Tucker Carlson: The Populist Paladin of Primetime
When the host of the Fox News program “Tucker Carlson Tonight” visits his son at the University of Virginia, he leaves his bosky neighborhood off Foxhall Road in Washington, D.C., drives through Georgetown, crosses the Key Bridge, and enters Virginia. Eventually he picks up U.S. Route 29 towards Charlottesville, rolling through Prince William County, which is largely rural, dotted with small towns. “My neighborhood in Washington is great,” says Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson. “We have wonderful neighbors, and we love it. And what’s not to love? Our neighborhood looks exactly like it did in 1955. But when you get past Arlington, those small towns look nothing like they did even 15 years ago. They’re unrecognizable, especially to people who grew up there.”
The things Carlson loves about his leafy Washington neighborhood—the safety, security, and sense of community—have been “utterly destroyed in these small towns,” he says. “Jobs have vanished. The standard of living has gone down. Even the life expectancy of people in these areas of America is going down. And this is the terrible part: No one in Washington cares. The middle class in this country is collapsing and the people who live where I live—who are part of permanent Washington and make policy—don’t even care.” This isn’t because they lack empathy, says Carlson, but because they are never touched by the problems faced by Americans who live in these towns. “My neighbors,” he says, “never have to deal with the problems caused by the policies they set for the rest of America.”
Tucker Carlson’s comfortable neighbors are a mere subset of the American elites who, night after night, trigger his amused if often acidic scorn. As the most prominent of the new hosts in Fox’s re-jiggered evening lineup (after the departure of Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and Greta Van Susteren), Carlson has established himself as a distinctive voice of a conservatism struggling to redefine itself and find its footing in the Age of Trump. And his heady brew of ideological certitude and brash showmanship seems to be working. At the beginning of the year, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” averaged 2.7 million viewers a night, says Nielsen Media Research, beating CNN’s Anderson Cooper and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and making the show number one in their enviable 8 p.m. time slot.
Carlson avoids both O’Reilly’s hokeyness and Hannity’s pro-Trump histrionics, instead drawing on his own strength as rapid-fire commentator and relentless interrogator—that rare Grand Inquisitor with a boisterous sense of humor. Besides the obvious entertainment value, what’s also worth following is how Carlson’s own birthright conservatism (he says he has never gone through a “liberal phase”) is a work in progress. He’s increasingly willing—sometimes eager—to challenge positions sacrosanct to the Republican right, especially to neoconservatives. He drives neocons crazy, for example, with his opposition to the overseas militarism they support and with his skepticism about their fixation on the “Russian threat.” That he is perfectly willing to irk the orthodox was on display at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference when he dared suggest that the New York Times, while liberal, is also a paper “that actually cares about accuracy.” Boos followed, but he remained unfazed, lecturing his audience about how conservatives should care about getting their facts right, too.
He remains well within the ideological tent on many red meat controversies of the day, however, particularly on immigration, which he considers a factor in the troubling condition of many rural communities. It isn’t the only factor, certainly, but it particularly animates Carlson these days. When Trump outraged polite society with his crude characterization of Haiti and African countries, Carlson countered that “almost every single person in America” in fact agrees with the president. “An awful lot of immigrants come to this country from other places that aren’t very nice,” he said. “Those places are dangerous. They’re dirty, they’re corrupt, and they’re poor, and that’s the main reason those immigrants are trying to come here, and you would too if you lived there.”
As for the idea that “diversity is our strength,” Carlson lit into Sen. Lindsey Graham for saying that America is “an idea, not defined by its people.” This claim, Carlson said, might surprise the people who already live here, “with their actual families and towns and traditions and history and customs.” It might also come as a surprise that “they’re irrelevant to the success or failure of what they imagined was their country.” If diversity is our strength, it must follow that “the less we have in common somehow the stronger we are. Is that true? We better hope it’s true because we’re betting everything on it.”
