fbpx

Escaping Our Ship of Fools

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.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on February 07, 2019 at 08:30:09 am

[…] View Original: Escaping Our Ship of Fools […]

read full comment
Image of Escaping Our Ship of Fools – MemePosts
Escaping Our Ship of Fools – MemePosts
on February 07, 2019 at 09:39:03 am

"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."

Playing devil's advocate here, but isn't the above inevitable in a republic? Looking at the recent poll saying that over 2/3s of Americans approve of socialism makes me leery of anything like a more direct democracy. The problem is we so often elect the wrong representatives. Is there a remedy for this? Nothing short of a more educated--in the real sense--voter.

read full comment
Image of SeverelyLtd.
SeverelyLtd.
on February 07, 2019 at 09:40:41 am

"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."

Playing devil's advocate here, but isn't the above inevitable in a republic? Looking at the recent poll showing that over 2/3s of Americans approve of socialism makes me leery of anything like a more direct democracy. The problem is we so often elect the wrong representatives. Is there a remedy for this? Nothing short of a more educated--in the real sense--voter.

read full comment
Image of SeverelyLtd.
SeverelyLtd.
on February 07, 2019 at 10:14:03 am

Well done, Mark! I would have continued to read were your article twice or more longer. Thanks for the copious links.

read full comment
Image of William Hudgins
William Hudgins
on February 07, 2019 at 10:26:43 am

Review is well stated. I've read "Ship" and recommend it. Like Mark Pulliam, I smiled--grinned--at many passages. I'd say the book is surprisingly well done.

read full comment
Image of Forbes
Forbes
on February 07, 2019 at 10:38:18 am

I really dislike the "howl of rage" characterization. The fact is the reverse. Trump's election was (is) the Left's Mt. St. Helen's moment. All the volcanic pressure of rage against and hatred of political centrists and conservatives--translated in the Left's political mind to "white," "cis," "heterosexual," "man," singly or in combinations--that had been building in them for years/decades and was evident to anyone spending any time, physically or on-line, around them, just blew starting November 2016. They are still spewing their hateful, resentful, revenge-seeking political pyroclastic flow. This is simply not refutable.

They had gained control of the federal administrative apparatus over a long period and regarded the federal government as their property. Trump's tenure has demonstrated their belief that government agencies under their de facto control are not properly subject to any contrary de jure political controls. This, too, was evident long beforehand, and was the gist of Anton's Flight 93 Election which I consider to be the most important work on politics in many years. Had HRC won and more of these people swept into the federal apparatus in her train, the "Dear Colleague" letter would look harmless compared to what they would have unleashed on the American people. All of their socialist, anti-Constitutionalism nonsense developed long before Trump. Trump's election brought their project to a (only temporary, I'm afraid) standstill and those howls you hear are theirs, not ours.

More than anything else, the Left wants to punish us, to punish its declared political enemies. The finer points of that punishment, whether by legislation, regulatory action, Twitter doxxing, physical assaults; the intellectual cogency of their multifarious grievances and complaints; none of this truly matters. Bentham wrote: whatever you find in yourself a propensity to condemn, is wrong for that very reason. For the same reason it is also meet for punishment: in what proportion it is adverse to utility, or whether it be adverse to utility at all, is a matter that makes no difference. In that same proportion also is it meet for punishment: if you hate much, punish much. . . the fine feelings of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged dictates of political utility." Pretty much describes the Left, and not Trump's supporters.

read full comment
Image of QET
QET
on February 07, 2019 at 11:59:34 am

I really dislike the "howls of rage" characterization. In fact it is the very reverse. The election of Trump was (is) the Left's Mt. St. Helen's moment. The volcanic pressure of their rage against and hatred of political centrists and conservatives--translated in their political minds to "white," "male," "cis," "heterosexual," singly or in various combinations--was building for years/decades, evident to anyone spending any time, physically or on-line, around them. In November 2016 they just blew, and are still spewing their political pyroclastic flow of rage and hatred. Theirs is a cathartic purging on a volcanic scale.

