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The Tucker Cattle Call
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The Tucker Cattle Call

Everything that’s wrong with the GOP in one forum.

Tucker Carlson in Bedminster, New Jersey on July 31, 2022. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On Friday several Republican presidential contenders will attend a candidate forum in Iowa, where they’ll share their vision for the country with a guy who just gave a friendly interview to an accused rapist and sex trafficker.

An evangelical candidate forum, let me stress.

Such things have lost some of their power to shock since 2015, after the Christian right first accommodated itself to—and then came to lionize—a twice-divorced philanderer accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct. In the year of our Lord 2023, a failed coup plot, two criminal indictments, and a civil judgment for sexual abuse aren’t enough in a party ostensibly concerned with “values” to hold Donald Trump under 50 percent of the primary vote.

We’re all somewhat inured to their civic and moral depravity by now. Yet the prospect of Tucker Carlson chatting engagingly with Andrew Tate on Tuesday and serving as an ideological filter for the first Republican presidential contest on Friday feels like an exciting new frontier in the corruption of conservatism, to the extent it still exists.

Tate is a Romania-based online influencer who built a following among the lost boys of the West as a guru peddling advice on how to treat women. There are many such gurus nowadays, as one might expect in an era of rising male anxiety about the implications of women’s growing financial independence. (Tucker himself has dabbled in the field by extolling the virtues of testicle tanning.) Some gurus are more radical than others, as one also might expect. For the “normies,” there’s Jordan Peterson. For those whose frustration requires a lower pH level, there’s Tate.

Whether he’s guilty of rape and sex trafficking remains uncertain. Whether he thinks women sometimes “bear responsibility” for their own rapes or deserve a “boom” to the face when they accuse him of cheating is not. The reason right-wing figures like Tucker Carlson have taken an interest in him is because Tate frames his get-rich-hot-girls-fast-cars ethos in terms that appeal to them. When he appeared on Carlson’s Fox show last year, he put it starkly: “They banned me [from social media] simply because I had large swaths of the population agreeing to very traditional masculine values.”

Andrew Tate, traditionalist.

“His views on women, life, morals, etc. are antithetical to conservatism and Christianity. Andrew Tate is not a good person,” a frustrated Erick Erickson tweeted after Tucker’s latest interview with Tate went live. That’s true but it’s badly out of sync with how the post-liberal right prioritizes values. It craves strength above all things and traditional masculinity promises that. (Tate is a former kickboxer, incidentally.) To the extent “weak” values like conservatism and Christianity seek to tame traditionally masculine instincts—including and especially ruthlessness and brutality—then they must yield. That’s how we ended up with preppy nerd Tucker Carlson mourning the leader of the Hells Angels and begging Americans to see the war in Ukraine from Vladimir Putin’s point of view.

It’s also how right-wing populists are able to celebrate the QAnon-adjacent film Sound of Freedom for highlighting the scourge of child sex-trafficking while hand-waving away the criminal accusations against the “traditionally masculine” Tate as a frame-up perpetrated by “The Matrix.” (Don’t ask.)

And it’s how we got Trump. In its zeal to rescue masculinity from the clutches of the left, the socially conservative American right has adopted some of the most loutish, boorish, dissolute hypocrites in Western culture as its champions. In so doing, they’ve also managed to “rescue” masculinity from Christianity and conservatism. At this point, I suspect, Trump could engage in sex trafficking on Fifth Avenue without losing a single vote. The right’s strength fetishists would dismiss it as just another species of “locker-room talk,” boys being boys.

That’s the cultural backdrop for Friday’s Tucker-hosted Republican candidate forum, situated at the perverse yet increasingly familiar nexus of old-fashioned evangelical Christianity and bootlicking “might makes right” dominance-worship. And it’s being sponsored by an influential Christian group called—wait for it—the Family Leader.

The Family Leader. Tom Wolfe couldn’t have done better.

This event represents everything wrong with the post-Trump Republican Party.

Six candidates are confirmed for it, where they’ll be interviewed separately and in turn by Carlson: Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Asa Hutchinson. No Trump.

Supposedly that’s because of a scheduling conflict but the truth, almost certainly, is that the frontrunner sees no benefit to risking a Q&A with a host who might challenge him. Carlson has the intellect, grassroots credibility, and motive to press Trump on the ways in which he failed populism while in office. A candidate who’s up 30 points would be foolish to face that instead of running out the clock on the primary.

