It might sound odd to claim that a TV host losing his program is seismic news for American politics, but with Tucker Carlson’s exit from Fox News, that claim is justified.
Like the rest of his Fox colleagues, Carlson’s main job was winning eyeballs to the network — and he was very successful at that.
But he was also engaged in a different and more ambitious project from, say, Sean Hannity. Rather than just cheerleading for Trump or the Republican Party or the Fox News company line, Carlson was articulating an ideology.
Some call it conservative populism, or national conservatism, while critics say it’s akin to white nationalism. It’s an ideology that panders to many Americans’ bigoted and xenophobic impulses, their resentments and their grievances. It welcomes in voices denounced by others as racist, and delights in mocking “woke” liberals. It promotes conspiracy theories. It admires foreign leaders denounced by others as authoritarians. It denounces “elites,” the traditional establishments of both parties, and the long-held commitments of US foreign policy.
Much of that, of course, resembles Donald Trump’s challenge to the GOP establishment, and that’s no accident. Early in Trump’s presidency, the New York Times’s Nick Confessore has written, Carlson searched for a way to stand out among the Trump critics or cheerleaders of cable news. He zeroed in on the reasons Trump won such loyalty — the passions and topics that stirred his base — and then tried to detach all that from the man himself, to create a “Trumpism without Trump.”
Carlson was trying to depose the Republican Party’s old elites — at least those who wouldn’t get with the program — and anoint new ones. He wanted to create new litmus tests for what it meant to be a conservative — as seen in his efforts to make Ron DeSantis disavow support for Ukraine, or his raking Ted Cruz over the coals for calling January 6 a “violent terrorist attack.” Like-minded thinkers on the right loved it, as seen in their tributes after news of Carlson’s departure from Fox broke.
“Tucker is the most important, most influential, most courageous voice in the entire country, and there’s no close second,” Sean Davis, co-founder of the conservative website The Federalist, chimed in.
To some extent, Carlson’s ideological project has already succeeded in reshaping the right, and it will continue to do so after his departure from Fox. Yet his exit could be a serious blow to that project. He’s lost his platform and his access to a giant audience. And while liberals will likely loathe whoever fills his shoes, it’s not a given that that successor will have the same talents or ideological ambitions as Carlson.
Tucker Carlson tried to “pill” his viewers
As I’ve written, Fox is to an extent held captive by its viewers: The network feels compelled to keep showing its viewers content they want to see.
But that can be done in several ways. Some pander in uncreative ways, some advance the party line, some merely entertain. Some do all of the above.
Carlson went a different route. He tried to show his viewers things they didn’t yet know they wanted to see. He wanted to turn normie conservatives into anti-elite right populists, firing them up with fury over, say, critical race theory. He wanted, in the parlance of the right, to “pill” his viewers.
“To a large extent, Tucker frames the narrative for conservative politics. Tucker doesn’t react to the news; he creates the news,” conservative activist Christopher Rufo told the Washington Post in 2021.
And here’s the key part: He was very good at it. He’s had the highest-rated primetime cable program in the country for several years now. There is no shortage of conservative populist commentators, yet Carlson’s style and execution set him apart from these voices.
For one, Carlson is simply smarter than the typical talk radio or TV host. He searches for the cleverest and most creative ways to key into grievance, to assure viewers with racist sentiments that they’re good people with good reason to hold such beliefs.
With a background as a magazine journalist, he’s comfortable engaging in the world of ideas. He legitimized many fringe or obscure voices on the right, and yet was also willing to reach out to unlikely allies like Glenn Greenwald, who similarly resented the traditional party establishments. He trashed the mainstream media but served as a willing source to many journalists.
Just as the Republican Party has attempted to absorb and co-opt Trumpism, Fox News has attempted to absorb and co-opt Tuckerism — and neither is going away. It’s certain that whoever fills his 8 pm Eastern time slot will to some extent appeal to Fox viewers’ resentments and bigotries.
Still, Carlson was this populist conservatism’s most influential advocate. He departed from the Fox News mold in a way that frequently brought controversy to the network but had a real impact on the right. He won’t be easy for the network to replace — if they even want to.