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As the American Right—and, by extension, the Republican Party—continues to lumber through a long-needed period of serious transformation, introspection, and reevaluation it is hard to recall a single incident that is more illustrative of the confusion that grips so many than this recent exchange between two of the Right’s most well known media personalities: Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson.
At issue between them is the connection between the alleged political principles of the Right and the policies Republicans champion. Specifically, are the principles of free market economics the same as the principles of good government? Are those principles the purpose of government or are free markets merely a means whereby the end of good government can be achieved?
Such watershed moments help explain the necessity of the policy adjustments happening within the Republican party for those who still may not fully understand them. Whether it’s for the purpose of explaining the ineffectiveness of the old guard of “Conservatism Inc.,” or of defining the “New Right” that is rising to replace it, or both, it is crucial that something more than a cartoon understanding of the problems of our political moment inform our debates.
Carlson’s willingness to press these questions and demand a re-thinking shows, among other things, that intellectual honesty is still possible on the Right in a way that is unthinkable today on the Left. Just as important is the fact that Carlson is most definitely right in his argument; there are clear flaws in the capitalist system that should be criticized and addressed from a right-wing perspective.
The Flaws of the Free Market
Although the full version of Carlson’s interview is hidden behind Shapiro’s paywall, even the truncated 50-minute version on YouTube is a gold mine. The majority of the video is devoted to the two men’s clear differences in regards to the free market, and the contrasts could not be clearer.
Shapiro repeatedly admits that his preferred “solution” in any circumstance is simply to let the free market run its course. He returns to this again and again in three main topics he argues with Carlson: Trust-busting, trade, and automation.
Shapiro says that he would have opposed the trust-busting actions undertaken by President Theodore Roosevelt, and would oppose similar actions today. When Carlson criticizes Uber founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick for not providing his drivers with health insurance because they’re independent contractors, not technically employees, Shapiro is dismissive. Contractors are “less costly,” which is enough to justify the policy.
Similarly, Shapiro has nothing but glib and facile answers to the pressing question of automation and its long-term effects on U.S. manufacturing jobs. In a rather unsubtle attempt to paint free-market capitalism as some sort of divine force, Shapiro claims that the answer to joblessness is a “Biblical mandate” to pack up and move to another city, in order to go on “the adventure of your life” in seeking a new job. In trying to put lipstick on the pig of economic displacement, he also makes the stretch that America was founded upon the principle of people constantly moving from place to place, and thus implies that such rootlessness is simply a part of the American Dream.
Shapiro’s non-answers for the fundamental economic problems facing the middle class underscore how truly out-of-touch one can become when slavishly attached to an ideology. For someone who has been crowned by the mainstream media as a “conservative gladiator” and a leader of the future of the movement, he could not possibly be more disconnected from the reality faced by many Americans today. Call it just a hunch, but the millions of working-class Americans whose lives have been thrown into chaos due to economic displacement probably would not view their joblessness in the same romantic and “adventurous” colors that Shapiro does.
A Free Market or a Stable Society?
While Shapiro prefers to keep deflecting to idealistic abstractions and to paint the brutal realities of economic downturns in rosy colors, Carlson is much more candid and realistic in his suggestions.
He rightfully points out that such economic outsourcing, while allowing consumers to buy “cheap plastic crap” from China for just a few cents less, utterly demolishes a very crucial way of life for many in the American middle class. While the former working class is now plagued by such issues as a spike in divorces and fatherlessness, the opioid crisis, and a rising suicide rate, the economic elites continue to expedite the process of economic outsourcing so that they can save just that much more money. Gone is the generosity of past industry bosses (the so-called “robber barons”) such as Rockefeller and Carnegie, who at least knew that they had monopolies and thus contributed something back to society through their massive philanthropic efforts (think of the countless Carnegie libraries around the country).
When Shapiro asks Carlson what he would do to address these issues, the Fox News host wastes no time in admitting that he would pursue government intervention. From tariffs like those President Trump is pursuing, to a government-mandated blocking of automation technology in the trucking industry, Carlson unapologetically supports actions that would help to achieve the greater goal of “a stable society” for American citizens.
The very idea of such a prominent right-wing media personality making criticisms such as these of capitalism is impossible to imagine as few as three years ago. But Carlson makes it very clear that although he considers capitalism to be the best economic system possible, that doesn’t make it a religion to be accepted as perfect, nor is it “some nicene creed” that he has to “buy into” in all cases whatever, damn the consequences. Capitalism is not the end of government. Government does not exist to secure its tenets. On the contrary, capitalism is merely a means by which we may achieve the ends of good government.
Using plain language and examples relatable to regular people and everyday occurrences, Carlson is able to achieve far greater appeal than all of the “wit and logic” Shapiro is alleged to have.
Brave New World
As independent journalist Brett MacDonald said on Twitter, perhaps no other video better “highlights the divide between the establishment conservatives and the new burgeoning movement” than this debate.
In addition to clearly dismantling the old guard of establishment conservative thought and cementing the rise of a more coherent and articulate nationalism, so too does this entire episode bring about a clear turning point in both men’s careers: Carlson’s star is sure to rise, while Shapiro has undoubtedly taken a massive hit to his reputation.
For his reputation as some sort of master debater, this is Shapiro’s first major back-and-forth with an equally-prominent conservative figure in recent memory, if not ever. MacDonald said it best: This debate with Carlson proves that when Shapiro is not debating 20-something-year-old college students in his dime-a-dozen Q&A’s, on topics such as trigger warnings or transgenderism, and is instead “matched with an alternative conservative philosophy,” then he truly “has no answers to the true problems” and just defers to the power of the free market.
Shapiro wants to equate Carlson’s arguments with those of Bernie Sanders. Carlson does not flinch. There is no shame in taking up the issues Sanders raises because they are important issues that concern the voters. Sanders himself is “a buffoon” and “totally insincere” and does not address them. But if conservatives don’t talk about the things Sanders is addressing, then they foolishly abandon the field to the socialists.
Carlson also points out a level of hypocrisy among conservative elites who prioritize policies of simply “lowering the marginal tax rates” rather than policies that actually address existential societal problems, such as preserving the family structure.
In disagreeing with traditional conservative orthodoxy—daring to point out flaws in capitalism and an unthinking ideological commitment to free trade, yet without endorsing socialism—Carlson is proving that the New Right is not bound entirely by the traditional “left-right” paradigm that has been the standard for decades.
If anything, both American politics and global politics have shifted away from the original question of “Are you Left or are you Right?” Now, the new defining question is: “Are you a nationalist or are you a globalist?”
There could not be a sharper illustration of the contrast between these two sects of the American Right: Shapiro, with his Harvard education and “facts and logic,” shows that “owning” SJWs on college campuses does not translate into real, effective solutions for the problems faced by millions of Americans.
Carlson, on the other hand, is just an ordinary (and grown up) guy who has by chance been elevated to one of the most-viewed cable news personalities of all time; he even humbly admits that he primarily got to where he is now because of luck. Perhaps that humility allows him to see what Shapiro, for all of his own luck, is missing.