The Conditioning Of The American Right

The Conditioning Of The American Right

The funniest part of Tucker Carlson going all the way to Russia to visit a grocery store is that he’s definitely never shopped at an American grocery store. 

The living embodiment of the country club Republican – the heir of William Buckley’s New England-style fascism, so prim and proper and full of gnawing fear and carefully cultivated hate – I’d bet my DraftKings account that Carlson does not and has never done his own grocery shopping in the United States. 

Seeing him marvel at a modern Russian grocery store, with its cart locks preventing homeless folks from taking them and cheap food in an economically depressed nation is high comedy – something that should have been on Veep during its glorious run on HBO. Watch Tucker sniff the Russian bread – wrapped in a thick layer of plastic – and watch a man who has never once entered a grocery store. 

Tucker's Russian adventure

Carlson traipsing to Russia to do a softball interview with the country’s dictator, Vladimir Putin, and subsequently signing the praises of Mother Russia’s economy and people and culture is something between tragic and knee-slappingly hilarious. We can all agree on this. Jon Stewart, who humiliated Carlson on live TV two decades ago and eviscerated him on Monday’s Daily Show, agrees on this. But the question rings in my head: Why?

Why would Carlson make such extraordinary efforts to prop up Putin – a nearly universally-reviled authoritarian madman, perhaps the single most evil person alive today? Why would he humiliate himself with a series of questions so unchallenging that Putin later said he was expecting something slightly more trailblazing, something a little less easy to answer from the first western journalist to get access to Putin since 2018. 

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The easy answer is money. The American right is tied up financially with the Russian government and has been for the entirety of the Trump era. This is an undeniable fact that has been detailed exhaustively over and over again since Trump’s Russia-aided rise in 2015. At the risk of sounding like the whiniest resistance lib on the planet, read even a little bit of the Mueller report and your spine will turn to ice. So maybe Tucker is among the hundreds (thousands?) of American fascists cashing checks to do the bidding of Putin and his henchmen in their all-out informational war against the west. That checks out. I’m sure the Kremlin, with all its eye-watering levels of corruption, pays quite well. Putin and his inner circle, after all, are fabulously wealthy. 

That can’t be it though. It can’t just be money. At least, it can’t be the only reason someone like Tucker Carlson would willingly embarrass himself with such a clear PR stunt for a dictator while that dictator savages Ukraine and murders his political opponents. No. It has to be something more sinister and destructive, with an eye toward the long haul. That’s how the right works, always with their aim set on some horrifying future. See their slow-burn, bad-faith attack on abortion rights and voting rights for good examples of this patience. 

Carlson and his ilk, I think, are waging a carefully-coordinated campaign to soften swaths of the American public to the idea of all-out authoritarianism. Where we were all once small-d democrats – a people who believed in free and fair elections and in the peaceful transfer of power – we are now a nation divided between pro-democracy forces and authoritarian forces. Much of the American electorate, nine years into the Trump era, still can’t see this, for reasons I do not understand. 

Tucker’s escapades in Russia and his adoration of Eastern European strongmen is an attempt to condition Americans for a future in which the country’s conservatives secure power and melt down every last institution of democracy to create a Putin-style autocracy where once a democratic republic stood. Carlson isn’t pointing out cheap Russian food prices (they’re not really cheap considering Russia’s crushing poverty levels) because it makes Joe Biden look bad; he’s doing it so Americans consuming a firehose of right-wing media will come to see that food can once again be cheap and streets can be clean and the riff raff can be dealt with and the political left can be driven away – if only they support the solution: A strongman to rule us all. 

Grandpa Explains It All 

It was December 28, 1996, and I was watching the upstart Jaguars facing the fading Bills sorta-kinda dynasty with my grandfather at his home on Maryland’s eastern shore. We watched on the edge of our seats because the underdog Jags seemed on the verge of the upset and the possible end of Jim Kelly’s reign of terror in the AFC was at end. As a crying, coping 13-year-old Dolphins fan, I was practically foaming at the mouth. 

It was after Jacksonville won, 30-27, that my grandpa muted the TV and turned the conversation toward politics, something we never discussed in my home (the only political discourse I recall was about Bill Clinton making us rich; this was decades before my dad believed Clinton was part of a Satanic cult composed of mainline Democrats). In hindsight, I know my grandpa was perturbed by Clinton cruising to re-election a month before that Jags-Bills game. He was the first two-term Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt, who my grandmother – a diehard Trumper today – adored. My grandpa, a Korean War veteran and a longtime cop in Montgomery County, Maryland, waxed poetic about the pitfalls of democracy, of so-called mob rule while his impressionable grandson listened intently. 