In his attitudes toward “diversity,” Carlson considers Graham not much different from his Northwest Washington neighbors. “My neighbors,” he says, “don’t understand why it is not a good idea to keep ‘welcoming’ untold thousands of low-income, poorly educated immigrants whose wage expectations are lower than those of Americans who are already here and are struggling to keep their jobs.” Who is hurt most, he asks, by this competition for jobs? His answer: “Americans who are themselves poorly educated—especially, I might add, African-Americans.” Organized labor, a pillar of the Democratic Party for decades, always seemed to understand this. Bill Clinton—“the last Democrat to recognize this problem and speak to the middle class”—also understood it. “So why can’t my neighbors?”
Carlson pauses, tosses another piece of Nicorette gum into his mouth, and laughs. It’s not a bitter laugh, but one of seeming disbelief. While he can be abrupt and sometimes even brutal with guests on his nightly program, one-on-one he’s good humored and ebullient. He’s that way, according to those who know him, even during breaks with on-air guests he is about to behead. He is exceedingly pleasant company for a leisurely lunch at swank Bistro Bis near the Fox headquarters, within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol. (The former smoker orders a plate of cheeses, which seem not to interfere with the gum, which he says both “sharpens the intellect and calms you down at the same time. It’s great.”) His own office, with the kind of framed political memorabilia de rigueur in Washington, looks out on Union Station. His desk is spacious and well-worn; he likes to tell people “it was Millard Fillmore’s,” which is the kind of joke also de rigueur in Washington.
“I have a good life,” he says. The pay is good, and there was a time he could not have afforded a sizeable house in Northwest Washington. After college, for example, he worked on the editorial staff of the now-defunct Policy Review, then owned by the Heritage Foundation. He also paid his dues as a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock and, after that, The Weekly Standard. Back then, of course, he could not have afforded the five-bedroom, six-and-a-half-bath, 7,400-square-foot house he bought last July (purchase price: $3.895 million).
He likes his new neighbors—and the nearby dog park. “My neighbors are intelligent and thoughtful people,” he says, most of whom still have Obama stickers on their Priuses. “They think Trump is awful on immigration, and they don’t see how anyone could possibly view the issue any differently. But that’s because there is only one way that the issue touches them in their lives, and that is in terms of their household help. They worry about ‘Margarita who has been with our family for years and the kids love her and we just want to know that she will be protected.’ They aren’t cynical. They really care about the legal status of their household help. I get that. They just don’t see the issue in any larger social context.”
There is some irony here, given Carlson’s family background. The son of a former president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, director of Voice of America, and ambassador to the African island republic of the Seychelles, this “primetime populist,” as The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins calls him, is clearly a child of privilege. While he no longer sports bow-ties, he looks the part, with that well-scrubbedness we associate with boarding schools. (He went to St. George’s in Middletown, Rhode Island.) On his mother’s side, he is a descendant of St. George Tucker of Bermuda and Williamsburg, who straddled the 18th and 19th centuries, served as one of the first law professors at the College of William and Mary, and was stepfather of the acerbic Virginia Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke. “They thought of naming me St. George Tucker Carlson,” he says. His stepmother is a Swanson frozen-food heiress and niece of Senator J. William Fulbright.
Though Carlson sees the irony, he’s untroubled by it. “I grew up in the world I’m describing,” he acknowledges. “I grew up in Georgetown. I know the way these people think. Look, there are very few poorly educated Honduran talk show hosts who are out to take my job.”
Actually, there aren’t a lot of well-educated, native-born Ivy Leaguers who pose much of a threat, either, given his current audience ratings. But Carlson knows from personal experience that the world he inhabits can be fickle. He has bounced around on cable news programs since 2000, when he went to work for CNN. In 2005, the channel cancelled his show, “Crossfire,” and he was hired by MSNBC, where he hosted “Tucker,” also dropped in 2008. Fox picked him up as a news contributor and eventually hired him as co-host of “Fox & Friends.” “Tucker Carlson Tonight” debuted in November 2016. (“Sooner or later,” he writes in his breezy 2003 memoir of his cable career, Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, “just about everyone in television gets canned, usually without warning.”)
