Before he was dumped abruptly by Fox News, Bill O’Reilly was an onscreen avatar for the older, whiter, blue-collar Trump voter. The man chosen to replace him at 8 pm, Tucker Carlson, more closely resembles Trump himself — a scion of privilege who turned against his fellow elites.
And perhaps that is why, for a cable network that is still trying to figure out how it fits into the topsy-turvy world of a Trump presidency, Carlson is a shrewd choice.
Even just a year ago, it was hard to say what seemed more improbable: that, in a cloud of scandal, Fox would let go of O’Reilly, its spiritual center and top moneymaker — or that O’Reilly’s successor would be Carlson, a faded star whose brand of natty conservatism was on the wane in this new era of Trumpish appeals to the working class.
But Carlson has been on a remarkable trajectory of late, nimbly refashioning himself as a populist just as populism was becoming politically potent again. If you trace his decades-long path from print journalist to mainstream pundit to born-again Fox News host, you will get a sense of his chameleonic talents.
A boarding school graduate who early in his career went from writing editorials for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to becoming a decorated magazine journalist, Carlson had a somewhat rocky transition to television. His tenure at CNN, where he played a conservative pundit on Crossfire, ended in a blaze in 2004 when comedian Jon Stewart issued a takedown that went viral: "You're doing theater when you should be doing debate," Stewart said. "What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery."
On Carlson’s next show, at MSNBC, he played a more relaxed character, less of a conservative battering ram, more of a heterodox libertarian. After being squeezed out there, he went to Fox News in 2009, where he has slowly been climbing the ladder, first as a roving panelist, then in 2013 as a weekend co-host of Fox & Friends, the network’s breezy morning talk show. (In 2010 he also founded the conservative news site the Daily Caller.)
Looking back now, Carlson’s entire television career seems like a series of false starts and discarded personalities, if only because his new primetime show has so quickly become a dominant force in cable news. Tucker Carlson Tonight, which started shortly after the election, was an instant hit at 7 pm and became an even bigger one when it replaced Megyn Kelly’s show at 9 pm, regularly winning the hour with more than 2.5 million viewers.
In his latest turn in the spotlight, Carlson has refocused his ire at his fellow elites. He describes his show as “the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and groupthink.” One of his favorite targets of scorn is his fellow Washingtonians. “What I would say is that clearly voters are mad at the establishment and have contempt for the establishment. But the establishment has greater contempt for voters,” he told Business Insider’s Oliver Darcy in December.
Another reason for the success of Tucker Carlson Tonight is that Carlson has perfected a style of troll journalism, sucker-punching his guests or goading them until they explode — a reliable recipe for online virality. In his December exchange with Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald, Carlson starts giggling halfway through. “This is obscene; this is not journalism,” Eichenwald sputters and, in a bizarre turn, pulls out a binder that is literally labeled “Tucker Carlson’s Falsehoods.” The YouTube clip of this interview has about half a million views.
In a discussion about racism in America, a guest once said to Bill O’Reilly, in exasperation: “You always have this way — it has to be one thing or the other, it can’t be possible that there’s something in the middle.” But Carlson is much nimbler — he’s impish, in terms of both his debating style and his ideology. The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh calls him a “prime-time contrarian.”
Carlson is not exactly a Trump cheerleader, but he has defended the administration from what he sees as unfair treatment by the elite, mainstream press. As he told Sanneh in a recent profile:
If you wrote a piece saying, 'I think Trump is a buffoon and he's reckless, and he doesn't really know that much, and he's kind of the accidental President, and he plays upon people's fears in order to gain power' — I'd say, Yeah, O.K., that's totally defensible. But, like, the Nazi stuff? Maybe I'm the deranged one, but I don't see that as supportable at all.
Carlson also defended Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer’s recent comments about Hitler not using chemical weapons in World War II. Carlson pointed out that MSNBC’s Chris Matthews made a similar gaffe back in the day. “Whoa! Weirdly, nobody at NBC News mentioned Chris Matthews when they denounced Sean Spicer for saying the exact same thing three and a half years later,” Carlson said on his broadcast.
At times, too, Carlson has been complimentary of the mainstream media. In his speech at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference, he urged conservatives to create media outlets that more faithfully represented the facts. “The New York Times is a liberal paper … but it is also a paper that cares about accuracy,” he said, to boos and jeers. “Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions.”
If Carlson founders in his new role at Fox, he may have a backup career as a media critic. On C-SPAN in 2003, he made an insightful observation about O’Reilly, the man he would replace 12 years later. “I think there’s a deep phoniness at the center of his shtick, and the shtick is built on the character that he plays,” Carlson said. “He’s this everyman. He’s not right-wing. He’s a populist, this kind of Irish-Catholic populist who’s fighting for you against the powers that be.”
Ultimately, the two men aren’t all that different. Carlson’s early life — his mother abandoned the family when he was 6 — was not quite as charmed as his persona might suggest. And O’Reilly’s upbringing, as the son of an accountant, was perhaps not as downtrodden as he often portrayed it on TV. What both of them have converged on, from opposite corners, is the idea that what’s really ailing America is the elites and the know-it-alls.
Carlson, with his patrician airs and preppy bearing, seems the unlikeliest vessel for this message — but hey, it worked once before, didn’t it?