Sometimes, he said, democracy goes sideways and you get a buffoon as a leader. Because, you see, people are stupid and will believe anything. People, he said, cannot be trusted with such big decisions. Otherwise they would have elected war hero Bob Dole instead of draft-dodging, pot-smoking, perpetually-philandering Slick Willy. Democracy had failed us in the 1996 election, grandpa said, as it had failed in 1992. I suppose democracy had worked just fine in the 80s. 

My grandpa, a decidedly quiet and reserved man, talked and talked about how things had gone awry in the Land of the Free in the debaucherous 1990s, with women wearing pants and going to college and working outside the home and the president kinda-sorta allowing queer folks to serve in the military and rappers on TV and whatnot. He then offered his solution to the democracy problem: “We need a benevolent dictator.” 

I’ll never forget those words. I laughed awkwardly because I had learned in school that “dictator” was a bad word, something we were to reject at any cost. My face straightened in a hurry when I saw how deadly serious my grandfather was about this proposed solution to Republicans losing elections. 

This dictator, my grandpa said, had to be a good person, presumably a man, who had the nation’s best interest at heart. He could not be small or petty or greedy or self-interested. He would need to be godly. This unelected head of the American empire would need to be a genuinely good guy, according to gramps. Good guys can win elections, I said, finally interjecting. Not anymore, he said. Society had become too warped for the good guys to win anymore. A good guy would need to be installed. 

I didn’t dwell on that conversation for long. I told my mom about it, but as the most apolitical person to ever grace the earth, she didn’t have much to say beyond a chuckle. It wasn’t until I was in college, having my mind pried wide open in sociology and history courses, that grandpa’s Benevolent Dictator speech began to gnaw at me. How could he – a Marine who fought under his country’s flag – betray such a foundational part of the republic? How could such a man wish for the end of the American Experiment, however awful and strange and unpredictable it had become? 

The answer, I think, lies in the conservative desire to be done with all the messiness of democracy. It’s too much work to convince folks to support an agenda, especially when that agenda becomes so radical as to alienate anyone outside your tribe, your most ardent supporters, your True Believers. Republican politicians have for generations yearned for another Civil War because they want a permanent separation from the forces that push back on their policies and ideals and dark fantasies. If you don’t believe me, just listen to Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose opposition to democracy is as pure as any Americans’. Taylor Greene makes no qualms about it: Those who oppose her politics should not have the right to vote. Hers is a clarifying kind of political good faith in a sea of bad faith. 

America’s right wing had been primed not only to accept the rule of a strongman, but to want it, to invite it, and to support it even if it cost them relationships with their friends and family. Parts of the American ruling class in the 1930s pleaded with FDR to install himself as president-for-life while our rivals trended toward authoritarianism. A not-insignificant portion of the GOP wanted George W. Bush to push for constitutional changes that would allow him to serve a third term in the White House. A permanent leader is all they’ve ever wanted. 

So when an insane reality TV star/casino magnate presented himself as the solution to the nation’s every problem and someone who would outright ignore every tenant of democracy, the right fell in love. Nearly a decade later, Donald Trump’s sycophants and apologists and propagandists are working harder than ever to condition his followers to accept the end of constitutional governance in the United States. And it’s working. 

One Possible (Political) Future 

Putin opposition leader Alexei Navalny was killed this week in unimaginably harsh prison conditions in the Arctic Circle. It was a roundabout assassination, unlike the sudden deaths of other, lesser-known Putin critics over the past two decades of his iron-fisted rule. Putin’s people had tried the traditional assassination route, poisoning Navalny in 2020. The stubborn Putin opponent refused to die, so they put Navalny in increasingly horrifying conditions until he died. 

His death came days after Tucker Carlson’s Putin-friendly PR tour of his favorite nation, and after Carlson had said “leadership requires killing people,” as if he knew what was in store for Putin’s longtime arch nemesis. Carlson followed up with a statement in which he pretended to be sad about Navalny’s death. 

Hundreds, possibly thousands of Russians publicly mourning Navalny’s death have been beaten and arrested by cops and soldiers that work to advance Putin’s agenda and nothing else. All dissent has been crushed in Russia since their bad-faith war of aggression against Ukraine. People are facing lifetimes behind bars because they attended an anti-war rally or wrote something critical of the war effort online and held a sign suggesting the siege of Ukraine was immoral and unjust. America’s Free Speech Warriors are shockingly nowhere to be found on this mass repression because these warriors don’t actually care about speech, and use it as a shield to protect the world’s most vile political actors. They only care about speech issues when a university professor is told not to use racial slurs in class. 

