Posted on May 2, 2022

How Tucker Carlson Stoked White Fear to Conquer Cable

Nicholas Confessore, New York Times, April 30, 2022

Tucker Carlson burst through the doors of Charlie Palmer Steak, enfolded in an entourage of producers and assistants, cellphone pressed to his ear. On the other end was Lachlan Murdoch, chairman of the Fox empire and his de facto boss.

Most of Fox’s Washington bureau, along with the cable network’s top executives, had gathered at the power-class steakhouse, a few blocks from the office, for their annual holiday party. Days earlier, Mr. Carlson had set off an uproar, claiming on air that mass immigration made America “poor and dirtier.” Blue-chip advertisers were fleeing. Within Fox, Mr. Carlson was widely viewed to have finally crossed some kind of line. Many wondered what price he might pay.

The answer became clear that night in December 2018: absolutely none.

When “Tucker Carlson Tonight” aired, Mr. Carlson doubled down, playing video of his earlier comments and citing a report from an Arizona government agency that said each illegal border crossing left up to eight pounds of litter in the desert. Afterward, on the way to the Christmas party, Mr. Carlson spoke directly with Mr. Murdoch, who praised his counterattack, according to a former Fox employee told of the exchange.

“We’re good,” Mr. Carlson said, grinning triumphantly, as he walked into the restaurant.

In the years since, Mr. Carlson has constructed what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news — and also, by some measures, the most successful. Though he frequently declares himself an enemy of prejudice — “We don’t judge them by group, and we don’t judge them on their race,” Mr. Carlson explained to an interviewer a few weeks before accusing impoverished immigrants of making America dirty — his show teaches loathing and fear. Night after night, hour by hour, Mr. Carlson warns his viewers that they inhabit a civilization under siege — by violent Black Lives Matter protesters in American cities, by diseased migrants from south of the border, by refugees importing alien cultures, and by tech companies and cultural elites who will silence them, or label them racist, if they complain. When refugees from Africa, numbering in the hundreds, began crossing into Texas from Mexico during the Trump administration, he warned that the continent’s high birthrates meant the new arrivals might soon “overwhelm our country and change it completely and forever.” Amid nationwide outrage over George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, Mr. Carlson dismissed those protesting the killing as “criminal mobs.” Companies like Angie’s List and Papa John’s dropped their ads. The following month, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” became the highest-rated cable news show in history.

His encyclopedia of provocations has only expanded. Since the 2020 presidential election, Mr. Carlson has become the most visible and voluble defender of those who violently stormed the U.S. Capitol to keep Donald J. Trump in office, playing down the presence of white nationalists in the crowd and claiming the attack “barely rates as a footnote.” In February, as Western pundits and politicians lined up to condemn the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, for his impending invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Carlson invited his viewers to shift focus back to the true enemy at home. “Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist?” Mr. Carlson asked. “Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” He was roundly labeled an apologist and Putin cheerleader, only to press ahead with segments that parroted Russian talking points and promoted Kremlin propaganda about purported Ukrainian bioweapons labs.

Alchemizing media power into political influence, Mr. Carlson stands in a nativist American tradition that runs from Father Coughlin to Patrick J. Buchanan. Now Mr. Carlson’s on-air technique — gleefully courting blowback, then fashioning himself as his aggrieved viewers’ partner in victimhood — has helped position him, as much as anyone, to inherit the populist movement that grew up around Mr. Trump. At a moment when white backlash is the jet fuel of a Republican Party striving to return to power in Washington, he has become the pre-eminent champion of Americans who feel most threatened by the rising power of Black and brown citizens. To channel their fear into ratings, Mr. Carlson has adopted the rhetorical tropes and exotic fixations of white nationalists, who have watched gleefully from the fringes of public life as he popularizes their ideas. Mr. Carlson sometimes refers to “legacy Americans,” a dog-whistle term that, before he began using it on his show last fall, appeared almost exclusively in white nationalist outlets like The Daily Stormer, The New York Times found. He takes up story lines otherwise relegated to far-right or nativist websites like VDare: “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has featured a string of segments about the gruesome murders of white farmers in South Africa, which Mr. Carlson suggested were part of a concerted campaign by that country’s Black-led government. Last April, Mr. Carlson set off yet another uproar, borrowing from a racist conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement” to argue that Democrats were deliberately importing “more obedient voters from the third world” to “replace” the current electorate and keep themselves in power. But a Times analysis of 1,150 episodes of his show found that it was far from the first time Mr. Carlson had done so.

