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How Amazon union organizer Christian Smalls bested Tucker Carlson

Going on Fox News wasn't complicity. It was a smart attempt to expand the left.
Diptych with images of Tucker Carlson and Christian Smalls.
Tucker Carlson invited union organizer Christian Smalls onto his show. Smalls got more out of it than Carlson did. MSNBC / Getty Images

Christian Smalls, the organizer who recently helped lead an effort to defeat Amazon in a remarkable David vs. Goliath unionization battle, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show last week to promote his ongoing campaign to unionize Amazon warehouses. But some liberal critics said Smalls’ appearance gave Carlson undeserved credibility or betrayed naiveté about the dangers of the Fox host’s right-wing project.

A look at what was actually said during the segment, however, reveals that it was not Carlson who exploited Smalls. Instead, Smalls, the president of the Amazon Labor Union, deftly extracted more out of the exchange than his host. He made his case for unions and got Carlson to agree to the need for organized labor — without making a single concession to the right.

These days, it’s in vogue to boycott platforms to avoid appearing complicit with problematic or reactionary political projects. But the kind of mass movement Smalls wants to generate requires engaging with people across the political spectrum. While that process can be messy and raise some thorny dilemmas, it cannot be written off entirely. In this case, Smalls appeared on Carlson’s show and got millions of conservatives to hear favorable things about his campaign and about unions in general. Some of those conservatives may now be a bit more open to or at least less hostile to union efforts, which is a win for the left.

Much of this victory hinged on Smalls' clear talent for disciplined communication. Carlson began by asking Smalls, “Were you surprised that [Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez … wasn’t standing with you at the barricades?” But Smalls didn't take the bait:

Smalls: It wasn’t just her. It was all of them, pretty much.

Carlson: Yeah, fair.

Smalls: I don’t want to make it just between us and AOC because a lot of them didn’t show up, and once again, we have no ill will against them. We know that whether they showed up or not, they didn’t make or break our election. We just had to continue to organize.

Carlson hoped to prod Smalls into calling out Ocasio-Cortez and thereby provoke division within the left. But by saying “all of them” failed to show up, Smalls pivoted to a broader critique of the political class. By saying “we have no ill will,” he kept the door open to congressional support. And to cap it off, he championed the power of self-organizing.

After a slightly lengthy silence Carlson then went on to say he’s sympathetic to the need for unionizing despite his conservatism. “I’m on the right. I've never been particularly pro-union, but it does seem like Amazon needs some counterbalance,” he said. “It’s this huge company. The workers have no power, and maybe we could share a little power with the people who work there.”

He asked Smalls to detail where he is in his efforts to continue unionizing Amazon warehouses, and Smalls did — uncontested.

Carlson dropped another bit of bait when he said Amazon should be open to a union as a “progressive company.” But instead of taking aim at the broken promises of progressivism, Smalls described Amazon specifically as hostile to unions and then made the case for why a union “brings representation for the workers.” Once again, Carlson set a trap, and Smalls strode past it.

Carlson tried to foment a classic circular firing squad among lefties, but Smalls declined to take up arms and instead concisely made the case for a left-wing political project to a massive audience that might not otherwise hear the message. Moreover, he did it all with the host of the show backing him and without endorsing any right-wing views.

Those who would have us believe Fox won the messaging battle seem to have been more interested in gotcha screenshots than observing how the show actually played out.

The core reason Smalls was able to maintain such discipline is because he’s in the business of building something: a mass movement among the workforce of the second-biggest employer in America. While Carlson has a history of inviting ostensibly left-leaning commentators onto his show to blast other people on the left, Smalls is not inspired by a desire to tear down perceived sellouts or spit venom at potential fellow travelers. Instead, he’s an ambassador for a cause that desperately needs recruits. Given the huge proportion of working-class people who make up Fox’s audience and the fact that Carlson has the most popular prime-time cable news show in America, it seems like an efficient way to promote a cause.

Some might argue that Carlson was doing some recruiting of his own. Perhaps news of Smalls’ appearance will make union activists more open to the idea of allying with right-wing populists against unregulated corporations. Some white nationalist leaders are open to regulating corporate power, in part because they oppose the views on trade, immigration and social liberalism that accompany today's loosely regulated neoliberal economy.

But in this case, Smalls did not propose an alliance with Carlson's cause, and Carlson does not run an organization. Instead, Smalls promoted a call for action for an organization that is firmly embedded in the left ecosystem — an effort that is being embraced by socialist activists, the democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party, and the Democratic president of the country.

Smalls’ apparent support of Black Lives Matter, prison abolition, economic egalitarianism and Indigenous rights might generally repel Carlson viewers, but Carlson might’ve just softened their opposition to Smalls’ project on the economic front. Smalls offered an alternative path to Carlson’s aggrieved white viewership in the fight to recruit working-class people across the country who feel that something is amiss about the way the modern economy is structured.

Of course Carlson’s one-off interview is unlikely to radically transform right-wing receptivity to a left-leaning union drive overnight. And it’s possible that at some point in the future Smalls changes his fundamental views or starts trashing the left unproductively. But his critics were wrong to try to reduce everything to the optics of problematic affiliation. The left cannot grow without strategic persuasion and counter-recruitment. Mischaracterizing dialogue as complicity forecloses any hope of building a left that can win.