So he’ll skip the forum. He plans to make it up to Iowans by hosting his own town hall in the state next week moderated by the exquisitely unchallenging Sean Hannity.

The scheduled attendees would doubtless prefer to skip it as well. (Except for Ramaswamy, I assume, as a nationalist “outsider” should expect the pattycake treatment from Carlson.) Sitting down with Tucker risks having to field questions like “As president, will you seek a prisoner exchange for political dissident Andrew Tate?” and “Aren’t we prolonging Ukrainians’ suffering by preventing Russia from raping and murdering them?” Answer in a way that makes Carlson and his fan base happy and you’ll annoy normie Republicans; stand your ground to please the normies and you’ll affront the “values” of post-liberals. It’s no-win, as others have noted.

A sane party would spare its candidates from events guaranteed to produce soundbites that will offend one wing of the party or another along with many, many swing voters potentially. Instead the Family Leader has tapped as moderator one of the most contentious figures of the broader American right. Sabotaging itself is what the modern GOP does best.

The fact that DeSantis and the rest felt obliged to attend anyway is also typical. All Republican candidates not named “Trump” are driven by fear of the populist base to some greater or lesser extent. That fear obliged them to face Carlson despite the obvious downsides of doing so.

Dodging the event would have antagonized evangelical voters in a state that every candidate save one desperately needs to win to launch them into serious contention. And it would have antagonized Tucker, who might have denigrated the dodger as a coward unwilling to address The People’s concerns. The nature of the modern GOP as an ongoing hostage crisis is laid bare here: Traditional conservatives can and will be taken for granted knowing that they’ll turn out in the general election for reasons of zombie partisanship, but MAGA populists must forever be lovingly courted. Disrespect them and they’ll stay home. They don’t care about the party.

Because voters from the conservative wing won’t end the hostage crisis by staying home themselves, the illiberal wing continues to call the tune for the party’s mainstream candidates. That’s vintage Trump-era Republican politics.

And so, like any hostage, the top contenders will reluctantly submit to their punishment and possible ritual humiliation by Tucker—except for Trump, who commands a cult of personality so intimidating that he needn’t worry about the rules of political politesse that bind his pipsqueak challengers. Had DeSantis skipped the event, Carlson might have had plenty to say about the governor’s fortitude. He won’t say a thing about Trump skipping it. (Why would he when he’s already endorsed Trump, kinda sorta?) The rules are different for the frontrunner, as always, another deleterious hallmark of modern Republicanism.

The role in this event of Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader and perennially one of the biggest players in Republican politics in Iowa, is another travesty emblematic of what’s wrong with the GOP.

Vander Plaats retains enough sense to have effectively ruled out endorsing Trump in 2024 but his objections are pragmatic, not moral. “We believe the former president’s hurdles are so significant, that most likely, he gives the Democrats the best opportunity to win in 2024,” he told the New York Times recently. He’s taken a shine to the next-most illiberal Republican in the race, though, which makes him a model Republican for our time. His problem with Trump isn’t that he’ll move the party in an authoritarian direction, his problem with Trump is that he’s less likely than Ron DeSantis to end up in a position to do so.

Go figure that a character like that might want Tucker Carlson to host his evangelical cattle call.

Vander Plaats could have hosted the forum himself or recruited some other well-respected Christian in Iowa to do the same. (Would Gov. Kim Reynolds have said no if asked?) Instead he settled on a figure who, apart from Trump himself, must at this point be the single most influential demagogue on the American right, prone to musing about the “rat-like” visage of Ukraine’s Jewish president when he isn’t egging on paranoia about COVID vaccines among the many vulnerable senior citizens in his audience. 

Apart from Trump, Tucker has arguably done more than any contemporary right-wing figure to mainstream an alternate morality among the Republican base necessary for populist authoritarianism to flourish. It’s a morality of contrarianism, reflexively skeptical of anything the Western liberal order celebrates. Zelensky is the villain in the Ukraine war; Andrew Tate is a model of masculinity; the scientific establishment is lying to you for its own nefarious ends; ruthless Orbanism, not classical liberalism, will maximize the public good.

Iowa’s most prominent evangelical has chosen this person as his intermediary between Republican candidates and Republican voters, lending a patina of Christian legitimacy to post-liberalism’s alternate morality. The American right, 2023.

There is, finally, a sense in which this forum will be “Too Online” in the colloquial sense of the term.

