On Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show last week, he accused prominent hedge fund manager and long-time Republican donor Paul Singer of “vulture capitalism” — an economic model that, in Carlson’s view, valorizes “ruthless economic efficiency” over American communities.
Specifically, Carlson referenced the small town of Sidney, Nebraska, once the headquarters of the sporting goods store Cabela’s. In the segment, Carlson detailed how Singer’s fund pushed Cabela’s board to sell the company, ultimately merging it with Bass Pro Shops. Following the closure of Cabela’s Sidney headquarters, roughly 2,000 people lost their jobs.
As Carlson argued, “The residents of Sidney didn’t get rich. Just the opposite. Their community was destroyed. The town lost nearly 2,000 jobs. A heartbreakingly familiar cascade began: People left, property values collapsed, and then people couldn’t leave. They were trapped there. One of the last thriving small towns in America went under.”
Carlson’s calls for financiers to hold — in his words — “some obligation to the country around them” mirrors a viewpoint increasingly shared by some conservative commentators, one that’s challenging right-wing orthodoxies about the role of the state in public and private life.
A day later, Carlson returned to the subject of Singer, this time calling out Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who received donations from the financier. “We’re not saying Ben Sasse or any other senator is doing Singer’s bidding purely for the cash,” Carlson said. “But why not remove all doubt? If one of your biggest donors turned out to be a pornographer or a mass distributor of OxyContin, you’d send back the donation. You wouldn’t want to be associated with someone like that. You’d want to be clear about your own values. Sen. Sasse should be clear about his.”
Local news outlets in Nebraska have cast some doubt on Carlson’s version of what happened in Sidney, and Singer’s firm, Elliott Management, responded with a Medium post in which it claimed that Cabela’s financial health was far worse than Carlson detailed, adding that it felt the coverage was “motivated less by sincere concern over layoffs and more by a desire to twist any set of facts to portray Elliott in the most damaging light possible.”
But the piece appeared to strike a chord with some conservatives, particularly those who are populist-leaning amid a movement-wide debate over the purpose of government (and conservatism itself). As the Federalist’s Willis Krumholz put it while lauding Carlson’s Singer segments, “Far too much of the conservative punditry class, and far too many Republican politicians, have no idea what’s been going on in the country over the last 50 years. They have hijacked conservatism and turned it into something that isn’t conservative.”
The American Conservative, which argues in favor of what it calls “Main Street conservatism,” also praised Carlson’s show, writing:
For too long, conservatives have been beholden to moneyed interests that feel no obligation to the country around them. ‘Main Street’ conservatism, by contrast, sides with the people in places like Sidney, Nebraska, over the culturally progressive, interventionist, market absolutists in the centers of power — regardless of which major party receives their dollars.
I spoke with Carlson in January, after a segment in which the Fox News host railed against crony capitalism and the “ugliest parts of our financial system” went viral. We talked again on Friday, discussing Singer, libertarians, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and the free market.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your comments on Paul Singer, because I think that what you talked about here goes back to the conversation we had at the beginning of this year ...
... about the role that hedge funds and what you call “ruthless economic efficiency” have played in Republican politics and how, in your view, that style of Republican politics has been good for specific Republican representatives, but bad for Americans in general. Would that be correct?
That would be correct. And it to put in even more precise political terms, I don’t think most Republican voters, who are the people these politicians are supposedly representing, agree with this. The irony, of course, is that the people being hurt — again, this is just in political terms, not moral terms — but just in political terms, the people being hurt are disproportionately Republican voters. Who do you think works at Cabela’s in Sidney, Nebraska? How many of those workers are voting for Hillary Clinton? I mean, presumably some, but not the majority.
So even at the most basic political level, this is grotesque. What you’re seeing is politicians ignore the interests of their own voters. I mean, that doesn’t happen that much. But this is a theme. It’s very hard to imagine Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, or really any Democrat, finding themselves in this position, because they have a keen interest in representing the views of and interests of their own voters. And — and again, that’s okay. I’m not criticizing it at all.
But as a non-political question, as a kind of national question, what’s good for America, it’s hard to see how this is. I’m not arguing on behalf of the inefficiency. I’m just saying if you have an economic change that benefits a tiny number of people and hurts a large number of people and nothing is created, no innovation is taking place, it’s hard to call that “creative destruction,” because again, there’s no creation. There’s just destruction. So show me why that’s a good thing. Maybe there’s an answer. But I don’t see what it is.
It bears no resemblance to the capitalism that I was promised in school or that Republicans claim to be defending, the free market. I don’t see anything admirable about that at all. And we’ve all become such zombies that we feel duty-bound to defend any manifestation of capitalism.
The response from some conservatives on this point has essentially been: What exactly did Paul Singer do wrong here? Cabela’s still exists. These companies are still profitable. And the argument is that the alternative would be that these companies might go bankrupt or become obsolete in some other way. I spoke to someone who asked, “How much American prosperity are you, Tucker Carlson, prepared to lose in order to preserve specific precincts of American jobs in small towns or elsewhere?”
I’d love to know the name and email address of the person who would say something that stupid.
