Right-wing media personalities are increasingly embracing a two-century-old expression of U.S. imperialism called the “Monroe Doctrine,” and exposing their own militaristic impulses in the process.
Fox News’ top star Tucker Carlson and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon have both recently endorsed the Monroe Doctrine as a guiding principle, undercutting their supposedly isolationist views on U.S. military policy. In both cases, the conservative pundits invoked the doctrine as a means of opposing what they see as China’s increasing political and economic importance in South America, specifically in Brazil.
Bannon and Carlson both position themselves as antagonists towards the neocons, a faction of the conservative movement that ascended during the presidency of George W. Bush and was a driving factor in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The so-called America First ideology that Bannon, Carlson, and others in the Trump-aligned wing of the conservative movement identify with is sometimes described, incorrectly, as isolationist. Their recent invocations of the Monroe Doctrine suggest that, far from being isolationists, these conservatives are increasingly interested in dominating China militarily, especially in the Western Hemisphere.
Carlson, Bannon, and their allies have adopted a new Cold Warrior posture, with China replacing the great boogeyman of the USSR, and Brazil — for now — taking the place of Vietnam, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and other countries where the U.S. waged proxy wars against the perceived communist threat. But whatever investments China has made in South America don’t, or shouldn’t, justify the recent insurrection in Brazil, which right-wing media in the United States celebrated.
A much better approach would be to support interstate partnerships following the “pink tide” that has surfaced across Latin America since 2018. Leftist leaders have been elected across the region in recent years, most recently in Colombia and Brazil. The ability of these left-of-center governments to fulfill their promises toward greater social equality remains in question, as their countries are still shackled with the conditions created and defined in many ways by the Monroe Doctrine.
“The United States deployed this doctrine [the Monroe Doctrine] to keep Latin America subordinate to U.S. interests, whether through direct interventions like coups, invasions, and assassinations or institutional arrangements like free-trade agreements and painful structural adjustment programs,” write David Adler and Guillaume Long in The American Prospect. “As a result, Latin American countries remain highly dependent on exporting raw materials to large powers like the U.S., and importing high-value products and sophisticated technology.”
The two argue that “Latin America must be free to build the independent institutions that it deems necessary to guarantee health, security, and a strong economy in an increasingly turbulent world.” The Biden administration could — but hasn’t — adopted this approach, which would likely have the added benefit of building regional resiliency against a potentially unwanted Chinese incursion. But because the Latin American leaders who could implement this policy are various stripes of socialists, they face strong headwinds from U.S liberals and overt hostility from conservatives.
Carlson, the Monroe Doctrine, and “our hemisphere”
Last year, Carlson’s team made a documentary-style film about Brazil that conspicuously avoided discussing whether then-President Jair Bolsonaro would respect the results of the upcoming election, or if he’d attempt to stay in power using extrajudicial means.
Carlson began the film by offering his definition of the Monroe Doctrine, and explicitly claiming U.S. imperial domain over the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
“In 1823, President James Monroe announced a policy that has been the center of American foreign policy for the last 200 years, called the Monroe Doctrine,” Carlson began.
“Great powers would not be allowed to control nations in the Western Hemisphere,” he continued. “That would be a direct threat to the interests of the United States. And for 200 years, we haven't allowed it.”
Carlson then accused President Joe Biden of changing that policy, saying the doctrine was “no longer enforced,” in part because the administration was overly focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The Biden administration has abdicated its responsibility and into the void left by the United States moves a new superpower,” he concluded. “We've come to Brazil to see for ourselves the rise of China and how the government of China is replacing the United States as the dominant power in our hemisphere.”
Carlson’s use of the first-person plural, possessive phrases here — “our hemisphere” — is key. The “our” clearly refers to the United States, not a broader collective of self-governed countries in the hemisphere. In Carlson’s rendering, the fight is between the United States and China for dominance over Brazil – not for Brazilian sovereignty in itself.
The rest of the movie is a series of fearmongering accusations leveled against China, all in support of Carlson’s primary thesis: that the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to turn Brazil into a de facto colony. Carlson appears more upset that China is supposedly taking on this role (instead of the United States) than that any country is engaged in this kind of imperial project in the first place. “There is one government left in South America that is sympathetic to the United States, and it's this one here in Brazil,” Carlson said to conclude his film. “But it's being ignored by the Biden administration for ideological reasons. When the smoke clears, China may control Brazil too.”
Carlson has casually asserted the United States’ rightful domain over Latin and South America before. In February, he reported that China had “announced a partnership with Argentina, in part on currency.”
“Argentina's president also said his nation would join China's Belt and Road Project,” he continued. “Again, it's in our hemisphere. Monroe Doctrine, anyone? But it's happening, and nobody is even mentioning it.”
Bannon’s New Cold War
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon is almost monomaniacally obsessed with China’s rise and the threat he believes it poses to U.S. hegemony, both globally and specifically in the Western Hemisphere. As one small but telling example, his show’s bumper music is a rap song by Chinese dissident — and Bannon-backer — Miles Guo whose hook is: “Let’s take down the CCP.”
Shortly after pro-Bolsonaro forces staged an insurrection by storming multiple Brazilian governmental buildings, Bannon invoked the Monroe Doctrine to justify the rioters’ actions. Bannon falsely characterized President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, as nothing but a puppet of the Chinese government, and argued that China is attempting to seize power across the region.
The CCP aims to create “Latin America as a communist superstate backed by the Chinese Communist Party directly aimed at the United States,” Bannon said. “This is what the Monroe Doctrine is about.”
