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The Importance of Dunking on Tucker Carlson

The Fox News talking head was exposed by a liberal historian in a viral clip of an unaired segment taped for Carlson’s show, revealing a flaw in the conservative brand of cable news punditry

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In January, Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, spoke on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Bregman writes about economic policy, and he seized Davos—the most luxurious ideas conference on the planet—as an opportunity to discuss tax avoidance. “It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference, and no one’s allowed to speak about water,” Bregman said. He went on to criticize an earlier Davos speaker, Michael Dell, for citing his family’s philanthropic efforts as an argument against higher U.S. tax rates—as if most global businesses even pay taxes on all their income and assets in the first place. “Stop talking about philanthropy,” Bregman insisted. “Start talking about taxes.”

Bregman has done a lot of press in the month since his Davos comments went viral. Last week, he tweeted about a hostile Fox News interview he’d recently done with Tucker Carlson. The Fox News anchor had invited Bregman onto Tucker Carlson Tonight to expound his argument about taxes. Carlson disagrees with Bregman’s support for high corporate tax rates, but he seems receptive to Bregman’s arguments about tax avoidance. Unfortunately, Carlson and Bregman didn’t get along too well, and their conversation devolved into an angry, vulgar clash. By the segment’s end, Carlson had called Bregman “a fucking moron” while Bregman repeatedly mocked Carlson as a “bandwagoning” populist and a puppet who serves a billion-dollar, right-wing media empire. Carlson angrily ended the conversation with Bregman, which Fox News then declined to air.

Shortly after the taping, Bregman dared Carlson and Fox News to air the full, unedited footage. On Wednesday, Bregman—who recorded the interview from his end—tweeted the footage himself. “I chose to release it,” Bregman tweeted, “because I think we should keep talking about the corrupting influence of money in politics.” The footage “also shows how angry elites can get if you do that,” Bregman added. Carlson disputes Bregman’s characterization. “I loved what you said at Davos, so I had high hopes for our interview,” Carlson wrote to Bregman after the blowup. “But you turned out to be far dumber, more dogmatic and less impressive than I expected. You’re [sic] professional academic, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it was still disappointing. Also, for what it’s worth, you’re an asshole.”

On Wednesday, Carlson spent a couple of minutes describing his argument with Bregman and assuring viewers that Fox News declined to air the segment only because Carlson cursed during the taping. Carlson’s producer, Justin Wells, says Bregman “turned an opportunity to have a substantive, informative discussion into an obviously calculated personal insult campaign.” It was, in other words, a classic cable news exchange.

It’s strange to think any professional expert would book any Fox News evening show expecting a “substantial, informative discussion.” But Carlson has won acclaim for some recent attempts at one. Last month, he dedicated a prime-time monologue to second-guessing the Republican Party’s support for big business interests and “the ruling class.” He was technically responding to Mitt Romney, who had written a Washington Post column about Donald Trump’s temperament, but Carlson’s segment quickly unraveled into a broader, messier meditation about populism. In his monologue, Carlson wondered whether his party’s legislative fealty to billionaires might exacerbate inequality and thus alienate working-class citizens or working-class voters. Of course, Democrats and other voters have wondered as much about the Republican Party for the past 130 years. Carlson, a longtime Trump loyalist who has worked in or in service of Republican politics for more than a quarter century, has only now begun to sympathize with the losers in a conservative capitalist economy. “Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion,” Carlson concluded. “Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it.”

Carlson is, as Bregman suggests, “bandwagoning” to some degree. Romney, a former investment-banking titan, is the biggest ruling-class caricature in modern U.S. politics, and Carlson designed his January 2 monologue, in part, to spite Romney for opposing Trump every now and again. So Carlson’s quasi-populist awakening seems to be a whimsical, disingenuous development; he seems to be a lifelong GOP hack forced to rationalize Trump’s hot-headed posturing against globalization. Carlson spares Bregman the happy condescension he usually reserves for his liberal guests. Fondly, Carlson bills Bregman’s contempt for the “supposedly progressive billionaire class.” Bregman, too, begins with poise and plays nice for the first couple minutes. He’s largely repeating his points—and reaffirming his irreverent posture—from Davos. Bregman is speaking to Carlson, but more importantly, he’s addressing Carlson’s viewership, which includes hundreds of thousands of nightly viewers whom Fox News poorly serves otherwise. The sincerity of Carlson’s convictions is somewhat beside the point. Carlson has an audience, and Bregman very nearly had their attention.

Thanks to Twitter and the many web publications that circulated the unaired footage, Bregman found an audience regardless. The seven-minute clip shows Carlson shouting, swearing, and stammering in response to Bregman’s criticizing the Fox News host for working for the Murdoch family. Carlson’s critics see a senior conservative figurehead losing an argument against a voguish, left-wing historian. But Carlson hadn’t even mounted an argument about anything. He simply—angrily—rejected Bregman’s characterizing him as a witless servant to billionaires who have paid the conservative pundit to resist his recent realizations about class struggle.

Bregman, too, becomes hostile: He’s initially cooperative, but then he laughs a little more, and he smirks, and he can’t resist the urge to turn his broad argument about taxation and capitalist class dynamics into a personal humiliation. On Wednesday, Bregman expressed some minor regret about this contentious point in the interview. “When Carlson asked me how he’s being influenced by Big Business and tax-avoiding billionaires, I should have quoted Noam Chomsky,” Bregman tweeted. “‘I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’”

Inevitably, Carlson misunderstands Bregman and Chomsky’s observation about power, ideas, and the subtle influence the former exerts in regulating the latter: “Nobody in management has ever told us what positions to take on the air,” Carlson stressed in his Wednesday debriefing. “I’ve hosted shows on both the other cable channels, so I know, firsthand, how rare this freedom is.” Still, Carlson has indeed addressed the core silliness of his existence. He has articulated the reason Bregman, too, looks somewhat silly and cynical as a Fox News guest even as he sounds much smarter than Carlson. For the past decade, Carlson has been a leading Fox News dipshit. In the four years before he was a Fox News dipshit, Carlson was an MSNBC dipshit. In the six years before he was an MSNBC dipshit, Carlson was, notoriously, the very worst thing to ever happen to CNN. Fifteen years ago, Jon Stewart humiliated Carlson—and Carlson persisted. On Wednesday, Bregman embarrassed Carlson, promoted his subversive concerns about tax avoidance, and won more acclaim for himself. Bregman went seeking a forum for hot provocation and “substantive, informative discussion.” Of course, Bregman abandoned all pretense at the five-minute mark. In fairness, Carlson abandons all pretense every weekday evening at 8 p.m. ET. Next time, do it live.