Tucker Carlson became who he pretended to be
A more racist and bigoted version of himself.
Tucker Carlson looks—from every biographical detail I’ve read on his life—to have been a raging misogynist, a racist and a homophobe turned transphobe for all of his adult life. He grew up a pampered rich kid with a sense of entitlement whose racism typically—if ever hidden at all—is likely to be coaxed out of him within one or two drinks. There’s every indication his sense of superiority was thoroughly embedded in his subconscious long ago. I say this because the man he became over his stint at Fox News is not the story of a good man gone bad. It’s the story of a rather vile man who embraced his worst instincts until they led him to the brink of madness. During his time as Fox’s primetime host, Tucker’s racism stopped being covered in hushed tones or coded language. It was put out into the open and laid bare for the whole world to see, and with the recent reporting and his leaked text message appearing in the New York Times, we see its darkest form. The content that made the man eventually consumed him.
The words written about Tucker Carlson’s white nationalist television rhetoric are by now ubiquitous. I won’t bother explaining the arguments here because they’ve been self-evident for years now. If you remain unconvinced, go read some of the earlier excellent reporting on Carlson’s promotion of the racist Great Replacement conspiracy theory yourself. I’ve read too many words of Neo-Nazis, white nationalists and pro-Kremlin propagandists (including some who are overt Neo-Nazis!) praising Tucker Carlson as a champion of their causes. They saw him as the man to mainstream their talking points. Losing him at Fox is a setback they will not easily overcome in the short-term at least.
So then, if it was common knowledge by both the right, the left and everyone at Fox News that Tucker was a megaphone for the most vile rhetoric on the internet, what could some unearthed text messages from Carlson possibly change? To answer that, consider what Tucker wrote in a text to his producer about a “kid” he called an “Antifa creep” possibly being beaten to death by three Trump supporters—even though as Tucker put it, their ganging up on him was “dishonorable obviously” because that’s not “how white men fight”. He said, “Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it.” As far as I’m aware, Tucker Carlson has never said he wanted anyone to be beaten to death while he was on air. That’s new, right? Tucker readily victim blamed his audience’s real or perceived enemies, but cheering for a man to be hit repeatedly until it killed him? That’s a new one to me, but as with Fox News spreading anti-vax talking points while they themselves required employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and spreading baseless conspiracy theories about a “stolen election” in 2020 that network anchors did not themselves believe, hypocrisy isn't just overlooked at the network. It's encouraged. However, there's a perceived understanding that their on-screen personalities are fictional versions of the hosts themselves. It's an act.
But what if it isn't, or what if it stops being one? What may have truly shocked Fox execs was that Carlson said all of this in private when the cameras were not rolling.
Imagine this realization hitting them: By the end of his run at Fox, Tucker Carlson was holding back while he was on air.
The lunatics running the asylum.
It’s difficult to imagine how anyone at Fox could’ve been shocked by the fact that Tucker Carlson is a racist. It’s equally difficult to imagine anyone at Fox caring about his racist remarks. There is of course a limit to what Fox will allow on air. You can’t say the n-word, for instance. The Fox News headquarters is, on any given day, an orchestra headlined by a symphony of dog whistles, but where Tucker crossed into new territory was with rhetoric that increasingly interjected those dog whistles with overtly racist and conspiratorial commentary. White people were under attack. Christians were under attack. Straight (or cis gender, though he’d never use that term) were under attack. Either because of the ratings or because of the fear of the backlash from his fans, Fox looked the other way as Tucker increasingly catered to the people pushing the worst content on the internet.
Carlson’s relationship to fringe figures on the far right was, in some ways, symbiotic. He would use his platform to attack institutions and people, unleashing a troll army drawn from the very ranks of the fringe right-wingers and 4Chan users who loved him — something the authors of this article have experienced on several occasions.
Steve Bannon, a former top Trump aide who appeared Tuesday on Kirk’s show, said the “power of Tucker Carlson” was his ability to distill and package fringe political ideas to a new audience. Bannon said Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, the father and son who oversee Fox News’ parent company, fired Carlson to keep “those ideas [from] seeping into a more mainstream audience.”
