Fox News’s defenestration of Tucker Carlson has prompted the usual round of prognostications from the professionally savvy observers of the political media, with a primary focus on what could possibly prompt the network’s dismissal of their mewling cash cow. That we are still being teased about the underlying causes of the split, in a steady drip of mini-disclosures about the not-exactly-shocking things Carlson said or texted behind the scenes, only underscores both the stakes and the sense that this will one day make for a great streaming docuseries. (Hear me out: Penn Badgley as Carlson, Zachary Quinto as Lachlan Murdoch. Look at them together.)
But a larger question looms. A year from now, will Carlson look like the winner, having taken his significant audience with him to whatever platform he lands on next? (One insta-poll estimates that as much as a third of the show’s viewers would.) Or will it be his former masters at Fox News, whose corporate muscle and Augean stable of smooth-faced talking heads will eventually reshape the brains of their elderly core viewership, making them forget there was a Tucker-shaped hole ever even there?
It all depends on how you define “winner”—because Fox News is going to be fine for a long time no matter what—but I believe the mechanics of Carlson’s ouster mean he’s guaranteed to remain relevant, if not dominant. So far, unnamed sources have identified several different “final straws” as bringing Carlson’s relationship with the network to an untimely end. Was it his overt proclamation that conservatives are engaged in an end-times-level fight against evil? Was it that he referred to a female executive as the C-word? Perhaps we are to believe that this text message that contrasted a violent mob with “how white men fight” is the thing that finally undid Rupert Murdoch’s garters. By the time you read this, there could be some new disclosure, with further winking intimations.
Whatever the underlying cause, this all fits a zeitgeisty pattern: Carlson is a victim of cancel culture—a career path so secure that I can almost imagine everyone on either side of this very public dismissal cooked up the whole scheme together. After all, decrying cancel culture and highlighting the thin thread that connects a righteous conservative to his place in the larger world was a key part of Carlson’s schtick. Over the weekend, Last Week Tonight put together a highlight reel of Carlson repeatedly (repeatedly!) bemoaning the level of sensitivity one has to possess to navigate the modern world; these days, he marvels, just having “stupid opinions” or “saying the wrong thing, even accidentally” will get you “drummed out of polite society.”
I will leave to readers the question of whether the cubicles once stalked by Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes constitute “polite society,” but there is no question that the public narrative of Carlson’s firing is that, on some level, he “said the wrong thing.” What’s more, Carlson’s own post-departure video was a masterfully subtle iteration of the now-standard rejoinder of the newly canceled: Now I can say what I truly think.
“The [issues] that will define our future,” he says in his basement tape, “Get virtually no discussion at all: war, civil liberties, emerging science, demographic change, corporate power, natural resources. When was the last time you heard a legitimate debate about any of those issues? It’s been a long time. Debates like that are not permitted in American media.”
Carlson had been off the air for about 72 hours at the time that video was released—so is that not how long it had been since his viewers had heard a legitimate debate on those subjects? On his last show, Carlson uses the words “demographic change” (not “great replacement theory,” which is what he means) in a segment that repeated one of his show’s core themes: Democrats are losing voters and thus need to “import … people from elsewhere—people who are financially dependent on [Democrats] in order to live.” To be fair, I don’t think the segment was a “debate,” and I guess 72 hours can seem like a long time if you’re trapped in an isolated home television studio in rural Florida.
Really, to hold in your head the idea that “debates like that are not permitted” alongside the reality of the person who insists this to be the case had also hosted his very own primetime talk show up until a few days before is to tolerate a level of cognitive dissonance that is beyond me—beyond most people, I think. Fortunately for Carlson, Fox viewers have a lot of practice at exactly that exercise, twisting their brains around the network’s self-contradictory (and self-congratulatory) unique selling proposition: “What we are saying to you has been censored. No one is allowed to broadcast the information you are watching on television right now.”
The familiar ritual of a relatively unknown bigot being elevated to a national platform in order to talk about being silenced is infuriating enough when it’s promoting the transphobic mind-fuck, “You’re not even allowed to say there are two genders.” Every story about such “controversies” is allowing someone to say exactly that, almost always to an audience exponentially larger than whatever local venue tried to keep hate out of the public square. Of course, Carlson has done those exact segments. Here are just two.
Now, Carlson and Fox News have cooperated to play out the same escalating tune, this time with a bigot who’s already famous. Already, white supremacists suspect that the Jews are responsible for Carlson’s pink slip. Rudy Giuliani confided to NewsMax, “I was expecting it,” since Carlson had somehow gotten away with “about a year or two, year and a half of what I would consider historic and inspired journalism.” Marjorie Taylor Greene theorized that the network might yet try to “keep [Carlson’s] mouth shut with duct tape” by enforcing a noncompete clause; she begged them to reconsider, as Carlson “has been covering the news stories that Americans desperately want to hear [but] don’t.” (Again: What?)
The duty of a Fox host has always been to weave together conspiracy theories (Obama’s birth certificate, FEMA camps, Trump’s 2020 loss), urban legends (“The Knockout Game,” welfare queens, “groomers”), and inflammatory local news stories (migrants being accused of crimes, Christians getting canceled) around a core of white panic.
Carlson did pioneer a new aesthetic approach, contrasting slack-jawed gawping at the most inane “revelations”/confirmation bias with the personal style of a yacht club aspirant in what I’ve always assumed was a weird attempt to hit an everyman note as an average between the two.
But his true filip on this basic pattern was to range much farther afield for bits of fearful flotsam from which to create a mosaic of impending catastrophe. In 2018, one of his producers was outed as a participant in a white supremacist message board. His fetishization and popularization of the great replacement theory have already been mentioned and are well-documented. The last month of his show saw him treat a 4Chan prank about the “Trans Day of Vengeance” as a sincere threat; he also cited a debunked document (also from 4Chan) as proof that “Ukrainians are losing the war.”
Outside the Fox News ecosystem, freed from even the most nominal strictures of journalism and taste, Carlson will be able to engage with the fascist fringe more directly. I admit I am frightened of what that will look like. The Fox personalities who have also been forced (or chosen) to create perches outside the fold have only remained at all relevant to the degree they’ve arced rightward: Megan Kelly, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly have managed to stay more-or-less in the public conversation as Trump-defending Covid skeptics. Meanwhile, Chris Wallace and Shep Smith—who are they again?
Carlson’s departure from prime-time cable to any soapbox that will have him (Daily Wire? Rumble? Substack? I sort of want it to be Substack.) will re-create on a grand scale the feedback loop that bounces misinformation at an increasing volume between the internet fringe and Fox until it finally screeches into public view as policy—prompting a new palette of outraged utterances that can be caricatured and fed back into the system. Split from Fox, Carlson simply moves to what is now the weaker pole in the dynamic, but I doubt that means Murdoch’s megaphone will be any quieter. If anything, the whole system will just have more juice.