Will the GOP let Tucker Carlson control its police brutality debate?

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The protests against racism and police brutality that swept the nation following the police killing of George Floyd have overwhelming public support -- even among Republicans. Broad majorities say that Floyd’s killing is a sign of broader problems with the police and that the police need to do more to ensure equal treatment. But Republican politicians seeking to respond to that sea change in public opinion in even the most marginal way are running into a problem: Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Carlson’s spittle-flecked denunciations of America's diversity -- and most recently, his unhinged rants about the Floyd protests -- have triggered an advertiser exodus from his program. But he remains extremely influential in the Republican Party and with President Donald Trump. And his efforts to punish Republican leaders who don’t adopt harsh “law and order” rhetoric in response to those protests are reportedly affecting the early jockeying for the next GOP presidential primary.

Fox is the most important gatekeeper for Republicans seeking political prominence. The network is by far the most watched and trusted media outlet among Republicans, with a rabid fan base that has made its hosts into right-wing rock stars. Fox airtime and positive -- or negative -- coverage from its programs can make or break candidates in a Republican presidential primary. 

Carlson, whose program regularly channels white nationalist talking points, is a particularly potent force at the network. Tucker Carlson Tonight is the second most-watched show in cable news, and Carlson maintains the apparently unflinching support of Fox executives while regularly manipulating Trump’s decisions through his program and their private conversations.

That unrivaled power ensured that when Carlson targeted would-be presidential hopeful Nikki Haley last week, it became “the talk of the 2024 universe,” according to Politico chief political correspondent Tim Alberta.

Haley had put forth a call for understanding amid the protests of Floyd’s killing. “It’s important to understand that the death of George Floyd was personal and painful for many,” she tweeted on May 30. “In order to heal, it needs to be personal and painful for everyone.”

That simple request for empathy triggered a furious response from Carlson. 

“Wait a second,” Carlson said in a June 1 monologue. “You may be wondering: How am I, quote, ‘personally responsible’ for the behavior of a Minneapolis police officer? I’ve never even been to Minneapolis, you may think to yourself. And why is some politician telling me I'm required to be upset about it?”

Shaking his head, he added, “Those are all good questions. Nikki Haley did not answer those questions. Explaining is not her strong suit; that would require thinking. What Nikki Haley does best is moral blackmail.”

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Citation From the June 1, 2020, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

Haley’s would-be future opponents and their political advisers took note -- and began calibrating their own posturing on the Floyd protests. “The clip of Carlson rebuking Haley rocketed around the GOP universe. By Tuesday morning, it was the subject of obsession inside the smaller galaxy of those Republicans preparing for a run at the presidency in 2024,” Alberta reported. “For some, it was reassuring, a sign that Fox News wouldn’t get wobbly even if some elements of the right did; for others, it was a shot across the bow, a clear warning that even the most casual questioning of conservative law-and-order dogma would be punished.”

Carlson isn’t savaging only potential presidential candidates who stray from that line. His denunciation of Haley came amid a series of distortions, misrepresentations, and misquotes of other conservative leaders -- including Vice President Mike Pence. Carlson claimed these conservatives had “dithered” or “cowered” or “openly sided with the destroyers” by acknowledging the existence of racism in America or offering sympathy for the protesters.

All this week, Carlson has continued that onslaught. He has targeted Republican politicians who offer the protestors solidarity, mention legislation in response to police brutality and discrimination, or even simply diverge from the harsh “law and order” rhetoric he himself uses to discuss the protests. He is trying to eliminate the space for the party’s leaders to depart even slightly from the doomsaying proclamations common to his network’s prime-time hosts.

On Monday, he lashed out at Utah senator and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney after Romney marched with Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington, D.C. 

For that, Carlson compared Romney to the paramilitary student “Red Guards” who conducted violent purges in support of China’s communist dictator Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution.

The Fox host went on to denounce Romney’s statement on the need to “make sure that Americans understand ... that Black lives matter” as “accusing your entire country of racism.”

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Citation From the June 8, 2020, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

On Tuesday, it was Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s turn. McConnell told reporters that afternoon that he had asked Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), the sole Black Republican senator, to lead a working group “to allow us to respond to the obvious racial discrimination that we've seen on full display on our television screens over the last two weeks.”

Carlson was furious. “What did Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, do today as American society began to unravel?” he said that night. “Mitch McConnell did not defend the country, much less defend you. He read talking points that Nancy Pelosi could have written and that benefited only her.”

“Many Republican senators did that today,” Carlson continued. “These people are cowards, and they are liars. They pose as your protectors, [but] they would sell you out for the price of lunch and laugh as you were hauled away.”

On Wednesday night, Carlson was again speaking out against Republicans who offered even rhetorical succor to protestors speaking out against racism and police brutality. He hosted Jeremy Carl of the right-wing Claremont Institute to talk about Carl’s recent essay, which argues that Republican “capitulation and cowardice hand America to identitarian propagandists.” 

Carlson opened the discussion by saying, “The people doing this are Democratic voters, the people making it possible are Democratic officeholders. But I still reserve my greatest frustration for the Republicans on Capitol Hill who should be protecting the country from all of this, and they’ve decided to take a pass because it's controversial and they are cowards.“

During the segment, Carl warned that Republicans “are casting a shadow of weakness, and everybody can see it. Black Lives Matter can see it; the antifa can see it.” He later added that “a basic emphasis on law and order and allowing normal people to do things safely is absolutely a winning message for the Republican Party.”

Carlson concluded, “The Republican Party will not survive this if they allow it to continue. They will be replaced by something far more radical, and I don't want to live in a country with really radical politics. But we are going to get it if they don't step up and take responsibility for the nation they are sworn to protect.”

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Citation From the June 10, 2020, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

Notably, in his castigations of Republican leaders, Carlson hasn’t mentioned Trump at all. That’s a maneuver he often uses when he is trying to win Trump over to his position.

While Carlson tries to limit the parameters of Republican debate, his advertisers are abandoning him over his bigoted and unhinged commentary about the protests. On Monday, Carlson said that this moment “is definitely not about Black lives. And remember that when they come for you, and at this rate, they will. Anyone who has ever been subjected to the rage of the mob knows the feeling.” Since then, his program has lost at least five major advertisers: T-Mobile, SmileDirectClub, Disney, Papa John’s, and Vari.

Carlson didn’t have many advertisers to lose. His program never fully recovered from past controversies, most notably his claim in 2018 that immigrants made the country “poorer and dirtier” and his declaration in 2019 that white supremacy is “actually not a real problem in America” and it is a “hoax” to say otherwise. Mike Lindell, the right-wing CEO of MyPillow, is basically all that’s keeping the show afloat.

Advertisers are wise to avoid associating their brands with Tucker Carlson. His show is a prominent vehicle for bigoted arguments that had previously been condemned to white nationalist fever swamps, and it's a cesspool of attacks on America’s diversity and immigrant populations.

But the host too toxic for blue-chip advertisers still remains a major force in Republican politics. And it remains to be seen how much influence he will have as the party tries to respond to the historic protests of 2020.