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The New Yorker: The World According to Tucker Carlson

Donald Trump had the raw power on the right. But it was Carlson who set the ideological agenda.

Tucker Carlson’s last hour as a Fox News host—“last” as in most recent, and also, we now know, as in final—ended with him sitting at a shiny white desk, a green-screened image of the Capitol behind him, eating a soggy, sad-looking slice of sausage-and-pineapple pizza. “It is a disgusting order,” he admitted. “But I have no shame.” He wore a Rolex, a repp tie, and a slightly manic grin; his hair, as usual, was jauntily mussed, as if he’d just stepped off a catamaran. The segment seemed calculated to promote three things: Carlson’s salt-of-the-earth charisma; the heroism of a particular Delaware County, Pennsylvania, pizza-delivery man, a ruggedly handsome white guy who had acted as a vigilante assistant to the local police; and a new special on his streaming show “Tucker Carlson Originals,” a half-hour documentary called “Let Them Eat Bugs.” (“Could there really be a plan to make us all eat bugs?” Carlson asked, in an ominous voice-over, followed by a guest providing a putative answer: “It’s a global agenda that is pushing all of these things.”) In the studio, Carlson put down his slice. “What a great way to end the week,” he said, with a satisfied chuckle. “We’ll be back on Monday.”

In fact, late on Monday morning, Fox News announced, in a terse statement, that Carlson and the network had “agreed to part ways.” We still don’t know why, although it’s hard to imagine that the timing—with one recently settled defamation lawsuit, another defamation suit in the offing, and one of Carlson’s former producers sitting on a few undisclosed recordings—is a coincidence. The imagination runs wild: Was it workplace abuse? A private rant about how Kanye was right about the Jews? Was Carlson plotting a corporate coup, or perhaps an actual one? We’ll learn the details soon enough. For now, all that seems clear is that, after Carlson’s years of impunity, despite various scandals and advertiser boycotts and mask-off moments, there must be something, in the end, that his bosses consider a fireable offense.

For the past six years or so, Carlson was the most influential voice in right-wing media, without a close second. Donald Trump had the raw power, but Carlson set the ideological agenda. And, beneath all the self-abasing, clickbait-ready antics, he did seem to have an ideological agenda. Consider the insects. “Let Them Eat Bugs” is not just a gross-out tour through the weird world of entomophagy; the documentary also makes an argument, in the mode of reactionary, conspiratorial nationalism. “All of a sudden, the people in charge—politicians, billionaire oligarchs, celebrities—are telling you you have to fight climate change by changing what you eat,” Carlson said, in an introduction. “You may not want to change what you eat—no one ever voted on that—but democracy doesn’t matter when it comes to the food supply.” (In Carlson’s vocabulary, “democracy” is a floating signifier that may or may not overlap with the actual mechanisms of governance; “the people in charge” may refer to Kamala Harris, Nicole Kidman, an underpaid female journalist, or an Oberlin sophomore, but rarely to, say, a sitting Republican member of Congress, several of whom Carlson interviewed each week.) “Let Them Eat Bugs” is a pungent combination of obvious falsehoods (Davos executives are shoving crickets down your throat!) presented as truths, and obvious truths (climate change is upending the food supply) presented as falsehoods, or as a plot contrived by nefarious globalists, or both. In a sense, Carlson is simply dressing up the oldest, most rudimentary conservative laments in sleek, newfangled graphics. The climate is changing, but he doesn’t want it to change; so, instead of finding a suitable target for his outrage (fossil-fuel companies, for example, or the political parties that subsidize them), he invents a more creative, convoluted way to stand athwart history, yelling Stop—National Review by way of Infowars. He has both a brother and a son named Buckley. For the first half of his career, Tucker Carlson was a William F. Buckley, Jr.-style Beltway neoconservative, writing for the The Weekly Standard and appearing on C-span and CNN. But the conservative coalition has changed, and Buckley has been dead for years. More recently, Carlson has been genuflecting before the MyPillow guy and texting with Alex Jones.

