The way that mainstream news outlets engage with Tucker Carlson has fallen into a predictable cycle. The host of Fox News’s flagship opinion program will say something outrageous on his nightly program—perhaps he will disparage immigrants in gross and inflammatory ways, or attack the public health consensus on Covid-19. Maybe he’ll offer a tortured array of alternate hypotheses for how Black people are killed by police. Whatever content is on offer, the reaction is always the same.
First, of course, comes the outrage—particularly among liberals, but also among his media peers or political commentators. Media Matters’ rapid-response clips of Carlson’s remarks are distributed on social media. Tweets are sent; columns are written; boycotts are urged. In the instances where Carlson addresses the controversy, he invariably doubles down on it. But more often than not, he simply breezes past the momentary surge of opprobrium. His critics, realizing they’ve been duped, start ignoring him again. Then he says something else, and the cycle begins anew.
It’s clear by now that Carlson doesn’t actually have anything interesting or original to contribute to American public discourse. His against-type ideas—a post-Iraq skepticism of foreign military intervention, an aversion to traditional GOP economic orthodoxy—are hardly novel these days, and they’re nothing he came up with on his own. Besides, his heterodox positions are hardly his greatest priority. Some news outlets have tried to cast Carlson as a populist provocateur or a speaker of unspoken truths. The reality is that he’s become something else: incredibly boring.
What does Carlson actually believe? He is not subtle about it. He argues that immigrants make America “dirtier” and “poorer.” He criticizes politicians for praising diversity and suggests that it weakens the country. He often portrays the rioters who attacked the Capitol on January 6 in sympathetic terms while framing the Black Lives Matter movement almost exclusively in terms of violent unrest and civil disorder. He thinks white supremacy is a “hoax” and denounced President Joe Biden’s calls to fight it at the inauguration as nothing but a stealth plot to persecute conservatives. There is no mystery here.
Other prominent racists see Carlson as their champion. He has received praise from Klansmen and neo-Nazis like David Duke and Andrew Anglin, the latter of whom called Carlson “literally our greatest ally.” Derek Black, the estranged son of a prominent white-nationalist leader, said in 2019 that his family watches Carlson to hone their messaging strategy. But in media circles, Carlson’s bigotry was often treated as a curiosity or an eccentricity in the early Trump years. My colleague Nick Martin, who wrote about this phenomenon in 2019, noted that view-from-nowhere journalism tends to result in reporting that “launder[s] the extremity of [its] subjects.”
Carlson’s biggest problem is that bigotry is not actually that interesting. In addition to its moral repugnance, overt racism is among the dullest and least interesting views that one can hold in American life. Debating or discussing bigotry on its own terms is ethically untenable since it suggests that there might be some inherent truth in it. Racist views can’t even claim value from scarcity: Instead of watching Carlson’s broadcast each night, you can get similar perspectives by casually browsing 4chan and other racist forums. Carlson is the retail version of a worldview that can be purchased at wholesale. In fact, one of Carlson’s former writers regularly trawled and took part in such forums, where he posted a staggering amount of racist and misogynistic vitriol and retrieved material for Carlson’s use.
What’s more, unvarnished racism is a difficult sell in modern American society. Large segments of the country still impose social and civic consequences on people who espouse nakedly racist views in public. Those who wish to do so must adopt a strategy to deflect from this potential blowback. Some, like Donald Trump, mix it with bombast and theatricality. This forces their critics to argue against absurd propositions, like building a wall and making Mexico pay for it, instead of tackling the underlying substance.
Another tactic is to cast oneself as a brave truth-teller of sorts, someone who’s willing to say what “they” don’t want you to hear. That way, when society’s civic antibodies kick in, the speaker can invoke “cancel culture” or “political correctness” or something similar. To elide their self-interest in this tactic, the speaker also often suggests that the listener is really “their” true target, creating a sense of shared grievances where none may necessarily exist. “When was the last time you stopped yourself from saying something you believed to be true for fear of being punished or criticized for saying it?” Carlson wrote in Politico in 2016. “If you live in America, it probably hasn’t been long.”
These are all familiar tropes among most conservative pundits in the Trump and post-Trump era. For all of Carlson’s faux sophistication and not-really-a-conservative posturing, that’s what he is: an utterly conventional right-wing talking head. The former president showed how “owning the libs” by saying provocative and often offensive things can be a pathway not just to fame and fortune but also to political power. (Structural advantages in the Senate and Electoral College also help a great deal.) In that sense, Carlson isn’t really that different from other conservative commentators who haven’t renounced Trumpism, albeit with a much greater platform than most.
So what makes Carlson different? For one, he’s a lifetime member of the same “elite” that he rails against. Carlson’s father served as president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and was the ambassador to the Seychelles. Carlson himself attended fancy East Coast boarding schools and colleges. He wrote for years for conservative magazines and more middle-of-the-road publications (including TNR, ages ago), then turned to a broadcast career on CNN, MSNBC, and finally Fox. My colleague Alex Pareene, writing in 2012 for Salon, argued that Carlson’s transition from the editorial safety nets of magazine journalism to unfiltered live television “exposed him as glib, smug and not nearly as clever as he thought he was.”
That background fueled the need for some reporters and news outlets to find some sort of resolution to the Tucker Carlson question. Maybe he’s trying to capitalize on Trumpism to launch a political career, some have suggested. Maybe he’s just performing an act for a Fox News audience for cynical reasons. The underlying premise—that this isn’t the real Carlson—is also slightly self-serving for certain media circles. If Carlson hasn’t changed, then it means Carlson was like this when he worked for mainstream news outlets and traveled in prominent D.C. circles. It might prompt uncomfortable questions about why no one recognized what he was sooner.
There is plenty of evidence that Carlson was always like this, though. He told a shock-jock radio show in 2006 that he had “zero sympathy” for Iraqis during the war because they “don’t use toilet paper or forks.” Two years later, he said Iraq “wasn’t worth invading” because it was “filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys.” Carlson claimed on the show the Congressional Black Caucus “exists to blame the white man for everything, and I’m happy to say that in public because it’s true,” and once claimed “civilization” was the invention of “white men.” His views on immigration weren’t much different, either: He opined at one point that the United States should only accept immigrants if they were “really smart” or “hot.” On immigrants who “picked lettuce,” he wondered, “Are those people who are going to build a stronger country 20 years from now?”
Carlson’s biggest problem in the Biden years won’t be lack of material. At a certain point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Even his most steadfast critics can only write “Tucker Carlson said something racist” so many times. In recent months, he’s tried to combat this a few ways. One tactic is escalation. In April, he effectively adopted the “great replacement” conspiracy theory developed by white supremacists and claimed that Democrats were “trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters, from the Third World.” The Anti-Defamation League urged Fox to fire Carlson; the network stood by him.
Another tactic is diversification. Carlson, to his slight credit, tried to convince Trump of the pandemic’s seriousness in its early months without much success. More recently, he’s turned sharply critical of public health measures intended to blunt the spread of Covid-19. Earlier this week, he took his opposition to mask-wearing to absurd levels. “Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid at Walmart,” he told viewers. “Call the police immediately. Contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives.”
Comparing parental caution during a pandemic to child abuse is egregiously wrong, even by Carlson’s usual standards. Urging millions of viewers to report people to the police on baseless grounds is grossly irresponsible. More than anything else, it’s a naked attempt to incite liberal outrage—and all the right-wing viewership and attention that comes with it. In today’s media environment, there’s nothing more boring than that.