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Cable news host fails race test

Ruben Navarrette Jr. on

SAN DIEGO -- When it comes to race, conservatives will never ace the quiz.

It stands to reason that this bunch would be slow to understand a subject that they usually downplay, dismiss or deny. Those on the right -- including many Republicans and most Trump voters -- often pretend to be colorblind in order to seem enlightened. Ironically, the opposite is true.

By the way, conservatives aren't really oblivious to race. Ronald Reagan mentioned a "welfare queen." George H.W. Bush approved the Willie Horton ad. Jesse Helms used a campaign commercial featuring white hands holding a job rejection letter while the narrator criticized affirmative action. These weren't dog whistles. They were fog horns.

Be that as it may, those on the right are often a couple slices short of a full loaf when it comes to racial matters.

This is one of the takeaways from my recent appearance on Fox News Channel's "Tucker Carlson Tonight."

I was invited onto the show to discuss a recent column where I suggested that -- after the Las Vegas massacre by Stephen Paddock, a white male who stockpiled large amounts of high-powered weapons -- it was time for authorities to profile white males who stockpiled large amounts of high-powered weapons.

To many people, that is common sense. To Carlson, it was anti-white racism.

Apparently, the part about being slow on race extends to liberal-to-moderate Republicans who masquerade as hard-right conservatives to please a television audience that leans so far to the right that, on issues like trade, it wound up on the left.

You see, I knew the old Tucker, the smart and likable writer who -- in publications such as "The Weekly Standard" -- worked his way through thorny subjects in a fair and thoughtful way. This is the person who -- when discussing hot-button cultural issues such as gay rights, immigration, abortion and gun control -- was known more for seeking nuance than breathing fire. Though he has lived in Washington for 25 years, the television host is still -- at heart -- a California conservative. Raised near San Diego, before attending a private boarding school in Rhode Island and graduating from Trinity College in Connecticut, he is more comfortable around chardonnay than NASCAR.

I've known that guy for 20 years, and I consider him a friend. He's always been nice to me. And I'm proud of his success, which he owes to a combination of talent, luck and perseverance.

The departures of Bill O'Reilly and Megyn Kelly helped put Carlson into the prime real estate of an 8 p.m. time slot.

And good for him. This is a guy who has been fired from hosting gigs on CNN and MSNBC. But he never gave up, and look at him now. It's impossible not to root for someone like that.

But as other conservatives in Washington have already figured out about our old friend, the bright lights and seven-figure paychecks of prime-time television can change a brother.

In May, Weekly Standard founder and former Fox News contributor Bill Kristol said it was painful to watch Carlson -- his friend and former employee -- "beating up some 20-year-old college liberal because he said something stupid."

In July, during an on-air street fight with Carlson over U.S. intervention, conservative Max Boot told the host that his judgment was "clouded by ratings because you feel compelled to be a spokesman for Donald Trump." As Boot later noted in an essay for Commentary Magazine, Carlson's new shtick is "sarcasm, condescension, and mock-incredulous double-takes."

My old pal hit me with all three, and it didn't go well for him. He tried to talk down to me, by saying something like "What I'm trying to get you to understand ... " I cut him off with a scolding: "Tucker, don't be condescending to me! It makes you sound like those white liberals that you and I both find so annoying." For a second, the professional talker was speechless.

For most of the segment, Carlson simply called me a "racist." This didn't bother me. In 25 years of opinion writing, I've been called every slur in the book -- and a few that aren't in there because they're too ugly.

The exchange made me miss the guy I used to know. It also made me nostalgic for the good old days of politics when conservatives pushed back against those who called people "racist" -- instead of reflexively calling other people "racist."

I went on Tucker Carlson's show hoping to find some critical thinking. I got plenty of the critical, but not much thinking.

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Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

 

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