Which brings me to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who, like his colleagues, now confronts the difficult challenge of making his audience hate and fear Biden. So on Thursday night, he found his way toward an oldie but goody in the conservative arsenal of outrage: the War on Christmas.
Incensed that officials are urging people not to travel and gather in large groups during the holidays as coronavirus infections and deaths surge to their highest levels since the pandemic began, Carlson homed in on the most profound threat we face:
If death is inevitable — and that may be the one thing you’re not allowed to say in this country, but it’s still true — then maybe we should pause before we destroy the living in the name of trying to eliminate it. Politicians understand this threat. They’ve figured out that Christmas is bigger than they are, and therefore, it’s a threat to them. Better cancel it — and, in fact, they’re trying hard.
On one hand, Carlson is encouraging behavior that could literally get people killed, and he seems fine with that (since “death is inevitable” after all). But I actually find comfort in the fact that he’s doing it in a way that seems so trivial, with the preposterous claim that the powers that be are trying to “cancel Christmas.”
After spending so long listening to people on the right tell us that Democrats are satanic pedophile cannibals, after four years of a president who praises and encourages white supremacists, after watching one of our two parties stand by (or lend a hand) while that president wages war on American democracy, wouldn’t it be great if we could go back to arguing about whether Starbucks is offending Christians by not having Christmas trees on their holiday cups?
So let me urge Carlson to revive an issue he confronted two years ago: The dire threat presented by people calling gingerbread men “gingerbread people.” The lesson of this abomination, he said at the time, is that “the rest of us shouldn’t participate in our own spiritual neutering.”
Please, Tucker — spend more time on that.
That kind of thing used to be one of Fox’s core themes: the tragic loss of the cultural hegemony White Christians used to enjoy, seen through the little things guaranteed to stoke the ire of its elderly audience. A de-Christianized coffee cup, too many gay couples on TV, people speaking Spanish down at the Piggly Wiggly, teenagers with their rippity-rap music and Black boys who won’t pull up their pants — all of it just showed how things made sense back when you were young but now America is going down the toilet.
It’s not that the outrage they fomented was harmless — it certainly helped lead to the rise of Trump (who, among other things, promised that once he was elected you would once again be allowed to say, “Merry Christmas”). But the fact that it was so focused on broad cultural forces you can barely do anything about helped to keep it contained.
Those complaints never went away (Fox is still worked up about how Goya Foods suffered a backlash for its CEO’s support for Trump), but Trump helped give the disgruntlement a much harder and more aggressive edge. As we watch many of Trump’s most worshipful supporters drift away from Fox and toward Newsmax and OAN, we have to wonder if the War on Christmas just doesn’t give them the same adrenaline rush it used to.
Fox is a bridge between the mainstream and the loonier corners of the right. It gives oxygen to the latter’s conspiracy theories, but it also reports on actual news, interviews influential figures in Washington (rather than just a parade of knuckleheaded backbenchers), and attempts, often successfully, to influence the coverage of more responsible outlets. And if it returns to its pre-Trump themes and offerings, it could help keep the right’s rage at a mere steady boil, rather than a runaway meltdown.
And as this election proved, there’s only so mad conservatives can get at Biden. Democrats nominated him precisely because they believed — correctly, as it turned out — that, of their many contenders, he would be the least threatening to the center and the right. An older White man with a reputation as a moderate, a desire to reach out to everyone and a penchant for telling stories about the good old days? That was just the ticket.
So Republicans didn’t even bother to argue that Biden was a dangerous lunatic out to murder you and your family; the worst they could say was that he would be captive to other dangerous lunatics. And they failed.
To be clear, I’m not arguing for anything like optimism. In the best possible scenario, our politics in the next few years will be toxic and divisive, and all the right’s media will work to make it even more so. Trump himself will do his best to destabilize and poison our national life, since that will bring him attention and money. At its worst, we could face a wave of right-wing terrorism as extremists decide that Trump’s defeat shows that politics is an inadequate vehicle to achieve their ends.
But, given that risk, we should welcome the return of the War on Christmas. If that’s what people on the right spend their time shaking their fists at the TV screen about, it will be a blessing.