Tucker Carlson and the Right
When Tucker Carlson was fired from Fox News last week—so suddenly that he reportedly learned about it only ten minutes before the world did—the most acute notes of regret came from young conservative intellectuals who had seen his nightly hour of programming as an interesting, and perhaps essential, experiment in what right-wing populism could be. “The Tucker Realignment,” Ross Douthat called that experiment, in the Times, adding that young conservatives “increasingly start out where Carlson ended up—in a posture of reflexive distrust, where if an important American institution takes a position, the place to be is probably on the other side.” Part of what was appealing about Carlson’s point of view to thinkers on the right was that, in his curiosity about fringe ideas and his occasional highlighting of antiwar (Ukraine) and anti-corporate (Silicon Valley) themes, he was testing out a form of conservative populism that did not hinge on Donald Trump personally. Michael Brendan Dougherty, of National Review Online, wrote, “Since January 2016, Tucker Carlson has consistently and relentlessly advanced one thesis about American politics: ‘This isn’t about Donald Trump, but our corrupt liberal elite.’ ”
Ever since Trump lost first the political initiative, in the twists of a COVID crisis that he could never get ahead of, and then the Presidency, to Joe Biden, Carlson’s programs have been where the right’s future was incubated. They could be racist (stoking fears about the “great replacement”), bizarre (proposing that men tan their testicles as a solution for apparently declining levels of testosterone), and fixated on liberal power in a way that could be hard for an unindoctrinated viewer to follow. But Carlson was smart enough to identify ideas that could travel.
Both the movement against the teaching of critical race theory and the right-wing interest in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary blossomed on Carlson’s show. J. D. Vance rode regular appearances on it to a seat in the U.S. Senate. After Senator Ted Cruz called the January 6th insurrection a “violent terrorist attack,” Carlson forced him to walk back that comment. Carlson grilled Governor Greg Abbott, of Texas, about why he hadn’t called up more National Guard soldiers to the border, and Abbott did so. The host also suggested that, if people who live in places like Martha’s Vineyard were so keen on diversity, someone should send undocumented immigrants there. Not long afterward, Governor Ron DeSantis, of Florida, took him up on it.
What these initiatives shared was not just a political orientation but an apocalyptic sensibility—Carlson once called abortion “human sacrifice”—and a foxhole atmosphere in which the future of conservative politics depended on relentless resistance. Conservative politicians across the country adopted them in arguing against public-health authorities, rights for trans people, teaching about race and gender in schools, and “woke capitalism.” DeSantis, Trump’s main opponent as the conservative standard-bearer, has spent much of the past year attacking Disney, one of the largest private employers in Florida, which, under pressure from its employees, had protested the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law; the anti-Disney campaign escalated when Carlson said that the corporation was acting like a “sex offender.”
The big question for the G.O.P. during the Biden era is whether all this adds up to a viable platform for a major political party. How many people are there, really, who see the world the way Carlson does? His audience—about three million viewers—was formidable by the standards of cable news. But mainstream advertisers largely avoided the show; commercial breaks involved a heavy dose of MyPillow.com. When Rupert Murdoch, Fox’s corporate chairman, decided to fire Carlson, he did so without any public explanation.
Murdoch is Murdoch, and his reasons were widely speculated upon: maybe it was a consequence of Fox’s settlement in the Dominion defamation suit; or of the discovery of private messages in which Carlson used what the Times reported as “highly offensive and crude” terms; or of a couple of lawsuits from a former producer for Carlson, who has accused him, his executive producer, and the network of creating a misogynistic and antisemitic work environment (which Fox denies). Maybe the thought of paying a person twenty million dollars a year to rage against élites had run its course. Or maybe Murdoch, who is ninety-two, and reportedly recently broke off an engagement to a conservative radio host who referred to Carlson as a “messenger from God,” was just sick of hearing about the guy.
Carlson himself released a cheerful two-minute video on Wednesday, in which he made no direct reference to his exit but said that he has come to notice how “unbelievably stupid” most debates on television are, and how the “undeniably big topics, the ones that will define our future, get virtually no discussion at all.” (He mentioned war, civil liberties, emerging science, demographic change, and corporate power.) He added, “This moment is too inherently ridiculous to continue, and so it won’t.”
You could take that as a commentary on the state of our society. But it also parses pretty well as an observation about Carlson’s own central role at Fox News, where he arrived after losing shows on CNN and MSNBC, and where he rose through the ranks in part because other Fox News grandees kept losing their jobs, some over sexual-misconduct claims. After the Trump earthquake, Republican politicians still needed ideas, but, in truth, the ones they took from Carlson mostly required only that they intensify positions they already held. It reflects both on Carlson and on the G.O.P. that his occasional rants against corporations, say, have not had much impact on the Party’s policies. But when he showed Republicans places where they might weaponize a more aggressive social traditionalism and nativism, and how they might make use of distrust, they paid close attention.
Still, if culture-war maximalism is Carlson’s political legacy, its future isn’t looking too bright at the moment. It did not produce a red wave in last year’s midterm elections. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and ensuing attempts by extreme conservatives to ban abortion are serving to further isolate Republicans on social issues. DeSantis has lost polling ground to Trump, and his own donors have been complaining about him to reporters. The conservative movement will be less interesting without Carlson in its most prominent media seat, but in the end he didn’t shift the movement very far. Conservatism for now comes in just two slightly different variations. There is Trumpism with Trump, and there is Trumpism without him.