Kelefa Sanneh writes in The New Yorker that Carlson has been doing cable news “for far too long to be considered a rising star,” though he still seems like something of a fresh face. Liberals of course can’t stand him—and aren’t likely to notice how his views have been changing. “I’m probably more liberal right now than I’ve ever been,” he says. In prep school and at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he considered the arrival of The American Spectator and Commentary “thrilling.” For years he read those magazines “cover to cover,” he says. “They were great, especially the Spectator, which had such spirit and published writers like P.J. O’Rourke and Andrew Ferguson. It’s depressing to see how far both those once-great magazines have fallen.”
Though Carlson supported the Iraq War when Bush initiated it, he later denounced it as “a total nightmare and a disaster, and I’m ashamed I went against my own instincts in supporting it. I’ll never do it again. Never.” He has also developed a contempt for much of neocon foreign policy—and for some of its chief proponents. Back in July, a guest on his show was Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, who once suggested that the troubled lands of Islam “cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”
When Carlson told Boot that it was folly for the United States to have tried to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and that neocons (and Democrats) are wildly exaggerating the Russian threat, Boot accused Carlson of being a “cheerleader” for Russia, which Carlson called “grotesque.” Boot professed indignation that Carlson was “yukking it up over the fact that Putin is interfering and meddling in our election process,” and Carlson called it “odd coming from you, who really has been consistently wrong in the most flagrant and flamboyant way for over a decade.”
Boot, who can take care of himself, held his own in the exchange, but some hapless “guests” find themselves in a mismatch. Carlson, who seems only too happy to press his advantage, can come off as a bit of a bully, especially when he bursts into derisive laughter. “To me, it’s just cringe-making,” Ferguson, now with The Weekly Standard, told The New Yorker. “You get some poor little columnist from the Daily Oregonian who said Trump was Hitler, and you beat the shit out of him for ten minutes.”
Maybe so, but as the self-styled “sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and groupthink,” Carlson deploys his well-honed tools of debate in a cause that many consider valuable, even indispensable—especially in calling out the agents of foreign policy adventurism. Peter Beinart, late of The New Republic, anticipated something conservatives have yet to address but might need to soon. “In his vicious and ad hominem way,” wrote Beinart in The Atlantic, “Carlson is doing something extraordinary: He’s challenging the Republican Party’s hawkish orthodoxy in ways anti-war progressives have been begging cable hosts to do for years [wading into] a debate between the two strands of thinking that have dominated conservative foreign policy for roughly a century.” These two strands, presumably, are the long-dominant hawks and the still outnumbered non-interventionists troubled by the expansion of federal power that goes with those who seem to favor one war after another—often fought simultaneously all over the globe.
This raises a question: Can you be a conservative if you don’t embrace foreign policy interventionism? “Look,’’ Carlson says, “if Bill Kristol is a conservative, I am not.” Further, he suggests he actually isn’t much of a conservative on some economic issues either. “I do not favor cutting tax rates for corporations, and I do not favor invading Iran,” he says. Sometimes, he adds, “the hard left is correct. The biggest problem this country faces is income inequality, and neither the liberals nor the conservatives see it. There is a great social volatility that goes with inequality like we have now. Inequality will work under a dictatorship, maybe, but it does not work in a democracy. It is dangerous in a democracy. In a democracy, when there is inequality like this, the people will rise up and punish their elected representatives.”
In fact, they did rise up, says Carlson, when they elected Trump in 2016. “There was no mystery to why Trump won. He was the only candidate speaking to the collapsing middle class. Conservatives do not understand the social consequences of economic inequality.”
Carlson rarely leaves Democrats out of his sights for long, however. Yes, he will go after neocons, but he still directs plenty of firepower at the opposition party, which has only recently come to fear Russia as our “enemy” and uses this perceived threat to undermine President Trump. “Democrats cannot accept the fact that Trump is the president, so they have to find ways to tell themselves he really didn’t win the election,” Carlson says. “First, it was James Comey’s fault. Now it is the Russians with their ‘collusion.’ The same crowd that for years made excuses for Stalin, now that the Soviet threat no longer exists, has decided that Russia is our ‘great enemy.’ The same people who for years were highly distrustful of the FBI and the intelligence agencies now accept on faith whatever comes out of them. It’s a good thing Frank Church is no longer alive to see this.”