Having gained control of the federal administrative apparatus over a long period, the Left regards the federal government as its own property. Trump's election merely made patent what had also long been latent, yet evident: the Left will suffer no contrary political control of its de facto control of the government. This was the gist of Anton's Flight 93 Election, which I regard as the most important work on politics in many years. Had HRC won, even more of these people would have flowed into the federal apparatus in her train, justified in their own minds in accelerating the administrative suppression of their political enemies, and the "Dear Colleague" letter would appear mild by comparison to what they would have wreaked.

Trump's tenure has worked a (only temporary, I'm afraid) suspension of the Left's project, and it is that suspension that has produced the cries and howls of rage that you hear. More than anything else, the Left wants to punish (preferably only its formal political enemies, but we can see them breaking their own on the wheel when there is not a conservative or centrist ready to hand that day). The finer points of that punishment--its means, whether legislative, regulatory, Twitter doxxing or physical assaults; and the intellectual cogency of its grievances, complaints, theories--are irrelevant. Bentham wrote: whatever you find in yourself a propensity to condemn, is wrong for that very reason. For the same reason it is also meet for punishment: in what proportion it is adverse to utility, or whether it be adverse to utility at all, is a matter that makes no difference. In that same proportion also is it meet for punishment: if you hate much, punish much. . .the fine feelings of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged dictates of political utility. This accurately describes the Left, not Trump's supporters.

read full comment
Image of QET
QET
on February 07, 2019 at 14:57:37 pm

Historically, successful republics were characterized by a narrow franchise to vote. Successful democratic-republics have been characterized by a broad franchise to vote but a franchise that left indigents, transients, political appointees, servants, illiterates and the feeble minded un-enfranchised.

A near universal franchise in a democratic-republic is the equivalent of a representative democracy. Based on the experience of the last 75 years, such democracies seem fated to degenerate into one kind of tyranny or another.

read full comment
Image of EK
EK
on February 07, 2019 at 14:57:42 pm

Poor questions asked by pollsters receive uneducated answers. Moving beyond polls, we also have a media that deliberately poses poor questions to receive uneducated answers. There is no need for a more book educated electorate. Just an electorate that isn't being miseducated on a daily agenda driven basis.

read full comment
Image of Urth1
Urth1
on February 07, 2019 at 15:21:59 pm

The mechanisms of civic engagement exist. Demanding accountability from our representatives requires that we reassume responsibility for our own governance. If we outsource that responsibility to a ruling class we will get what we deserve — self serving rulers who view us with contempt.

Your review notes Carlson is short on solutions. The solution is too simple. We still have the ultimate power of the vote as Ocasio Cortez’s opponent in the last election discovered. It is not enough to stamp our feet, elect Trump, and doze off on the couch. The price of Liberty is Eternal vigilance. And civic engagement.

read full comment
Image of W harmon
W harmon
on February 07, 2019 at 16:32:32 pm

Thomas Jefferson famously said; "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
I believe the premise shared by Mr. Jefferson to be correct. It will always be inherent in the nature of men to reach for more power once they have a taste of it. Therefore wholesale change, sometimes bloody revolution, is required to maintain liberty for those with little power.
However, I believe we live in a unique time in history today. One in which revolutionary change can come about without bloodshed if enough people open their minds to it.
The way to accomplish this is through separation, secession, or any other name you want to give an action by the people to achieve local self-determination.
This Union was established with free and independent Nation/States. To restore those independent States will require doing exactly what 148 States around the world have done since WWII and what Great Britain is currently doing in separating from their Union.

read full comment
Image of Marvin Tyson
Marvin Tyson
on February 07, 2019 at 17:17:53 pm

My goodness, Sir! Are you implying that the voters of New York are ill-educated for electing the likes of Alexandria [Ocassionally functioning] Corte[x].