Ron DeSantis’ campaign is frequently criticized for being Too Online, a term of disparagement used when a politician’s priorities lean too heavily toward fan service for his base and not enough toward pleasing the broad middle. The gay-baiting video promoted last week on Twitter by DeSantis’ PAC is a vintage example of being Too Online. The governor of Florida believes his path to the nomination runs through out-pandering Trump among Trump voters. His entire primary strategy is grounded in the belief that the candidate who’s most Too Online will prevail.

It’s not going great for him so far. Even if it does bear fruit in the end, DeSantis will have saddled himself with so many fringy positions that he might not be able to outcompete Biden among swing voters in the general election. A party keen to win next year should be eager to give its candidates opportunities to show off the elements of their agenda that aren’t Too Online.

Instead the Family Leader chose a moderator whose “show” migrated from Fox News to Elon Musk’s red-pilled Twitter, where each new episode commands the attention of countless alt-lite chuds who pay Musk $8 a month in tribute as he goes about systematically destroying the platform.

Handing over your forum to a guy whose job now, essentially, is to be Twitter’s biggest troll (apart from Elon himself) is the most “Too Online” thing I’ve ever heard. 

Many of Tucker’s political preoccupations are Too Online as well. For instance, despite his dogged skepticism of the life-saving COVID vaccines championed by his friend Donald, about 75 percent of Americans and 60 percent of Republicans received the first two doses. With respect to the war in Ukraine, one recent poll found confidence in Zelensky in the U.S. positive at 56-33 while confidence in Putin stands at 7-90; another poll saw support for arming Ukraine solid at 65 percent, including 56 percent of Republicans. Not a great showing for Carlson given where his sympathies lie.

As I write this newsletter, news is breaking that another notorious Tucker hobby horse has created more trouble for his former employer.

Ray Epps, the man at the center of a widespread conspiracy theory about the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday accusing Fox News and its former host Tucker Carlson of defamation for promoting a “fantastical story” that Mr. Epps was an undercover government agent who instigated the violence at the Capitol as a way to disparage then-President Trump and his supporters.

The complaint spells out how over … several months, Mr. Carlson referred to Mr. Epps repeatedly on air, saying that he was “the central figure” in the Capitol attack and claiming that he had “helped stage-manage the insurrection.”

On several occasions, Mr. Carlson brought on to his show Darren Beattie, the proprietor of a right-wing website called Revolver News, whom the complaint describes as “the principal person driving the false story that Epps was a federal agent planted as a provocateur to trigger the Capitol violence on January 6th.”

Pushing conspiracy theories about January 6 is typical of Too Online behavior. Pushing them so hard and so far that you get sued by the subject for wrecking his life is levels of Too Online heretofore unseen.

A party establishment that desperately—desperately—needs to reassure centrist voters that it’s not a prisoner of a grassroots kook cabal will have its first major event of the primary campaign hosted by a guy who was recently heard to say, “I love Bobby Kennedy…. I think he’s a wonderful person. I’ll say that, as a man, I admire him.”

Decline is a choice. Bob Vander Plaats, the Family Leader, and the GOP more broadly have chosen.

Which is tragic, and not just for the obvious reasons.

What’s tragic is that Tucker Carlson has, or had, the potential to be a superb moderator for events like these, as good as or better than any figure a right-wing organization could plausibly hope to recruit.

He’s a brilliant political writer, witty, immersed in policy, and charming in conversation. It’s painfully easy to imagine an alternate reality in which Carlson is a modern-day Bill Buckley, perfectly suited for earnest debate in the Firing Line mold. That wouldn’t require him to adopt Buckley’s politics either: A populist broadcaster less prone to kookery and more invested in dialogue than with demagogically reading traitors to nationalism out of the broader American right would be useful to the GOP.

There are, after all, many Republican voters who are skeptical of aid to Ukraine, of corporate conformity to progressive values, of the business establishment’s mercenary support for illegal immigration, and so on. A candidate forum is just the place where differences within the party over important issues should be explored.

If, that is, it’s done in good faith. When it isn’t, when the urbanely feral moderator and his pitchfork-populist fans treat every contentious issue as a de facto litmus test of treacherous “globalism,” it’s idiotic. The participants in Friday’s event will aim for nothing grander than surviving the event, hoping not to alienate Carlson or either wing of the party too much when delivering their carefully worded, strategically designed non-answers to his questions.

That’s the best the GOP can do for its members in 2023. It’s not enough.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.