Tucker Carlson is only capable of two facial expressions. One is a deeply furrowed brow that narrows his eyes to a point at which they almost disappear, not dissimilar to the face a child makes when they are hangry, or lost, or both. He uses this expression when he is describing the point of view of someone with whom he disagrees. The other is a wide-eyed look of pleading which sends his eyebrows rising at least an inch in the other direction. It is an expression meant to portray logic and reason, of why-do-you-hate-America indignity. He uses it chiefly when describing his own views and solutions to the problems facing the country.
All of this is to say that if eyes are windows to the soul, Carlson’s spirit is black and white. He is a binary man whose whole career has been defined by his opposition to, and his apparent hatred of, other people and ideas. And at a time when America is more polarised than ever, he is having a moment.
Tucker Carlson Tonight, his daily show on Fox News, became the highest-rated program in all of cable news for the last quarter, with an average audience of 4.3 million viewers. His voice bounces off the walls in the White House residence each evening, where the president is an avid watcher. Republican strategists have encouraged him to mount his own run for the most powerful office in the world.
The upcoming election has a real possibility of making Trump a one-term president, and conservatives are already looking for a vessel to keep Trumpism alive. Could Tucker Carlson, a man whose fortunes have risen in tandem with Trump’s, outlast him?
Carlson’s breakout television role was not so different to what he does today. In the early 2000s, he played the voice of the Right on CNN’s Crossfire, a show that pitched liberals against conservatives in gladiatorial nightly debates. The format first aired in the 1980s and revived when Carlson was brought in to do battle with alternating hosts on the left, Paul Begala and James Carville.
The show was emblematic of the growing trend in cable news at the time to chase ratings by setting up fights between their guests — it was Punch and Judy punditry. It worked for a while, but viewers soon grew tired of it. The issue came to a head in an infamous appearance on the show in October 2015 by Jon Stewart, who took Begala and Carlson to task for their performative and partisan on-air fights, accusing them of “hurting America”.
“You’re doing theatre, when you should be doing debate,” he told them, to applause from Crossfire’s own audience. “Here is what I wanted to tell you guys: Stop. You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.”
That show was seen as a turning point. When it was cancelled three months later, Jonathan Klein, the then president of CNN, said that he sympathised with Stewart’s arguments.
Carlson was 35 years old when the show was canned. The Stewart dressing down was described by one YouTube commenter as Carlson’s “villain origin story”, perhaps in recognition of the transformation he undertook over the next few years.
Following a three-year stint at MSNBC, during which his show was plagued by low ratings, Carlson co-founded the Daily Caller, a news website pitched as “the conservative answer to Huffington Post“.
It was during his time as editor-in-chief of the Daily Caller that Carlson began to draw accusations of having sympathy for nationalist and white supremacist ideas. It would become a common theme in his career from here on out: Carlson would always deny harbouring these views himself, but would continually find himself in the company of people who did.
His association with the nationalist fringe became more pronounced with Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency. In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Centre — a non-profit that monitors the activities of domestic hate groups and other extremists — wrote that the Daily Caller “has a white nationalist problem”.
“Throughout the 2016 election and since, the Daily Caller has not only published the work of white nationalists, but some of its writers have routinely whitewashed the Alt-Right, while one editor there is an associate of key Alt-Right figures,” the report said.
“The Daily Caller’s embrace of white nationalists reflects the resurgence of the nationalist right, ethno and otherwise, represented by President Trump. Trump’s campaign and Electoral College victory electrified the radical right and pulled the Overton Window further in their direction,” it went on.
Carlson was still involved with the Daily Caller when he debuted the Fox News show that he still hosts today. Introducing the first episode on November 14, 2016, Carlson said he wanted to “challenge people on their power, pierce pomposity, crush smugness”.
And yet, he promptly started going after the party and associated establishment figures that had just lost power in a general election, along with the media, the deep state, and anyone but the most powerful man in the most powerful office in the world.
Like the Daily Caller, one of the show’s primary themes was white grievance, a theme that continued to win him fans among white nationalists.
