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Tucker Carlson’s now ubiquitous 15-minute monologue from his January 2 show is causing some conservatives a bit of consternation. Not because what he said was new or groundbreaking (it wasn’t, really), but apparently because Carlson dared to say it in the first place.
What is most alarming, however, is that it needed to be said at all, and more so, that it has to be defended not just from the Left but also from the legacy conservative media. The American vision that Carlson described used to be understood. It is at the heart of our founding documents, woven into our nation’s fabric, the shine of the city on the hill.
Carlson’s message resonated with many of us. In it, I heard echoes of another great conservative thinker of the mid-20th century, Whittaker Chambers. Chambers’ autobiography, Witness, had such a profound impact on Ronald Reagan that he “could recite passages” from it “verbatim,” according to biographer Paul Kengor. Chambers’ influence on Reagan was “evident in speeches throughout his public life,” most notably in his famous Evil Empire speech.
In his monologue last week, Carlson, like Chambers, “hit something else” when he “took up [his] little sling and aimed” it. Communism was Chambers’ Goliath, and the “something else” he struck were “the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation. . . .”
Since Chambers’ time, that ice cap has become a glacier. Carlson’s 15-minute barrage of stones similarly hit the mark and cracked its veneer—and people heard it. The “conservative” corner, however, seems to hear with different ears. And their response, has been enlightening.
What Are Conservatives For?
Carlson targeted several “isms” in his monologue: conservatism, capitalism, liberalism, socialism, interventionism, libertarianism, feminism, environmentalism, as well as the “private equity model,” the ruling class, banking, diversity, and marijuana use, among other problems that plague us. But fortifying all of these salvos was something much larger and more powerful. At the heart of it, Carlson was asking what should America really stand for?
Recall what Chambers wrote in Witness: “A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something.”
It has been a long time since conservatives thought of themselves in terms of presenting what they are for.
In the middle of a long list of what ails us, Carlson asserted, “Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot. The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence.”
Channeling more of Chambers, Carlson went on to say: “. . . one of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.”
In Witness, Chambers similarly refuted that lie. “Economics is not the central problem of this century,” he argued. “It is a relative problem that can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age.”
It was Carlson’s reference to faith, perhaps, that spurred Trump critic David French to pen a rebuttal. Fellow Trump critic Ben Shapiro took Carlson to task for his omission of the words “pursuit of” before “happiness.” And both seemed to object primarily to what they felt was Carlson’s attribution of blame: in short, to the government/elites and their bad policies. French and Shapiro place the blame on the people, an attitude apparently shared by many NeverTrumps, often manifesting itself as a shameful disdain.
French’s title to his piece summed up this contempt neatly: “The Right Should Reject Tucker Carlson’s Victimhood Populism.” French argues,“Yes, we need public officials to do their best to create and sustain a government most conducive to human flourishing, but the primary responsibility for creating a life of virtue and purpose rests with families and individuals.”
That’s true as far as it goes. But what French seems to underestimate is the smothering, uncontrolled growth of Chambers’s “icecap.” This glacier we now face is certainly not going to recede on its own. Instead, as the many examples Carlson mentioned reveal, ever more impediments to pursuing a “life of virtue and purpose” have been erected and incentives removed.
Carlson simply noted what should, by now, be obvious: that our government should create incentives and remove impediments to secure the blessings of our liberty. Further, that conservatives should make this their focus, rather than “free trade” coupled with a sort of laissez-faire “they failed themselves” attitude toward the people harmed (or at the very least, not inspired to be more virtuous and responsible) by such policies.
Instead of acknowledging this, French insisted, “This is still a land where you can determine your own success more than can any political party or group of nefarious elites.” He concluded: “Contrary to Carlson’s contention, America isn’t being destroyed. It’s being challenged.”
Stumbling Into Philosophic Materialism
Whether we’re merely “being challenged” or more seriously engaged in a “cold civil war” seems to be the core of the disagreement between the NeverTrump-leaning conservatives and the pro-Trump faction, a phenomenon first observed in the heated reaction to Michael Anton’s “Flight 93 Election” essay, which Shapiro labeled “incoherent, mind-numbing horseshit.”
