Top 1 Magazine

Top One Magazine

The Right’s Economic Populism Is Breaking Progressives’ Brains

Is Tucker Carlson — endorser of the great replacement theory, excuser of the January 6 mob, admirer of the Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban — actually an ally in the global struggle against corporate capitalism?

That was the surprising implication of a piece that ran last week in the left-wing American Prospect magazine. In short order, the essay set off a furor that led the magazine’s editor to make an unusual quasi-apology — something that is now a controversy, too.

In some ways, it’s a typical 2023 progressive food fight, with intimations of racial insensitivity (against the folks who said something nice about Carlson), and rebuttals about lefty censorship (against those who criticized the piece).

But this dust-up is actually more interesting than that, because it involves a notable change in the wider political landscape: The rise of the populist right means there are more Republicans saying positive things about traditionally left positions on issues like trade and corporate power.

Given that many of those populists have racial and social views that progressives find appalling, the question across Washington’s progressive organizations is: What’s the right way to think about working with them — or even just praising their break from GOP orthodoxy? So far, there’s little consensus on the question, and a high danger of vitriol in cases where it comes up, even when the cases don’t involve a lightning-rod like Carlson.

To rewind a bit: The 1,200-word essay that kicked off the fireworks, by writers Lee Harris and Luke Goldstein, spent little time on the ousted Fox host’s incendiary racial and cultural statements, but instead lingered on his professed disdain for mainstream American elites. “Carlson’s insistent distrust of his powerful guests acts as a solvent to authority,” they wrote, noting his evolution from libertarian to “rejecting many of the free-market doctrines he’d previously espoused.

Among other things, the piece cited his skepticism about free trade, his monologues against monopolistic Big Tech firms, and a viral segment about potential job losses from self-driving cars. It also noted that he attacked establishmentarian GOP leaders over their support for the Ukraine war.

It’s safe to say that the immediate social media reaction did not give the pair points for originality.

“Disgraceful and stupid,” tweeted Prospect alum Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo. “Genuinely revolting,” added Zachary Carter, the journalist and John Maynard Keynes biographer. “The whitewashing of Tucker Carlson has begun,” said The Bulwark’s Will Saletan.

Much of the blowback focused, appropriately, on the actual column, with a chorus of critics arguing quite convincingly that Harris and Goldstein had been snookered — that Carlson was a phony populist, part of a long American tradition of demagogues like George Wallace pretending to fight economic elites when they really want to just pick on some out-group of fellow citizens.

Fair enough. But at least some of the criticism moved beyond engaging on the argument’s merits (or lack thereof) and instead cast doubt on the motivations of the authors themselves, suggesting something more sinister might be afoot.

“How did these writers, who are either too dumb to notice Carlson’s virulently racist, sexist & anti-labor politics, or whose own politics are so vile that they don’t care, ever get hired by the Prospect in the first place?,” tweeted writer Kathleen Geier.

A day later, amid the incoming flak, Prospect editor David Dayen issued a statement of his own, saying the piece had missed the mark. “It is my job as editor to make sure that whatever journalism or opinion we publish upholds our mission,” he wrote. “I don’t think we quite got there with this story.”

The magazine left the original essay in place on its site, but soon published a scathing rebuttal by two other Prospect writers. The act of distancing, naturally, invited a whole new barrage of incoming criticism from people who accused Dayen of cowering before the online rage.

“They should have gotten a raise,” Ruy Teixeira, the longtime progressive Washington think-tank figure, told me this week, referring to Harris and Goldstein. “Instead they brought the hammer down. They got denounced by their own editor, denounced by their own comrades on their staff … for what I actually thought was a pretty good article, the kind of article that wasn’t completely predictable and made you think.”

Harris declined comment; Goldstein did not respond to a message. Dayen, too, declined to be quoted, except to say that the writers weren’t reprimanded for the story, that their status at the magazine is unchanged and they’ll keep writing about whatever interests them — including on places where the right and left overlap. The magazine has in fact done a fair amount of that with no particular blowback, including putting Donald Trump’s trade chief, Robert Lighthizer, on its cover for a largely laudatory feature in 2019.

Teixeira, of course, is no stranger to making this sort of allegation about intellectual narrowness in the progressive ecosystem. Last year, he left the Center for American Progress and took a perch at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, saying that his politics hadn’t changed (he still refers to himself as a social democrat) but that he couldn’t stand the narrow focus on identity that he said permeated his former world.

