Skip to content
There’s a Tucker Born Every Minute
Go to my account

There’s a Tucker Born Every Minute

On Alexei Navalny and coin-operated grocery carts.

In this pool photograph distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik, Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 6, 2024. (Photo by GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Like any profession, writing has rules of good practice. Here’s one of which I’m always mindful: Never write on the same topic as Kevin Williamson.

You break that rule at your peril. Almost certainly, your own work will suffer by comparison. 

But today requires an exception, not because Kevin was wrong in his latest piece but because the days since it was published have proven him more right than he could have realized when he wrote it. The phenomenon he described on Wednesday as “the full Duranty” has, like a diaper that’s overdue for changing, gotten fuller and smellier.

“The full Duranty” is what he labeled Tucker Carlson’s pitiful propaganda tour of Russia. Like the commie simps of yore (and not so yore), Carlson has found himself dazzled by the urban niceties Russia’s government wants visitors to be dazzled by and scrupulously oblivious to the poverty and anomie that stalks a country whose GDP per capita is one-fifth of America’s.

Still, the Moscow subway is pretty nice.

It’s understandable that a Western Putin apologist would end up there as he grasps for arguments that, of the two nations, it’s the U.S. that’s a third-world country and not the autocracy ruled by a former KGB agent where more than 20 percent of the population lacks indoor plumbing. What’s less understandable is this, which went live after Kevin’s newsletter was published:

The “grocery-store gap” with Russia has been a point of pride for the U.S. since the Cold War. To this day, free-marketeers fondly remember how Russian President Boris Yeltsin reacted when he visited an American supermarket in 1989, visibly astonished by the abundance and variety of goods. Comparing the experience of food-shopping in Russia favorably to the experience here takes real commitment to the bit, like taking a dump in one of Russia’s many, many outhouses when it’s 20 degrees below zero and admiring through chattering teeth at how well-built it is.

Where my heart broke for Tucker Carlson, though, was this clip:

The existence of coin-operated locks shouldn’t inspire the same sort of wonder as the monolith did in the apes at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And spending a pittance on groceries in an impoverished country shouldn’t convince one that that country is better run or less prone to inflation, Lord knows. As any American tourist could tell you, goods often seem “cheap” in poor nations only because Americans are rich relative to the locals. If you tried to get by in Russia on the average Russian’s salary, a grocery bill like Tucker’s would cannibalize an enormous share of your meager monthly wages.

Watching the videos, one almost feels defensive of Walter Duranty, a villain of history but a man who at least knew how to sell lies about Russia effectively to gullible Westerners. He was a good propagandist. Tucker’s Slavic version of Supermarket Sweep is not good propaganda.

And the news on Friday morning made it look worse.

Alexei Navalny was Russia’s most famous modern pro-democracy dissident and probably its most courageous. I say “probably” because every dissenter in Putin’s regime is possessed of unusual courage, knowing how the tsar’s enemies have a habit of falling out of windows.

But even by that lofty standard, Navalny was exceptional. As de facto leader of the Russian opposition, he survived a poisoning that left him comatose; after recovering in Germany, he insisted on returning to Russia and continuing the fight. He did so knowing that he’d be arrested upon arrival and end up doing hard time in a gulag-style prison, which he did—inside the Arctic Circle, to maximize the misery. If he wasn’t “the bravest man on Earth,” he was a strong contender.

Through it all, he somehow retained his humanity. On Thursday, he joked with his captors:

A day later, according to Russian officials, he felt “unwell after a walk” around the prison yard, collapsed, and died at the ripe old age of 47. Never again will Alexei Navalny experience the miracle of slipping a ruble into the lock on a Russian shopping cart and blowing 80 percent of his paycheck on beans.

The Kremlin will pay for this. Already in the U.S., Joe Biden is being reminded that in 2021 he promised “devastating” repercussions for Russia if Navalny were to die in captivity. House Speaker Mike Johnson, who’s been caught between hawks and doves on Ukraine aid, issued a statement this morning blaming Putin for Navalny’s death and promising to use “every means available” to limit further Russian aggression.

Those are major consequences. But there are minor ones too, like the fact that Tucker Carlson’s already embarrassing propaganda tour grew an order of magnitude more humiliating as soon as news of Navalny’s death broke.

Carlson’s critics routinely pay him the compliment of noting that he’s not stupid. Kevin did it on Wednesday, saying of Tucker that “it is tempting to call him a useful idiot, but he isn’t an idiot. He knows what he is doing.” That’s a moral indictment, of course: If it’s not stupidity that led him to commit “the full Duranty” then it must be a terrible deficit of character.

