"Vapid and asinine." Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

March 20, 2023   8 mins

I shudder whenever I see Tucker Carlson trending in the news. Not because I think he’s a fascist or white supremacist, but because I once held him up as the harbinger of a new kind of politics. It wasn’t too long ago that Tucker’s show featured pointed critiques of free market fundamentalism, the neoliberal consensus, and the general stupidity of Bush-era conservatism. And though he was always prone to rhetorical excess in his coverage of immigration, for instance, I felt he stood for the fundamentally sound principle that sovereignty entailed having ultimate control over one’s borders.

That was then. By now, however, he’s proven to be provocative in all the wrong ways, even before the scandalous Fox News-Dominion case. Out went any thoughtful explanations for the social and economic ills of American life, and in came the repetitive culture war agitprop, the febrile conspiracism, and the bizarre advertisements for esoteric “bronze age” lifestyles. Tucker’s segment on the Silicon Valley Bank collapse, in which he blamed it on wokeness, was typically vapid and asinine. His recent outlandish attempt to legitimise the sordid events of January 6, denounced even by Republicans, is yet another case in point. And though he apparently hates Donald Trump “passionately”, he still knowingly amplifies his lies nearly every week. My disappointment with Tucker is even greater when I remember the admiration I felt on the first day I met him.

“Tucker! I’m your biggest fan!” I yelled across the crowded hotel ballroom. That was not quite true: I don’t think I had ever sat through a single episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, but I had watched enough clips and read enough articles about the Fox News host to know that he was a cut above Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and all the other talking heads on that channel. Like Hegel seeing Napoleon at a distance, Tucker appeared to me on that hot and humid Washington summer day in 2019 as the very Weltgeist of the populist age — even more than Trump — and I had pushed and shoved my way through a crowd of conservative activists to be close to the star himself. A nice man nearby took my iPhone and took shots of us as Tucker put his arm around me.

“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?!” Tucker asked in a tone of ebullient surprise, perhaps in reference to my ethnicity, as I was one of a sparse number of non-white attendees at the first National Conservatism Conference. I found it endearing rather than offensive, as some others might have taken it. I told him that I was a citizen of Canada and a student at the University of Toronto who was interning for the magazine American Affairs. “CANADA?!”, he boomed, “I think Canadians often know America better than Americans!” I nodded my head, shook his hand, and walked away ecstatic. Not only did I meet the Weltgeist, but the picture I got of the moment was priceless. I had an impish grin that perfectly captured my excitement while Tucker had a mirthful, red-faced expression: we looked like two old pals.

When I showed it to friends back in Toronto, they froze in horror. The lot of them were good liberals, after all, but the strange thing was that so was I — even more incongruously, I was also a big-L Liberal, as in a supporter of the Trudeau Liberals. Unable to put two and two together, one friend said: “You might be the only human being who’s a Justin Trudeau Liberal in Canada and a Trump-Tucker Republican in America… Are you some kind of ideological schizophrenic?” While that was not quite the case, the observation nonetheless hit on the peculiarity of my worldview.

I told my friend that in this time of revolutionary change, old political labels were fading into obsolescence. Yes, on the surface, there could be no greater contrast between the two poles of the culture war. However, this was an illusory distinction. In fact, the elections of Trudeau and Trump represented a common response to late-stage neoliberalism. As evidence, I showed my friend another picture, perhaps no less shocking and incriminating than the one of me and Tucker: it was of Steven Bannon and Gerald Butts — the High Dark Lord of Trumpworld and the Grand Vizier of the Trudeau Court — merrily chumming around in the White House in 2017. An article in the New Yorker explained the context for this unlikely friendship:

“They met in New York during the transition and now talk regularly. Bannon sees Butts as a sort of Left-wing version of himself. Last year, as the Prime Minister’s popularity was in decline, Trudeau pushed through a tax hike on the rich, and it helped him rebound… Bannon wants to sell the idea politically by arguing that it would actually hit Left-wing millionaires in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, and in Hollywood… ‘There’s nothing better for a populist than a rich guy raising taxes on rich guys,’ Butts told Bannon.”

Indeed, the first several months of the Trump administration were still very much alive with the possibility of a genuine populist revolution: not only did Bannon, on Butts’ advice, recommend hiking taxes on the rich, Trump’s close friend, Christopher Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax, was pushing a proposal to build on Obamacare and expand public healthcare for the benefit of the multiethnic working class. But instead of following through on such radical instincts, Trump sold out to the Paul Ryan wing of the party: he passed a massive tax cut, tried to abolish Obamacare, failed on immigration reform, and further deregulated the economy, essentially retaining the Bush-Ryan playbook on nearly every major issue outside of trade — and even that fell short of its goals.

As Trump revealed himself to be nothing more than a neoliberal shill, it seemed as if the only one left to hold the populist line was Tucker Carlson. Here was a conservative who was not afraid to punch up: calling out the Koch Brothers for their malign influence on the GOP, and criticising the Trump-Ryan tax cut as a cave-in to corporate interests. This was the Tucker Carlson I came to see in July 2019 and he didn’t disappoint; the speech he gave at that conference was a clarion call for a new conservatism, one that had more in common with the pro-worker economic populism of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders than with Milton Friedman’s pro-shareholder laissez-faire fetishism.

