The right's refusal to look in a mirror
Why Tucker Carlson and other conservatives need to learn how to criticize their own
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton's ouster from the White House is excellent and overdue. "It is great news for America," as Fox News host Tucker Carlson said Tuesday evening, "especially for the large number of young people who would have been killed in pointless wars if Bolton had stayed on the job." Bolton was an inveterate hawk, perpetually undermining the president's better instincts on pursuing diplomacy and extricating America from her many misadventures in the Middle East. And anyway, as Carlson continued, Bolton "fundamentally was a man of the left," and — wait, what?
John Bolton, fundamentally a man of the left? Opposed to abortion and gun control, pro-private sector remedies to recession, unrelentingly aggressive on foreign policy John Bolton? Bomb Iran and invade North Korea John Bolton? Supporter of Barry Goldwater; member of the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump; Fox News commentator John Bolton? That John Bolton?
In Carlson's telling, Bolton's departure is mourned by "so many progressives" because he is one of their own. This is a bizarre claim in what was otherwise a cogent and, for Carlson, consistent policy critique of the outgoing NSA. It is also exemplary of a destructive habit in some reflexively partisan corners of the American right: a rejection of political introspection, a refusal to look in the mirror.
Some conservatives are putting in the difficult but necessary work of constructive criticism of their own movement. But Carlson and others like him have chosen the easier and more damaging method of handling disagreement via a constant game of "no true Scotsman." Instead of admitting fault, error, or even simple differences of opinion within their own camp — and different policy preferences unquestionably can develop from a set of ideological underpinnings unified enough to fund a single movement — they relabel anything objectionable as the property of their political enemies.
For this crowd, to have a bad position is to have a liberal position. If you're not with us, you're against us. To err is to be a Democrat. For Carlson, if Bolton is a disaster on foreign policy, that proves Bolton is a left-winger.
The specific argument Carlson used is worth a moment's digression. After months of carping about "economic patriotism" and how the government should make social media be nicer to conservatives and defend the institution of the family against the ravages of the market, suddenly Carlson has rediscovered a trace of his old libertarian streak. "There was not a human problem John Bolton wasn't totally convinced could be solved with the brute force of government," he announced Tuesday, disregarding Bolton's stated positions on subjects like the economy and firearms. "That's an assumption of the left, not the right." Of late, it's an assumption Carlson and his allies in "nationalist conservatism" tend to make. (See, for example, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and his plans for internet regulation.) But Carlson's new faith in the state doesn't follow Bolton into the foreign policy arena, so he summons a bit of anti-statist fire to force Bolton out into the cold.
Carlson is not alone in this practice of using any means to refuse connection to the objectionable. Perhaps the best example is Dinesh D'Souza and his perpetual Twitter campaign to claim all the racists in American history are Democrats with a substantial tie to the modern Democratic Party. This is a convenient historical accounting, disassociating D'Souza's tribe (Republicans) with something he understandably wants to reject (racism). But it is not an honest one, as actual historians — from John Fea of the evangelical Messiah College to Kevin Kruse of Princeton — have observed. Party realignment did happen. The "Southern Strategy" is well-documented. That doesn't mean all Republicans today are racists, not by a long shot. But neither does it mean they can ignore half a century of history to insist, as D'Souza obstinately does, that the facts show their party is perpetually blameless, that the stain of racism by definition mars only their opponents.
Racism, like warmongering, does not become left-wing simply because someone on the right (rightly!) wants to condemn it. Bolton is not a "man of the left" because of his foreign policy disagreements with Carlson; the two shared a conference stage less than two months ago, and that is hardly all they share. And if D'Souza wants to expel racism from the right — a worthy cause, and one I've recently lauded in its more honorable forms — the tool he needs is truthful assessment and policing of his own movement, not dishonest guilt-by-ancient-association attacks on his rivals.
Sometimes rejecting bad ideas is not about pointing out the mote in others' eyes but admitting there's been a log in your own.