Tucker Carlson Makes His First Post-Trump Play
In less than two days’ time, the most powerful Republican, conservative or merely Democrat-skeptical venue in the United States, will no longer be the White House, nor the defunct Twitter account of the executive mansion’s most recent occupant.
It will quite likely be the marquee television show of Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight.
We’ve been here before. Founded in 1996, the network pioneered by Rupert Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes had a clear raison d’etre the last time Republicans were sent packing from the summit of power, with the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. The network takes seriously its commitment to journalism and reporting, blended with plainly conservative commentary. But in moments of Democratic dominance, it can strike a different tone, of defense: of conservatives, of free enterprise, of its interpretation of patriotism.
It’s 2021, not 2009. Much has changed.
One man who was given call-in privileges on that network during that last period of conservative exile, Donald Trump, became president, to start. Roger Ailes is dead and he was the network’s Phil Spector, a master producer with a rap sheet of ruined lives. He haunts the place still.
The Murdoch family has morphed, ejecting the liberal James Murdoch (now a Pete Buttigieg backer) from the war cabinet. Buttigieg himself has become an unlikely star on the network, but that’s an interesting sideshow. The main event is the pragmatist Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s heir apparent, like Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of his father’s empire. And perhaps like MBS, he’s said to have taken the reins a little early.
And Tucker Carlson has taken the seat of Bill O’Reilly, the trailblazing modern pundit. The “O’Reilly Factor” was an early casualty of the Trump years and the death of Ailes. Into the breach stepped Carlson, who immediately outshined his predecessor, particularly among politicos and intellectuals (unlike Carlson’s Ship of Fools, O’Reilly’s Killing series didn’t exactly fuel talk of a future president).
Now, Carlson takes on O’Reilly’s old role, in the opposition years. He also may take on part of Trump’s old portfolio, as talk of a political future persists. The role probably won’t fall again to Trump, as the soon-to-be ex-president is hounded by prosecutors and creditors, potentially barred from the presidency. And Murdoch and New York will be keen to wash their hands clean of the 45th president after his months of chatterboxing that he might found a rival network. Carlson will also assiduously heed the cautionary tale of Glenn Beck, who delivered the Murdochs monster ratings during the Tea Party craze, only to be dumped, basically for being embarrassing.
But this is no Tea Party redux, whatever the dreams of 2024 contenders Kristi Noem and Nikki Haley, sharers of Milton Friedman memes and penners of laissez-faire Wall Street Journal op-eds, respectively. The last year has shown that business can work with the government, hand-in-glove, and be proud of it: to lock down your family, to endorse a previously fringe political movement and tacitly endorse its attendant violence, to de-platform the president of the United States, and scores of those who support him. Whether or not you think those measures were justified, it’s clear that tens of millions of Americans do not. They will seek to find their voice in Carlson.
Carlson tried his first hand at the role, on Monday night. “Good evening and welcome to Tucker Carlson Tonight,” he said. “Our capital city is under military occupation tonight. There are now 26,000 armed federal troops in Washington.”
Several elements of Carlson’s monologue — which was swiftly lapped up by the faithful on social media — distinguish him from his forebears. He’s also drawn lines for potential rivals to cross, if they dare.
First, and strikingly, is Carlson’s pronounced willingness to strike out against Conservative, Inc., and the small government apparatus that funded much of the early opposition to the last Democratic president. “Members of the media call for a secret police agency. This is the stuff of libertarian nightmares,” Carlson said. “It’s what they claim to hate. Where are they now? Why isn’t billionaire libertarian man of principle Charles Koch spending billions of dollars to stop this?” (The Charles Koch Foundation has, for many years, funded some of this magazine’s work, focused on foreign policy.)
Second, Carlson has declared war on the neocons. He has tacitly endorsed the line of longstanding critics of the war on terror, many of whom have written for this magazine (Carlson is on TAC’s advisory board, but is not involved in editorial policy), that vicious American policies abroad, borne of extraordinary circumstances, may eventually be visited on those at home. Moe Davis, the former chief Guantanamo Bay prosecutor who lost the election to Rep. Madison Cawthron last fall, has called for his old rival’s jailing along War on Terror lines.
“There’s far more evidence of Congressman Madison Cawthorn’s guilt than the guilt of more than 95 percent of the detainees,” Davis said, which, if nothing else, is certainly not comforting to hear about the American work at Gitmo. “Keep in mind that Colonel Davis has spent his life under arms,” Carlson argued. “He means ‘enemy’ in the way Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators at Gitmo were our enemies. You remember what we did to Osama bin Laden.”
Third, and perhaps most notably, Carlson has rejected “whataboutism,” perhaps the watchword of the moment. He has denounced efforts to: compare the government reaction to last summer’s riots, adjacent to racial justice protests, to the present reaction to the violence visited upon Capitol Hill, adjacent to Trump-organized protests of the electoral vote. He thinks this is much worse, one a grievous overreaction, the other perhaps not hard line enough.
“Collective punishment” is a word I would watch out for more on Carlson’s program.
“They don’t blame entire groups for the crimes of a few,” Carlson inveighed. “Bigotry is immoral. So is collective punishment. There’s nothing more un-Amercian.” Carlson’s approach is not universal, even on the right. There will be those who argue, potentially forcefully, that the government should take an uncompromising line against all violence and rioting, and spare little in its prevention.
Sen. Tom Cotton called for a military response to last summer’s upheaval, and rejected the effort to overturn the Electoral College certification earlier this month. He has sought to present the nation’s unrest in painstakingly neutral terms, something that could be electorally palatable in its own right if this decade’s future is Weimar-style street violence. Cotton has so far declined to respond to Carlson’s argument that it is the right that is now more aggrieved, nor has publicly weighed in on the present armed presence in Washington. What he has said is that he is focused on the upcoming impeachment trial, which he says Congress will soon lack the authority to convene, and stymying what he sees as future President Biden’s anything-goes immigration prerogatives.
Even if Carlson, once derided as America’s bow-tie-wearing reactionary par excellence, is now the monopoly man’s enemy, the old anti-socialist line isn’t totally going away.
Invoking the people’s republics of China and North Korea, Carlson said: “‘Domestic spy agency’ is a not-very-subtle euphemism for ‘secret police.’ That’s what they’re calling for.” Drawing on circumstantial evidence, Carlson previewed the previously unthinkable. “Democrats in Congress support a new secret police agency. Why wouldn’t they support it? What better way to protect your own power than funding a quote, ‘domestic spy agency to fight extremists at home’?” He said: “Those ‘extremists,’ needless to say, will be your political opponents. You won’t have to worry about them any more. They’ll be in jail.”
The black sports writer Jason Whitlock was Carlson’s first guest Monday night and he hailed Carlson’s monologue as the most important message he’s heard in years. He flamed out of the now-monolithically leftist ESPN, among other outlets. Glenn Greenwald, a frequent Carlson guest, appeared on Fox an hour earlier discussing corporate technology censorship. Greenwald, perhaps most accurately described as of the libertarian left, recently departed the outlet he founded, The Intercept, alleging it had taken on an essentially Maoist air, and was editing his stuff. Carlson closed his program by airing a plea by Pamela Anderson, that Pamela Anderson and a longtime associate of Julian Assange, that the U.S. government pardon Assange, who now sits in prison in Britain. “That’s called journalism,” Carlson said of Assange’s work.
If Carlson is a messenger of the right, he is like Trump, or even Ronald Reagan before him, an eclectic one. With a toehold in the entertainment world, he is a performer with a wide friend network, and a bespoke ideology that he means to popularize.
Welcome to the Biden years.