I'll not hear it, sir.

such wisdom as flows from her extensively protruding jaw is such that may usually only be found behind a bar counter and is of compelling interest only to those who wish to spend "additional time" with this sagacious barmaid.

read full comment
Image of gargamel rules smurfs
gargamel rules smurfs
on February 07, 2019 at 17:57:39 pm

Thanks for the Bentham quote! For others, this is from Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), wherein Bentham chides people motivated by "sympathy and antipathy" rather than by utility. And I acknowledge, I encounter people on the left who seem to be motivated in this manner.

But also people on the right. Indeed, in The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt notes that both liberals and conservatives are motivated by considerations of care and fairness/proportionality--but issues of loyalty (loving what you associate with your tribe) and disgust (hating what you associate with some different tribe) seem to be peculiarly motivating for conservatives.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on February 07, 2019 at 18:34:33 pm

Bentham's diagnosis was largely correct but his cure was not. Sympathy and antipathy are moderated by virtues, not arithmetic. The word hate (or evil) is at the extreme end of the spectrum beginning with love (or good) and whose midpoint is adiaphora and ataraxia. Bentham's tendencies are human, not political partisan, so yes, political conservatives are, in the abstract, as prone to hate as anyone else.

At the moment, however (a moment lasting 30 years), conservatives are, in my experience, far less given to hate--that is, they are farther away on the spectrum from that state than are progressives. There is a certain crowd psychosis at work: the various Marches of the Left lately resemble the Nuremburg rallies far more than gatherings of conservatives (like the Tea Party, e.g.). Sympathy and antipathy love company, and the flushing-out effect Trump has had has made progressives conscious that many others hate as they do, which just encourages them in their hate; they openly and proudly indulge it today, unashamed to say the most hateful things.

A devout Christian who believes homosexuality to be a sin does not therefore hate. There are such persons who do hate, but hate is not a necessary consequence of that belief. Someone who opposes late-term abortion does not necessarily hate women. And so on. But deeming all such beliefs and viewpoints "hateful" as an excuse to indulge your own hate? That is today's Left in a nutshell, and because, unlike in prior eras, they wield far more power than conservatives, it is necessary, in my view, to correct those who pronounce support for Trump and/or opposition to continued incursions into private life by the Left to be "howls of rage."

There may come a day when an extreme hateful conservatism once more dictates its norms to the culture, and on that day it will be necessary to push against it just as much as today it is necessary to push back the Left.

read full comment
Image of QET
QET
on February 07, 2019 at 19:38:49 pm

What is happening as the average citizen looks on in disbelief is that an outworn, patched politico-economic system is cracking, while no serious steps are taken to ascertain the causes and remedies. The causes of American insufficiency, at home and abroad, are political, not economic, or at least political before they are economic. Better put, they are cultural. Serious problems cannot be solved on the basis of a consensus of value-disoriented television personalities (1968).

read full comment
Image of Anthony
Anthony
on February 07, 2019 at 23:19:25 pm

Excellent article. My view is that the left projects. They project onto their political enemies what they are feeling, thinking and doing. They “hate” and claim it’s the other side that hates. So why were they so blindsided by the election if we are so outwardly hateful? Because we were shame censored and quietly lodged a protest vote. In 2008, I was appalled because I did my homework early in the primary before Jeremiah Wright took down all his sermons. I knew what to expect. But I quietly went to work the next day.

read full comment
Image of Lydia
Lydia
on February 08, 2019 at 10:39:17 am

Once again, nobody "sees" in the hearts of the others that which is present in his own "tribe's" hearts.

It may also be clearly stated AND recognized by all with clear vision that the Left is MOTIVATED BY ENVY AND THUS AN INHERENT / IMPLIED SELF-LOATHING AT their own failures TO ACHIEVE THAT WHICH THE SUCCESSFUL HAVE ACHIEVED.

Why else is there constant talk about punitive taxation?; why are there relentless calls for "equalizing" all material conditions? Why are the successful vilified / stigmatized? - if not because those without WILL NOT accept that their own fates may very well have been determined by their own shortcomings / failures?

