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Game Over

The Mystery of Tucker Carlson Is That There Is No Mystery

For years, journalists have fretted over what Carlson actually believed. The truth was always right in front of them.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson laughing
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The biggest takeaway from the trove of embarrassing text messages released as part of the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News isn’t that Tucker Carlson hates Donald Trump. Of course, Fox News’s biggest star does hate Trump: “passionately” so, according to texts he sent to co-workers. He also thinks the former president is a “demonic force” and a “destroyer,” despite his network’s fawning coverage and credulous treatment of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being “stolen.”

Instead, the biggest takeaway is that Carlson, whose show often sets the agenda for the American right and the Republican Party, is a fraud. Every night, as he rails against immigrants and the woke agenda, Carlson is treating his audience with contempt. He tells them that “the elites” think that they’re stupid. Well, he would know: He is himself an elite who thinks right-wing middle America is stupid.

As Politico’s Jack Shafer noted, Carlson’s con is not particularly surprising, but it is nonetheless revealing, considering Carlson’s vocal distaste for phonies. In his 2003 quasi-memoir Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News, Carlson attacked the then king of late-night right-wing cable commentary: “[Bill] O’Reilly’s success is built on the perception that he really is who he claims to be,” Carlson wrote. “If he ever gets caught out of character, it’s over. If someday he punches out a flight attendant on the Concorde for bringing him a glass of warm champagne, the whole franchise will come tumbling down. He’ll make the whatever-happened-to … ? list quicker than you can say ‘Morton Downey, Jr.’” Now Carlson is caught out of character—though whether he goes the Morton Downey Jr. route remains to be seen.

But Carlson’s texts are also notable in that they bring to a conclusive end one of the most tiresome and persistent mysteries of recent years: namely, whether his midlife metamorphosis into foaming fascist performance art was ever serious to begin with. Carlson revitalized his career after Trump’s election by recognizing that the general incoherence of what came to be known as Trumpism was an opportunity. The then-presidential candidate was inconsistent and prone to ad-libbing, but his general vision—of a country gone to hell, overwhelmed by immigrants and governed by an elite who despise hardworking white Americans—was the future of the Republican Party. Carlson’s punditry quickly took on apocalyptic and authoritarian hues; as a result, he became the most important right-wing pundit in the country.

But Carlson was not always like this. Before becoming a cable news star (and then, via Jon Stewart, a cable news has-been and then a star again), Carlson was a fairly typical Beltway media type. He was conservative and preppy—this was before he cast off the bow tie to cosplay as the voice of America’s downtrodden workers—but he was a fairly typical D.C. journalist, writing for not just conservative publications but elite ones: He was a staffer at The Weekly Standard but also regularly wrote for Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and even The New Republic. He was a pretty good magazine writer, with a witty, conversational style and a willingness to go for the throat. He was also, by most accounts, a pretty good hang and a party fixture.

Once Carlson ascended to his perch as the poet laureate of the MAGA movement, many of his fellow Beltway writers were perplexed. Was this the same Tucker Carlson that they used to see at cocktail parties? Surely Tucker didn’t actually believe the horrible things he was saying—after all, he was just like them. And so a journalistic fixture of the Trump era was born: profiles of Carlson that attempted to figure out whether he was really serious, or whether this was all an act, or whether it was a different, third thing.

These pieces were earnest; they often relied on interviews with Carlson (insisting, of course, that he really did believe these things) and with friends and former friends (reminiscing about his talent and generosity, perplexed by his descent into the fever swamps). As Conor Friedersdorf wrote in one such piece, “Carlson squandered his considerable God-given talent for scrupulously true commentary, opting instead for clickbait at The Daily Caller or dumbed-down demagoguery at Fox.” There was always hand-wringing, but there were few conclusions: No one could ultimately determine what Carlson actually believed, why he changed, or if he was still deep down the preppy hack that many knew from Georgetown salons.

Carlson’s text messages do solve that mystery, to the extent that it was one at all. Tucker Carlson often does not believe the things that he says; his union with Donald Trump was a marriage of convenience more than anything else; he has no integrity whatsoever. He will happily say one thing on television and another to his friends and co-workers. As I wrote in my own contribution to the literature of Carlson profiles, when he landed at Fox News his television career was basically over: He had washed out even at MSNBC. Carlson’s ambition and desperation fused, creating the persona that he has held onto ever since. It made him a star. It cost whatever integrity and decency he had left, which by that point wasn’t much. It is also clear from his texts that Carlson is intensely concerned with Fox’s financial well-being and frets endlessly about its stock price: Carlson’s hatemongering gets eyeballs, and eyeballs mean money. That, at least, is one way of thinking about the texts.

Carlson, throughout his career, has excelled at occupying the center of the Republican Party. The one exception was during a period of existential crisis for both Carlson and the GOP—roughly from the debacle of the Iraq War to the rise of the Tea Party and the quasi-populism that would ultimately produce Donald Trump. Carlson is very good at sniffing out what the Republican Party is and then positioning himself as one of its thought leaders—while an overrated writer and journalist, he has been, nevertheless, both a very good self-promoter and someone more than willing to shift his own stances to advance his career.

But Carlson’s texts also show the general pointlessness of trying to figure out what Carlson really believes. Beltway types were fascinated by his transformation because it was ultimately a story about them: Who goes fascist? but for pundits and cable news pontificators. But these stories were inherently myopic and treated a natural political evolution as a profound mystery. Tucker Carlson transformed politically with the political party he has always identified with and been a part of. And whether Carlson actually believes half of the things he says is beside the point, even though it seems that he probably doesn’t. What he actually thinks doesn’t matter at all.