“Tucker is ultimately on our side,” Scott Greer, a former deputy editor at the Carlson-founded Daily Caller, who cut ties with the publication in 2018 after his past writings for a white nationalist site were unearthed, said on his podcast last spring. “He can get millions and millions of boomers to nod along with talking points that would have only been seen on VDare or American Renaissance a few years ago.”

That pattern is no accident. To a degree not broadly appreciated outside Fox, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” is the apex of a programming and editorial strategy that transformed the network during the Trump era, according to interviews with dozens of current and former Fox executives, producers and journalists. Like the Republican Party itself, Fox has sought to wring rising returns out of a slowly declining audience: the older white conservatives who make up Mr. Trump’s base and much of Fox’s core viewership. To minimize content that might tempt them to change the channel, Fox News has sidelined Trump-averse or left-leaning contributors. It has lost some of its most respected news journalists, most recently Chris Wallace, the longtime host of Fox’s flagship Sunday show. During the same period, according to former employees and journalists there, Fox has leaned harder into stories of illegal immigrants or nonwhite Americans caught in acts of crime or violence, often plucked from local news sites and turbocharged by the channel’s vast digital news operation. Network executives ordered up such coverage so relentlessly during the Trump years that some employees referred to it by a grim nickname: “brown menace.”


Mr. Carlson has led the network’s on-air transformation, becoming Fox’s most influential employee. Outside Fox, Mr. Carlson is bandied about as a potential candidate for president. Inside the network, he answers solely to the Murdochs themselves. With seeming impunity, Mr. Carlson has used his broadcast to attack Fox’s own news coverage, helping drive some journalists off the air and others, like the veteran Fox anchor Shepard Smith, to leave the network entirely. In Australia, the editors of some Murdoch-owned newspapers watch Mr. Carlson’s show religiously, believing it provides clues to Mr. Murdoch’s own views. According to former senior Fox employees, Mr. Carlson boasts of rarely speaking with Fox’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, but talking or texting regularly with Mr. Murdoch. And in an extraordinary departure from the old Fox code, Mr. Carlson is exempt from the network’s fearsome media relations department, which under Roger Ailes, Fox’s founder, served to both defend the channel’s image and keep its talent in line.

Mr. Carlson is powerful at Fox not merely because he is the network’s face but because he is also its future — a star whose intensity and paranoid style work to bind viewers more closely to the Fox brand, helping lead them through the fragmented post-cable landscape. Last year, Mr. Carlson began producing original content for the network’s nascent streaming service, Fox Nation, and quickly emerged as one of the few Fox stars whose presence could lure viewers to fork over additional dollars. Fox does not divulge audience numbers for the service, but last May, Mr. Murdoch told investors that his star had helped increase Fox Nation subscriptions by 40 percent. {snip}


For most of his adult life, Mr. Carlson lived and worked in a very different bubble, the cosmopolitan precincts of Washington. His turn to flagrantly racist ideas has baffled and saddened some longtime associates there, spurring a veritable cottage industry of profiles exploring whether Mr. Carlson’s show is merely lucrative theater or an expression of his true values. But a close reading of Mr. Carlson’s decades in television and journalism, and interviews with dozens of friends and former colleagues, show that “Tucker Carlson Tonight” is both.

Almost from the beginning of his career, he has been marching away from the puckish libertarianism of his young adulthood. Increasingly sympathetic to the nativist currents raging through American politics after the Sept. 11 attacks, and twice cast from the heights of cable news stardom, Mr. Carlson ultimately turned on the old conservative intelligentsia, his hometown and many of his friends. His fall and rise trace the transformation of American conservatism itself. When Mr. Trump ran for president and won, thrusting anti-immigration fervor to the heart of American politics, Mr. Carlson finally found his moment. At Fox, he found his platform.


