Last week, President Trump fired (or accepted the resignation of) his ultra-hawkish National Security adviser, John Bolton. The exact reasons for the firing/resignation remain obscure, and the two men had fundamental disagreements over the direction of U.S. foreign policy. But it may be possible to pinpoint the moment Bolton fell from grace. On June 20, Iranian forces shot down an American drone in the Gulf of Oman. The next morning, Trump — reportedly on the advice of Tucker Carlson — announced that he had called off retaliatory U.S. airstrikes. That night on his Fox News show, Carlson delivered a blistering monologue in which he praised the president’s decision and denounced Bolton as a “demented,” “bureaucratic tapeworm” hell-bent on war with Iran. As The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart notes, stories suggesting that Bolton had lost his influence began to appear in the media shortly thereafter. When Trump visited North Korea a week later, Carlson went with him. Bolton was 1,100 miles away, in Ulaanbaatar.
From his position in the 8 p.m. slot, Carlson has managed to become one of the most influential voices in conservative politics, often by refusing to adhere to Republican conventional wisdom. Only a few weeks before the Iran flare-up, he delivered a monologue in praise of Elizabeth Warren’s “economic patriotism” plan; in January, he launched an intra-conservative war over the virtues of capitalism with a monologue attacking Mitt Romney, private equity, and conservatives who “worship” the market. He is also perhaps the most reviled talking head in the country thanks to his frequent diatribes against diversity, immigration, and multiculturalism. Last December, he became the subject of a major advertiser boycott after he suggested that admitting “the world’s poor” into the United States would make our country “poorer and dirtier and more divided.” In July, he attacked the Somali-American congresswoman Ilhan Omar as “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country.” And earlier this month, after a white-nationalist shooter killed 22 people in El Paso, Carlson announced to his audience that the threat of white supremacy is a “hoax, just like the Russia hoax. It’s a conspiracy theory used to divide the country and keep a hold on power.” For his opponents, he’s a sinister crypto-fascist who, in the words of Media Matters’ Madeline Peltz, peddles “unfettered white nationalism.” For his fans on the right, he is not only a breath of fresh air but an alluring candidate for president.
Late last year, Carlson published a short book, Ship of Fools, that offers a bit of insight into the worldview of cable news’ most mercurial prime-time host. Although Carlson disavows the “populist” label, his thesis is populism in its purest form: In his view, elites from both parties have merged into an insular and incompetent ruling class, indifferent if not openly hostile to the population they are supposed to be governing. This elite has overseen the hollowing out of the American middle class, shipped jobs overseas, rigged the economic system in favor of the wealthy and well connected, devastated the American family, engineered massive demographic change, and transformed the United States, within the course of a few generations, from a relatively homogenous and egalitarian democracy into a culturally balkanized and unstable oligarchy. The 2016 election was, he writes, a “throbbing middle finger in the face of America’s ruling class.” And Carlson, a born-and-bred member of this class — he is fond of pointing to his own Georgetown-to-prep-school upbringing and bashing his affluent D.C. neighbors — is ready to add two middle fingers of his own.
The perfidy of the ruling class is Carlson’s great theme. Although he polishes off the odd statistic — by 2015, “fewer than half of [U.S.] adults lived in middle-income households” — he prefers to argue by anecdote. His favorite move is to hold up some hapless individual, generally rich, oblivious, and representative of one or another brand of elite malfeasance, and spend a few pages putting them to the rhetorical sword. Carlson is witty, in a cruel sort of way, so this can be entertaining. Reflecting on his time working for The Weekly Standard in the 1990s, for instance, he writes that the neoconservative intellectual Bob Kagan “always struck me as very much like [Weekly Standard editor Bill] Kristol, in that both were products of academia and had similar views on the world. The main difference was that Kagan was dumber and less charming.” Similar treatment is meted out to Max Boot, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chelsea Clinton, and Mark Zuckerberg. He is particularly scathing about conservative boosters of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. “For perspective,” he writes, “Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of France, crowned himself emperor, defeated four European coalitions against him, invaded Russia, lost, was defeated and exiled, returned, and was defeated and exiled a second time, all in less time than the United States has spent trying to turn Afghanistan into a stable country.”
Carlson has a talent for hammering prominent windbags into oblivion. But when he can’t find anyone of note to fillet, he’s happy to call people up from the minors. Carlson spends pages attacking what he sees as the intolerance and racial obsessions of left-wing campus activists and student journalists, whom he likens to the segregationist Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo. His chapter on the environment is mostly a laundry list of rich liberals who believe in climate change but fly private jets; the remainder is an extended complaint about the effects of immigration on the environment — namely, that illegal immigrants are threatening the habitat of the Sonoran pronghorn and that the banks of the Potomac are now filled with “dirty diapers and Tecate bottles.” It’s the same formula he uses on his show: As Andrew Ferguson described it to The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh, “You get some poor little columnist from the Daily Oregonian who said Trump is Hitler, and you beat the shit out of him for ten minutes.”
