Acton Institute Powerblog

The Tucker Carlson-Sean Hannity showdown: Who was right?

The underlying tensions between national conservatism and a more pro-business Republican orthodoxy burst into the open during a 24-second, primetime exchange on Fox News Channel. During the hand-off between hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity on Tuesday night, Hannity seemingly rebuked his lead-in for criticizing Jeff Bezos’ fortune.

A personal rebuff

Tucker Carlson closed his top-rated cable news program with a segment dedicated to the Amazon owner, whose net worth surged by $13 billion on Monday – the largest one-day increase in the history of Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.

“The coronavirus shutdowns, whether they were necessary or not, have indisputably crushed huge parts of the American economy,” he said. “But at least one person has become extremely rich – richer than any man in history – from all of this, including a lot of the suffering.”

As Carlson’s graphics team depicted Bezos as a literal fat cat with a monocle, surrounded by nine money bags, Tucker told his guest, Chadwick Moore of Spectator USA: “I’m not against wealth accumulation. I’m not against free enterprise. But $13 billion in a day suggests something is skewed with the system, no?”

Three minutes later, Tucker introduced Sean Hannity, who greeted Carlson’s final segment with a stinging rejoinder:

People can make money. They provide goods and services people want, need, and desire. That’s America. It’s called freedom, capitalism. And, as long as it’s honest, right? People decide.

Carlson’s facial expressions showed he felt perplexed and displeased by the apparent rebuff.

Hannity later walked back his comments in a series of tweets, intimating that he had not heard the full segment and meant to amplify Carlson’s support for the free market. “I apologize for any misunderstanding to Tucker and the [F]ox audience. I support freedom and [c]apitalism,” he wrote.

Walking things back

“I was in the chair one minute before airtime and I was specifically responding to the end of Tucker’s interview when he said he supported honest capitalism,” he continued. “I had not heard any of the other part of the interview.”

The simplest explanation is that Hannity intended his remarks exactly as they were received. While it is possible in the hustle before airtime to hear only part of a preceding segment or to misconstrue its meaning, the last minute of the Chadwick interview dealt with Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post – in order, Tucker contended, to mute that outlet’s criticism of its owner. (Some similarly cried foul when Bloomberg News opted not to cover Michael Bloomberg’s pyrrhic presidential race.) If Hannity heard only the last 60 seconds of this segment, he would have missed Tucker’s fleeting reference to the free enterprise system. It would require a selective hearing of Carlson’s remarks to turn Hannity’s statements from a reproach into an echo.

Furthermore, Hannity’s final tweet seemed to restate his criticism of Carlson. Hannity concluded that he had “seen no evidence” or anyone trying to “capitalize on tragedy … But if I do, watch out.”

Some saw the exchange as a totemic struggle between two philosophies vying over the mantle of conservatism. There’s no doubt that Tucker Carlson is more inclined to interview figures like Andrew Yang, or to favor imposing a VAT tax on the United States, while Hannity gives Bush-era prognosticators like Karl Rove a platform to advocate repealing the medical devices tax. Others have seen this is a lashing out over ratings. How should those who hold to Western, conservative, free-market values analyze the exchange?

Who was right?

So, who was right? The answer to this question is rather like the classical trick question among Lutherans: Is Jesus’ crucifixion a depiction of the Law or the Gospel? The answer is, both.

A free-market economic system incentivizes entrepreneurs to serve others and empowers consumers, through their free choices, to reward those who best meet their needs (and wishes). However, government-mandated lockdowns have nothing to do with the free market.

Amazon rose to its leading position by offering an unparalleled variety of products with unprecedented ease: click, point, shop. Items once unavailable now arrive overnight. The service survives on a small percentage of sales volume. And it minimized its tax exposure by following the laws written by Washington (and London) to soak the rich by making stock ownership more broad-based.

Amazon was a winner long before the lockdowns. And the fact that Jeff Bezos added $13 billion to his net wealth in one day does not ipso facto prove he acted corruptly (nor, to be certain, that he did not). While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may believe that the existence of billionaires is inherently immoral, Carlson certainly does not share that view. Nor should any conservative.

Amazon has surged to new heights this year, however, based not on innovations or improved services but because the government artificially shut down so much of its competition. Between March 1 and June 15, some 140,000 businesses closed their doors, according to Yelp – nearly 66,000 of which have gone out of business permanently. Their pain comes, not because of an entrepreneur’s misguided optimism or low-quality products, but because the government ordered Americans to “stay at home.” If you can’t leave your house and are petrified to touch items that have been handled by infected members of the public, Amazon becomes one of the few viable options.

That shifts the odds, which are already stacked against small business proprietors. “About a third of establishments survive at least 10 years,” according to the Small Business Administration.  Some governors intensified their plight even beyond the shutdowns. For instance, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pared down the items consumers could purchase inside a store to a highly questionable list of “essential” items.

This winter, politicians ratcheted down the nation’s previously explosive economy. The number of small business proprietors had been climbing steadily, and blue-collar wages had been rising faster than those in other sectors. Those best equipped to survive this artificial, government-induced famine are large, wealthy, and – perhaps not coincidentally – politically-connected corporations. Those who support economic lockdowns one moment longer than necessary to “flatten the curve” are petitioning the government to favor big business over entrepreneurs, entrenched interests over innovation, and concentrated wealth over decentralized prosperity. A booming economy, fueled by the spontaneous choices of free persons, cannot be replaced with PPP loans and one-off “stimulus” checks.

The Fox News exchange failed to live up to the billing some gave it, as a “debate,” because Carlson had no opportunity to respond. Both hosts are likely to revisit the issue tonight (unless Fox executives got to them). Whichever one presents both the ways the newly deregulated free market has benefited U.S. workers and how government interventions have decimated those gains in just a few months will have a winning argument.

(Photo credit: Screenshot.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.