Carlson’s skeptical view of U.S. policy in the Middle East can be traced, at least in part, to 2006, which was a strange year in Carlson’s life. That fall, he appeared on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and was the first contestant to be eliminated. (Even Jerry Springer did better.) In Carlson’s defense, he was also doing his nightly MSNBC show “Tucker” at the time and had to miss his dancing classes because he was on assignment in Israel and Lebanon during the war between Israel and Hezbollah. While there, he also was the host of an MSNBC Special Report called “Mideast Crisis.”
It is not clear what he learned on “Dancing with the Stars,” but he learned a great deal, he says, in the Middle East. “First, the closer you get to any situation, at least in terms of these wars, the more confusing and complicated things are,” he says. “Second, the consequences of your actions are never predictable.” The United States toppled the Afghan government in 2001, “and 16 years and $1 trillion later, what do we have to show for it?” American diplomats, he reports, can’t even drive the two miles from the airport in Kabul to our embassy because it’s unsafe. “They have to take helicopters.”
Carlson says that the rise of the brutal Islamists of ISIS was a direct result of the Iraq War, a clear example of the law of unintended consequences. “When you think about it,” he says, “we are still suffering from the ill effects of World War I. The Austro-Hungarian archduke is assassinated, and the world is still feeling the effects. There are unforeseen consequences of any of these actions.”
This concern about consequences sounds eminently conservative, even if a lot of conservatives don’t want to hear it. Like their liberal counterparts, many neoconservatives have fallen under the spell of what Carlson considers the maddening optimism of the American people—the view that we can take any situation around the world and improve it. “Something else you learn in the Middle East is that there are some really crummy places in the world,” Carlson says, adding that Americans viewed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as such an evil leader that, no matter what followed, his overthrow would have to be an improvement. “Well, that is naïve,” he says. “Things can always get worse. But Americans don’t want to believe that, because we lack imagination and we want to help. And as for toppling dictatorships, we don’t seem to realize that there’s something worse than a dictatorship—and that’s anarchy. Because with anarchy, there can be a dictator in any neighborhood: anybody with an AK-47.”
Is Carlson oblivious to the threats confronting America and its allies? He doesn’t think so, even if Boot and other neocons might make that claim. “Am I concerned about North Korea?” he asks. “Am I concerned about Iran? Let’s put it this way. I am concerned about North Korea. I am concerned about Iran, but I am also concerned about Pakistan as a nuclear power. I’m concerned about a lot of things.” When he hears that Iran is the number one sponsor of terrorism in the world, he asks how many Americans have been killed as a result of Iran-sponsored terrorism. Carlson’s answer: “In the neighborhood of none, that’s how many.”
If Carlson’s skepticism about the Iranian threat is still a minority view in Washington, he is used to having unpopular opinions. He seems comfortable taking on the establishment, as he defines it, whether the subject is Iran, Russia, immigration, or trade—or Trump. When asked what he thinks of Steve Bannon, the president’s erstwhile chief strategist who also deals in controversy, Carlson replies, “I don’t think Bannon fully understands the ideas he espouses.” But he adds: “I will say this for him: He has been brave enough to say that the people in charge in Washington don’t know what they are doing, with respect to Iran and a lot else.” The people making the decisions these days are the equivalent of day traders, “making it up as they go,” Carlson says. “The private equity model is not good for the economy, and it is not good for the government or the American people. It’s too shortsighted.”
Like millions of other Americans, Carlson worries about the current administration, though not necessarily for the same reasons. “My concern is that Trump is actually weaker than most people realize,” he says. “I don’t worry about the people who go on TV and say Trump is a ‘racist’ and a ‘fascist’ and all that. They have no effect on the administration. The worry for me is the people who want to use Trump as a host to do things they want, like a war with Iran.” Many of the people who advocated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government, which posed the one real counterbalance to Iran, are now calling for American ground troops in the Islamic Republic—“people like Max Boot, who calls anyone who disagrees with this idea a quisling.”
Again the law of unintended consequences comes to mind for Carlson, as does the son he drives down U.S. Route 29 to visit in Charlottesville. “I’m against those people who want a war with Iran. Those are the people who might get my 20-year-old son killed in a war in Iran. Why would I favor that?”
Alan Pell Crawford is the author of How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain, among other books.