A New York Times report shows how Tucker Carlson mainstreamed white nationalism, established a power base at Fox, and fobs himself off as a member of the "elite" who understands the masses
Today’s post is a form I want to experiment with a little more in the future: meta-commentary. What I mean by that is using the platform to boost media stories that, for whatever reason, require attention from our readership and give us common texts to discuss. Of course, we used to do this a lot in the good old days of blogging, but it’s also a great way to draw new people into our community. So, please:
Something that mystifies me is how a grown-up preppy like Tucker Carlson (who makes faces on television that remind me of a hungover frat boy learning that there was a quiz on the syllabus he never read) has persuaded a wide swath of poor Americans that he speaks for them.
One of the many counterintuitive aspects of the populist wave that is now driving the Republican party is its elevation of the wealthy as credible messengers to Americans who are struggling economically. I am not just talking about Donald J. Trump here. This phenomenon of rich people posing as antiestablishmentarians seems to have first manifested in the Ross Perot’s quixotic independent 1992 presidential campaign. Even though Perot won no electoral votes, he probably cost George W. Bush a second term by diverting 18.9% of the popular vote away from the GOP.
Since Trump, however, it’s a thing. In Pennsylvania, we have a billionaire TV diet doc and a billionaire hedge funder who both claim to represent “the people.” Meanwhile, in Ohio, hedge funder JD Vance, an empty suit if I have ever seen one, claims to be independent while mainlining dough from Peter Thiel ($13.5 million) and Rebekah Mercer (undisclosed.) Vance, who claims to be “a conservative outsider,” is endorsed by The Former Guy and shilled by rich boy Don, Jr. as a “genuine populist.”
He is neither thing. But at least Vance, shape-shifting liar that he is, was born poor, right? So was Ross Perot. But what explains the love for Tucker? As it turns out, it’s his years-long effort to absorb the nativism, racism, and xenophobia of the conservative populist base and muster bales of false evidence to persuade conservative populists that they are on the right track.
You knew that, right? But you didn’t really know it because you don’t watch him, do you? So instead, you see snippets of his most outrageous material on social media or see him quoted as outrage porn in stories about Fox News. I mean, that’s how I relate to the guy: I find him mind-numbing in his repetitiousness, his visual evidence, and guests amateurish and dull beyond belief. In fact, I challenge you to actually watch the show from beginning to end and tell me what you learned.
But I did read every word of the four-part series about Tucker Carlson and how he has shaped his viewers, the GOP, and even Fox News, to his poisonous agenda. Written by New York Times political reporter Nicholas Confessore, it ran over two days and remains on the home page. You can click through directly from this post to part I, which discusses Carleson’s history and career; part 2, detailing his rise, fall, and rebirth as a major media pundit; and part 3, which uses data visualization to re-tell the story and show Confessore’s research. Part 4 discusses the significance of this history.
Highlights? After a nasty divorce, Tucker and his brother were abandoned by their mother; their father became even wealthier by remarrying a Swanson frozen foods heiress. This trauma was formative, according to Carlson. But it isn’t altogether clear why Mom left her marriage and children. Tucker claims that it was because she was emotionally erratic, a drug addict, and an irresponsible hippie chick.
However, a) Carlson lies all the time, b) he hates and fears femininity in all its forms, and c) women rarely abandon their children. According to a Pew study, only 7% of men with a bachelor’s degree or higher had full custody of their children in 2013. You can cut that number by 2/3 for the mid-1970s when Mom Carlson left—for France, which is pretty far away to go from California unless you have a good reason.
But the main takeaway is how Carlson has piped bile from white supremacist sites like VDare into the mainstream, importing language, ideas, theories, and fears generated on the far right and making them palatable to a general audience. And, although we do not miss Roger Ailes, who is turning on a spit somewhere in hell since Ailes was forced out at Fox, Carlson has become a nearly independent actor at the network.
How has the Tuckster responded to this exposé? Over at The Bulwark, Charlie Sykes posted a photo of Carlson holding up a print copy of the Sunday New York Times and laughing, reproduced from this Tweet:
The above troll reminds me of a quote attributed to another famous illusionist, P.T. Barnum: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”
But Sykes reminds us that this hasn’t always been true:
There was once a time, believe it or not, that this kind of expose would have been a world-destroyer, both for Fox News and for Carlson himself. Allegations of “racism” were once toxic for both broadcasters and “thought-leaders,” who could quickly find themselves cast out as pariahs. The more virulent bigots would lose their platforms and would be shunned from polite society.
Spokespeople for Carlson say he hasn’t (and won’t) read the series.
But you should.
In 2020, Iowa Democrats chose the wrong app and put themselves on track to losing their status as the first primary state. But there were other reasons to ditch Iowa (other than all the fried food at the State Fair): it’s a homogenous state that contrasts with the states that will really decide the election. So Democrats are contemplating….New Hampshire? Oh, come on! And I am not just saying this because of the weeks I spent stomping around in the snow and ice to knock on doors for Elizabeth Warren. Michael Tomasky agrees, citing the state’s racial demographic and lack of big cities. “This is really dumb. It is true that New Hampshire is competitive in November, but that’s the only thing it has going for it,” he writes at The New Republic. “Let me put it this way. If Biden doesn’t run in 2024, what kind of candidate would you rather send into battle against Donald Trump: someone who got about 75,000 votes in a heavily white and Republican-leaning tiny state or someone who got upward of 800,000 votes in racially diverse and (barely) Democratic-leaning state?” (May 2, 2022)
It’s hard to imagine how two institutions as different as higher education and social media could speak to each other’s experiences. Still, in an essay at Persuasion, Greg Lukianoff and Talia Barnes point out that regulating hate speech on campuses has been a colossal failure for four decades. Speech codes, “sold as efforts to protect marginalized groups and prevent harassment, do neither in practice,” they write. “At best, they’re ineffective, and at worst, they open the door to administrative abuses of power and contribute to a campus culture of shame and fear.” (May 2, 2022)
At The Atlantic, historian Keisha N. Blain tells the story of a 1971 hate crime in the Mississippi Delta town of Drew. On the day she graduated from the high school she had helped to integrate, a .22 caliber killed 18-year-old Joetha Collier bullet fired out a car window as she celebrated with her friends. But why has this murder, committed near the place where Emmett Till was lynched, attracted so little attention? As Blaine argues, it is because the crime “challenges the triumphant narratives we often tell about the civil-rights movement: how activists across the nation worked together with public officials to topple Jim Crow and bring an end to an era of racial injustice.” (April 28, 2022)
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