‘The Lonesome Vigilante’: John Steinbeck explains Tucker Carlson
Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s text message confessed his desire to help end the life of an 'Antifa creep.' He's part of the nation’s long history of vigilante violence and lynching. | Carlson photo by AP / Montage by People's World

There’s been some lively discussion about how former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s newly released text message of January 2021—in which he confessed his desire to help end the life of an “Antifa creep”—relates to the nation’s long history of vigilante violence and lynching.

“It’s not how white men fight” is the opposite of truth and only confirms Carlson’s raging racism. But the fact that the beat-down he witnessed was ideologically rather than racially motivated reminds me that John Steinbeck was an expert on anti-left political lynchings.

In the Depression-era novels that comprise what is sometimes called his “labor trilogy”—In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939)—Steinbeck was prescient in analyzing the deep psychology of Carlson’s desire to join in when a group of “Trump guys” surrounded and “started pounding the living shit out of” a young anti-fascist.

When Steinbeck wrote about mobs, anti-fascists were of course labeled “reds,” and they were active in causes that to an extent overlap with today’s opposition movement against the stunning rise of American neo-Nazis. Though the typical lynching victim has always been a Black male, there’s a homegrown tradition of lynching reds—Communists, socialists, trade unionists—as well, no matter their race. So, it’s no accident that in Steinbeck’s fiction about class conflict and the labor movement, the words “vigilante” and “lynch” appear frequently.

A labor leader named Mac is a key character in the strike novel In Dubious Battle. When a striker is murdered, fellow organizer Jim Nolan asks Mac, “Who in the hell are these vigilantes, anyway?” Here’s the answer:

Why, they’re the dirtiest guys in town. . . . They’re the same ones that lynch negroes.          They like to be cruel. They like to hurt people, and they always give it a nice name,  patriotism or protecting the constitution. But they’re just the old n—– torturers               working. The owners use ‘em, tell ‘em we have to protect people against Reds.

In The Grapes of Wrath, the vigilantes who harass and bully the Joad family on their journey west are armed with pick handles and shotguns and wear American Legion caps and Sam Browne belts to mimic a military appearance. Eventually, they ambush the preacher-turned-strike-leader Jim Casy, crushing his skull for being a “red son-of-a-bitch.”

In Of Mice and Men, the Black stablehand Crooks is threatened with lynching for the crime of existing, but the scene is only a rehearsal for the mob that eventually breaks out the gun and noose to chase down the migrant worker Lennie in the novel’s final pages. Only George’s mercy-killing saves Lennie. This novel, read often in schools, presents an indirect, sanitized version of political lynching, which may be a reason why it hasn’t yet been banned in Republican states.

For a while now, I’ve been impressed by how well Steinbeck’s novels help explain Kyle Rittenhouse; they also help to understand the impulses of Tucker Carlson. And there’s a little-known Steinbeck short story that seems more relevant to Carlson than to Rittenhouse.

“The Lonesome Vigilante,” first published in Esquire in 1936, offers a diagnosis of mob violence that applies seamlessly to Carlson. It is essentially about what it feels like to carry out a vigilante murder, even vicariously, as Carlson did.

The story is based on the lynching of two white men in San Jose, Calif., in 1933. Steinbeck changed the victims to one Black male. He did so because he was interested in the mind of a typical lyncher, in this case Mike, a white man who had “helped pull on the rope.” Mike becomes a lyncher because after all, “There’s times when citizens got to take the law in their own hands.”

The action begins while the lethal deed, enacted in the town square by a throng of hundreds, is being cleaned up. Initially, Mike had been elated and transfixed with bloodlust: “Half an hour before, when he had been howling with the mob and fighting for a chance to help pull on the rope, then his chest had been so full that he had found he was crying.”

Tucker Carlson defines the same euphoria more prosaically but with appalling candor: “Suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it.” Yes, taste it.

Steinbeck’s vigilante, minutes after the murder, is disturbed and wrestles with his emotions. “I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering,” Mike thinks, “I should be bothered by it.” Steinbeck adds, “The moment he left the outskirts of the mob a cold loneliness fell upon him.”

Carlson’s version of this dread suggests a similar loneliness. In probably the most enigmatic passage in the now famous text message, he claims, “Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be.”

For both vigilantes, angst comes with the ex post facto and only partial acknowledgment of the victim’s humanity. Mike considers, “Well, I’ve knew some damn fine n—–s myself. I’ve worked right long side some and they was as nice as any white man you could want to meet, not no fiends.”

Carlson’s feelings turn in a like direction: “I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?” Here Carlson’s recognition that the individual victim will be mourned supposedly excuses his bloodlust while still asserting that “Antifa” is a contaminated idea.

Artwork that accompanied Steinbeck’s ‘The Lonesome Vigilante.’

Just before Steinbeck wrote “The Lonesome Vigilante” and his labor trilogy, he articulated insights about men like Carlson. In 1933, a turning point in his creative life, Steinbeck delved into phalanx theory. He read about what he’d later call the “group animal” and concluded that when acting as a mob, men do not partake of their individual natures at all. The crowd itself, the phalanx, takes on an identity different and separate from that of its members, becoming essentially “a creature of violence.” Phalanx theory is Steinbeck’s way of accounting for the “transformation of man into animal” that underlies mob action.

How well does this theory also account for Carlson?

Steinbeck’s story ends with the vigilante’s homecoming, a scene that describes the moment when the animal becomes human again.

Mike finds his wife waiting up for him in the kitchen. She is immediately startled by the look on her husband’s face. “You been with a woman,” she says, “What woman you been with?” The vigilante takes pleasure in denying the accusation of betrayal but then passes through the kitchen to the bathroom, where he looks in the mirror: “By God she was right,” he thinks, “That’s just exactly how I do feel.”

We now know that Tucker Carlson has also looked in the mirror. At the end of his discursive text message, what he sees staring back at him is a betrayal of his own humanity. But the notion that Carlson saw what Steinbeck’s vigilante saw matters less than the inarguable fact that whatever moral awakening resulted from his vicarious vigilantism seventeen months ago was both incomplete and fleeting—a temporary deviation. Carlson has condoned or “tasted” violence since then and will again.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

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Patrick Chura
Patrick Chura

Dr. Patrick Chura teaches courses in nineteenth and twentieth-century American literature and culture studies at the University of Akron. He is the author of three books and has published articles on a variety of literary-historical topics. His book, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer, won the 2022 Literary Encyclopedia Book Prize and the Paul Cowan Award for Non-Fiction.