Those sentiments are backed up by academics and researchers who study how internet extremism makes its way into mainstream U.S. politics and culture. Carlson’s show repeatedly echoed conspiracy theories and disinformation that gained traction on extremist forums like 4chan — and that would otherwise not have appeared on Fox News.
“Once a story reached Tucker Carlson, it was at the apex of conservative media, and Fox News is the voice of authority in conservative media,” said Robert Faris, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, who studies networked digital technologies and media. “It let other people know that it’s OK to talk about these kinds of things in the language that they use. Just that it’s on the air, it’s ambient and it’s on in so many public spaces means that anything they platform has a wider reach than any of the more committed hyper-partisan sites.”
As they wrote in the piece, Carlson has recently given airtime to an anti-Ukrainian and pro-Kremlin hoax he treated as real, a right-wing astroturfed campaign around a supposed "Trans Day of Vengeance" that went nowhere and segments on Ray Epps, a Trump supporter Carlson blamed for instigating January 6 along with the FBI. Extremists and disinformation peddlers adore Tucker Carlson, and they are desperate for him to get on the air somewhere, anywhere right this moment. They need him. They’ll take him even as a reduced figure with a fraction of the audience because having that is better than nothing at all. Without Tucker, at this moment, the extremists aren’t reaching the normies (or mainstream audiences).
Was white power hour Tucker the RESTRAINED one?
Part of the problem here for Fox is the same one they had with Trump. Is he really this crazy, or he is doing a bit? In 2016 and 2017, it was easy for the media to dismiss the worst of Trump’s vices as theatrical performances run amuck. While I and plenty of others would argue that was shortsighted at best and closer to grossly negligent in realizing, we’ve had plenty of evidence since then that you can’t separate Trump the entertainer or media manipulator from Trump the politician. We don’t know why he does all the things that he does—and he might not know either—but the resulting danger and damage makes such distinctions irrelevant. Tucker Carlson began in the 8 p.m. primetime slot on Fox News in April 2017. Perhaps the version of Tucker Carlson broadcast for an hour a weeknight started off as a character, a fictionalized version of the man himself on the screen. Perhaps Tucker was always playing himself and decided to stop hiding his baser instincts. How it began is less clear than where it ended. Because by the time he sent that text message on January 7, 2021, the only difference between the two appears to have been what he could get away with saying on air.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Whether or not Tucker was pretending to be a white nationalist for TV ratings and extremist adoration, it seems that Tucker played the part too long, and it consumed him. It’s a concept known as audience capture, wherein an influencer increasingly leans into the content his audience wants or responds most positively to. This means more clicks, more money and more fans, but what do the demands of the audience do to the man who adheres to them? Perhaps we should ask the same of Tucker as of Alex Jones, Tim Pool and any number of popular fringe and extremely online political influencers. Is there a risk here in apologizing for their horrific behavior by considering this term? Yes, there is, but make no mistake, this path required them to make conscious choices. Many of them. One horrible decision after another. That’s why I don’t feel any sympathy for extremists pushing hateful rhetoric that cause real world harm. Choices were ultimately made by these people along the way, and the cycle doesn't change until they choose a different path. Awful choices lead to more awful choices. But the right-wing in particular has to come to grips with the reality that they are getting high on their own disinformation product. They can’t simply keep expressing more and more extreme rhetoric in a vacuum and expect no real world consequences. Either they’re pushing their audiences off the ledge, or the audience themselves is doing the pushing. The result is the same—the herd eventually drags them off the ledge into oblivion.
An act only stays an act for so long. Tucker Carlson couldn’t consume right-wing hate media day in and day out without being affected by it, without it changing him in some sort of tangible way. No, he wasn’t a good person to start with. Yes, he was racist and a misogynist and an arrogant rich kid who never had to work a day in his life if he didn’t want to, but even if Tucker didn’t realize it, it’s possible someone at Fox News was alarmed by the fact that at some point Tucker Carlson took off his character’s mask, threw it into a fire pit full of trans flags and BLM stickers, poured on the gasoline and laughed his hyena laugh as the flames consumed them.
Maybe he could even taste it.