People across the left — including me — routinely lambaste Fox News megastar Tucker Carlson for his alarming right-wing populist screeds. But this past week, as Carlson downplayed concerns about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine up until Moscow began a full-fledged incursion, something striking happened: Critics began to deem him a “traitor.”
For some activists, lawmakers and commentators, Carlson’s decision to minimize Russia's imminent invasion and push back against critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin meant he was siding with Russia against the U.S. But that’s a misread. Carlson isn’t in favor of Russia over America or angling to aid Russia in dominating or controlling the U.S. — he wants the U.S. to be like Russia. And in accordance with paleoconservative and white nationalist principles, he has an aversion to foreign interventionism so American militarism can grow at home. Carlson's ideas are dangerous and must be fought, but loyalty rhetoric misses the real problem. Furthermore, the traitor insult is one that could derail the quality of our national debate at a critical time. Setting Carlson aside, there is great risk in associating opposition to war with betrayal of the republic.
Carlson and his ideological allies, like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, see in Putin someone with a shared worldview — authoritarian, fiercely nationalistic, happily bigoted.
In the run-up to the invasion, Carlson persistently downplayed the severity of what Russia could be doing and pushed back against the prospect of American involvement. He characterized the situation as a “border dispute,” distracting from the reality of Russia’s yearslong meddling in eastern Ukraine and the illegality of Putin’s recognizing and ordering troops into Ukraine’s eastern separatist-held regions. Carlson argued Ukraine was “not a democracy” to denigrate the case for America’s supporting it. He posited a ludicrous theory that Democrats stand to benefit financially from war in Ukraine. And he delivered a long monologue about how Americans are socialized to hate Putin even though he’s not responsible for what Carlson sees as Americans’ primary social ills (“Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia?”). That monologue was, in fact, replayed by Russian state-sponsored television because it served naturally as Russian propaganda.
These kinds of comments sparked widespread claims that Carlson was a traitor. And in an analysis at The Bulwark, William Saletan characterized Carlson’s behavior as “anti-American,” “pro-Russian” and “treacherous.”
But if you examine Carlson's rhetoric and political project carefully, it’s difficult to understand the constant charges that Carlson is some kind of Russian agent. Carlson isn’t in Putin’s pocket; he wasn’t arguing that the U.S. should concede something that belongs to it to Russia; he didn’t give information to Russia to undermine America’s political system or vital interests. Instead, what Carlson was doing was making an argument against risking war or escalation with a powerful country that isn’t at war with the U.S. (It should be noted that after Russia invaded, Carlson’s tone shifted — he argued that Russia should be “punished” and that President Joe Biden had failed to show “bite” — but still he cautioned against policies that could be costly for the U.S. or cause the war to escalate.)
Now, the way Carlson made that argument warrants criticism — it was conspiratorial, involved falsehoods and was morally impoverished. But the substantive position wasn’t “I want Russia to hurt or dominate the U.S.”; it was, effectively, “going to war with Russia is not worthwhile.” And to understand what’s motivating him, one must remember that his rhetoric is in service of his white nationalist, right-wing populist worldview.
Carlson and his ideological allies, like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, see in Putin someone with a shared worldview — authoritarian, fiercely nationalistic, happily bigoted. They see themselves as part of a shared ideological project — and we can see in Hungary’s emergence as a politico-intellectual hot spot for Western white nationalists how pockets of reactionary politics in non-Western Europe provide fertile territory for this set to think and organize. We wouldn’t describe Carlson’s affection for Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orbán, as being traitorous, but rather as an expression of international solidarity with extreme right-wing elements abroad.
The counterargument to what I’m saying is that Carlson meets the threshold for traitor status because Russia is an adversary of the U.S. and has recently sought to undermine the American political system and sabotage U.S. foreign policy goals; Hungary can’t do damage to the U.S., but Russia can, and Carlson’s dovishness is a boon to Moscow. The issue is that Carlson isn’t advancing arguments against American self-defense in these broadcasts for which he’s being called a traitor — an attack on Ukraine, a non-NATO country that borders Russia, isn’t an attack on the U.S. And as a leftist skeptical of the U.S.’s ability to wage wars morally or intelligently (look at the U.S.’s interventionist track record for the past half-century) I share concerns about the U.S. escalating recklessly, as horrific as Russia's actions are.
But whereas my aversion to war comes from, among other things, a progressive preference for avoiding or minimizing violence when possible, Carlson’s comes from somewhere else. Right-wing nationalists are often more isolationist because they want to bring the war home, preferring militarization of the police and border enforcement to focus on the project of white nationalism. As an advocate for replacement theory, Carlson is focused on preventing immigrants from entering the country. And in his ideological tradition, foreign interventions are considered undesirable in part because of the way they could generate refugees who could enter the U.S., and are often backed by policymakers who also believe in relatively open migration flows. Moreover, it's possible that he thinks veterans at home can be a potent mobilizing force for the exact kinds of nationalist political projects he favors.
So calling Carlson a traitor who is in cahoots with Russia against the U.S. isn’t only misunderstanding the problem; it’s distracting from the real one: an isolationism born of focusing aggressively on militarizing America on the domestic front.
But there’s also another problem, which is that casually tossing around words like “traitor” when war is a possibility is shortsighted. Setting aside Carlson, the loose use of the word creates an atmosphere in which dissent from reasonable people who are worried about the possibility of escalation with Russia can be branded as disloyal to the U.S. and hawkishness becomes associated with patriotism. Avoiding that language is crucial for avoiding the dangerous groupthink that can emerge in foreign policy crises — one only needs to look at the follies and moral errors of the Bush era to remember how dangerous it is to stifle robust debate about how to respond to atrocity.
To me, Carlson’s overarching political agenda certainly marks a kind of betrayal — of principles of human decency and fairness and American multiracial democracy. But we should avoid throwing around “traitor” flippantly — it revives some of the worst parts of Cold War culture and will cloud our judgment at the precise time we need to be most clear-eyed.