The point of fact you had in this specific case [was that] you had two profitable companies, Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops, that were turning a profit.
So look, maybe long term there wasn’t space for two outdoor retailers in the country. Maybe Amazon was changing the nature of the supply chain [enough] that they needed to sell. Who knows what the future holds? Retail, obviously, is in trouble. I understand all of those things are true, but the bottom line, what’s also true, is that you had two profitable companies and now you have one. And in the process of this, 2,000 jobs were lost. Yet another town in the Midwest was destroyed. And as far as I can tell, a very small group of people reaped all the benefit. So maybe you think that’s worth it. My position is it’s not. That’s it.
I love how the same people who defended the bailout of Wall Street, when it suits them, turn to, “Well, you can’t interrupt the flow of free markets.” Really? You’re for government bailouts. Tell me how that’s the free market.
What you’re actually dealing with are people who are just making excuses for the ugliest kind of commerce.
The people who’ve been making the arguments about the ugly side of capitalism have traditionally been, and continue to be, Democrats. And while there have been a host of populist conservatives who have been making these points, Republicans are not.
And with Singer specifically, obviously he has significant ties to Republicans currently in office. You spoke [on the show] about [donations to] Ben Sasse, but [Singer] gave a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. He was a big Giuliani supporter back in 2007. He gave tons of money to Club for Growth and was a big supporter of the Tea Party movement back in 2010. [So] is it just a money question? Is it just about, “He supports them, so they support him”? Or is there something going deeper as to why populist conservatives see this point and Republicans do not?
That’s a great question. I mean, there are a couple of reasons. One, he’s the second-biggest donor to Republican candidates. So yes, he plays a huge role in the Republican finance firmament. He’s one of the single biggest players. He’s got disproportionate influence because he gives a lot of money. That’s true in both parties. That’s the nature of the system. So there’s that.
But there’s also the kind of default position of Republicans, which is that the phrase “free market” is basically kryptonite. The second you invoke it, it’s like saying the Lord’s Prayer in front of Dracula, he slinks off back into the shadows. It’s like the one thing every Republican is taught: Work for the free market. By the way, I am for the market. I’m not for socialism. But this isn’t the free market at all. This is a rigged game whose beneficiaries are small in number.
And there’s a macro point, which I’ve made repeatedly, is that if we don’t get this under control, if we don’t pull it back a little bit, if we don’t think through how to make capitalism work for a larger number of people, if we don’t think about how to restore the American middle class, we’re going to get someone really radical in there who’s going to wreck everything. We’re going to get actual socialism. It happened in Venezuela. I visited Venezuela as a kid, and it was a functioning country. Now people are starving.
What happened is they had an economic system that benefited only a small number of people, and they had a democracy. And those two things don’t work well together. In fact, they’re incompatible. If you’re going to have a democracy, you have to have an economic system that serves the majority. And we don’t, and it’s really, really dangerous.
I would say that 99 percent of all the debates that we’re having about race and gender and sexuality are actually a cover for economic tension. What’s really happening is that young people are mad about declining economic opportunity. And our elites, mostly on the left I must say, don’t wanna have that conversation at all. They don’t. And so instead they’re like, “No, no, what you’re really mad about is race or sexuality or — or whatever.” And then it’s just very, very dishonest and very divisive.
I think what we should be having is, like, an honest conversation about who’s getting rich and why, and we never have that conversation, ever. It’s very distressing. And Republicans are a huge part of the problem, but they’re not the only problem.
Donald Trump promised during the campaign to get rid of the carried-interest loophole in the tax code, which allows private equity moguls, some of the richest people in America today, [to pay] taxes at the rate that we pay on capital. In other words, you take their income as capital gains and pay half the tax rate that the rest of us pay.
That’s a scam. There’s no way to defend that. It’s immoral, and Trump promised to get rid of it. Well, why hasn’t he? Well, he hasn’t because Republicans aren’t eager to do it. [But Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer is one of the main reasons that the carried-interest loophole in the tax code still persists, and for decades he’s protected it.
You know, there are not a lot of conspiracies in my view. But one of them, one of the actual conspiracies, is a bipartisan one designed to protect the economic interests of Wall Street. And we should do whatever we can to tell the truth about its existence, and to undo it and to fix it, because if we don’t, as I said, we’re going to get a lot of destruction.
Someone dumb is going to come in there, some actual populist, and wreck everything. And it’s going to be a poor country, and the rich people will leave. We don’t need to guess, because this has happened to countless countries around the world, and that’s going to happen here. And you don’t wanna live in a poor country. You don’t wanna live in that place like that, and we’re going to become that place if we don’t pull back a little bit and do what Teddy Roosevelt did, which is just try to enfranchise a larger number of people in our system. There’s a template for this.
What you’re saying sounds very much like — obviously without the concerns about socialism — something Bernie Sanders might say. I think that there would be a host of people across classes who would be very interested in this. But within conservatism, specifically among libertarian-leaning conservatives, this is anathema. Is this another example of how that relationship between conservatism and libertarianism is broken down?
