fox news

Fox News Could Be Just as Racist Without Tucker Carlson

Photo: Fox News

Until his abrupt dismissal Monday morning, Tucker Carlson was America’s most racist news host. He was also the most popular anchor on all of cable television. For that reason, among others, Carlson’s departure may not mark the end of Fox News’ foray into unabashed white nationalism.

Virtually all Fox News commentators speak to red America’s amygdala, cultivating fear and resentment of low-income Black communities, non-white immigrants, and rootless, godless liberal elites. But most try to maintain some distance between their demagogy and that found on neo-Nazi message boards, if only to retain the sponsorship of image-conscious advertisers.

Carlson did not. During his six years helming Fox News’ 8 p.m. hour, the host all but used Stormfront as an assignment editor. While other Fox News hosts demonized non-white criminals, Carlson described tens of millions of U.S. citizens as enemies of the people.

In April 2021, Carlson mocked Joe Biden for calling the January 6 insurrection “the worst attack on democracy since the Civil War,” countering that “the Immigration Act of 1965” was a bigger affront to political liberty in the U.S.: “That law completely changed the composition of America’s voter rolls, purely to benefit the Democratic Party. That seems like kind of an assault on democracy, a permanent one.” Thus, by Carlson’s logic, every American who secured access to this country as a result of Congress’s repeal on racial quotas for immigration in 1965 is a de facto foot soldier in the Democratic Party’s plot to permanently disenfranchise our nation’s longtime residents.

Variations on this theme were a staple of Carlson’s commentary. In another diatribe against the 1965 immigration law last year, the host endorsed “the great replacement” conspiracy theory by name. That white-nationalist narrative holds that rootless cosmopolitan elites are deliberately replacing America’s white majority with multiethnic immigrants who will be easier for them to control. “You can’t just replace the electorate because you didn’t like the last election outcomes,” Carlson declared. “That would be the definition of undermining democracy, changing the voters. But when it happens in this country, there is mandatory media-enforced silence and in fact, if you notice it’s happening, it’s your fault.” (In reality, the authors of the 1965 Immigration Act did not expect the law to change the demographic composition of the nation nearly as much as it did and, as Ron DeSantis’s recent landslide reelection in a state that is only about 50 percent non-Hispanic white showed, non-white immigrants are not actually automata programmed by George Soros.)

Perhaps, the most distinctive feature of Carlson’s demagogy was his amplification of marginal stories that had previously captured the attention of virtually no one in the United States beyond white supremacists. South African land reform is not a subject that speaks to the typical Fox News viewer. In 2018, however, American racists eager to see confirmation of their prophecies of impending “white genocide” took keen interest in reforms enabling the South African government to expropriate landowners’ property without compensation. Specifically, white nationalists glommed onto a narrative propagated by far-right Afrikaners that Black mobs were murdering white farmers in South Africa in large numbers while their government worked to seize land from their surviving kin.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of this story for white nationalists. Unlike in the United States, where fodder for white grievance is so limited that racially inclusive Cheerios commercials qualify as an affront, South Africa’s white population is a genuinely politically disempowered minority group (even as it continues to wield disproportionate economic power in the country). Place pogroms against white farmers against this backdrop, and you have Richard Spencer’s nightmares made real.

Or rather, you would have that, if such pogroms had actually existed at any substantial scale. In reality, murders on South African farms had been declining for decades and murder rates in white rural parts of South Africa remained far lower than in predominantly Black townships. Discrete anti-white hate crimes surely occurred. But white farmers remained unusually safe relative to the South African population as a whole. And the government’s land reforms would have implicated Black and white South Africans alike.

But this did not stop Tucker Carlson from broadcasting white nationalists’ preferred version of events. At other points in his tenure, Carlson saw fit to portray “gypsy” refugees as filthy, unassimilable public defecators, or lambast Macy’s for selling hijabs.

Carlson might disavow the idea that his program promoted white nationalism. But white nationalists begged to differ. 

All this led many Fox News employees to raise internal complaints about Carlson’s program, and many big-name advertisers to pull their spots from the channel’s 8 p.m. hour.

