There has been a lot of speculation about whether Tucker Carlson wants to be president, speculation that can only increase after his performance as moderator at the Family Leader presidential forum last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa. Since Donald Trump declined to appear at the event, organized by conservative Christian leader and Iowa kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats, Carlson was easily more famous and influential than any of the candidates he interviewed, and I am including the former vice president and a sitting governor in my evaluation. He also outperformed all of them—he seemed in better command of the facts, more comfortable on stage, more confident in the audience’s support, and he received the most applause. Carlson’s presence, historically speaking, might just be more important than Trump’s absence—he’s the only one on the right who can define what the presidential race is going to be about. Coverage of Trump is largely focused on what is happening to him and not what he says or does. When not in front of a friendly audience, Trump mostly paces and frets around Mar-a-Lago only two tissue boxes shy of a Howard Hughes impression. Meanwhile, Carlson produces the content everyone else reacts to.
But I don’t think Carlson wants to run for president. After watching and listening to all eight hours or so of his interviews (you can watch them here yourself)—and the two interviews of him before and after the event (I told you he was more famous than the candidates)—I think Carlson isn’t just uninterested in being the Republican nominee. He’s not interested in whoever is. He may not care if there is a nominee. When Glenn Beck asked Carlson about 2024 in the post-forum interview, Carlson told him, “They (Democrats) seem to have it pretty well locked down. (When) mail-in ballots become the majority of votes … I don’t know if this is winnable.”
My other reason for believing Carlson doesn’t care about the GOP nominee is that Carlson is a pitch-black nihilist who said from the stage that, and I quote, “In this society, the core problem is people are too afraid to die,” right before agreeing with Beck that even though we might be living in the End Times, “the upside is it’s a richer way to live.”
Carlson’s performance at the conference has already been memorialized in the immediate aftermath with a few viral videos of the “SEE X BE DESTROYED” category: You can watch “Tucker Carlson EVISCERATES Mike Pence over Ukraine” or “Tucker Carlson Goes NUCLEAR on Asa Hutchinson’s Past Trans Controversy”—specifically, his pressing of Asa Hutchinson on the former Arkansas governor’s veto of a ban on gender-affirming care and an excruciating exchange with former Vice President Mike Pence in which he all but accuses Pence of being party to the persecution of Christian leaders in Ukraine.
I sincerely hope Carlson never interviews Pence again—I’m sure Pence hopes he doesn’t as well. For my part, I’ve now felt bad for Pence twice in my life (no one deserves to be lynched), and I don’t want it to become a trend. But it was difficult to not feel a twinge of sympathy when Carlson launched his attacks on both men, because his leverage was completely derived from well-placed lies.
With Hutchinson—who is, let’s be clear, no ally to trans kids—Carlson casually noted that Hutchinson’s original objection to the ban was that it extended to “nonpermanent” treatments such as puberty blockers. But “now that we know such treatments are permanent,” Carlson wondered, had Hutchinson changed his mind? It’s devious framing: There’s no way to answer it without giving transphobes ammunition; it’s “When did you stop transing your kids?” We don’t “know” any such thing about puberty blockers. Yet Hutchinson was so flustered by the approach, the audience probably didn’t notice that Hutchinson toes the line on all the other made-up moral panics, including not wanting “boys in girls’ bathrooms” or “men playing in women’s sports.”
Pence’s humiliation was sheathed in a similarly distorted assertion. As Pence was gamely defending the U.S. presence in Ukraine, Carlson insisted he was “confused” and “I don’t mean to be disrespectful,” but he “sincerely wondered” how Pence, as a Christian, could support the Zelenskiy government, since “it’s very clear that the Zelenskiy government has arrested priests for having views they disagree with.” Pence repeatedly told him that he’d been to Ukraine and asked Christians there about it, and they’d said they were not persecuted. Carlson wouldn’t let it go, and Pence’s sphincter-like demeanor briefly unclenched; he almost expressed emotion! And no wonder: This is actually a much cruder version of the impossible question, as Carlson is simply asserting, “I know you’re beating your wife, why won’t you stop? (I don’t mean to be disrespectful).”
It’s worth dwelling on these exchanges as representative, though my examination of them may last longer than the candidacies themselves, because Carlson’s vast influence means that the forum stands an excellent chance of being a preview of how the 2024 primary will go. To judge by Tucker’s questions for Hutchinson, Pence, and the rest, protections for trans kids, whether Ukraine is worth defending, and “censorship”/the presence of a deep state will be the issues the candidates debate. It will be the Primary of the Extremely Online. I would not be surprised if Elon Musk winds up moderating one of these at some point as well. (If he’s smart, he’ll just have Carlson do it again, but I think we’ve landed on a conclusive answer as to whether Musk is smart.)
