If there’s one thing to say about Tucker Carlson’s abrupt termination from Fox News on Monday, it’s that it’s funny. It’s funny because Carlson is a singularly unsympathetic figure, a preppy, blue-blooded brat who has spent the most recent period of his career cosplaying as a voice for “forgotten Americans.” It’s funny because Carlson is a mendacious fraud who has used his perch at Fox News and his status as the host of America’s most watched news show to spew an unending spray of hateful bile to his audience of terrified septua- and octogenarians.
It’s funny because Carlson himself loved nothing more than to mock journalists—real ones, not the ones like him, who only played them on TV—when they lost their jobs. (When hundreds of my colleagues across the academy got laid off in 2019, Carlson told them to learn to code—I can only hope he’s signing up for Codeacademy at his compound in Maine right now.) It’s funny because now Carlson has gotten fired from MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News, which is I suppose a kind of accomplishment. It’s funny because we’re in the middle of season 4 of Succession. Sometimes, timing is everything.
Carlson’s whole deal was premised on the idea that he was fundamentally unaccountable—so popular that there was nothing the network could do to rein him in. He could say whatever he wanted about minorities, women, and his bosses, and no one could bat an eye: Success had rendered him bulletproof. As it turns out, while he may be popular, he’s not as beloved as he thought. He regularly pulled two million viewers, thanks in part to his hateful schtick (that schtick being telling his viewers that they are about to be systematically murdered by their political opponents and/or immigrants while cocking his head like a confounded dog) and thanks in part to his place at the heart of Fox’s prime-time lineup. It didn’t matter. He got knifed anyway.
But what really makes this funny is the element of surprise. Carlson’s firing was genuinely unexpected. Unexpected things happen all the time, of course. Usually these things are terrible: natural disasters, mass shootings, environmental and economic devastation. They are moments that remind you of the precarity of life and the general sense that things are going off the rails—that our lives are not only uncertain but that we are constantly making life on this planet worse and not better. Tucker getting fired from Fox News is not like that. Fox News may get worse. (It probably will!) Life on this planet may get worse. (It probably will!) But Tucker Carlson losing his job as the American right’s most influential voice makes things a little bit better, if only for a moment.
It’s also funny because Carlson truly deserves it. If anything, this moment recalls the time that Donald Trump caught Covid-19—another moment when someone whose whole deal was premised on never facing consequences for his actions had to face consequences (or at least a version of them) for perhaps the first time. Mostly though, Tucker Carlson getting fired is funny because he’s a terrible person who has made this country a demonstrably worse place.
We know very little about Carlson’s firing. We know that it was abrupt: When Monday began, Fox News was planning on airing Tucker Carlson Tonight. He was let go before noon. The timing suggests acrimony—a lot of acrimony, in fact. Carlson was not allowed to have a final show; staffers at the network, and even at his own show, were not given forewarning. Only a brief statement was sent out.
We know that the timing is almost certainly significant. Last week, Fox News settled a lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems in which it will pay nearly $800 million, an acknowledgment that it ran several false claims about election fraud during the 2020 election and its aftermath. While a few of those claims came from Carlson, many of the most damaging leaks surfaced during the lawsuit did. Dominion gained access to Carlson’s texts and found a trove of embarrassing statements: Carlson, who has vocally backed Trump on television, texted that he “passionately hated” the former president and thought his lawyers were fools. These texts confirmed what everyone pretty much already knew: that Carlson was a fraud, that he was playing a character on television, that he viewed his audience with contempt. And yet, in spite of all of this, there was little sign that his credibility with his audience had taken a hit.
Carlson also repeatedly slammed Fox News’s management, writing, “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” a day after the network called the election for Joe Biden. “Those f-----s are destroying our credibility,” Carlson wrote in another text. “A combination of incompetent liberals and top leadership with too much pride to back down is what’s happening.” These statements, according to The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr and Sarha Ellison, contributed to his departure. Beyond that, however, we don’t know much.
That Carlson is taking his leave amid a general sense of uncertainty is in some ways fitting. For most of the Trump era, Carlson himself was treated as a mystery by much of the media—and, at times, as a traitor. Carlson had once been a generally serious (albeit fratty and conservative) magazine writer: In the 1990s and 2000s, he made a name for himself writing vicious, often witty, profiles for The Weekly Standard and others, including The New Republic. He quickly transitioned to a career on television, where he became renowned for his characteristic trait (smugness), but even that was viewed as defensible by many in the industry: Television rewards shallowness, and Carlson was playing the game with a winning hand.
And yet his transformation into a virulent proponent of Trumpism—as well as his more or less open flirtation with ethnonationalism and white supremacy, his disgust at immigrants and multiculturalism, and his giddy fixation with often ridiculous culture-war issues—struck many as a shocking transformation. Numerous profiles of Carlson were written trying to puzzle out what happened—there was a sense that if you could unlock Tucker, you could understand what had happened to America.
None of these efforts were particularly compelling because Carlson himself simply wasn’t that interesting. He seized a moment in 2017, at a time when cable news had an opening for someone who could harness Trump’s base and feed them a steady diet of red meat stories revolving around undocumented immigrants doing crimes and corporate America giving in to the woke mob (by making cartoon candy spokespeople less fuckable).
Whether or not Carlson believed in what he was doing—and he clearly believed in a lot of it, if not all of it—was in most ways immaterial. Tucker Carlson Tonight was a show most notable for its profound cynicism and for its willingness to consistently meet its audience somewhere on the low road. Carlson hoodwinked many into thinking that he was a thought leader, when he was really more of a follower.
Now Carlson will likely face a humiliating reminder that he was never quite the superstar he thought he was. Fox News will replace him, likely with someone quite similar—and maybe, as The Atlantic’s David Graham argued on Monday, someone worse. Where Carlson goes is unclear, however: Fox News’s right-wing television competitors are all comparable minnows. The right-wing podcasting space is crowded, though it is funny to think of Carlson reading Blue Chew and MeUndies advertising copy. The conservative publishing world remains open for business, but Carlson’s interest in and gift for writing has long since disappeared.
And so, for now at least, we’re left to reckon with Carlson’s time at Fox News. He was, to be fair, someone who did have agenda-setting power within the post-Trump American right. But it’s still unclear how much power he actually had—which is one question that will be tested now that he’s out there on his own, without the Fox News rating machine humming along behind him. This is ultimately the funniest thing about Carlson’s exit from Fox News. He thought he was bigger and more powerful than the network. He thought he could do whatever he wanted. Instead, he got yet another reminder—the latest in a long stretch of them throughout his career—that maybe he’s just really not that special.