Hey, Tucker: Flyover America Is Not the Sh**thole You Imagine It to Be

In his first monologue of the new year, Fox News host Tucker Carlson used his pique at Mitt Romney to announce that “market capitalism” is an idol of the Right that has strip-mined the nation of the chance for a middle-class life for “normal people” and left us, in large part, drug-addled and poor.

Market capitalism was aided in this task by a government run by and for the elites, who “don’t care about your happiness” or prioritize your family, Carlson said.

As someone who has lived 99 percent of his adult life within five miles of Flint, Michigan, ground zero for every trouble that Tucker thinks ails the nation, I resent the characterization—and the attempt to make a victimized political base out of us.

In fact, in the space of one very long 15-minute rant, Tucker managed to say that big-government paternalism has destroyed the poor black family – and a lack of big-government paternalism has destroyed the white middle-class family. Whew!

Response to Carlson in conservative media was swift—and continues. Reason did a predictably good job of defending free markets and pointing out that the market is by its definition a means to an end, not the end itself, and the least intrusive and efficient way for people to pursue the happiness that Carlson charges it doesn’t deliver.

At National Review, David French took on the moral failings of Carlson’s victimization argument, while admitting that Tucker was identifying real problems.

But so does Al Sharpton. And it’s in the exaggeration of problems where Sharpton gets his power to rally the troops against a misidentified enemy. Tucker Carlson is making a cynical bid to do the same.

Whether it’s to build an audience for himself or to deliver a voter base for Trump that feels put upon (even while the Trump economy is delivering prosperity to them), I’ll leave for others to decide. But as the current crop of what Walter Williams calls “the poverty pimps” has proven, you can get yuge numbers from a voter base that feels persecuted from without.

And like Al Sharpton, those enemies are identified in some sinister code language. When the alt-right attacks “bankers” and “neocons,” we know exactly what ethnic group they mean. Thank goodness, Carlson kicked off his monologue by attacking a Mormon as the prime example of elitist, uncaring, and voracious capitalism.

Married people can do fine in small-town America

Carlson’s weirdest assertion is that “increasingly, marriage is something only the wealthy can afford.” This is plainly ludicrous. It may be true that the wealthy (which includes an increasing number of former members of Tucker’s “disappearing middle class”) have higher marriage rates, but they are probably wealthy because they have lots of good habits and practices that led to their station in life.

If anything, being single or divorced is something only the wealthy can afford. And it’s actually hard for married people who both work to be truly poor out here in the hinterland, where a decent home can be bought for about $600 per month in subdivisions that were populated by doctors, lawyers, and insurance executives when I was a kid.

In my own case, I live in a house with about 4,500 feet of living space on the side of a 35-foot cliff overlooking a 4-acre city lot with a creek. My daughter’s University of Michigan master’s degree was paid for out of the family budget, and I’ve never averaged over mid- to low-hundred thousands in income. My previous house, a five-bedroom Victorian overlooking a river, is now occupied by a family with a total income of under $60,000. And both houses are in a town where the public schools are perfectly acceptable.

Recently I helped a group of business people who were supporting a vocational education millage in nearby Saginaw, Michigan. Most of the major contributors were guys who started out in a trade—as a machinist or a carpenter—and had built a nice-sized company. All while the I-75 corridor, the stretch of freeway running from Detroit to the Saginaw Bay at the base of the thumb, was ground zero for the “de-industrialization of America.” Now, they are desperate for employees who know how to work, and they'll even pay workers good money while training them.

In later episodes, Carlson doubled down on his premise by saying that it’s impossible to make a “decent living” outside of a few large cities and only the rich are “happier” since the financial crisis of 2008. He then improbably defended himself from his critics by reading lengthy excerpts of a book... by Elizabeth Warren.

Yes, Tucker, I will concede that your version of market capitalism sounds a lot like an Elizabeth Warren speech —but I’ll also say it’s not the experience of the majority of people you are setting yourself up to champion. People, I will point out, that you have little first-hand interaction with.

Big government is a problem in all of America, not just Democrat-controlled cities

My hometown of Flint is the perfect laboratory for both the big-government paternalism Carlson identifies as destroying the black family and the “soulless corporation” that fled the area. Michael Moore (whom I occasionally sparred with back in the day) made his fame with “Roger & Me,” a movie that mirrors Tucker’s new vision of market capitalism.

Tucker’s premise supposes that in deep blue big cities, big government has destroyed the family, but the free market is the culprit in the red suburbs. This is fundamentally wrong. Big Fed reaches ALL areas of the United States, and the fact that government paternalism's poor incentives are reaching suburban and rural America was the very premise of Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and is vividly illustrated in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Big government that “cares” about our “happiness” is what drove “soulless corporations” out of the United States in the first place

Sure, lopsided trade agreements played a part. But those agreements came at the same time as federal environmental regulations were getting to parts per trillion; federally enforced union agreements required companies to hire far more people than they needed (General Motors' UAW work rules manual was 2,000 pages of things they couldn’t require employees to do); and the U.S. corporate income tax was reaching all-time highs. This is what government does when it tries to protect our “happiness.”

And while I think Donald Trump fundamentally misunderstands the effects of tariffs and the meaning of so-called “trade deficits,” at least he made America a welcoming place to do business before engaging in trade wars or negotiations.

Freedom is something to cherish, not sneer at

Tucker’s sneering suggestion that the free market may bring us “cheaper iPhones” but it doesn’t bring happiness is beside the point. One word that never appears in Tucker’s 15-minute rant is freedom. When he says “market capitalism is a tool, like a toaster” he might as well say that freedom itself has no intrinsic value, like paper money. It is the argument that every enemy of freedom and free markets has made for 100 years.

Tucker Carlson has traded former frequent guest Mike Rowe’s optimistic vision of middle America for Mike Moore’s. It’s a cheap, demagogic argument designed only to inflame while elevating its proponent—but it is lacking any solutions or benefit to the people it purports to stand up for.