The United States, if we breach certain political and electoral points of no return, is going to have a Navalny, or many Navalnys in the 2030s and beyond. I wondered, after reading of Navalny’s demise, what his politics were, and quickly found that he had no hard-and-fast set of politics beyond taking power from Putin in a free and fair election and ridding his nation of the anti-democracy thugs who had taken over in the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Navalny’s only politics were the implementation of a democratic republic in Russia. It makes sense: Traditional politics don’t matter until a society is free. 

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Increasingly, Trump opponents from all parts of the political spectrum have adopted something that sounds like Navalny’s goal – not to pass certain bills or achieve certain goals, but to defend the basics of a democratic system, and maybe shore it up along the way. Americans aren’t accustomed to this; you can see it in the furious objections of some on the left who seem to think we can address pressing issues while well-funded, determined forces prepare to unravel whatever is left of our republic. Is it ideal to put critical economic and environmental and immigration issues on a backburner while stopping the Putinification of the US? Of course not. It’s tragic, in fact. But if you think things are bad today, with all our seemingly intractable issues, wait until a radicalized and organized right wins control of the system it hates. 

We have an army of fascists ready and willing to blow off the guardrails and put an end to constitutional governance. It’s not a threat we have faced, but it’s one Navalny knew well, and fought against courageously, and somehow, with humor and good will and a heroic defiance that inspired millions of good Russians.

“I believe in real love,” Navalny said months before he died. “I believe that Russia will be happy and free. And I do not believe in death.” Love. Happiness. Freedom. Navalny refused to give in to the hopelessness that has gripped his home nation over the past twenty years. His was real resistance: Not buying anti-Trump t-shirts or lawn signs, but refusing to stop believing in a glorious future where people would determine their destinies through the messiness of democracy, free from the yolk of the madman in the Kremlin and all his cronies. 

When I started Bad Faith Times in 2022, I didn’t intend to again and again write about the looming threats to constitutional governance in the US. I only wanted to highlight how the right wing so expertly used bad faith to push their nightmarish agenda on a range of issues, and how most of the American left and mainstream media outlets fell for the same bad-faith tricks time and again. I wanted to raise a little consciousness about how normie politics wasn’t prepared to handle the never-ending onslaught of Republican bad faith. 

Seven months away from the 2024 election, I struggle to find a point in breaking down the bad-faith elements of specific policy proposals or belief systems. I feel compelled to emphasize right wing media’s conditioning of the electorate to accept a post-democratic United States, with Tucker Carlson at the head of such an effort. We must recognize that the American right has given up on any semblance of a democratic system. They’re not even pretending anymore, holding their annual CPAC conference in a country (Hungary) ruled by far-right authoritarian monster Viktor Orban. 

Every day there are more alarms blaring in the near distance. The latest: The Trump deportation plan – devised by avowed white supremacist Stephen Miller – that includes tactical-clad police storming cities, mass arrests of immigrants, concentration camps, and various military planes and tanks. It is, as The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie said, a plan of “total lawlessness designed to create chaos and produce ‘accidental' deaths” and “a recipe for causing mass civil unrest” – the kind a tyrant dreams about, the kind that would give the tyrant a reason to use every available tool – including the Republican-adored Insurrection Act – to crush anyone who opposes various tyrannical policies. No one is ready for this. No one can be ready for this.

A lasting political and cultural darkness looms overhead. You don’t have to squint to see it. Reading about Alexi Navalny and other Russian dissidents made it clear: They once saw that darkness coming and tried like hell to warn others. Even when they were unsuccessful – even when many of their fellow Russians bent under the pressure of Putin’s terror – they tried and tried and tried. You could soon be in the unenviable position of Navalny and his supporters. You could soon know people in prison for political crimes. Hell, you could be a political prisoner in a future where democracy is extinguished and the state becomes nothing but a tool of the right-wing ruling class. While it surely seems unthinkable today, all of this is in the range of outcomes. I don’t know how one could say otherwise. 

Shortly before he was found dead in prison, Navalny told a friend, Russian photographer Evgeny Feldman, that Donald Trump’s 2024 electoral agenda looked “really scary.” It is my hope that enough Americans agree with Navalny’s assessment. 

Follow Denny Carter on BlueSky at and on Threads and X at @CDCarter13.