How Tucker Carlson became the Fox host Trump listens to the most
President Donald Trump frequently tweets video clips of Fox News segments that capture his fancy. But the one he sent Tuesday morning stood out nonetheless.
Trump tweeted a clip of Fox host Tucker Carlson praising the president for a speech in which Trump had echoed the divisive culture war narratives the host himself has repeatedly promoted on his program. The tweet displayed in dizzying fashion the unprecedented synergy that has developed between the president of the United States and the right-wing TV star.
Carlson is now the most powerful member of the Fox Cabinet, the set of network personalities who play second roles as unofficial presidential advisers. By speaking to Trump directly and shaping his worldview through the programs that he watches obsessively, figures like Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, Laura Ingraham, and Pete Hegseth have each influenced the administration’s actions over the years. But even as major advertisers fled from Carlson’s show due to his bigoted, unhinged rants in recent months against America’s diversity, both the host’s audience and his sway over the president and his party have swelled to eclipse those of his colleagues.
Carlson has held the president’s attention for much of his administration. Notably, last year he displaced and then pushed out the hawkish White House national security adviser, John Bolton. But in 2020, Carlson emerged as a preeminent influence on Trump -- and thus on the nation’s policy.
The year began with Trump reportedly declining to escalate a military conflict with Iran, in part because Carlson’s program had warned against it. In the spring, Carlson used his show and a personal meeting with Trump to briefly convince the president to take the novel coronavirus more seriously. His program subsequently helped persuade Trump that unproven antimalarial drugs could serve as a miracle cure for the virus; that the virus was actually less dangerous than originally anticipated and so it was crucial to swiftly reopen the economy; and that the United States should terminate funding for the World Health Organization during the pandemic.
That power crystalized over the past six weeks, as Carlson lashed out at nationwide protests against police brutality and racism -- at times marred by violence and looting -- following the police killing of George Floyd in late May. His nightly monologues became dark and twisted rants peppered with conspiracy theories, racist fearmongering, attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement, demands for mass arrests, defenses of statues, and denunciations of Republicans who strayed from his vision. He lost nine of his remaining advertisers after claiming that this moment is “definitely not about Black lives” and telling his audience, “Remember that when they come for you.” But Trump responded, turning away from police reform efforts begun in response to protests against police killings in favor of a Carlson-style fixation on culture war divisiveness.
The shift was not subtle. Carlson devoted his June 19 monologue to the purported failure of the Republican Party to “protect this country from the crazed ideologues who seek to destroy it,” an implicit criticism of the president. Trump responded within hours in a plaintive series of tweets in which he tagged the Fox host, claiming that he had helped “end rioting & looting” in Minnesota and opposed “statue demolition.”
Then on July 4, Trump delivered a quasi-fascist speech at Mount Rushmore in which he decried “angry mobs,” “far-left fascism,” “cancel culture,” “left-wing cultural revolution,” and a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” Carlson’s monologues were the “rhetorical roots” of Trump’s diatribe, as Axios’ Jonathan Swan noted.
Carlson, unsurprisingly, loved the speech. On Monday, he described it as “the single best speech Donald Trump has ever given.”
“It was a roadmap for his reelection message, but more than that, it was a roadmap for the country itself,” he continued. “Equality, decency, pride in our nation, those were the themes.”
Tucker Carlson was really into President Trump's speech that was cribbed from Tucker Carlson monologues, calls it “a roadmap for his reelection.” pic.twitter.com/U7eMEayYbG
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) July 7, 2020
He praised the speech again on Tuesday, calling it “succinct and clear” and “true.”
Carlson’s diatribes will likely remain at the heart of the national debate in the months to come. “Trump's Independence Day speech lays a marker for how he's going to campaign through to November, according to campaign advisers,” Swan reported, describing this as evidence of the Fox host’s unprecedented position “in defining a president's re-election message.”
That means that Carlson -- who is beloved by white nationalists because he mainstreams their talking points, frequently promotes “great replacement” conspiracy theories about a migrant “invasion,” and argued just last night that masks and social distancing “have no basis of any kind in science” -- has an unrivaled role in U.S. politics.
While Trump is desperate to shake up a race he is losing, Carlson may be leading his campaign into a ditch. Voters prefer the views of his opponent on most issues -- including race relations and criminal justice -- making it unlikely that the culture war onslaught will succeed. But with Republicans unwilling to challenge Calson’s bigotry, a Trump loss may just set him up for his own presidential run in 2024.