Will Carless, a journalist who covers extremism for the investigative site Reveal, co-authored an investigation into Carlson’s influence on and relationship with the alt-right and white supremacists online. The 2018 report found widespread support for Carlson on websites and forums associated with hate speech.
“As our reporting showed, Tucker Carlson, more than any other major news personality, has been instrumental in bringing fringe ideas to the mainstream,” Carless told The Independent.
“He’s revered for that in some of the most vile corners of the internet, where racists and other extremists see him as their ‘useful idiot’, someone with huge reach who seems ever-willing to flirt with their hateful ideas.”
Carlson’s stock response to accusations of sympathy for white supremacists is indignation. Fox News did not provide comment when approached by The Independent.
“I’m not responsible for your views or the views of any other human being – I’m responsible for mine,” he told Reveal in response to its investigation. “You’re trying, quite transparently, to smear me with the views of people I have nothing to do with.”
But the racism and the bigotry is not always so far detached. This month, his top writer, Blake Neff, was revealed by CNN to have been posting racist and sexist comments to an online forum for years.
CNN wrote that “there has at times also been overlap between some material he posted or saw on the forum and Carlson’s show”. Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and President Jay Wallace condemned “horrific racist, misogynistic and homophobic behavior”.
Tucker Carlson Tonight is not so different to Crossfire, in that each night Carlson attempts to tear down a liberal position. But instead of debating another person, he argues against the most bad-faith interpretation of his opponent’s ideas.
In the early days of the show he was fond of entertaining a theory that Trump’s election was a blow to the corrupt elite, but that it still lurked in the background ready to rob hard-working middle-class Americans of their victory. This framing allowed the wealthy, privately educated heir to a large fortune (Carlson is an heir to the Swanson frozen food empire), avid supporter of the most powerful man in the world, to portray himself as an anti-establishment figure. In those shows he acted as a kind of anger translator for the syntactically challenged president. He would mock outraged reactions from the Left to Trump’s abuses of power.
The dog-whistle politics of Carlson’s show has been a constant. But the 51-year-old father-of-four has grown increasingly fond of accusing those with whom he disagrees of hating America.
A recent segment on Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic senator from Illinois and a former US Army lieutenant colonel who lost both of her legs in Iraq, was a classic example.
Carlson took issue with a suggestion by Duckworth, whose name has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Joe Biden, that there should be a national dialogue over the removal of statues dedicated to historical figures with links to slavery, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
“It’s long been considered out of bounds to question a person’s patriotism. It’s a very strong charge, and we try not ever to make it. But in the face of all of this, the conclusion can’t be avoided. These people actually hate America. There’s no longer a question about that,” said Carlson.
The attack prompted Biden campaign spokesman T.J. Ducklo to respond. “Tucker Carlson and his colleagues who traffic in hate speech masquerading as journalism are accomplices to Donald Trump’s perverse mission to use division and bitterness to tear this country apart,” she said.
Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, also hates America, according to Carlson. She is a regular target on the show.
“Virtually every public statement she makes accuses Americans of bigotry and racism. This is an immoral country, she says. She has undisguised contempt for the United States and for its people,” he said in a recent tirade.
He also regularly attacks Omar’s fellow freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – on one occasion calling her a “moron” and “nasty”, excoriating her for allegedly casting herself as a “revolutionary” while having had a comfortable upbringing.
There is indeed an aura of hate around Carlson, but most of it seems to emanate from him. It is directed towards anyone who doesn’t look and think like Tucker Carlson, a side of America that is perhaps unfamiliar to him, but which is no less American.
It’s a sign of the extremes to which Carlson has fallen that he attributes these unpatriotic feelings to Elmo, the beloved Sesame Street character. Carlson took issue with a segment on the show in which the puppet addressed the Black Lives Matter protests and tried to explain the issues behind them to his young audience.
“It’s a children’s show. Got that, Bobby? America is a very bad place and it’s your fault, so no matter what happens, no matter what they do to you when you grow up, you have no right to complain,” Carlson said.
“That’s the message and it starts very young,” he added, with his brow furrowed.
