Why I Declined To Be Tucker Carlson’s Liberal Feminist Punching Bag
This article originally appeared on Salon.
When I saw the email in my inbox with the header “Tucker Carlson Tonight Request” on Monday, I immediately had a strong feeling what it was about. Earlier that day, Rush Limbaugh had been ranting on his show about my Salon piece lambasting conservatives for playing dumb about the unsubtle white nationalism of President Donald Trump’s speech last week in Poland.
Sure enough, the producer was asking me to speak about “the President’s speech in Poland last week, and his trip abroad overall, which she [meaning me] has shared some thoughts on.”
Oh god, I thought, Carlson wants me on his show to play the part of the liberal ditz, to be dished up as a hate object for an elderly audience ready to believe my brain has been addled by my gender and my liberal arts education. Worse, he wanted me to do so in service of mainstreaming an argument that was once the province of white supremacist websites, but has ridden the Trump train straight into more “respectable” discourse: The idea that “Western” people and their “civilization” should be, by rights, treated as superior to all other people on earth.
That Trump was engaging in white nationalist rhetoric is an observation that hardly needs to be relitigated here, as writers like Jamelle Bouie of Slate and Peter Beinart of the Atlantic have laid out the case. Suffice it to say that the idea that “Western civilization” is under threat from dark-skinned people from former colonies is a popular obsession on white nationalist blogs and with Trump’s close adviser Steve Bannon. Plus there’s the unpleasantness that erupted less than a century ago when Germans got it in their head that “Aryan” people and European culture faced a similar threat.
These associations make it difficult for Trump’s supporters in the media to make a direct case for his arguments without sounding like a bunch of ignorant racists. Instead, pro-Trump pundits use the bank shot strategy: Rather than defending Trump’s ideas directly, they focus on demonizing his critics by invoking right-wing caricatures of liberals.
The message to the audience is simple: You hate those smug liberals, and those liberals disagree with Trump’s message — so you must agree with Trump!
As Tobin Smith, who was a Fox News pundit for 14 years, recently wrote about the channel, “Just like pro-wrestling, the panel opinion programs are carefully staged and choreographed by Fox producers so the viewers home team (in WWE language the ‘Baby Face’) always wins over the ‘Heel’ aka the poor pathetic ‘libtard.’”
So I understood right away that on Carlson’s show I would be slotted for the “libtard” role, a hate object presented to Fox viewers so they don’t even realize that they’re nodding along to arguments that used to be the province of neo-Nazis and other hate groups.
The pre-existing stereotype I was likely to be slotted into wasn’t hard to guess at, either: The liberal bimbo. Fox viewers love the idea that the main result of feminism was that a bunch of dumb girls were awarded educations and jobs that they simply aren’t smart enough to handle, being female, and that liberal politics induces in women an unfortunate naïveté.
If that seems like an exaggeration, I welcome readers to look into Carlson’s obsession with Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca, whose sharp political writing he routinely tries to dismiss by arguing that she should stick to writing about clothes and makeup. Also, Limbaugh’s earlier segment about me was all about painting me as a liberal bimbo, by claiming I’m younger than I actually am and insisting that kids these days don’t get a proper education.
It is tempting, of course, to believe that I’m savvy enough to somehow break through all this cultural baggage and communicate my message effectively to Fox viewers. But I’m not actually dumb, no matter how much conservative pundits portray me that way. I know that I’m no match for the Fox News machine — and anyone who thinks they are is deluded.
TV is a visual medium and Fox openly encourages its viewers to make snap judgments about the liberal guests before they’ve even had a chance to open their mouths. Even if I did cover up my tattoos and wear conservative makeup, I would read, onscreen, more as “Brooklyn hipster” than as the beauty queen-turned-housewife that is the Fox News ideal. Even if I was an unparalleled genius at verbal communication, my message has no way of cracking through that hardened shell of hate built up against women who look and act like me.
All of which means the only purpose that could be served by my appearance on Carlson’s show was to become a conduit for a truly repulsive mission, that being the mainstreaming of white nationalist politics with the message, “The best way to put this bitch in her place is to uncritically accept everything Trump says.”
I don’t want to be party to that. Carlson, unsurprisingly, ran with the segment anyway— hey, it’s not like he was going to cover the revelations about Donald Trump Jr.’s apparent collusion with a Russian agents — but without a disobedient woman for his audience to hate, the segment was less effective than it could have been.
I would also encourage other liberal pundits to boycott Fox News in just this way. Yes, appearing in that arena of hate can help raise your brand profile, and of course that matters in this competitive media environment. But you’re not getting your message out. You’re just being used as a convenient mechanism to deliver ever more extreme right-wing messages. Depriving Fox News of its punching bags is a small step toward restoring some sanity to our deranged media landscape, but one that could reduce the network’s propagandistic power.