Tucker Carlson and the Twisted Politics of “Owning the Libs”

A tirade against mask-wearing reveals how people like Carlson have emptied popular conservatism of substance. H.L. Mencken famously defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

With the Covid-19 pandemic entering (we hope) its final stages in the U.S., hardcore conservatism seems increasingly to be defined by the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may still be worried about Covid.

That, at least, is what’s suggested by this week’s bizarre attacks from people like Tucker Carlson on anyone who might consider wearing a mask outside (or having their children wear a mask outside). Rather than adopt the libertarian position that one might expect from purported supporters of individual freedom, Carlson instead decided to accuse outdoor mask-wearers of encroaching on his happiness, and and to call parents who have their kids wear masks child abusers.

So, in his show Monday night, Carlson deemed mask-wearing “purely a sign of political obedience,” and said that getting people to stop wearing masks was necessary to “restore the society we were born in.” He instructed his viewers to walk up to people who were wearing masks outdoors and ask them to take the mask off, while saying, “Your mask is making me uncomfortable.”

Now, on one level, this was Carlson trolling the left by borrowing the rhetoric that’s often used in response to microaggressions and repurposing it against mask-wearers. Strikingly, though, he played his monologue straight, with no suggestion that he was joking. Instead, he effectively said, in apparent seriousness, that wearing a mask outdoors is an act of aggression against all the people who don’t want to wear a mask. In other words, Carlson can’t be happy about the fact that he doesn’t have to wear a mask outdoors unless everyone else isn’t wearing a mask, too.

Needless to say, this is a very strange position for a putative conservative to take, since it requires conservatives to become precisely the kind of intrusive busybodies that they typically describe liberals as being. That’s even more true of Carlson’s bizarre, and offensive, recommendation that his viewers call the police or Child Protective Services if they see a child wearing a face mask outside (because it’s supposedly “child abuse.”) Here, Carlson wasn’t just recommending individual action — he was calling for enlisting the state to interfere aggressively with a parent’s child-rearing decision. It’s hard to imagine a less traditionally conservative position than that.

Of course, American conservatism has always had a moralistic streak that’s made conservatives more than happy to interfere in the decisions of others when it found them morally offensive. (Think Prohibition, the opposition to birth control and abortion, and the hostility to gay and trans rights.) But conservatism has also had a libertarian, individualist streak that’s skeptical of the regulation of individual behavior, particularly by the state. In re-framing mask-wearing as not just annoying but morally offensive, and calling for the use of state power to curb it, Carlson just cast that aside.

The logical thing to do when it comes to people wearing masks outdoors, after all, is to recognize that we’re coming out of a pandemic and that people are going to have different levels of anxiety, which means that some people are going to be more cautious than they need to be. But given that this doesn’t interfere with your freedom to not wear a mask outdoors (particularly since the CDC now says you don’t need to do so), let cautious people wear their masks (and have their kids wear masks) while you enjoy not having to wear one. That’s not just the logical position — it’s the conservative one.

But Carlson can’t adopt a “live and let live” attitude when it comes to mask-wearing, because doing so won’t let him own the libs. So instead, he finds himself saying stuff that, not long ago, he would have thought was completely ridiculous. And yes, he’s doing so in order to try to fan the flames of the left-right culture war, in this case by encouraging his audience to turn the tables on the liberals who have been saying for the last year that people need to wear masks. (“They made you feel bad for not wearing masks, so now you should make them feel bad for wearing them,” is his hasic message.) But what the tirade against mask-wearing really revealed was how people like Carlson have emptied popular conservatism of substance, and how much of right-wing politics now boils down simply to opposing whatever liberals supposedly support — even when doing so requires you to become the very thing you claim to hate.

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