Democracy has been endangered and populism enlivened by the relentless rise of institutions which elites use to insulate issues from democratic contestation.
I generally avoid books written by radio or TV hosts. They are typically slap-dash efforts—often dictated or ghost-written, padded, and calculated to cash in on sales to an uncritical fan base. Accordingly, even though I regularly watch, and enjoy, Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, I did not have high expectations for his recent book, Ship of Fools, which I received as a birthday present. Upon reading the book, however, I was favorably surprised by the high quality of Ship of Fools (subtitled, How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution), which is engagingly written in his distinctive voice and presents a cogent stream of insights into our present predicament. I was impressed enough to recommend it.
Ships of Fools is selling well (debuting as #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list) for a reason: Carlson offers a fresh perspective on the cultural divide—the ruling class versus ordinary Americans—that characterizes the Age of Trump. Unlike most of his inside-the-Beltway media colleagues, Carlson is an unapologetic populist. Even though he grew up in affluent La Jolla, California, attended an elite boarding school followed by Trinity College, and now lives in uber-Establishment Washington, D.C., Carlson relates to the now-beleaguered American middle class in a way that most conservative intellectuals do not—with empathy rather than condescension or contempt.
In contrast to Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart, which mines a similar theme, Carlson’s Ship of Fools is not a scholarly work; it is, instead, a rollicking polemic, albeit one directed at a well-informed reader. The book has no footnotes, index, appendix, or bibliography. Yet this slim (241 pages of text), well-researched volume explains the election of Donald Trump (“a throbbing middle finger in the face of America’s ruling class…, a howl of rage”) and the decades of feckless leadership—by “lawmakers, journalists, and business chieftains”—that led up to it. Carlson’s premise is that since the dawn of the 21st century an ad hoc coalition of elites, on both sides of the aisle, have sabotaged America’s middle class through a combination of free trade, mass immigration (legal and illegal), and growing economic stratification in the form of income inequality and corporate concentration.
Carlson is not alone in exploring this dichotomy. Patrick Deneen (whom Carlson quotes in his book), the traditionalist author of Why Liberalism Failed (2018), provoked an extended dialogue concerning whether our post-Enlightenment institutions are succeeding in their mission—and what, exactly, that mission is. Jonah Goldberg, author of the widely-reviewed Suicide of the West (2018), emerged as a spokesman for untempered global capitalism, dismissing its critics as ungrateful tribalists. This binary view of 21st century life, bordering on Manichean, is very polarizing. Carlson explores a middle ground, similar to the one advocated by Frank Buckley (The Republican Workers Party) and Oren Cass (The Once and Future Worker), that focuses on preserving America’s middle class. Only recently did the American dream of upward mobility and the goal of secure blue collar employment become disfavored in conservative circles—a development Carlson laments.
Unlike Buckley and Cass, the non-wonkish Carlson is more descriptive than prescriptive, so Ship of Fools offers few concrete solutions. Call it an emergency flare from a ship in distress. In Carlson’s telling, the Left pushes open borders and “diversity” to promote identity politics and swell the ranks of Democratic voters; Big Business, long the patron of the Republican Party, prizes cheap labor and global markets for financial reasons. The “winners” in this game are largely insulated from the consequences of their policies; they live in exclusive enclaves, have access to private schools, and through caste-like networks and nepotism often manage to place their children in elite colleges and lucrative jobs. Members of the ruling class, Carlson suggests, “view America the way a private equity firm sizes up an aging industrial conglomerate: as something outdated they can profit from. When it fails, they’re gone.”
By 2016, America’s bourgeoisie had grown tired of being ignored—or worse, discarded as useless. Trump campaigned for their votes in the heartland, and got them. Carlson argues that the political struggle today is no longer ideological—left versus right—but “between those who benefit from the status quo, and those who don’t.” He notes that this divide is “rarely acknowledged in public, which is convenient for those who are benefiting.” The book’s overarching metaphor is that our leaders “are fools, unaware that they are captains of a sinking ship.” The out-of-touch elites depicted on Ship of Fool’s cover—haplessly guiding the vessel over a waterfall—include tech moguls Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, the Clintons, Mitch McConnell, and Nancy Pelosi—all equally oblivious to the fate of the passengers.
Carlson has been accused of espousing anti-business or even anti-free market rhetoric, but he views himself as a promoter of the public good—a champion of the national interest. What does it say about our “conservative” media that many pundits support trade and immigration policies that decimate America’s middle class? Critics may accuse Carlson of hyperbole when he claims that our leaders increasingly “fantasize about replacing Americans who live here, with their antiquated attitudes and seemingly intractable problems, with a new population of more pliant immigrants,” but Bill Kristol, founder and long-time editor of the now-defunct The Weekly Standard, made precisely such a proclamation. Others on the right have made similar disparaging statements about struggling natives (e.g., here, here, and here). Is it possible to love America without loving the Americans who live here? Sneering disdain for the plight of blue-collar workers displaced by the loss of manufacturing jobs reflects class bias, not shared civic fabric.
Carlson does not propose to abandon the free market system. Nor does he consider it sacrosanct. Rather, he urges our leaders (especially but not only our elected representatives) to consider more carefully the consequences of their actions, with the interests and well-being of ordinary Americans in mind. This extends to tax laws, trade deals, government regulations, immigration rules, and even economic policies. In his controversial January 2, 2019 monologue (covered on L&L here and here), Carlson declared that “culture and economics are inseparably intertwined.” He further asserted that “not all commerce is good,” citing usurious payday lending. These are fighting words for doctrinaire free market advocates, but Carlson prizes desirable policy outcomes over sterile doctrine. Carlson pulled no punches when he declared that “Market capitalism is not a religion. Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You have to be a fool to worship it. We do not exist to serve markets; just the opposite.” Carlson’s provocative monologue, which went beyond the scope of his book, raises many questions—which is his goal. He seeks to begin a national conversation not wedded to conventional—and, in his estimation, failed—nostrums.
In the seven substantive chapters of Ship of Fools, Carlson skewers a host of deserving targets, including Silicon Valley plutocrats, “gig economy” groupies, the Clinton Dynasty, open borders apologists, neoconservatives (Max Boot and Bill Kristol in particular), the censors and intolerant authoritarians running our elite institutions (e.g., Google, higher education, cable media), the diversity bureaucracy and its postmodern religion of identity politics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, new wave feminists, the transgender movement, faux environmentalists who fly to climate change summits on private jets, and many more. Carlson’s take-downs are bracing and often wickedly funny. I have to admit that I read many passages in Ship of Fools with a smile on my face.
But Carlson has a serious point: How should the nation’s various maladies be addressed by our political system? Whose interests should the ruling class promote? Carlson believes in democracy, and contends that the public is entitled to be dissatisfied at the way the country is being run, including economic policies that disfavor family formation. Carlson is a champion of populism. The epilogue to Ship of Fools contains this pungent passage:
A relatively small number of people make the overwhelming majority of significant cultural and economic decisions. Wars are fought, populations shift, the rules of commerce change, all without reference to what the bulk of the population thinks or wants.
The election of 2016 was a sign of discontent—even mutiny—aboard the ship of fools. Carlson proposes to navigate in a different direction, but provides few specific details. How the voyage, now underway, will end remains uncertain.