Fox News host Tucker Carlson offered Republicans some campaign advice last month as the party’s push to win back control of the U.S. House and Senate appeared to falter. “If every Republican office-seeker, every Republican candidate in the United States focused on law and order and equality under the law, there would be a red wave” in the November midterm elections, Carlson declared in an August 19 monologue.
One month later, Republican strategy appears to have fallen in line with Carlson’s suggestion. “GOP officials have been mixing up their advertising spending, with a new focus on issues like crime,” the Washington Post reported over the weekend. “‘Crime’ has become a central message of Republicans, with the word being used in 29 percent of ads, up from about 12 percent in July.” And candidates who use extreme rhetoric about “law and order,” like Carlson favorite Blake Masters, get access to the Fox host’s platform to talk about the issue.
This synergy is familiar. As the 2014 midterms approached, both Fox and the GOP settled on a strategy of relentlessly blaming Democrats for purportedly endangering Americans with Ebola. In 2018, they concluded their election campaigns by fixating on the threat supposedly posed by caravans of Central American migrants heading toward the southern border of the U.S. The parallel messaging demonstrates both the sway that Fox has within the GOP, and the network’s interest in carrying the party to victory.
President Joe Biden’s inauguration posed a problem for Fox, which sought to retain its audience and influence after spending four years rallying around Donald Trump. The network had a precedent to follow: When Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush, Fox became the “voice of opposition” and party in exile. But Biden, an older white man with a reputation for moderation and bipartisanship, proved more difficult to take on directly.
Fox’s hosts cycled through a series of fixations, from immigration to “cancel culture,” “wokeness” to critical race theory, as they tried to find lines of attack that would charge up their viewers and galvanize votes for the GOP. In the spring and early summer of this year, gasoline prices and inflation moved to the foreground. But gas prices fell and inflation leveled off – and Republicans lost ground in polling, with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell chalking it up to “candidate quality.”
Republicans needed to change their strategy, Carlson argued on his August 19 broadcast. The Fox host said that while some GOP operatives had told him that Dr. Mehmet Oz, the GOP Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, was a “bad” candidate,” he believed that “there are no bad candidates, there are just candidates who are running on the wrong things.”
“A good candidate is a candidate who promises to fix the problems that voters worry about most,” Carlson explained. “A candidate with a powerful message can overcome virtually any obstacle from multiple bankruptcies to universal media hostility to a dull, orange skin tone.”
Carlson had such a message in mind. He said that Oz – and the rest of the GOP – should run on “law and order.” Airing viral videos that circulated on the internet of thefts at various stores, he asked, “Why isn't every Republican candidate in the nation running ads with that footage in it?”
The Fox host placed the blame for the crimes squarely on Biden and the Democrats. “Joe Biden's DOJ has done nothing to stop the crime wave and so it is accelerating everywhere,” he claimed, before airing snippets from a series of local news reports about crimes.
The data do not support the pat story Carlson tells, in which Democrats have let criminals run amok. The U.S. has seen a worrying uptick in crime in recent years, albeit one in which murders and other violent offenses have remained well below the level seen in the early 1990s. But property crime has declined, while violent crime increased across jurisdictions.
“Despite politicized claims that this rise was the result of criminal justice reform in liberal-leaning jurisdictions, murders rose roughly equally in cities run by Republicans and cities run by Democrats. So-called ‘red’ states actually saw some of the highest murder rates of all,” according to a July report from the Brennan Center for Justice.
As president, Biden signed the first federal gun safety bill in nearly three decades, as well as the American Rescue Plan – opposed by every Republican in both houses of Congress – which included $10 billion for policing and public safety. His fiscal year 2023 budget request included “$35 billion to support law enforcement and crime prevention,” with funds directed both to policing and to “services that address the causes of crime and reduce the burdens on police so they can focus on violent crime.”
Meanwhile, it is not clear what federal policies Republicans support that would bring violent crime rates down, as the party has been largely reticent to detail what it would be doing if it had control of Congress.
“Law and order” is obviously not a new subject for the GOP, for Fox, or for Carlson. The latter in particular spent much of 2020 warning his viewers about the dire threat posed to them by Black activists protesting police brutality.
But Carlson has taken up the subject with renewed zeal over the past month, explicitly tying it to the coming election and urging Republicans to join his effort. And his colleagues have joined in with a spate of segments denouncing “America’s crime crisis.”
Crime has become a constant refrain on Carlson's show as he tries to pull Republicans across the finish line in November. pic.twitter.com/Ocqcbe5Hsp
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) September 12, 2022
The party has taken notice, redirecting its efforts to mimic the Fox narrative. Oz in particular swiftly adopted Carlson’s advice, launching ads and a website attacking his opponent, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, on the crime issue. But according to the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which endorsed Trump for president in 2020, Oz is “twisting and misrepresenting Mr. Fetterman’s views and statements on the criminal justice system” in a manner “reminiscent of the notorious Willie Horton ads during the 1988 presidential election.”
Those misrepresentations are good enough for Carlson, who rewarded the candidate with an opportunity to regurgitate the same false talking points — and shill for donations — on his Fox show Monday night.