Tucker Carlson is perhaps the only major media figure in America willing to attack across party lines to make his point. On Tuesday night he went after Republican mega-donor Paul Singer in a withering 10-minute special segment on how Singer destroyed a small town in Nebraska in a hostile takeover of the sporting goods retailer Cabela’s.
For those who don’t know, Singer is a New York hedge fund manager who has made billions as a so-called “vulture capitalist,” buying up the sovereign debt of financially distressed countries at a discount and then cashing in later, using lawsuits to pressure governments to pay up. He’s done something similar with U.S. firms—buying up debt, shipping jobs overseas, firing American workers and cashing out—in some cases at taxpayer expense.
In addition to donating to the GOP and running his hedge fund, Elliott Capital, Singer also funds a lot of conservative media, which is why you won’t hear much criticism of him from right-leaning outlets or Republican politicians. That of course makes Carlson’s segment on Tuesday all the more remarkable.
Carlson’s report focused on the town of Sidney, Nebraska, population 6,282. Sidney was the longtime home of Cabela’s and once employed thousands of local residents. It was the economic anchor of the town. But Singer’s firm took an ownership stake in the company in 2015, when the Cabela’s was making nearly $2 billion in annual profits, and pressured the board to sell. A year later Bass Pro Shops purchased Cabela’s, the company’s stock price surged, and Singer cashed out for at least $90 million.
But Sidney was destroyed. As Carlson explained, “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.”
What Role Should Government Play In Our Civic Life?
The point of highlighting the fate of this one town and the role of Singer in its demise isn’t to vilify capitalism or the free market in general, but to point out how the system is engineered to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. As Willis Krumholtz explains nearby in greater detail, the story of Cabela’s and the people of Sidney is an example of “financial engineering that paid a select few off, while the whole suffered.”
This critique goes to the heart of what the political right has been grappling with in the age of Trump. What is the proper role of the government and public policy in American society? Whose interests should it serve?
Much of what’s behind Trump-era populism, not just in America but across the West, is the dawning realization that the post-Cold War global capitalist system doesn’t necessarily benefit working- and middle-class Americans—or at least that free trade and global capitalism aren’t unmitigated goods. They have costs, and those costs are borne disproportionately by ordinary people, the kind of people who get laid off from Cabela’s for no good reason other than it made Singer a pile of money.
This isn’t just an economic question. The role of government is also at the center of the ongoing Sohrab Amari-David French debate on the right about whether the public sphere can really ever be neutral and what, if anything, conservatives should do to advance what they see as the good. Libertarian-minded conservatives like French look at drag queen story hour and conclude, hey, this is just the price of liberty. We can no more use government power to prohibit drag queens in public libraries than we can use it to prohibit any other kind of free speech
Ahmari and others have challenged this way of thinking, positing that liberty has an object, which is the good, and that government’s role is not just to protect liberty but also to promote and defend the good. Things like stable and intact families, prosperous communities, and vibrant churches and schools aren’t merely what we hope might spring forth from unfettered liberty secured by a neutral and indifferent government; they’re the entire purpose of securing liberty in the first place.
In the same way, champions of global capitalism might look at the desolation of a town like Sidney and conclude, hey, this is just the price of free markets. Carlson argues that no, this is the price of maintaining a system designed to benefit people like Singer at the expense of middle-class Americans.
All of this is part of a reckoning now underway in America about what our government is for and whose interests it should serve. The status quo of recent decades, in which both major political parties crafted policies that served the interest of an established donor class, is coming to an end.
The election of Donald Trump is a manifestation, not a cause, of this reckoning. And while the left descends into a fever swamp of utopian socialist fantasies carried over from the last century, the right is grappling with these questions in earnest.
The questions concern far more than just drag queen story hour or vulture capitalists like Singer. They cover almost everything we see around us today. What do we do about big tech? What’s causing rising mortality from deaths of despair? Why are so many once-thriving communities hollowed out? What’s destroying rural America? Why are so many young people struggling with depression and anxiety?
An aspect to all of these questions is what role, if any, should the government play, and what policy changes would actually make things better? To his credit, Carlson is probing these problems and looking for answers—even if it means going after the likes of Paul Singer.