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Tucker Carlson, Unbowed

He's petty, whiny, and contradictory. So why does he keep ruling the ratings night after night?

Linda Spillers/WireImage for Bragman Nyman Cafarelli/Getty

On weeknights at 8 p.m., Tucker Carlson is beamed into elderly white America’s living rooms like Walter Cronkite used to be, to tell the audience flatly how the world is: Mostly he’s dutifully intoned the long-standing Republican culture-war party line, traditional America under siege from out-of-control leftists and foreigners. Then, in a 15-minute monologue in January, he delivered a different kind of jeremiad, on the sins of market capitalism. “Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster,” he declared. “You’d have to be a fool to worship it.” And the fools worshipping it were Republicans, he explained; they had fought to make the world safe for banking, to prosecute foreign wars, and to provide cheap consumer goods (“garbage from China”), while failing to stop unchecked economic exploitation from destroying “family and faith and culture.” And then, after all that, he reverse-pivoted to end on a flat declaration that the Republicans were the only possible solution. “There’s no option, at this point,” he said.

Such contradictions might destroy a lesser or better man, but for Tucker Carlson they are not even meaningfully understood as contradictions in the first place. This is why he is thriving, even after the serial unearthing in March of things he said years ago on Bubba the Love Sponge’s radio show (“I’m just telling you,” Carlson says in one of the clips, “arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old and a 27-year-old is not the same as pulling a stranger off the street and raping her.”) Advertisers backed away from his show, but viewers did not, and Fox News can weather a weak hour of advertising revenue if the viewers are happy—or more precisely, if the viewers are angry and scared and engaged with their televisions, as Carlson makes them.

There isn’t any real secret to it. Carlson has given himself over as material to a series of magazine profilers through the years—GQ and The New Yorker have done excellent jobs with him—and it’s all been right there on the page, wherever he’s been in his shifting career: the self-assurance, the pettiness, the inconsistencies, the indifference to the inconsistencies. The performative fly-fishing in Central Park, the fly-tying, those outdoorsy yet fussy arts of manliness. The satisfaction and the resentfulness. The profiles have been thorough and incisive, and none of them have kept him from going on as what he is.

“Ultimately, I’m just not a guilty white person,” Carlson wrote for Esquire, 16 years and however many incarnations ago. That was when he was bow-tied and boyish and still wrote magazine pieces, this one about a loopy overseas trip in 2003 with the Reverend Al Sharpton as he led improvised peace talks to end a civil war that had been raging in Liberia since 1999. The key to the gag was his unrepentant right-wing preppy whiteness, and his magazine-writer’s awareness of it (he called himself “the whitest man in America”), as it scraped against the famous or eccentric black leftists he traveled with—Sharpton and Cornel West, as well as three Nation of Islam guys, two of them, he quipped, named James Muhammad, a “league of extraordinary gentlemen.” Writer to reader, that Tucker Carlson would draw you in and smack you with an epiphanic punch line, as he bonded with his most famous companion over their shared outlook: “Sharpton doesn’t hate whites after all. He just hates white liberals.”

Hating white liberals is still Carlson’s theme, but now he wears a long tie and doesn’t much bother with charm. His lack of guilt is hectoring, not insouciant. His voice is whiny. His head has thickened with age in a way that gives him, as he squints contemptuously straight on into the camera, the cross-eyed aspect of a planarian or a South Park character.

If you’re not in the target audience, it’s remarkable how archetypally unappealing he is. He is Tom Buchanan now, or a snotty prep school villain of the teen movies that came out when he himself was sent away to St. George’s for high school in the 1980s. No one has ever liked his kind, in the popular imagination of a free and equal America.

Yet here he is, ruling the cable ratings for the 8 p.m. hour: the man of the people, telling his audience that “our leaders” are failing us, preying on us, destroying our grandchildren’s future. He hates the credentialed professional class as only a WASP who was born into some money and then became extremely moneyed in childhood can hate it (when he was ten, his father married Patricia Caroline Swanson, heiress to the Swanson frozen-food fortune). Like many leftists, he knows American meritocracy is a false promise—even today, only the lucky or the wealthy can rise to the top—but he also knows that the system that preceded it benefited him and people like him. Fifty years ago, he wouldn’t have needed to worry about the approval of people who were actually good at school or visibly hardworking. The only approval he believes should count is his own; in his profiles, he seems to have a mild fixation on the word “impressive” as a way to classify people, usually to devalue them.

Carlson has his fair share of insecurity as a white person. It’s how he, like Donald Trump, bonds with his audience. In his profile of Sharpton, Carlson professed not to understand “racial solidarity”—“that I’d be responsible for the sins (or, for that matter, share in the glory of the accomplishments) of dead people who happened to share my skin tone has always confused me.” Likewise, today, he warns against demographic transformation and calls immigration a Democratic plot to steal votes. His hostility to immigration and demographic change may be the closest thing to a sincere core belief running through his career.

Lately, he has taken to bashing rich elites, as well. In February, he brought the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, who had just told the Davos set that they should pay more taxes, onto his show. Carlson wanted to talk about that, and about the hypocrisy of the ruling elite. But Bregman replied, “It’s not very convincing, to be honest,” that Fox and Carlson were suddenly advocating holding the rich accountable. “You are a millionaire funded by billionaires, that’s what you are,” he said, and Carlson began swearing at him and calling him a moron.

Carlson can’t stand it when his critics treat anything he says or does as if it has some fixed or lasting meaning, rather than whatever transitory audience response he was going for. And his backers don’t mind: He can talk about raping teenage girls or the subhuman nature of Iraqis, and have it dismissed, by Bubba the Love Sponge writing in The Wall Street Journal, as “an edgy comic persona” he’d adopted for the broadcast. It’s how he can defend Trump against criticism from Mitt Romney one moment, and denunciate the capitalism-fueled immolation of all that was once healthy and decent in everyday American life the next, making the claim, as he did in January, that even if the Republicans had caused this disaster, only they could solve it.

Carlson’s vision of “a clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself” had an echo of another performance that a magazine writer wrote about long ago:

During a speech at the W.E.B. DuBois center in Accra, Sharpton came off as something approaching conservative. He described black gang members as “savages” engaged in “crass, despicable, irresponsible behavior.” He all but denounced hip-hop culture and the “irrelevant Negroes” it produces. “DuBois didn’t come here to teach Ghanaians how to break-dance or call their grandmother ‘bitch,’” Sharpton said. Decency, hard work, academic excellence—that, said Sharpton, is the path to dignity and self-improvement.

What Carlson realized, on that trip, when he listened to Sharpton castigate the Democratic Party establishment, was this: “Sharpton isn’t really running for president of the United States. He’s running for president of black America.” In discussions of what Tucker Carlson has done, and what he’s doing, the Sharpton piece is usually brought up as a canonical example of the kind of skilled magazine work he might have accomplished had he stuck with being a real journalist, not some outrage-spewing talking head. But maybe as he watched Sharpton turn grievance into performance, and performance into influence, he was absorbing something more than a lively story to tell. He was witnessing what a person could become, if they wanted to.