If you missed that saga, you can be forgiven. There’s a whole library’s worth of stories about the alienation of mostly older left-wing figures from post-collegiates in think tanks or advocacy groups, a divide that often involves disagreements over campus-style identity debates. (In one example, the Democratic Socialists of America canceled a speech by the celebrated left-wing academic Adolph Reed because some in the organization were upset that he’d argued that the left must emphasize class over race.)

But that kind of incident feels different than what was going on last week.

In fact, for progressives, the debates like the fracas over the Carlson column could, perversely, be seen as a side-effect of good news. Instead of a furious argument over internal dissent against political tactics, it was a furious argument over (alleged) new external support for policy positions.

Even for folks who don’t buy the idea that the market-skeptical bits of Carlson’s schtick were at all genuine, it’s a situation that’s presenting itself more frequently as elements of the GOP move beyond Reaganite positions and instead talk up things like opposition to monopolies, support for living family wages or protectionist treatment of embattled stateside manufacturing.

The challenge is that the rising GOP populists whose views on economic issues might appeal to progressives also often have social views that are way more extreme than the average Chamber of Commerce lifer. Sometimes, in fact, those social views may even be their motivator for their hostility to businesses. Witness the fulminations about “woke capitalism.”

One example of those complications popped up in POLITICO Magazine’s recent profile of antitrust advocate Matt Stoller. Stoller drew sharp criticism for his seeming warmth toward Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who fist-pumped insurrectionists and led Senate efforts to overturn the 2020 election — but has also lobbed grenades at monopolies. The stance has made Stoller a controversial figure on the left, even as his push for a crusade against monopoly has been embraced by the Biden administration.

When we spoke this week, Stoller said it boils down to what politics is for.

“They think politics is fundamentally a moral endeavor,” he said when I asked him about people who disdain the idea of treating someone like Hawley as an acceptable partner. “They’re not shy about letting me know what they think. … But I think that we have a lot more in common than a lot of people who are interested in politics assume. I have a different view of what politics is. For me, when I look at politics, I think about political economy as, like, the driving factor, and corporate power as the driving factor.”

In a way, it’s an argument on the left that goes back to the popular front period of the 1930s, or further (in the Russian civil war, the Bolsheviks argued about making common cause with Islamic fighters from Central Asia, whose embrace of religion was distinctly non-Marxist).

Michael Kazin, the historian of American populism, says there’s a long history of fuzziness about what constitutes left and right, which complicates the question of just who you’ll deem acceptable. Prominent opposition to big business in the Great Depression, he says, also included the likes of the antisemitic radio priest Charles Coughlin and the segregationist Louisiana Gov. Huey Long.

Kazin, whose newest book is a history of the Democratic Party, says he’s sure Carlson is no fellow traveler — and also thinks coming up with a standard for how people like Hawley should be embraced or rejected might also be a little premature given the political realities: “Do you really think that Hawley’s going to support anything Biden wants? There’s a wish to have a broad anti-corporate alliance, but in the end the constituencies are very different.”

David Duhalde, chair for the Democratic Socialists of America Fund, told me that one way to slice it is a function of where you sit. A Senator like Bernie Sanders working with the libertarian Utah Republican Mike Lee to curb presidential war powers? With 100 voters in the Senate, he doesn’t have much choice. A think tanker or essayist trying to be clever? Not so much. “I’m more sympathetic to what the pols are trying to do than to media figures trying to find nuance where there isn’t any,” he says.

And for at least some people closer to the grassroots, the tendency to police against associating with ideological undesirables is a sign of a bigger sickness in elite circles. Amber A’Lee Frost, a writer and longtime fixture of the far-left Chapo Trap House podcast, once wrote about giving a talk about the importance of union organizing before an audience of tech workers. During the question and answer session afterwards, a woman approached the mic to ask what they should do if someone from the alt-right wanted to join their union.

If that happens, Frost replied, it means you’ve won.

“It was kind of a dead silence,” she told me this week, a sign that she’d said something deeply troubling.

Frost, unsurprisingly, was dismissive of both sides of the Carlson contretemps — “right wing populism is largely a cynical brand of lip service from a bunch of professional hucksters” — but says she finds the one tic in the debates about potential left-right overlap disappointingly familiar.

“They’re more invested in who’s on their side than what’s going on,” she said of the people who take umbrage at the idea that left politics might someday lure people with dubious records. “There’s this fear of contamination from the right, which betrays that these people are scared of the general population.”

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