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Opinion Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance suffer a moment of self-doubt over Putin

Fox News host Tucker Carlson. (Screenshot via YouTube/Fox News)
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Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance are both highly successful demagogues operating in the “conservative populist nationalist” space, so watching them grapple with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the determined international response to it, has been illuminating indeed.

At first, both adopted simple-minded nationalist tropes about the gathering threat. The Fox News host blithely suggested those sounding the alarm were warmongering globalists manipulating the masses into hating Russian President Vladimir Putin. The “Hillbilly Elegy” author smarmily told us to care more about our own border than that of Ukraine.

But on Thursday night, Carlson and Vance addressed the ongoing horrors of the invasion with a bit less of their usual glibness. They seemed uncertain how to proceed, and the resulting spectacle exposed the vacuity of their ideological double act in all its performative chintz.

“The invasion of Ukraine already is a legitimate disaster for Europe and the world,” Carlson told his viewers. “We’ve been taken by surprise by the whole thing. We’re not the only ones who were. But we’re willing to admit it.”

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Carlson is right in one sense: We are all shocked and disoriented. This crisis has also badly shaken those of us who still hope for a rehabilitated liberal international order that’s less reflexively militaristic and more focused on global problems such as climate change, forced migration, pandemics and inequality.

But then Carlson blamed Vice President Harris for his mistake. His logic: If the Russian threat were all that dire, President Biden wouldn’t have sent Harris abroad to handle diplomacy!

Carlson then launched into a creepily obsessive segment of cherry-picked clips meant to portray Harris as stupid and unprepared. But never mind that garbage. More notably, Carlson has little to say about what the administration actually did do in the run-up to the invasion.

You might recall that officials engaged in protracted and patient diplomacy that ended up mounting a broad sanctions response with our allies that’s far more robust and coordinated than observers expected. U.S. intelligence got a lot right about the threat Putin posed, and officials found various novel ways to keep the world alert to it.

None of this was enough, of course. And admittedly, vast unknowns loom about this approach. It might unduly hurt the Russian people without influencing Putin. It might provoke Putin to lash out more aggressively. We don’t know what options the United States and its allies will have if Putin expands his conquest beyond Ukraine.

But seeing real virtue in the coordinated international approach being attempted is apparently inadmissible in the Carlsonian worldview. It’s all so deeply confused: The invasion poses a profound threat to global stability, and Biden’s weakness and cluelessness are to blame. So does this mean we need to respond with “strength”? Does it mean we should be attempting this international response? A stronger one?

But wait, globalism is also bad and globalist elites have been wrong about everything for decades, so let’s not listen to them. So does that mean we should not be attempting this international response? What then is the “nationalist” solution? Carlson blames it all on Harris and titillates his viewers with a ghoulishly denigrating video display.

Then there’s Vance, a Republican Senate candidate in Ohio. After previously saying he doesn’t “care what happens to Ukraine,” he went on Carlson’s program and grudgingly admitted Ukraine matters.

“Obviously there’s something tragic happening in Ukraine right now, and I’m fine with sending aid,” Vance said in a segment flagged by Media Matters. But he seemed to dismiss the international response, insisting our leaders are “obsessing” over Ukraine.

“What about our sovereignty?” Vance said, proposing further militarizing our border by finishing the wall and beefing up Border Patrol: “For every dollar that goes to the Ukrainians, we should send three dollars to the American southern border.”

Translation: I find it deeply disorienting that so many people in the United States and elsewhere care so much about a place so far from their own nation. Americans, hurry up and go back to feeling as though your own sovereignty is the one facing the emergency that truly matters!

In all seriousness, Vance’s formulation isn’t just frivolous whataboutism. It reflects an underlying worldview that genuinely envisions immigration to the United States as an invasion on a par with the one Ukraine is experiencing.

Get a grip. Yes, Biden has reversed a few of Donald Trump’s border policies. That has created immense logistical challenges without easy answers. But it’s better than Trump’s approach, which produced humanitarian catastrophe.

And at any rate, Biden has kept many of Trump’s policies, and most arrivals are getting expelled without any hearing. Treating this as an emergency threat to our sovereignty — let alone whatabouting it along with Ukraine — is nonsense.

Ultimately, what’s being exposed is the hollowness of Carlson-Vance populist play-acting. “For right-wing nationalists, America’s weakness under a Democratic president, and the worthlessness of international coalitions, are core to their worldview,” Nicholas Grossman, a professor of international relations at the University of Illinois, told me.

“Russia’s invasion and the strong, unified Western reaction to it have upended that view,” Grossman continued. He noted that the usual demagoguery is faltering in the face of world-historical events: “Some things are too big to lie about, even for professional liars.”

Look, we all have tremendous introspection to do about our various worldviews right now. But the cheap demagogic hustle we’re seeing from Carlson and Vance isn’t genuine introspection. It’s rank evasion.