If Carlson’s instincts are right, the GOP primary will center on three main topics. First of all, the panic over the existence of transgender people is probably just getting started. I have never heard the word “genitals” so much on a weekday afternoon as I did last week. When Carlson didn’t bring them up, the candidates did. It was a reliable applause line when the interviewees suspected they were losing the crowd. Carlson literally announced the centrality of “protecting the children” when Hutchinson tried to pivot off his affirming-care-ban veto. “I hope we’ll be able to talk about some issues,” Hutchinson pleaded. “Well,” Carlson replied, “this is one of the biggest issues in the country.”
Second, in the case of Ukraine, Carlson’s influence is Inception-like in its seamless insertion of fantasy into what is now certain to be a frequent topic, a distortion certain to be echoed at town halls and on debate stages to hound anyone who has advocated support for Ukraine. You see, the reason that anyone thinks Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s persecution of Christians is “very clear” is that Tucker Carlson said so on his old Fox show, when he told his audience that he was quoting a government order that said “personal economic and restrictive sanctions will be applied to any Christian caught worshipping in unapproved ways.” Carlson’s liberal embroidery on the real language of the order (relating to the relationship between the Orthodox churches of Ukraine and Russia) sidesteps the fact that the order does not even use the word “worship.” Or “unapproved.” Nonetheless, that quote about “any Christian” being punished for “worshipping in unapproved ways” has now entered the Ukraine-skeptic sphere as a given truth. Tulsi Gabbard even quoted it back to Carlson on his own show, at which point Carlson registered surprise.
The third and last big theme for Carlson: “censorship.” This is something of a grab-bag category, as it includes Covid conspiracy theories, Hunter Biden gossip, January 6, “the weaponization of the Justice Department,” and, well, the JFK assassination, which Carlson brought up as a confident aside maybe three times. (“They’re obviously not covering for an individual anymore, right?” he asked Beck, who agreed.) Only three times, you may think, but that is three times more than I have ever heard it discussed at all the presidential forums I have ever observed.
A thread of unctuous nationalism ran through all the conversations to such an extent that it hardly counts as a separate topic. Nonchalant references to illegal immigrants, social decay, and “public filth and disorder and crime” limned every dialogue. Carlson asked Tim Scott, in the context of Ukraine, “Why is Mexico less a threat than Russia?” The “total body count from Russia in the United States is zero,” he said, while “I know personally people who have been killed by the government of Mexico.” Nikki Haley was trying to talk about health care when Carlson interrupted to wonder, “There’s never been a higher percentage of Americans on psychiatric drugs; is there a point at which we say, ‘This isn’t working?’”
So, more of that. That’s what we’re in for. Carlson also spoke to Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis. Ramaswamy cut an almost bizarrely optimistic path through his relatively gentle questioning (“I’m making [traditional values] cool again!”), while DeSantis, the last candidate to appear, was given space to restate a lot of his stump speech.
They were all spared the same level of grilling, though the same topics were thoroughly explored. Pundits predicted that Carlson would roast Haley over her stance on Ukraine, but he didn’t—perhaps the pundits take Haley’s candidacy more seriously than he does. The DeSantis session was the friendliest by far, and one could count the Florida governor the winner if you wanted to set a really low bar. DeSantis has the views that already align most directly with everything Carlson seems to believe. They didn’t talk about death, though.
It’s difficult to conjure a left-wing parallel to Carlson performing this role at the Family Leader conference. The best I could come up with is if the truculent hipster dirtbags of Chapo Trap House were tapped to interrogate the Democratic nominees at an event hosted by the 1619 Project during which Gavin Newsom signed a bill requiring that kindergartens host drag queen story hours—an impossible event for a range of reasons. First of all, there is no partisan voice on the left with quite the star power that Carlson currently commands. Rachel Maddow, maybe? She might be as big a celebrity on the left, but she lacks Carlson’s exuberant fatalism. Ironically, the closest analog might be Jon Stewart when he was at the peak of his influence—when he was able to, say, defenestrate a certain hack conservative pundit so hard his bow tie flew off and never came back.
Such an alignment on the left is impossible, mostly because of the left’s major players’ chronic inability to see their futures as entangled in the way that Carlson, the GOP, and conservative Christians imagine theirs are. To the extent conservatives believe there’s a future, that is, because more generally, you will never see the progressive version of what happened on stage last weekend because the Democratic Party has not—the right’s accusations aside—yoked itself to a personable extremist enthralled by the emotional benefits of living through the chaos and grief of this political moment. “The intensity is actually good for your relationships,” Carlson said. “My personal relationships with the people that I love have never been crisper and deeper and more rewarding to me.”
“You really think that dying is the worst thing that could happen to you,” Carlson bantered with Beck, “then I have contempt for you.” This call to embrace death was one of the last things talked about on the Family Leader conference stage—the same one that had been the site of Governor Kim Reynolds signing the state’s six-week abortion ban just a few hours earlier. I’ve never bought into forced pregnancy being the same as “pro-life,” but the contrast still draws one up short. Is Carlson aligned with the party of life, or does he wish more of us would embrace death? I don’t know. But the contempt part, that I believe for sure.