The Courage of Tucker Carlson
Tucker Carlson anchored the most interesting and important news show on television.
Tucker Carlson is out at Fox News, and his enemies are aflutter with media-industry schadenfreude. Contrary to their self-image, most media types—including in right-wing journalism—are highly risk-averse and deferential in the extreme to the imperatives of power. So they can’t help crowing “Aha! Aha!” when a genuinely defiant and independent-minded figure among them appears to stumble.
Such a figure is Carlson. Beginning in 2016, he anchored the most interesting and important news show on television. He soon emerged as a tribune for populist opponents of endless war and Big Tech-enabled censorship and surveillance, at his best ripping into the GOP’s plutocracy caucus as well as mainstream Democrats. Along the way, his monologues became a nightly must-watch, including for the largest share of Democrats in the coveted twenty-five-to-fifty-four demographic.
His rebirth as a Fox News star followed what he has described as a dramatic ideological shift in the mid-2010s. The “old Tucker” was a distinguished magazine writer before making his way into America’s living rooms as the resident conservative on CNN’s debate show Crossfire. That Tucker largely toed the standard GOP establishment line on most issues. He was for the Iraq War and “pro-business” in a bland way; he wore a bow-tie.
Even then, there were signs of a latent heterodoxy. A sympathetic-if-archly-mocking profile of Ron Paul for the New Republic, for example, was full of humane concern for the libertarian lawmaker’s “band of misfits.” Their obsession with restoring the gold standard, argued Carlson, was understandable when set against the backdrop of Wall Street chicanery that had plunged ordinary people into misery: “If the gold standard is crazy, is it really any crazier than hedge funds?”
The Trump phenomenon prompted a more thorough reassessment of the conservative establishment. In January 2016, while I was still trying to wish away The Donald from the GOP primary as a Wall Street Journal editorialist, Carlson correctly predicted that he was here to stay. In an essay for Politico, he took on the GOP’s Never Trump contingent (which back then meant nearly the entire conservative commentariat):
The people doing the scolding [of the base]? They’re the ones who’ve been advocating for open borders, and nation-building in countries whose populations hate us, and trade deals that eliminated jobs while enriching their donors, all while implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change. Now they’re telling their voters to shut up and obey, and if they don’t, they [the voters] are liberal.
Soon came the primetime show, the platform Carlson used to amplify these themes—and to launch nightly grenades “into A--hole H.Q.,” in his own memorable phrase. Like me, you may not have agreed with every position Carlson staked out. To paraphrase the late Ed Koch, if you agree with any pundit on twelve out of twelve issues, see a shrink. But it would be the height of mendacity to deny Carlson’s courage and independence of mind.
For one thing, Tucker normalized criticizing Wall Street and corporations from the right. That may not seem like much of a feat for younger conservatives, who came of age in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But for older Republicans, it was a huge deal—a rupture with ancient pieties. When he skewered Kevin McCarthy for sharing a plush D.C. apartment with pollster and “Google lobbyist” Frank Luntz, Carlson wasn’t just exposing the gross swampiness of the future House speaker; he was also teaching a Reaganite audience to question corporate power.
His best moments, for my money, came when Carlson took on the financial industry, including GOP mega-donors, for “buying large stakes in American companies, firing workers, driving up short-term share prices, and, in some cases, taking government bailouts.”
While left-of-center cable outlets became organs for 24/7 anti-populist outrage-mongering, Carlson’s show was where you turned for serious critiques of corporate America, not least Big Pharma. He railed against America’s curious tolerance for direct-to-consumer drug advertising and the massive industry lobbying that made it possible. He made a national story out of the scandal of Moderna trying to put taxpayers on the hook for the intellectual-property lawsuit lodged against it by firms alleging the mega-firm nabbed their vaccine technology without payment.
Then there was Carlson’s resistance against the uniparty’s drive to relentless escalation in Ukraine. Opposing the war meant questioning the military-industrial complex, an even dearer cause to the bipartisan establishment than Big Pharma. Even by Tucker standards, he was blunt on this count:
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People are getting very rich from [Ukraine escalation]. People are getting very rich from this. That's why Washington supports it and very soon, we're going to give you a case study on who exactly is getting rich from it. So many people who are promoting this war that is killing an endless number of Ukrainians are personally benefiting from it, and you should know that, but the cost to us is profound.
Simply put, Carlson’s was the only antiwar voice on cable news and one of a very few across all mass media. If there were comparably consistent and voluble antiwar critics on left mass media with upwards of 3.5 million nightly viewers, I haven’t come across them. Here, too, much of his ire was directed against his own pro-war party. This won him the affection of millions of Americans, but also plenty of enemies, not least within institutional conservatism.
Those enemies are cheering today. But I suspect they will soon be chagrined by Tucker’s next move. Godspeed, my friend.