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Why Tucker Carlson’s text message about “white men” matters

A leaked text that reportedly contributed to Carlson’s firing revealed something important about the most racist show on cable.

Tucker Carlson poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio in New York on March 7, 2017.
Tucker Carlson poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio in New York on March 7, 2017.
Richard Drew/AP
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Tuesday night, the New York Times revealed a text message that reportedly played some role in Tucker Carlson’s firing from Fox News. And, on the surface, it simply doesn’t seem much worse than the things he said on air.

In the text, Carlson describes watching a video of several Trump supporters beating up an (alleged) antifa member on the streets of Washington, DC. His reaction is nuanced: He confesses to feeling a certain vicious bloodlust while watching the video — “I really wanted them to hurt the kid” — but realizes that this is a horrific impulse that ought to concern him. “I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed,” Carlson writes.

But the most important line is one where he describes the attack in racial terms: “Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight.”

His obvious implication is that nonwhite men gang up on defenseless opponents all the time, whereas whites only commit violence honorably.

It’s certainly a terrible sentiment (and a false one), but is it any worse than mainstreaming the “great replacement” conspiracy theory developed by white supremacists? Is it more offensive than saying immigrants make America “poorer, and dirtier, and more divided”? Is it more racist than downplaying the killings of unarmed Black men by the police, or accusing Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson (who is Black) of putting on a fake “sharecropper” accent?

Tucker has done all of these things on the air, out in the open. As a result, the general reaction from the commentariat to the New York Times’s reporting on the text is: Really?

“Gotta say all the Tucker leaks seem like post-hoc face saving nonsense that make the ... suits at Fox look worse than him,” the Bulwark’s Tim Miller wrote in a representative tweet. “There’s nothing in them that meaningfully worse than what was on air which they ignored for years.”

I sympathize with this line of thinking. In an objective sense, what Carlson wrote in his text really isn’t any worse than what he said on the air. It seems almost deliberately obtuse on the part of Fox’s leadership to see a difference in kind.

But if you spent a lot of time watching Carlson’s show, as I have, you’d see that this is actually a distinction that matters for his ideological project.

A core part of Tucker Carlson’s message is that he, and his viewers, are colorblind: that they are standing up for the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. against liberals who want to polarize America along racial lines for their own nefarious purposes. “You can’t attack people, whole groups of people on the basis of their race and ethnicity. Not in the media, especially,” he said in a representative February broadcast.

Liberals are so used to dismissing such professions of racial innocence as absurd — and they are — that they may be missing the crucial role it plays in Carlson’s narrative. The norm against explicit racism is so powerful in polite American society that someone like Carlson, who is obviously mainstreaming racist ideas, needs to give permission to his viewers to believe racist things while thinking of themselves as not racist.

That’s the line Carlson toed, very carefully, on air. And it’s one the text about how “white men fight” erases.

Whether or not it’s true the text was an important factor in Carlson’s firing, it’s worth understanding why it’s plausible that Fox’s board would see a meaningful distinction between his public nightly act and this private text.

Because this isn’t just a story about one man and his television show, but about the way that modern American racism operates — how it has managed to survive and even thrive on television’s highest-rated cable news show.

Tucker Carlson’s text message was not surprising — but it was revelatory

To get a better sense of the context in which Carlson’s text would be viewed, I read through a 59-page timeline compiled by Media Matters that documents “Tucker Carlson’s descent into white supremacy” — an exhaustive list of his most inflammatory comments on race and immigration dating from 2004 all the way until a month before his firing.

In the document, there are 205 uses of the word “white”; many are not from Carlson, and some predate his current Fox show. When he says “white” or “white people,” he typically is using it to position whites not as superior but as victims — a persecuted group under attack by the real racists: liberals.

Seeing whites as at once the master race and victims is common in racist thought. Nazi propaganda described Jews as both inferior to Aryans and their conspiratorial oppressors; modern-day white supremacists routinely warn about the prospect of “white genocide,” a specter that Carlson also invoked on his show.

But Carlson’s maneuver was to sever the theory of white victimhood from its explicit white supremacist roots. Fox viewers should stand up for white interests not because whites are the superior race, in this narrative, but because they’re being victimized by the dastardly Democrats and race-mongers who are standing in the way of racial harmony.

The premise of the Tucker worldview is that the United States has, for many years now, had a consensus on an ideal of colorblindness. It is liberals, he argued, who keep seeing race in everything and try to foment racial division. As he put it in a 2018 monologue:

There’s a basic moral principle that was, for a long time, conventional wisdom in this country. It was this: people deserve to be treated as individuals, judged by their own efforts and abilities on the things they can control. Attacking people on the basis of their race is wrong. That was the standard, and for a long time almost everybody in America believed it — or claimed to believe it. Not anymore: on the left, it’s now acceptable — even encouraged — to attack and discriminate against people solely on the basis of their skin color. Now you’re not supposed to say anything about it, but suddenly it’s everywhere.

This was not a one-off. Over and over and over againeven in a segment just weeks before his firing — Tucker Carlson reassured his viewers that they were the ones standing up for colorblindness and against racism, and that Democrats were the ones propagating it.

Consider one December segment, where Carlson attacks some California cash transfer programs that prioritize people of color (among other groups) for payments. He terms it part of a “race-based spoils system” comparable to Jim Crow that would require the use of “Nazi race science” to identify who qualified for race-based payouts.

This is, of course, ludicrous: What Carlson is saying should scan as obvious demagoguery designed to inflame white Republican fears about Democrats and minorities stealing their money. After all, Carlson is a guy whom white nationalists repeatedly praised for mainstreaming their message, who employed an out-and-out racist as his top writer for years, and who privately promoted an article written by a commentator who has questioned whether Auschwitz was a death camp. Critical viewers could easily see what Tucker Carlson was really about, and what he was actually trying to do on his show.

But liberals who see white supremacy in Tucker’s show as self-evident risk missing what made him much more effective than avowed racists. Here was someone who somehow managed to both promote the “great replacement theory” and insist, at the same time, that his opponents are today’s equivalents of segregationists and Nazis. That he rode this trick to cable’s highest-rated nightly audience for years says something important about how even barely disguised racism can spread more effectively among the broader public than the uncut stuff.

The way Carlson talked about the “great replacement,” a term literally lifted from the racist right, is instructive.

Carlson did not explicitly say, as white nationalists do, that the problem with mass immigration was that it undermined the foundations of white supremacy. Instead, it’s couched in terms of national origin and partisan politics, pitting “legacy Americans” and patriotic conservatives against Democrats and their malign obsession with tilting the country’s demographics in their favor. It’s a form of “eugenics” — his word — deployed for the horrible purpose of pursuing political power.

“Everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it. Oh, you know, the white replacement theory? No no, this is a voting rights question,” Carlson risibly insisted in a 2021 segment. “I have less political power because they’re importing a brand-new electorate.”

In his transmission of the “great replacement theory” from the dank corners of the internet to nightly cable news, Tucker changed the language just enough so that his audience could believe he was merely defending native-born Americans against the anti-white racism and the anti-American project of the left.

I haven’t seen every second of his godforsaken program; it’s possible he let slip the occasional unadulterated remark. But the text reported by the Times — “It’s not how white men fight” — is certainly as undisguised an expression of his white supremacist thought as I’ve seen.

In that private message, Carlson expresses a straight-up racist sentiment: no more pretend colorblindness, or posturing like he’s merely being xenophobic rather than racist.

Again, to most people on the left, the text was hardly different from what he’s been spouting every night for years. But it’s also plausible that to many Americans, the explicit racism of a private message is something new — and that that’s a revelation the Fox News board worried about.