Well, absolutely it’s broken down. It’s not even just broken down. I think that the libertarian nonprofit sector in Washington — and please include this, because it’s important — libertarianism exists in the nonprofit sector. Irony of ironies. In other words, the very people who lecture you about the glories of the free market, are never subjected to its requirements because they live off charity.
There are no libertarians outside of think tanks. But they’re influential. And that group is exerting, I would say, a poisonous influence on the Republican Party. And I believe it’s important to say that out loud, because we’re gonna lose a lot if we don’t. Obviously, talking about Bernie Sanders, what’s interesting to me is every single one of Bernie Sanders’s solutions would make him more powerful.
The second you notice that, then that should make you really nervous. Name three of Bernie Sanders’s solutions that wouldn’t make him more powerful, and I don’t think you can find them. So alarm bells should be going off. So I’m concerned about Bernie Sanders, but his basic critique that the system is rigged on the behalf of a small number of people, it’s totally true. That’s completely true. And I’m absolutely happy to say that Bernie Sanders is right about that, because he is.
I was reading a piece in the American Thinker, a right-leaning publication, on this subject. They point out that in the Sidney, Nebraska, case no one did anything illegal here. There was not a market failure. I’ll quote here: “There’s just the inevitable passing of the torch for a successful business when the owners retire and management moves on. Tucker noticeably doesn’t suggest any law or government program to address Sidney, Nebraska’s problems. As with a lot of isolated small towns on the Great Plains in decline, there are no easy answers.”
What would be your response? In the follow-up to the Fox News piece, you urged Republicans to tell the truth and to not use “bumper-sticker phrases from 1986.” But do you have kind of concrete thoughts about what could be done to address situations like those that have happened in Sidney, Nebraska?
The first thing to do is to stop pretending that simply because something is legal means it’s virtuous. I mean, I can go scream the F-word in the face of a 90-year-old woman. I probably can’t be arrested for that because of the First Amendment, but it’s still nevertheless important to say what’s true, which is that’s disgusting and wrong.
What’s so funny is the same people who are always lecturing us about how government solutions are the wrong solutions are now telling us we’re not allowed to complain, or shut up and tell me a government solution.
Who’s the real conservative here? I’m the real conservative here. And what I’m saying is the very first step is just to be clear about what we want and what we don’t want. And what we don’t want is what Paul Singer just did to Sidney, Nebraska. That’s the first thing.
But if you’re looking for a government solution that might, over time, have a positive effect, here’s one. Let’s bring the tax code into alignment with reality. Let’s just make a really clear statement about our values and tax labor at the same rate we tax capital. Currently, we tax it at twice the rate as capital. The tax code sends a moral message. That’s why we tax cigarettes. We don’t like smoking. Okay, 12 bucks for a pack of Marlboro’s. Okay, got it.
Our tax code is saying that it is twice [as important] to invest money as it is to work for a wage. And maybe I am particularly sensitive to this. I’m well-paid, but I’m also a wage earner. I make a salary like most people. And I’m paying literally twice the rate of some weed-smoking, porn-addicted moron who inherited his money and stays home all day. Why wouldn’t I resent that? I do. That’s a system that perpetuates the inequality that’s making this country volatile and crazy and bringing it to the point of collapse, which clearly it is.
So let’s fix it. It’s not hard. We’ll just bring [it] into alignment. All income, whether it’s income from investments, whether it’s income from a private equity deal, or whether it’s income from a salary, we’re taxing it all at the same rate. Why don’t you tell me why that’s a bad idea?
The macro question is, how do we wind up with a society in which the richest people don’t actually create anything? When they’re just, like, loaning money and getting repaid, or investing, which is the same thing in effect.
And I’m not against investing and I’m not against loaning money. I’m not against banking. I’m not making an argument for Sharia law or usury laws. I’m not, that’s not what I’m saying.
I’m just saying if you wind up with a system where the richest people aren’t actually making anything, they’re just moving money around, then I don’t know why you would defend that. Clearly that’s unhealthy. It’s not a good idea to have a system like that. It’s no good. And if you think it is good, tell me why it’s good? It’s not. And the only reason we have that system is because our tax code rewards it.
So if you have a tax code [in which] if you make a new product that the world wants to buy, and that improves human life and extends human life span — if you can figure out a way to beat opioid addiction, for example — we’ll tax you at half the rate. You’d probably get a lot more innovation, wouldn’t you? But if you have a tax code that says, “We’re gonna tax investment at half the rate of labor,” what do you get? Well, you get a lot more finance. And do you wanna live in a country dominated by finance? I don’t. I really don’t. Why would I? I think it’s super unhealthy.
If you’re asking for a solution, like how about that? “Oh, you’re crazy. You’re a socialist.” No, I’m asking for a tax code that treats people fairly, treats them the same. And really, Bernie Sanders, who’s supposedly like some big radical — he’s a United States senator with three homes. He’s totally vested in the system. I don’t see him calling for that. Everyone’s, “Oh, he’s so radical.”
No, I’m radical and that’s what I want. And I don’t understand why I can’t have it. Except the obvious reason, which is Paul Singer — and a bunch of other people benefiting from the current deal — don’t want me to have it.