Mr. Carlson spent a decade writing magazine articles, and he thinks of his television show as a continuous story about America. “I’m a writer, so that’s how I think — in terms of chapters, serials,” he said in the YouTube interview. “I’ll give you one installment today, another tomorrow.” Like Mr. Trump, he is a winking pugilist who rails against elites even as he shapes a movement. Mr. Carlson likes to address his audience directly: “You” are decent, generous, deserving. “They” — the pro-war, pro-China, anti-American “ruling class” — are out to get you. “They’d rather put your life in peril than appear insensitive,” Mr. Carlson says of this ruling class, adding, “They literally don’t care about you, and yet they are still in charge.” He delivers these grim sermons with peppy good cheer and shameless overstatement. On “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” events of the day are further evidence of truths already established; virtually any piece of news can be steered back to the themes of elite corruption, conspiracy and censorship, from gun control to marijuana legalization to paper drinking straws.

Mr. Carlson’s producers often trawl the web for supporting material, scouring widely read Trumpian sites like Breitbart and The Federalist, obscure right-wing blogs and other corners of the internet. Early on, clips would sometimes be sent to the network’s research team, an Ailes creation known as the Brain Room, for further fact-checking. When Mr. Carlson’s team requested statistics or original research, it frequently revolved around immigration or race, for instance the respective percentages of Asian-descended and Black people in college. According to one former employee who interacted with Mr. Carlson’s team, the Brain Room would occasionally discover that a story had actually originated farther afield, on a racist or neo-Nazi site like Stormfront. Sometimes the Brain Room suggested that “Tucker Carlson Tonight” look for a different source, and over the years, the researchers there heard less and less from Mr. Carlson’s team. “They weren’t digging,” the former Fox employee said. “They were looking for outrageous stories to outrage their audiences.”


But if Mr. Carlson has not always been truthful, he has been remarkably consistent. Almost from the beginning, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has presented a dominant narrative, recasting American racism to present white Americans as an oppressed caste. The ruling class uses fentanyl and other opioids to addict and kill legacy Americans, anti-white racism to cast them as bigots, feminism to degrade their self-esteem, immigration to erode their political power. Republican elites, however improbably, help to import the voters Democrats require at the ballot box. The United States, Mr. Carlson tells his viewers, is “ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.”

He leaves little doubt who these mercenaries are. Among the most frequent recurring characters on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” are Black politicians like the Democratic congresswomen Maxine Waters and Ilhan Omar and Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Mr. Carlson has portrayed, against the available evidence, as a kind of shadow president. He regularly disparages Black women as stupid or undeserving of their positions. “No one outside of her own neighborhood had ever heard of Kamala Harris before she showed up as Willie Brown’s girlfriend,” Mr. Carlson said last November, referring to Ms. Harris’s long-ago relationship with the California politician. “Then a few years later, she became Montel Williams’s girlfriend. Interesting.” When President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Mr. Carlson demanded that the White House release her law school admissions test scores to prove she was qualified.

Seemingly every social ill is laid at the feet of immigrants and refugees — not just working-class unemployment, but rising home prices, out-of-wedlock births among native-born Americans, even the supposedly sorry state of his favorite Beltway fishing spots. With pastoral care, Mr. Carlson reassures his viewers. “It’s OK for you to say: ‘What is this?’ and ‘Maybe I don’t want to live in a country that looks nothing like the country I grew up in,’” Mr. Carlson told a guest in 2017. “Is that bigoted?”

Like his counterparts on the fringe, Mr. Carlson obsesses over Somali immigrants, who represent a tiny fraction of first-generation Americans but are at once Black, Muslim and foreign-born. One of the largest communities of Somali Americans, numbering several thousand people, lives less than an hour from his home in Maine, in the old mill city of Lewiston. In Mr. Carlson’s hands — as on sites like American Renaissance, which promotes “the biological reality of race” — Lewiston is a parable of replacement. Mr. Carlson has repeatedly depicted Somalis as threatening strangers deposited in a small, struggling city without the consent of its citizenry. “Go to Lowell, Mass., or Lewiston, Maine, or any place where large numbers of immigrants have been moved into a poor community, and it hasn’t become richer,” Mr. Carlson lectured a guest in 2017. “It’s become poorer. That’s real.”


But as televised theater, the formula works. Mr. Carlson reliably draws more than three million viewers. When he defended the idea of demographic “replacement” on a different Fox show in April, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, called for his firing, noting that the same concept had helped fuel a string of terrorist attacks, including the 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. But when Mr. Carlson ran a clip of his comments on his own prime-time show a few days later, according to Nielsen data, the segment got 14 percent more viewers in the advertiser-sweet “demo” of 24- to 54-year-olds than Mr. Carlson’s average for the year.