A national reckoning over racial injustice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd might have been a humbling moment for Carlson. As the demonstrations spread to every corner of the country, polls showed a shift in support for the Black Lives Matter movement among the public.
At the same time, the public appeared to sour on President Trump and his handling of the protests, as he responded with calls to “dominate the streets” and displayed little enthusiasm to address the underlying causes of the anger.
Interestingly, however, this is where Carlson and the president’s fortunes differed. While Trump’s ratings plummeted, Carlson seemed to find his voice. It might seem counterintuitive for a man who claimed racism doesn’t exist in America to gain viewers at a time when the country seemed to be waking up to the idea that it very much did, but Carlson attracted even more viewers by pushing fears over the protests.
Carlson’s show was dominated by images of fire and brimstone. The protesters were “criminal mobs”, the demonstrations were “a form of tyranny” and “a threat to every American”, according to Carlson.
Even as the protests calmed down and violence gave way to largely peaceful mass demonstrations, Carlson’s backdrop remained on fire. It was “us” versus “them”.
“On television, hour by hour, we watch these people – criminal mobs – destroy what the rest of us have built,” he said during one nightly monologue.
“People like this don’t bother to work. They don’t volunteer or pay taxes to help other people. They live for themselves. They do exactly what they feel like doing. They say exactly what they feel like saying.”
There was little attempt to understand the grievances of the protesters, preferring instead to stoke the fears of his viewers by telling them they were in danger.
“This may be a lot of things, this moment we’re living through, but it is definitely not about Black lives,” Carlson said. “And remember that when they come for you ― and at this rate, they will.”
It was Tucker Carlson at this angriest and most unhinged, and the ratings went up.
The president, who came to power by stoking us-and-them divisions, often takes his cues from Carlson’s show. He watches it regularly and often models the White House agenda based on the show’s topics.
In one particularly striking example, a segment on the alleged seizure of land from white farmers in South Africa “because they are the wrong skin colour”, in Carlson’s words, prompted the president to direct his secretary of state to action.
“I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers. “South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.” @TuckerCarlson @FoxNews,” Trump tweeted.
As it turned out, Carlson was wrong about the policy, and later corrected the record.
The pair never appear more in sync as when discussing issues of racial justice. On the Black Lives Matter protests, Trump will often ape the language of Carlson’s monologues. A comparison by Axios of Carlson’s language on the movement and Trump’s 3 July speech at Mount Rushmore repeated much of them almost word-for-word.
Jane Hall, a former professor in journalism and media studies in the School of Communication at the American University in Washington DC, used to be a regular pundit on Fox News, where she often debated the role of the media with Bill O’Reilly.
“His influence is unprecedented,” she said of Carlson. “What is new about this moment, is that we have in president Trump someone who watches these shows, Carlson and Hannity, and reacts to it. People who want to reach him want to be on Carlson’s show,” she told The Independent.
“He has a tremendous impact on the policies set by the president of the United States.”
She added that Carlson and Trump both share a propensity to push the boundaries of acceptable language, creating a “dangerous” atmosphere.
“They are pushing the envelope. They are pushing more and more radically offensive characterisations of immigrants, of Black Lives Matter and so on. This language has been normalised and Carlson seems to be taking it further.”
While his rhetoric has disgusted Democrats, Republicans have been talking up Carlson as a potential contender in 2024. Politico recently interviewed 16 prominent Republicans who said there was an “emerging consensus” in the GOP that Carlson would be “formidable” if he were to run.
“Some strategists aligned with other potential candidates are convinced he will enter the race and detect the outlines of a stump speech in Carlson’s recent Fox monologues,” the report said.
The suggestion that Carlson, who is riding a wave of popularity by engaging in the same heated and racially tinged rhetoric that led Trump to the White House, is being lined up as a potential successor, is as good an indicator as any that the Republican party is unlikely to change direction any time soon.
Trump, commenting on Carlson’s rise to the top of the ratings this week, tweeted: “Great, but did MAGA have anything to do with this great ratings success?”
That observation is probably accurate. But it is also true the other way around.