But it’s also true. If you’ve read any of Carlson’s political writing, particularly his stuff as a young journalist, you know how sharp he is. He’s been called many things as he transitioned into a conspiratorial post-liberal crank, including by me, yet one thing you’ve seldom heard Tucker’s detractors call him is a chump.

Navalny’s death is the exclamation point on a week in which Carlson established himself as a chump for the ages, a man practicing propaganda at a T-ball level and somehow still whiffing on swing after swing.

It wasn’t just the cringy photo ops outside the Moscow subway station or the St. Petersburg Safeway or whatever, vintage pinko agitprop as lazy and familiar as rich American socialists babbling about the quality of health care in Havana. It was the fact that the showpiece of Tucker’s tour, an interview with Putin himself, failed to carry out its most basic task despite the parties surely understanding what was expected of them.

The goal of both men, one would think, was to blame the United States and NATO for the war in Ukraine. Not only would that have fit nicely with the NATO skepticism of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it’s what the populist useful idiots who populate Tucker’s audience have been primed to believe. All bad developments abroad are a direct result of decadent Western liberalism: That was the party line of the post-liberal left during the Cold War and it’s the party line of the post-liberal right today. Here was a chance for the president of Russia, the unofficial leader of global post-liberalism, to hammer the point.

Instead, he lectured Carlson interminably about the ancient roots of Russia’s dispute with Ukraine, even scolding him at times for interrupting in hopes of steering him toward the desired message. Tucker looked on helplessly, seemingly afraid to be confrontational with a man who’s not above throwing American journalists in prison. When their chat finally aired on Russian television, hardly anyone watched. Later, Putin went so far as to mock Carlson for his timidity. “I thought he would behave aggressively and ask tough questions,” the Russian president told an interviewer this week. “I wasn’t just prepared for this, I wanted it!”

Imagine being so low as to volunteer to carry Vladimir Putin’s water, somehow failing at it anyway, and then having the man himself goof on you for being too much of a wimp to challenge him. That was Tucker’s week. If Kevin is right that Carlson can’t be a useful idiot because he’s not an idiot, well, it turns out he’s not very useful either.

All his time in Russia lacked was some unspeakable new atrocity by the Kremlin to make his toadying seem that much more disgusting in context. And then, on Friday, the leader of the Russian opposition dropped dead.

I still don’t think Carlson is an idiot.

For instance, he retains the basic good sense to at least feign horror at Navalny’s fate. Carlson’s faction gains no political advantage in celebrating the death of a leader admired throughout the Western world for his gallantry, and he knows it. “It’s horrifying what happened to Navalny,” Tucker told the Daily Mail after the news broke. “The whole thing is barbaric and awful. No decent person would defend it.”

That was the correct sentiment, even if it conspicuously declined to lay blame for what happened at the feet of his new friend Vladimir.

But when he was asked about Navalny a few days ago during a stop in Dubai, before the man had died and international opinion about him had turned raw, Carlson sounded different.

“Leadership requires killing people.” That sounds familiar.

Even so, I don’t expect “leadership requires killing people” to become the leading spin to Navalny’s death among the right’s Russophiles—although there will be spin, of course. If they weren’t willing to ditch Putin for killing tens of thousands of Ukrainians, they’re not going to ditch him for whacking a single activist exalted by the very Western leaders whom they aggressively despise.

Handwaving away Navalny’s death with a glib “leadership requires killing people” will be reserved for hardened sociopaths like Trump and radicalized nationalists like Carlson. “The full Duranty” is the inevitable final destination for all committed ideologues: When you align yourself with the belief that the West should be more like Russia, you know what you’re signing up for. It can’t be long, frankly, until the Tucker brigade begins darkly theorizing that it was Ukraine that must have had Navalny assassinated, calculating that the backlash to his death in the West would finally shake loose a new round of military aid for Kyiv in Congress.

Committed nationalists are a small faction of the right, though. Most are simply Republican partisans; for them, I suspect, the mere fact that Democrats want to keep weapons flowing to Ukraine indefinitely is reason enough to warrant cutting those weapons off. The average GOP voter just wants to own the libs, so they’ll seek an explanation for Navalny’s death that serves that purpose. And here we are:

“Trump is like Navalny” is a mighty ambitious take.

After all, Navalny was what Trump plainly hasn’t been for a moment of his existence, a man with immense personal courage who was willing to sacrifice everything for a cause. He had righteous contempt for the type of “strength” demonstrated by Russia’s strongman and admired by America’s wannabe and preferred to pay with his life than to pretend otherwise. Insofar as Trump has a theory about why the martyred dissident behaved as he did, we can guess what it might be.

