The most incisive comment ever made about Tucker Carlson was actually made about Bill O’Reilly, and the person who said it was Tucker Carlson, at the time a lesser cable-television personality gazing upward at the reigning giant of his field.
“O’Reilly’s success is built on the perception that he really is who he claims to be,” Carlson wrote. “If he ever gets caught out of character, it’s over.”
Asked to elaborate about this, Carlson mixed his condemnation with clear envy. “Bill O’Reilly is really talented, he’s more talented than I am, he’s got a lot more viewers, he’s a better communicator than I am, but I think there is a deep phoniness at the center of his schtick, and again, as I say, the schtick is built on the perception that he is the character he plays,” he explained. The conceit that made O’Reilly so much more successful than Carlson was at the time was that “he is Everyman. He’s not right wing; he’s a populist.” But Carlson was very clear that nobody, especially not a prime-time television host, could authentically inhabit such a role. “Nobody is that person,” he confided, “especially not someone who makes a million dollars or many millions of dollars a year.”
Carlson’s career defies parody and challenges analysis because it has always been laid bare. Carlson inherited the fake-populist shtick used by O’Reilly and honed it into something like performance art. He ranted conspiratorially about “them,” laying sinister plots in their opulent lairs, against “us.” The Carlson version of the character was a campy, scenery-chewing performer who exceeded O’Reilly in every way.
The high-pitched squeals and goofy facial expressions were the superficial expressions. The deeper and more sinister aspect of Carlson’s success was his realization that his audience craved racist and nativist resentment in higher doses than his predecessor had been able to supply.
To be sure, this wasn’t just an act. In 2008, Carlson had gleefully described Iraqis as “semiliterate primitive monkeys,” and he loved to mock the idea that “diversity is our strength.” But this aspect of his thought unlocked new possibilities for his career.
Last year, the New York Times combined behind-the-scenes reporting with close textual analysis to describe the staggering levels of racism Carlson flung at his audience. It found that Fox News, using minute-by-minute ratings analysis, discovered that his embrace of white-nationalist themes landed with the viewers. It quoted both former Fox News staffers (“He is going to double down on the white nationalism because the minute-by-minutes show that the audience eats it up”) and current ones (“Fox executives wanted to focus on ‘the grievance, the stuff that would get people boiled up’ … ‘They’re coming for you, the Blacks are coming for you, the Mexicans are coming for you’”).
Carlson, always looking for new transgressions, went beyond echoing the themes favored by white nationalists to endorsing their “great replacement” theory by name:
I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term “replacement,” if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate — the voters now casting ballots — with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what happening, actually. Let’s just say it. That’s true.
Lachlan Murdoch denied Carlson had actually endorsed this theory, hinging his defense on the narrow linguistic point that Carlson had said “replace” but not uttered the full term replacement theory. “A full review of the guest interview,” he announced, “indicates that Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory.”
Later that year, Carlson repeated the theory and said the magic words: “In political terms, this policy is called the great replacement, the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from foreign countries.”
The diabolical brilliance of his racist character was that he was able to occupy a grounds between traditional Republicans and actual Nazis, bridging the beliefs of both groups and winning the adoration of both. “Tucker Carlson is literally our greatest ally. I don’t believe that he doesn’t hate the Jews,” wrote neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin in the Daily Stormer, a white-supremacist publication. Ben Shapiro, a Jewish conservative, marked Carlson’s departure from Fox by calling him “immensely talented and one of the most important voices on the right, and he’s going to continue to be those things no matter what comes next.”
Carlson’s credibility with the most nativist, paranoid, and bigoted constituents in the Republican Party made him a valuable authenticator for its leaders. Kevin McCarthy leaked footage of January 6 to Carlson, which he shared selectively to claim the insurrectionists had behaved lawfully and peacefully. Ron DeSantis gave Carlson a written statement calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “territorial dispute.”
It may have been kismet but was completely fitting that Carlson’s downfall came swiftly after leaked internal messages revealed him expressing personal hatred for Trump, a figure he lavished with praise on the air. Twenty years after he prophesized O’Reilly’s fall, the shtick was up.