Though the word was actually never uttered, Fox News primetime host Tucker Carlson cemented himself this week as the Right’s most prominent critic of neoconservatism.
To be sure, Carlson rejects the term “neoconservatism,” and implicitly, its corollary on the Democratic side—liberal internationalism. In 2016, “the reigning Republican foreign-policy view—you can call it neoconservatism, or interventionism, or whatever you want to call it” was rejected, he explained in a wide-ranging interview with the National Interest Friday.
“But I don’t like the term ‘neoconservatism,’” he says, “because I don’t even know what it means. I think it describes the people rather than their ideas, which is what I’m interested in. And to be perfectly honest . . . I have a lot of friends who have been described as neocons, people I really love, sincerely. And they are offended by it. So I don’t use it,” Carlson said.
But Carlson’s recent segments on foreign policy conducted with Lt. Col. Ralph Peters and the prominent neoconservative journalist and author Max Boot were acrimonious even by Carlsonian standards. In a discussion on Syria, Russia and Iran, a visibly upset Boot accused Carlson of being “immoral” and taking foreign-policy positions to curry favor with the White House, keep up his ratings, and by proxy, benefit financially. Boot says that Carlson “basically parrots whatever the pro-Trump line is that Fox viewers want to see. If Trump came out strongly against Putin tomorrow, I imagine Tucker would echo this as faithfully as the pro-Russia arguments he echoes today.” But is this assessment fair?
Carlson’s record suggests that he has been in the camp skeptical of U.S. foreign-policy intervention for some time now and, indeed, that it predates Donald Trump’s rise to power. (Carlson has commented publicly that he was humiliated by his own public support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.) According to Carlson, “This is not about Trump. This is not about Trump. It’s the one thing in American life that has nothing to do with Trump. My views on this are totally unrelated to my views on Donald Trump. This has been going since September 11, 2001. And it’s a debate that we’ve never really had. And we need to have it.” He adds, “I don’t think the public has ever been for the ideas that undergird our policies.”
Even if Carlson doesn’t want to use the label neocon to describe some of those ideas, Boot is not so bashful. In 2005, Boot wrote an essay called “Neocons May Get the Last Laugh.” Carlson “has become a Trump acolyte in pursuit of ratings,” says Boot, also interviewed by the National Interest . “I bet if it were President Clinton accused of colluding with the Russians, Tucker would be outraged and calling for impeachment if not execution. But since it's Trump, then it’s all a big joke to him,” Boot says. Carlson vociferously dissents from such assessments: “This is what dumb people do. They can’t assess the merits of an argument. . . . I’m not talking about Syria, and Russia, and Iran because of ratings. That’s absurd. I can’t imagine those were anywhere near the most highly-rated segments that night. That’s not why I wanted to do it.”
But Carlson insists, “I have been saying the same thing for fifteen years. Now I have a T.V. show that people watch, so my views are better known. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. I supported Trump to the extent he articulated beliefs that I agree with. . . . And I don’t support Trump to the extent that his actions deviate from those beliefs,” Carlson said. Boot on Fox said that Carlson is “too smart” for this kind of argument. But Carlson has bucked the Trump line, notably on Trump’s April 7 strikes in Syria. “When the Trump administration threw a bunch of cruise missiles into Syria for no obvious reason, on the basis of a pretext that I question . . . I questioned [the decision] immediately. On T.V. I was on the air when that happened. I think, maybe seven minutes into my show. . . . I thought this was reckless.”
But the fight also seems to have a personal edge. Carlson says, “Max Boot is not impressive. . . . Max is a totally mediocre person.” Carlson added that he felt guilty about not having, in his assessment, a superior guest to Boot on the show to defend hawkishness. “I wish I had had someone clear-thinking and smart on to represent their views. And there are a lot of them. I would love to have that debate,” Carlson told me, periodically emphasizing that he is raring to go on this subject.
Boot objects to what he sees as a cavalier attitude on the part of Carlson and others toward allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and also toward the deaths of citizens of other countries. “You are laughing about the fact that Russia is interfering in our election process. That to me is immoral,” Boot told Carlson on his show.