Nonetheless, we’ll probably spend the next week or two being warned in bad faith by MAGA apparatchiks that Putin’s persecution of Navalny isn’t that different from Biden’s “persecution” of Trump. Trump and Biden each willfully retained classified information yet only one of them is being prosecuted for it, right? That’s how it goes in a corrupt country where the law targets the president’s political enemies. Navalny could tell you.

That’s solid lib-owning spin, but equating Trump with Navalny has problems. For instance, it’s not Biden who’s currently arguing in court that he should enjoy absolute Putin-esque immunity under the law for whatever he does as president, no matter how corrupt and malevolent. That’s the other guy.

It’s also the other guy, not Biden, who’s known for enthusing over Putin’s ruthlessness toward his enemies. And for siding with Putin against U.S. intelligence services during summits. And for encouraging Putin to attack NATO countries that don’t meet their defense spending benchmarks. And for aiming to stock his government with cronies and flatterers, like Putin might do.

And that other guy isn’t just on trial for mishandling classified material. He’s also on trial for some very specific things he did to try to overthrow the democratically elected incoming government and, a la Vladimir Putin, extend his time in power. He’s received due process in that matter, unlike Russian political prisoners. And unlike Russian political prisoners, he can and will stand for election against the president who’s “persecuting” him. And, he’s favored to win! Alexei Navalny could only have been so lucky.

Even the special counsel investigating how Biden handled classified information, a man who worked for Trump’s administration, has distinguished what Biden did as less incriminating than what Trump is accused of doing. That being so, which model of a banana republic is more bananas? The one where a former president can be prosecuted by a government led by the man who defeated him—or the one where a former president can’t be prosecuted under any circumstances, no matter how many crimes he may have actually committed?

It’s no exaggeration to say that the great mystery of a Trump second term is just how much like Putin, and how little like Navalny, he would prove to be.

Still, given a choice between the American right believing that Alexei Navalny had it coming and believing that he’s a political martyr in the mold of their lord and master, I guess I’ll take the latter. Insofar as that view at least puts them on the right side morally of Navalny’s death, it makes my skin crawl less than the former does.

There’s a mystery to Tucker Carlson too. If he’s not a useful idiot, and I don’t think he is, why has he stooped so low?

“Money,” you might say. Is that so? A man who was famously born to wealth and has made a gigantic fortune as a television broadcaster needs subscription revenue so badly that he’s willing to gawk, stupefied, at how affordable borscht is in Moscow? Everyone’s dignity has a price, I suppose, but given the size of the financial cushion Tucker is sitting on, he’s giving his away lately for awfully cheap.

A better explanation is ideology. He’s a true-blue convert to post-liberalism and, like any convert, he’s zealous about it. Precisely because he’s not an idiot, Carlson must have understood going in that his new creed would eventually require him to shrug in front of an audience at the prospect of a heroic pro-democracy activist being murdered. When the time came, he did his duty.

More so than ideology, though, I suspect the answer is community.

When you wander off into gonzo political pastures like Tucker has, you’re destined to alienate sensible people who once admired you. I’m sure he’d say that he doesn’t care about that and I’m equally sure he’d be lying in saying so. Losing the esteem of friends and acquaintances must be gutting, especially given the doubts that must still nag at his conscience occasionally about the choices he’s made. He’d be lucky to be an idiot, useful or otherwise, as idiots are oblivious to such things.

But as old admirers abandoned him, new ones who liked his new direction filled the void. He’s become an idol to millions of reactionary populists over the last five years; I can’t imagine how gratified he must have felt to rediscover a sense of political community that he’d momentarily lost. And how eager he must have been to serve that community by constantly affirming its political priors, in increasingly extreme ways.

It’s the same trajectory as Elon Musk. Elon’s another guy who had the world at his feet, began getting side-eyed by his social circle for some of his political opinions, and now has leaned so far into pleasing his new community of red-pilled chuds that he’s prone to amplifying posts attacking Jews for teaching “dialectical hatred against whites.” Not coincidentally, he’s also turned into a Russia simp.

One day you find your old friends shunning you, the next day you’re admiring the chandeliers in the Moscow subway system.

Maybe, when Trump is gone and his influence weakens, the lib-owning majority of the American right will regain its moral bearings, leaving fewer potential additional converts to post-liberalism than newly minted ideologues like Carlson had hoped. But until then, with no shortage of prospective recruits, he, Elon, and the rest are going to go on doing what they can to serve and grow their new community. As P.T. Barnum famously (and possibly apocryphally) almost said: There’s a Tucker born every minute.

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.