Perennial embarrassment Naomi Wolf, most famous for having been factchecked in real-time on the basic premise of her already published book during a radio interview, is at it again, or perhaps, still, given that she was bragging about her restaurant attendance just a couple of weeks ago.
This time, the ostensibly liberal author is going on Tucker Carlson to have a a circle-jerk of a self-congratulatory conversation about how great it is that they can cross the political aisle to have a rational conversation about how trying to keep even more US residents from dying of preventable illness is somehow akin to literal, actual fascism.
I’ve chosen Daily Caller reporter Scott Morefield’s tweet of the clip because I want to address how he frames it, in particular the use of the term “fascism” (which is a comparison Wolf makes herself) and his query of why there isn’t more alarm on the liberal side.
Taking his question at face value, I would say it’s because that those left of the conservative wing believe that the role of the government is… well, that’s just it.
Republicans believe that government has no proper role, that the government is an enemy, an obstacle, an impediment to freedom, that it should be sabotaged and sandbagged and cut to pieces until it’s small enough to drown in the bathtub and if you happen to find a few ways to line your pockets or help your friends out along the way, why, that’s just entrepreneurism and that’s as American as apple pie.
We believe that the government has a role, and that it’s not protecting the business interests of and providing opportunities to the powerful.
We could say that we don’t know what the people who founded our country and guided it through its early years believed the role of the government should be, but in point of fact they left quite a lot of writing behind on the subject.
So much that I can’t claim to have read all of it, though I am reasonably sure that they didn’t talk about wanting to keep government “small enough to drown in the bathtub,” for instance, even though conservatives seem to think that’s a foundational principle of our country.
And while they certainly were justifiably suspicious of tyranny, they don’t appear to have believed that government was itself inherently a problem that needed solving, nor that the words “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” were frightening.
The preamble of the Constitution, the document that Wolf and her interlocutors hold up as under assault, justifies its own existence thusly:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Now, these words do not have the force of law behind them. They are a statement of intent, not a legal code.
But at the time they were written, each and every single one of them had to be written out by hand, so we know they weren’t just there to pad out space on the page. These weighty words were meant to be considered alongside the body of the Constitution, a vital heart giving animating purpose to the meat and bones.
I will freely confess that I don’t have an answer to Naomi Wolf when she asks where in the Constitution it says that we can suspend rights to mitigate a disaster such as a pandemic.
I do know that contra to her wide-eyed, wild assertions that emergency powers have been wielded in these United States at the local, state, and federal level on many different occasions. It’s not something that just happened for the first time in the state of New York in the spring of 2020.
I do also know that the Supreme Court has held that even specifically enumerated Constitutional rights are not absolute and that they may have exceptions, including in matters of public safety.
Those lofty ideals spelled out in the preamble are not laws. Nor is the Declaration of Independence, which further enumerates rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Liberty is also mentioned in the preamble. If it seems strange that the framers of these documents would think so highly of liberty as an ordained right but not spell out a law that explicitly protects it… well, it’s hard to put something like that in legal terms, isn’t it? Several of the amendments in the Bill of Rights give a good solid go at shoring it up, but while specific freedoms such as association and religion are mentioned, there is no injunction stating “the right to liberty will not be abridged.”
And there’s even less said about life and nothing about happiness in the Constitution, after the preamble.
That’s because not everything that our founders believed in — not everything they believed was worth protecting and enshrining — is a suitable subject for the law. You can’t legislate happiness. You can’t meaningfully legislate against death, for that matter. To declare a Constitutional right to life would be like declaring that we have a right to have the tides come in whenever it suits us and not when the lunar gravity happens to work out that way.
And yet I would not disagree that we have a right to life, nor would I think every declaration of such a right is pointless. Legally toothless, though a useful foundation for laws that help protect the right. There is a natural right to life even if there is no Constitutional one.
Similarly, we have a natural right to what Abraham Lincoln famously called a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that works for the people, to secure all those blessings mentioned in the preamble and protects our rights, both those enumerated in the Constitution and not.
And when there is a tension between expressions of any of these rights — say, between one person’s desire to pretend there isn’t a pandemic and their neighbors’ desire to protect their lives and get through it as quickly as possible so we can be about our pursuits, happy and otherwise — well, there may not be easy answers there, but “no easy answers” also means we have to rule out “emergency measures are fascism and we don’t do that in God’s America,” doesn’t it?
Now, we’ve just come through four years of rule by a party that, if the law wasn’t on their side, would file a motion of But We Wanna and petition for a writ of Who’s Gonna Stop Us and I have to say, I didn’t like it. It was bad and scary and wrong, and I don’t want to say “Well, it’s different when we do it,” but I would say: it does matter why it’s being done and in what context.
If someone in a position of power and authority decides to test the limits of that power and authority in the name of protecting a public good (or for less lofty reasons) and somebody else thinks that they are trampling on a right to do so, then we have methods and channels in place for resolving that argument legally.
No amount of Naomi Wolf talking about how much she’s studied history makes her the first or last word on what actions our government is and isn’t allowed to take on our behalf. We’ve got a system for that and it includes elections, which we just had a bunch of and, spoiler warning: the conservative arguments about the nature and role of the government did not win out there.
This is the thing that I find the most galling about the framing that Scott, Tucker, and Naomi are using here. This type of conversation is being put forward as a model of civility, of the kind of conversation that is being prevented by left/right divisions — perhaps deliberately, Tucker suggests — but in actuality, Naomi Wolf is going on Tucker’s show to just cosign uncritically and repeat and promote something that is 100% a foundational cornerstone of mainstream right-wing belief, that the government is the problem, that tyranny is when the government does anything, and that the only things the government is allowed to do are what conservatives want.
“Why can’t we talk like this? Why can’t we have a conversation about this?” in practical terms actually comes down to, “Why are people allowed to talk about this in other ways?”
Freedom, in the world of Fox News and the Daily Caller, is the freedom to be conservative. Fascism, in their world, is doing anything else. It’s a perfect distillation of the Republican approach to “power-sharing” as we’ve seen in action: power is only legitimate when they wield it towards their own ends.
That Naomi Wolf went on Tucker’s show to unironically and unreservedly cosign the conservative view of government as a useless impediment at best and a threat at worst is not some triumph of civility.
It’s a triumph for right-wing extremism, of the sort that not even two months ago staged a violent insurrection to try to re-install a rightwing strongman ruler who incited said insurrection, who had a habit of pardoning his own allies and people involved in crimes for his benefit, and who was protected from consequences by his own party, whom Tucker transparently represents as a partisan mouthpiece.
Somehow, though, none of this seems to register on Naomi Wolf’s fascism alarm. No, according to her, fascism is when the government… I mean, I guess that’s it.
Fascism is when the government.