At what point are we finally old / mature enough to both recognize AND accept the success and excellence of others?

Recently, the New England Patriots won another SuperBowl. Bully for them and hearty Congratulations. (This coming from a fan whose team was beaten by the Pats in SB49) You will not hear such acceptance from the mass of the populace.
Envy again?
Yet, just like in business, the Patriots won because of their consistent excellence in coaching, player development, strategy and teamwork AND HARD, DETERMINED EFFORT.

Those who can, do! those who can't, bitch and suffer the never ending pangs of perennial envy!

Question:

How many voters are so motivated? How many consequently fall for the false gods of Leftism?
No need to answer!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on February 08, 2019 at 14:19:50 pm

Why downplay the economic incentives? If we give interest groups opportunities to gain resources at the expense of others through the political system rather than by benefiting their fellow citizens through economic entrepreneurship, we should not be surprised if incentive structures lead to the ship of fools. The Constitution seeks to stop tyrannical political entrepreneurship, or at least to keep it within some bounds, but no-one could have foreseen political acquiescence in the migration of dependent voters, or the modern high level of dependency of political groups on organized interests such as labor unions and crony capitalists.

read full comment
Image of TonyTiger
TonyTiger
on February 09, 2019 at 12:26:11 pm

One obvious way to do just that is to reject the Supreme Court's ex cathedra bulls announcing that the 14th Amendment incorporated any part of the federal Bill of Rights into all state constitutions. The Court's commerce clause jurisprudence of the the late 1930s and early 1940s that culminated in Wickard v. Filburn needs to be reject as well.

Certainly Whitney v. California was bad but as Gitlow v. New York ultimately made pornography protected speech readily available in every library and on every internet device, the cure is clearly worse than the disease.

I think that would be enough.

read full comment
Image of EK
EK
on February 09, 2019 at 14:29:12 pm

This is a reader comment from a NYT article, "College Men for Trump, published July 14, 2016. While it misses the target on several particulars, it remains the most prescient comment I saw on the 2016 election.
----------
I'm not surprised that support for Trump goes beyond "rednecks" and the flock who vote Republican regardless of who is on the ticket. Trump is successfully tapping into the anger and frustration many people feel. They're angry about an economic system of Global Capitalism that enormously enriches a tiny minority at the expense of everyone else. They're frustrated with a political system that responds only to donors and ignores them.

It doesn't matter that Trump is a narcissistic huckster who exploits that anger solely to advance himself. Unlike other politicians, he acknowledges the anger and offers "solutions." No matter that those "solutions" are impractical and will only exacerbate the problem if implemented. For many voters who feel abandoned and hopeless, Trump offers hope of a bright future in a Great America.

Trump's Republican competitors offered only regurgitated Reaganomics, which many now recognize as a major cause of their plight. And at best, Hillary offers only continuation of the current failed system. The likely chaos and destruction of a Trump presidency is attractive to voters who feel they have nothing to lose by lobbing an orange-haired grenade into the White House. The elites of both parties clearly do not appreciate the depth of outrage against them and the system they represent.

Trump's lead may be greater than the numbers show, as I suspect many who plan to vote for him will not admit that to pollsters. Hillary has a lot of work to do.

read full comment
Image of Owen Glendower
Owen Glendower
on February 10, 2019 at 01:54:36 am

Better question: What happened to the Seahawks? Why didn't they have consistent excellence in coaching, player development, strategy and teamwork AND HARD, DETERMINED EFFORT?

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on February 10, 2019 at 12:13:30 pm

Simple:

Bill Bellichek is smarter than the average Bear; and Brady is smarter than the average quarterback.
Bellichek is "adaptive" while Pete Carroll is hidebound and insists on implementing the "same-old - same-old" irrespective of the opponents strengths and weaknesses.

I ain't mad. I simply appreciate EXCELLENCE!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.