him on.

He would no doubt scoff at any implication that he’s a white nationalist, but as at least one openly white nationalist personality has said, the difference between Carlson's views and his is mostly in the delivery. Carlson isn’t some lumbering oaf. He’s smart, articulate, and exactly the kind of person who can play to people’s legitimate concerns while guiding them toward the fringe. On occasion, he slips up, being too overt, as he did when he said that immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier.” It’s easy to call those instances out. Much more dangerous are the sufficiently polished messages that might seem reasonable to the casual observer; they are why understanding his rhetorical style and the language that he uses is so important.