“Our founders, our framers warned us, ‘Don’t go searching for monsters to slay in Ukraine — watch what they do here in the Western Hemisphere,’” he continued.
“We’re not in a great position, and now we have it in our hemisphere,” his guest, Matthew Tyrmand, responded. “China, under Lula, will have control of the entire wealth, and power, and geopolitical strategic positioning of South America.”
South America “will be a Marxist superstate should the Brazilians accept Lula as their leader,” Tyrmand added.
Bannon and Tyrmand had previously had almost the exact same discussion, including the invocation of the Monroe Doctrine, on the night of Bolsonaro’s loss in late October.
“The communists, the CCP foothold in this hemisphere has been growing already, and this would be very deleterious,” Tyrmand said. “And of course we’ve got corrupt, senile, comatose vegetable in the White House fiddling as our Rome-hemisphere burns.”
“And so, all of MAGA should understand, these are our allies in Brazil,” Bannon responded, referring to Bolsonaro and his supporters.
“Remember, this hemisphere was kept orderly because of the Monroe Doctrine,” Bannon continued. “We absolutely had a line in the sand from the beginning of this republic that there would be no foreign interference in this, in this — and by the way, for 200 years we've been adamant about that.”
He added that now “the CCP” is “deeply involved in a takeover” of “the most significant country in Latin America, South America.”
In the summer of 2021, Bannon spoke with conspiracy theorist and neo-Nazi collaborator Jack Posobiec at least twice about China’s role in the Western Hemisphere. As protesters took to the streets in Cuba, cheered on by right-wing U.S. media, Posobiec expressed his outrage that foreign countries would warn the United States not to meddle in the demonstrations. Like Carlson, he referred to “our hemisphere” in describing U.S. dominion over sovereign countries.
“Yesterday you had China, Iran and Russia — came out and they put out a statement jointly saying the United States needs to not interfere in Cuba,” Posobiec said. “I'm sorry. No, you don't get to tell us in our homes what happens in our hemisphere. This is the Monroe Doctrine."
“That was U.S. policy, bipartisan for generations in this country,” he continued. “Who are you to say that you were going to tell us what's going on in our backyard? No, I don't think so. Are we a great power or not?”
As in the more recent case with Brazil, Posobiec invoked the Monroe Doctrine explicitly as a justification to counter hypothetical Chinese expansionism. “What's Joe Biden going to do? What's [Secretary of State Tony] Blinken going to do when you've got Chinese subs off the coast of Havana?” Posobiec asked. “Because you know that's coming next. You know, what are you going to do? Are you going to stand up and defend our hemisphere, to defend our national interest or not?"
When they returned to the topic that October, the two were even more explicit in their comparisons to the Cold War. During the segment, Bannon’s producers showed a graphic that was reminiscent of anti-communist propaganda from the 1950s, lest the point get lost on any War Room viewers.
Bannon asked Posobiec to “talk about the Chinese Communist Party, what they are doing in South America and the Caribbean, and the direct impact on the United States of America.”
“The United States has largely, you know, in the past been sort of seen as sort of the hegemon when it comes to the Western Hemisphere,” Posobiec replied. “This goes back to Monroe Doctrine.”
“This is classic U.S. policy,” he continued. “It's the idea of when the Soviet Union wanted to get a foothold in Cuba and plant their missiles.”
Posobiec then argued that “now you're seeing China come in to play that role,” before claiming that “of course they're going to Cuba; of course they're going to Venezuela, but they're doing everything they can to get into these countries like Colombia, like Brazil, like Bolivia, Argentina.”
He added that then-President Bolsonaro is “the guy that's fighting back against what China is doing” and that if China “can take over Brazil, they are going to be able to use that to control the entire South American continent.”
America First means MAGA empire
Carlson and Bannon both exert considerable influence over the shape of the Republican Party. They are not simply talk show hosts, but political operators whom Republican politicians often seek to curry favor with. Both played significant roles in the GOP’s approach to the midterms, for example. Carlson provided Republicans with messaging support, endorsed candidates in primaries, and then attempted to help those candidates win. The same is true for Bannon, who dedicated his show to pushing an unrelenting stream of election denialism prior to last November’s contests.
Both Carlson and Bannon — as well as the rest of the Republican Party — fared poorly in the midterms, but that doesn’t retroactively negate their influence. Indeed, the early days of the new House GOP majority suggest that hardliners in the Carlson and Bannon mold are as empowered within the caucus as they’ve ever been. When the two of them show their true colors as imperialist neo-Cold Warriors, they can be seen as a stand-in for a much larger element within the broader conservative movement.
For Carlson, Bannon, and their fellow travelers, America First isn’t a call for directing public policy to benefit people living in the United States, no matter their protestations. It is instead a rearticulation of a standard ideology based on U.S. dominance, both in the Western Hemisphere and in what they see as the larger geopolitical battle with China. In this way, their philosophy is not nearly as different from the neocons as they claim it is.
Where the neocon project was largely justified under a flimsy pretext of spreading democracy, America Firsters are reimagining and recreating Cold War-style global power struggles. This context is key to understanding and deciphering conservative foreign policy goals and rhetoric in the coming election cycle. The Trump wing of the movement may pay lip service to opposing U.S. foreign wars, but their chauvinistic invocation of the Monroe Doctrine shows they believe in maintaining U.S. military and political hegemony, just like their factional rivals.