Around this time, I wrote an admiring profile of Tucker in my school newspaper, part of a series on promising post-neoliberal figures: it also included Austria’s Sebastian Kurz and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, two young leaders who both ran on regulating immigration. I realised that it mattered less if one was a conservative like Tucker or Kurz or a progressive like Trudeau or Ardern, as long as their actions reflected the populist drive toward containing the excesses of neoliberal globalisation by regaining control over borderless flows of capital, goods, and labour. In my mind, the culture war paled in comparison to this problem, and, though I didn’t care for either the woke sanctimony of Trudeau or the gross reactionary undertones of Tucker, I was willing to put up with their disagreeable soundbites so long as their policies contributed to this larger goal.

Based on this logic, I resolved to use my position as a culture-war-neutralist Canadian writing in American outlets to inform the US policy debate in ways that were uniquely critical and dispassionate. As Tucker himself suggested, Canadians think about the US more than we’d care to admit — if for no other reason than our survival depended on it. Or as Marshall McLuhan put it, Canada was the perfect “counter-environment” through which to examine the hegemonic American “world environment”.

There was no more pressing issue where the Canadian perspective could be of help to Americans than immigration. Even under Trudeau, Canada is a lot tougher and smarter on migration than the US was under Trump: for instance, Canada has its own longstanding equivalent to mandatory E-Verify — a proposal long advocated by hard-Right American immigration hawks — that neither Trump nor DeSantis could get passed. Trump himself has said: “I think we should have merit-based immigration like they have in Canada.”

If American populists cared to see beyond the woke packaging, they would realise that Canada already had many of the policies they dream about: on family policy, eligible Canadian families enjoy a tax-free monthly payment to help with the cost of raising children (an idea not very different from Trump’s recently floated “baby bonus”). On reviving the heartland, Canada has “equalisation” that transfers money from rich regions to poorer ones like Atlantic Canada, which like much of the Trump-voting American Midwest, is heavily deindustrialised and predominantly white. On bank regulation, 563 banks failed in the US from 2001 to 2023 — Silicon Valley Bank being the latest — and there have been 12 systemic banking crises since 1840. Canada, on the other hand, has had zero bank collapses in the past 25 years and zero systemic crises since its foundation, due to its tightly-regulated Hamiltonian financial system — the opposite of America’s fragmented Jacksonian one. Taking up any one of these ideas could have helped to redeem the populist promise of 2016.

But rather than converging around a programme of economic reconstruction for the benefit of ordinary citizens, whatever their race or identity, the populist movement was subsumed into the sinkhole of the culture war. And Tucker played a leading part in this process.

The last time I found myself in full agreement with Tucker was in the summer of 2020, when he called out the Leftist rioters who wrought havoc on the streets of American cities. However, six months later, when pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, Tucker rushed to depict that riot as a frame-up — or, depending on the day, to valorise the perpetrators as peaceful patriots. The kind of moral relativism that says “Yes — but the other side does it too!” is the culture war in a nutshell. In the years that followed, Tucker’s coverage devolved into a reductive culture war kabuki play, in which he appeared to care more about “owning the libs” than revolutionising the economy.

Around this time, the populist instinct in the US, across Left and Right, had transformed, from an imperative to represent the people’s best interests into a desire to transgress all rules and give expression to the spirit of mob rule. This marked a shift in my worldview. When I first read about the French Riots of May 1968, I sympathised with the glamorous radicals, whereas now I see the merit in maintaining public order above all. Where I once imagined myself singing the Internationale with the students in the Latin Quarter, I now think I would have joined the counter-demonstration in the Champs-Elysées, calling for General de Gaulle to re-establish order. I have never felt more fortunate to be a Canadian than in that period when the US descended into chaos.

But then, as I feared, the Jacobin fever soon crossed the border in the form of the 2022 trucker convoy, which desecrated our national capital and engaged in economic sabotage by blocking Canada’s border crossings and costing the economy billions in lost trade. Just as I didn’t discriminate in expressing my opposition to either “Defund the Police” or “Stop the Steal”, I couldn’t care less about the specific nature of their grievances, for no civilised cause could justify such reckless and vulgar emotional hedonism as was on display. I never thought the convoy were fascists: I took them at their word when they described themselves as “the Woodstock of our time”. And this was precisely why they had to be opposed, for it was the same anarchistic spirit of the late Sixties.

It also became clear that these “populists” were not speaking on behalf of the people, but were often privileged members of the political class, who egged on the mob and used the name of the people to indulge their own ambitions. It was perhaps as a rebuke to the pretensions of would-be demagogues that Alexander Hamilton exclaimed: “Your people, sir, is a great beast!” The task of restoring economic sovereignty in a post-globalised world still had to be accomplished, but from now on by means other than populism.

I’ve never been reluctant to criticise Trudeau, but I was never more in agreement with his actions than when he finally shut down the convoy: order had to be restored. Predictably, Tucker and his followers on both sides of the border regarded it as nothing less than tyranny and in January, he casually called for a Bay of Pigs-style invasion to avenge the convoy and “liberate” Canada. All of a sudden, Tucker was a regime-change-loving neocon! It was just a bad joke, of course, at least, I think.

However, the invasion of Canada has already begun, mentally if not militarily. Instead of America becoming more like Canada through the adoption of reforms, Canada is becoming more like America through the culture war. Every day, our liberals sound more like American liberals, regurgitating all the latest progressive academic jargon, while our conservatives sound more like MAGA Republicans, parroting Q-like conspiracy theories and waving the Stars and Stripes.

Canada stands for freedom and order, argued Tory nationalist philosopher John Farthing: “That, if you will, is our national romance and on that basis alone we should be ready to pit [a single] Mountie against all the Jesse Jameses of Wyoming.” It is a terrible yet glorious thought: for the day that last Mountie dies is the day Canada dies, and the day Tucker Carlson wins.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.