Fox News star Tucker Carlson used Wednesday night’s broadcast to demand accountability over the GOP’s lackluster showing in the midterm elections.
“Republicans swore they were going to sweep a red tsunami. That's what they told us and we, to be honest, cautiously believed them, but they did not sweep, not even close to sweeping,” he complained. “The people whose job it was to win but did not win should go do something else now. We're speaking specifically of the Republican leadership of the House and the Senate and of the RNC.”
The problem with Carlson’s analysis is that Carlson, himself, is an influential GOP leader who bears responsibility for the party’s failings. He remains a key adviser to former President Donald Trump. He endorsed Republican candidates in the midterms and helped them win the party’s nomination. He suggested the midterms communications strategy that the GOP ultimately adopted. He can get top Republicans on the phone with ease and the party’s political operatives fear the prospect of him attacking their clients. By his own account, he and his colleagues provided a platform during the elections where “Republicans can communicate their message unencumbered.” Tonight, he will give the keynote address at an event for a faction that constitutes the majority of House Republicans.
He is the party establishment.
Carlson’s outsized influence in the GOP is a problem for the party. Any TV political talking head is likely to be out-of-touch with the concerns of the median American voter. But even by that standard, Carlson is a weirdo.
The Fox host is a millionaire raised by a former ambassador and an heiress who does TV commentary for a living because billionaires like his takes. He is a blood-and-soil nationalist who rejects America’s credal inheritance of liberty, equality, and democracy. He is steeped in white nationalist conspiracy theories about global elites importing brown foreigners to replace “legacy Americans” and is deeply invested in the success of foreign authoritarians.
Carlson spends a lot of time on his show talking about children’s genitals; blames wokeness for everything from the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan to the green and brown M&Ms becoming insufficiently “sexy”; and capes for both the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the violent QAnon conspiracy theory movement.
Most Americans aren’t like this! There are clearly people who are interested in this sort of commentary – Carlson’s show averaged nearly 3.3 million viewers in October, making it the second-highest-rated cable news program. But audience tallies that are extremely impressive for cable news ultimately represent a drop in the bucket for the American electorate.
It is dangerous for a major party to move closer to Tucker Carlson’s views. But those views are also likely to alienate normal American voters and make it more difficult for that party to win elections.
The types of candidates who Carlson likes and tries to elect mimic his bizarre fixations and blindspots. They describe their political opponents as “childless cat ladies,” pay consultant fees to a virulent antisemite and hang out with a “prophet,” run ads featuring themselves “smashing television sets playing newscasts with a sledgehammer,” and distribute lawn signs promising not to “ask your pronouns in the U.S. Senate.”
This behavior may be attractive to Carlson, and to a Republican base that has been trained to want candidates who act like a Fox host. But it seems likely to turn off people who don’t spend their free time immersed in the right-wing media fever swamps, and makes those candidates a harder sell with voters. They can still triumph when the electorate is favorable enough, or if their opponent is weak enough – but it makes the party’s fight more difficult.
And while Carlson may be Fox’s oddest duck, he isn’t the only one in the pond. The network’s roster is stocked with commentators who have an outsized influence on Republican politics and use their platforms to engage in bizarre conspiracy theories about murder victims and raped 10-year-old abortion patients, pick fights with NBA stars and high school students, and rant about everything from lifesaving vaccines to children’s schoolbooks.
The GOP has a Fox News problem. The network’s propaganda megaphone is a valuable asset that strengthens the party’s ability to quickly generate a unified message in response to any news event, and keeps its base from straying out of the right-wing information bubble. But the network’s employees are toxic extremists who are deeply out of touch with the concerns of average Americans, so are the candidates it directly or indirectly supports, and in a close election, that matters.