I have watched many hours of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Carlson’s prime-time TV show, and of his two streaming shows, “Tucker Carlson Today” and “Tucker Carlson Originals.” I have been appalled; I have been amazed; I have shouted rejoinders, vainly, at the screen; but I have rarely been bored. A lot of his story lines, including the one about the bugs, seem to have been repurposed from the deepest recesses of the Internet. In the Tuckerite master narrative, the bad guys are usually the rootless cosmopolitan élites, and the heroes are the local traditionalists, Christian nationalists, not-gonna-take-it-anymore vigilantes, or all of the above. (In “Let Them Eat Bugs,” one of the main protagonists is Eva Vlaardingerbroek, a right-wing Dutch “political commentator” who refers to climate change as a “so-called crisis” and has called feminism “one of the biggest shams of our time.”) Upcoming “Tucker Carlson Originals” documentaries, assuming that Fox decides to release them as scheduled, will include one called “Meet the Preppers,” about “the vindication of [disaster] prepping,” and another about “the total collapse of human rights in the nation of Canada.” (Teasing the latter on his prime-time show, Carlson displayed a mockup of Justin Trudeau’s face blended with Fidel Castro’s—an allusion, which any non-Internet-poisoned person would and should have overlooked, to an old urban legend that Castro is Trudeau’s real father.) And who could forget the “Tucker Carlson Originals” special “The End of Men,” which introduced the world to “bromeopathy,” the patriotic practice of bathing one’s testicles in red light? That special also featured hand-wringing about “soy boys,” paeans to raw-egg slonkers, and homoerotic montages, apparently filmed on Alex Jones’s bocce court, that looked like Abercrombie & Fitch ads directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Again, it’s easy to brush all this off as a campy, desperate ploy for attention, which it was. But “The End of Men” also made an argument: American men are being systematically emasculated by some sort of ill-defined global cabal, for the purpose of slowing down birth rates in “the West”; only “well-ordered, disciplined groups of men,” presumably after being armed and restored to testicular health, can “reëstablish order” and restore Western civilization. This is the sort of thing that seems funny until it doesn’t.

Carlson may have saved some of the spicier visuals for Fox’s streaming service, but the same ideological strands ran through his nightly TV show, which was, at various points, the highest-rated show in the history of cable news. During his six-year run, he chose to interview, as far as I can tell, exactly four sitting world leaders, apart from Donald Trump: Viktor OrbánJair BolsonaroAndrzej Duda, and Nayib Bukele. Among the nations that still bother to hold credible elections, these were, by most measures, some of the most autocratic leaders on Earth. Carlson often talked about “democracy,” but he did not define the concept the way that most contemporary political theorists do; his version seemed to mean something more like the will of the people, and not necessarily all the people. He is white, and he’s a nationalist, but, of course, he has long denied being a white nationalist—whenever he was asked if he was a white supremacist, he would claim that he didn’t even know what the term meant. He doesn’t oppose immigrants; he simply opposes immigration, which, according to him, makes our country poor and dirtier and more divided.” One of the few bromides that most Democrats and Republicans still agree on is that diversity is our strength, but Carlson dared, repeatedly, to just ask the question: What if it’s not? Once, on the radio, he referred to Iraqis as “semiliterate, primitive monkeys.” (To my knowledge, he never said the N-word in public—although who knows what’s on those undisclosed recordings.) No matter how many racist things he said, his bosses and advertisers and fellow-travellers could keep denying that he was a racist, because he said so.

“Retrain your mind to acknowledge the things that are right in front of you, that are obvious,” Carlson said, in 2019. This was not a voice-over in an attention-grabbing documentary but a keynote speech at a conservative conference; he was, presumably, saying what he really believed. “There are many downsides, I will say, to Trump, but one of the upsides is that the Trump election was so shocking, so unlikely . . . that it did cause some significant percentage of people to say, ‘Wait a second—if that can happen, like, what else is true?’ ” One of the things that turned out to be true was that Tucker Carlson, known to a previous micro-generation as the guy in the bow tie who was once humiliated by Jon Stewart, could become, for a pivotal half decade, the most dominant and dangerous right-wing pundit in the country. Carlson, like Trump, was written off for years as a laughingstock, but he turned out to have a daunting set of skills. He was a cosseted élite, a coastal prep-school heir and a consummate creature of the D.C. swamp; but, like Trump, he was rhetorically slippery enough, despite all that, to take his place at the vanguard of an ostensibly populist movement. Unlike Trump, he is silver-tongued, industrious, and (as much as it pains me to admit it) a gifted writer—gifted enough that he can tell his audience pretty much anything, including the opposite of what he told them the previous night, and make it feel believable. He has lost the most powerful chair in conservative media, but he hasn’t lost those skills. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of him. ♦



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