Tucker’s periodic forays into topics like immigration are also a reminder that, however much the left might welcome his criticisms of capitalism and hawkish foreign policy, he is a right-wing firebrand when it comes to the culture wars. Carlson argues, for instance, that demographic change “destabilizes our society,” and he is indignant that “we must celebrate the fact that a nation that was overwhelmingly European, Christian, and English-speaking 50 years ago has become a place with no ethnic majority, immense religious pluralism, and no universally shared culture or language.” He reserves special scorn for the mandatory celebration of diversity, which he depicts as a sort of rhetorical class war against regular people. This is the animating idea behind some of his more outrageous recent pronouncements. The full context for his claim that white supremacy is “not a real problem,” for instance, was that “this is a country where the average person is getting poorer. Where the suicide rate is spiking.” Acting as if America’s main problem is racism is a way for elites to duck accountability.
It’s in many ways a typical Carlson point in that it both contains a grain of truth and flatters Tucker Carlson. Suicide really does kill several orders of magnitude more people than white-nationalist terrorism, and bad actors on the left have been scaremongering about the latter since Carlson was wearing a bow-tie on MSNBC. But if white supremacy isn’t a real problem, then it’s also not a real problem for Carlson to talk about immigrants making America “dirtier” or to warn about the coming influx of Gypsies. This is why Current Affairs’ Nathan J. Robinson has argued that Carlson mixes “accurate economic observations alongside outright white nationalism.”
Although Carlson flirts with white identity politics, particularly on the topic of immigration, his real ideology isn’t white nationalism or even conservatism, at least in the sense that conservatism has come to be defined in America. More than anything, he espouses the Middle American radicalism that John Judis, writing in 2016, identified as the ideological core of Trumpism. Middle American radicals (MARs) are neither fully liberal nor conservative but a blend of the two, mixing populist economics and a hostility to big business with intense nationalism, right-wing positions on race and immigration, and a desire for strong presidential leadership. Their animating idea is that the broad (and implicitly white) middle of American society — those Carlson referred to, in a podcast interview with Ben Shapiro, as people with “100 IQs making 80 grand a year” — is besieged on two sides, by a corrupt elite above it and a grasping underclass below. Simultaneous attacks on elites and illegal immigrants are not, as some liberal pundits have suggested, an expression of false consciousness. They are Middle American radicalism in its purest form: Rich liberals who don’t care about you are going to invite the entire Third World to come live in your backyard, tax you to pay for it, and call you a fascist if you complain.
As Judis noted, MARs are not a permanent electoral bloc but a sort of latent force that can be activated at different times. They burst into national politics at moments when a widespread sense of national failure combines with distrust of the leadership in Washington; they fade during economic booms and popular administrations. Most of all, they need to organize around a leader who shares their sensibilities, such as George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and Donald Trump. Without a politician serving as a focal point for their grievances, MARs tend to dissolve back into the wider electorate.
Carlson, of course, isn’t a politician but a pundit, although one with a fairly large following. And he’s using his platform for a strategic purpose: With his never-ending attacks on neocons and libertarians and his selective praise of left-wing populists like Warren, Carlson appears to be trying to push the GOP toward becoming a genuine right-wing populist party, the party of the MARs. Yet there’s probably a limit to what Carlson can accomplish here. To the extent that he exerts a direct influence on politics — his conversation with Trump on Iran being the prime example — it’s by acting as a bridge between the president and a particularly energetic section of his base. That base is Trump’s, not Carlson’s, and it’s unclear whether it will cohere without a Trump-like figure. The tea party was in many ways a MAR movement, and in recent years it has broken hard for Trump. But before Trump ever came along, the former Fox personality most closely identified with the tea party was Glenn Beck, whose mix of Oprah-style positive thinking and small-government fundamentalism was miles away from Carlson’s market-skeptic populism.
Once Trump is gone, Carlson could go the way of Beck, fading into obscurity after breaking with Fox News. (It’s unclear, for instance, whether Fox would be as tolerant of Carlson’s attacks on capitalism under a more conventionally laissez-faire Republican president.) Or he could conclude that, given his own name recognition, the likelihood of a crowded field in 2024, and the risk of an attempted restoration by the GOP Establishment, the best option for realizing his vision of the Republican future would be to take the advice of Rod Dreher and do what he has already promised never to do: run for president.