In a more polite response to Carlson, Shapiro titled his rebuttal: “Tucker Carlson Claims Market Capitalism Has Undermined American Society. He’s Wrong.”
After listing some facts and figures he thinks refutes the notion that our situation is dire, Shapiro notes, in agreement with French, that “Carlson seems to suggest that our system itself is to blame for individual shortcomings, and that collective restructuring of free institutions will alleviate and cure those shortcomings. This is simply not reflective of conservatism, or of founding ideology.”
The gist of Shapiro’s argument seems to be that although he somewhat agrees with Carlson’s list of American society’s ills, Carlson erroneously attributes “America’s troubles not to government interventionism, but to government non-interventionism.” He says that Carlson is “wildly wrong”—that “[t]he goal for America wasn’t happiness. It was the pursuit of happiness—the framework of freedom that allows us to pursue happiness.”
Chambers, in his 1957 scathing review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, had something to say about that “pursuit.” Here are just a few of Chambers’ wonderful takedowns of the godless, “philosophic materialism” of Rand’s utopia:
[M]an’s fate, without God, is up to him, and to him alone. His happiness, in strict materialist terms, lies with his own workaday hands and ingenious brain. His happiness becomes, in Miss Rand’s words, “the moral purpose of his fife.”
. . .
Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free-enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure . . .
. . .
[I]n a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. . . . The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?
Chambers nails the fundamental problem of American life in that series of observations: we live in a materialistic, “wicked world,” both Left and the Right. “Much wickedness,” C.S. Lewis observed, “when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.” Indeed, the road to Hell (and socialism) is lined with such pursuits.
Capitalism can become dysfunctional—crony capitalism. Welfare programs often become enabling and destructive. Tax law grows into a voluminous collection of favors for special interests. Regulations grow into smothering mountains. Economic programs result in benefit to an elite few. Laws can frequently limit individual flourishing, freedom, and liberty rather than promote it. Speech, instead of being protected, is silenced.
Most importantly, our nation can either protect our “freedom of religion” or limit it to “freedom of worship.” That latter term was used by both President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and, as Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon explains, they are two monumentally different concepts. Had Clinton been elected instead of Trump, we would have felt the impact of that shift, further ripening our society for the takeover of the Godless socialist revolution that Chambers warned us against.
As historian Christopher Henry Dawson noted: “The process of secularisation arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith.” And further, “Secularism is terrible not only on account of its emptiness but because there is a positive power of evil waiting to fill the void.”
A very liberal neighbor of mine once admitted that the more he distanced himself from the Catholic faith of his upbringing, the more leftward he leaned politically.
Carlson concluded his monologue with this warning:
Socialism is a disaster. It doesn’t work. It’s what we should be working desperately to avoid. But socialism is exactly what we’re going to get, and very soon unless a group of responsible people in our political system reforms the American economy in a way that protects normal people.
Although President Trump is certainly no saint, he has been working on doing just that. Besides weakening the legacy media’s control of the conversation, he’s accomplished many things that protect and improve the lives of “normal people,” such as tax cuts and reduced regulations. But his emphasis on trade policies that favor the United States and the interests of our people over those of our trading partners is also important.
Another fight Trump is fighting that has been practically ignored but is yet critical is the fight to end the Johnson Amendment and its ban on political speech in church. This is an important step—for it was in America’s churches that the people first spoke revolutionary ideas of freedom and liberty. It was in churches that slavery was condemned. Of course, faith is personal, but it is also a worldview that does and ought to “live loudly” within us. If politics is downstream from culture, culture is downstream from faith.
To channel Reagan channeling Chambers, our crisis exists to the degree that we are indifferent to God and collaborate in materialism’s attempt to make man stand alone without God. We can answer this challenge provided that our faith in God and in the freedom He enjoins is as great as materialism’s faith in Man.
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