Given the exceptional severity of Carlson’s racism and its seemingly adverse implications for Fox’s ad business, it is natural to assume that the host’s departure will render America’s most-watched cable news channel slightly less of a cancer on the body politic. We don’t yet know why Fox fired Carlson. During last Friday’s broadcast, the host appeared to have no inkling that the show would be his last. It’s conceivable that his dismissal represents an editorial decision to pivot away from his brand of content. Regardless, it is certainly possible (perhaps, even probable) that Carlson’s replacement will traffic in a subtler form of white grievance. But that is far from a certainty.

After all, Carlson’s on-air persona was not born of any longtime, deep-seated ideological attachment to white-nationalist ideology. Before Carlson became a right-wing populist critic of cosmopolitan corporations, “woke capitalism,” and free markets, he was a laissez-faire-loving libertarian. Further, as messages unveiled by the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit make clear, Carlson’s televised pronouncements don’t necessarily reflect his current beliefs. Even as Carlson comported himself as one of Donald Trump’s most fervent cheerleaders, he told others privately that he hated the president “passionately.”

In truth, Carlson’s incendiary content did not reflect his own idiosyncratic beliefs so much as his audience’s revealed preferences. As the New York Times reported last year, the driving force behind Carslon’s far-right turn was “minute-by-minutes” ratings, data that tracks the size of a show’s audience at 60-second intervals. Determined to avoid a reprise of his previous failures to retain a large audience at CNN and MSNBC, Carlson became one of his “network’s most avid consumers of minute-by-minutes.” And when the host carefully studied which subjects actually held his audience’s attention, it became clear that stories activating a perception of racialized threat did the trick. As one former Fox employee told the Times in 2022, “He is going to double down on the white nationalism because the minute-by-minutes show that the audience eats it up.”

To the extent that any personal quality informed the exceptional racism of Carlson’s program, it seems to have been nihilistic ruthlessness. No sense of decency prevented Carlson from declaring white supremacy nonexistent days after a white-nationalist terrorist mass-murdered Hispanic Americans in El Paso, nor from stoking fears of a migrant “invasion” right after similar ideas inspired a neo-Nazi to shoot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh. If amorality enabled Carlson to fish in such waters, though, it was economic rationality that drew him there. When the host used George Floyd’s killing as an opportunity to assail the Black Lives Matter movement in terms that made Black colleagues uncomfortable, he posted the highest quarterly ratings of any cable-news show in history.

True, Carlson’s approach cost him advertisers. But it did not cost his employer advertising revenue. As big brands fled, Fox filled the consequent gaps with spots for other Fox programming (thereby funneling Tucker’s massive audience to other shows that such brands would patronize) and charged premium rates to the advertisers that remained. Trading respectability for maximum eyeballs proved lucrative. From 2018 through 2022, Tucker Carlson Tonight brought in more annual ad dollars than any other Fox show.

Further, as the Times reported last year, Carlson’s strategy reflected an emerging editorial consensus at Fox News’ commanding heights. Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch reportedly has even more sympathy for far-right politics than his father, Rupert. Meanwhile, Fox News vice-president Tom Lowell championed a “Moneyball” approach to programming: allowing the wisdom of the crowds (as discerned through minute-by-minute ratings) to determine editorial decisions. Combine an ideological openness to white revanchism with data demonstrating its efficacy for maximizing engagement, and you get Fox’s recent rightward drift, in which its primetime propagandizing has suffused more and more of its ostensibly neutral daytime content.

Of course, just because there are economic incentives to emulate Carlson does not mean his successor will do so. Plenty of Fox News’ existing hosts have chosen to refrain from directly promulgating white-nationalist conspiracy theories, even as Carlson rode them to ratings supremacy. Nevertheless, the fact that Carlson’s editorial line reflected a data-driven assessment of which subjects will keep America’s (disproportionately old and white) news viewers from changing channels should temper optimism for Fox’s future. Tucker Carlson has left America’s most-watched news network. But its audience’s appetite for White Nationalism Lite™ remains.

Fox News Could Be Just as Racist Without Tucker Carlson