The risks of Tucker Carlson’s Iran commentary

Tucker Carlson

Fox News host Tucker Carlson's criticism of the U.S. operation to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani has drawn praise from anti-war voices on the left and mainstream journalists for “bursting the propaganda bubble” on his network, which has otherwise offered near-lockstep support for President Donald Trump’s decision. But while there are benefits to the Fox audience receiving a skeptical take on last week's events, Carlson has actually urged his audience to instead focus their attention on the “invasion” across the southern border and undocumented immigrants living in this country, an argument that risks potentially dire consequences for those vulnerable populations.

Carlson’s anti-war stance is not a break from his past support for Trump or his channeling of white nationalist tropes, but a direct result of both. Carlson has effectively steered clear of directly criticizing Trump in his commentary on the burgeoning crisis in the Middle East. Instead, he has presented the president as having been misled and ill-served by warmongering advisers who also want to deter public attention from undocumented immigration.

The Fox host first addressed Soleimani’s killing on Thursday night, calling the breaking news evidence that “America appears to be lumbering toward a new Middle East war” before pivoting to criticize hawkish former national security adviser John Bolton and unnamed Trump advisers. 

“The people demanding action against Iran tonight, the ones telling you the Persian menace is the greatest threat we face, are the very same ones demanding that you ignore the invasion of America now in progress from the south, the millions, the tens of millions of foreign nationals living among us illegally,” he said. “They are liars and they don’t care about you, they don’t care about your kids, they are reckless and incompetent.”

Carlson later added that Trump himself “doesn’t seek war” and is “wary” of it, but had been “outmaneuvered” by “people around him.” 

He warned of the risks of a war with Iran over several segments on Friday, arguing that recent U.S. conflicts in the Middle East have cost a lot more in lives and money than originally anticipated and with few benefits in return. But he again largely avoided directly criticizing Trump, instead castigating Bolton and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) for their statements supporting the killing of Soleimani.  

Under normal circumstances, Carlson’s commentary would be of interest primarily because of the information and over-arching message he’s providing to his cable news audience. But in the Trump era, the president himself is one of those viewers and has repeatedly responded to Fox programming by shifting U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

Carlson, like several of his colleagues, is effectively not just a cable news host but a political operative. These members of the Fox News cabinet try to influence Trump’s actions, both through their public commentary and by counseling the president on the side. Carlson has been particularly effective in this role. Last year, he was reportedly able to attract Trump’s attention and, through both his television show and private lobbying, convince the president to call off planned military strikes against Iranian targets. The Fox host later used that relationship to get Trump to push Bolton out of the administration. 

That experience shows in Carlson’s current argument about Iran, which seems carefully engineered to appeal to a paranoid, racist president who typically responds to criticism with vindictive hyperaggression. So Carlson’s Thursday talking point that Trump is being misled by disloyal advisers who want to keep him from lashing out at undocumented immigrants and refugees checks all the right boxes while avoiding setting him off by suggesting that he is personally at fault.

Carlson’s appeal, thus far, appears to have failed. Trump “closely monitored reactions to his military action, taking note of who praised him publicly among Republicans and who did not, like Tucker Carlson,” The New York Times reported Sunday. “He was encouraged by others on the Trump-friendly network.” Over the weekend, Trump repeatedly threatened that if Iran retaliates for Soleimani’s killing, the U.S. would respond by striking its cultural sites, a public announcement of planned war crimes that tracks closer to Fox host Sean Hannity’s suggestion that Trump respond to Iranian attacks by discarding the rules of engagement and “bomb[ing] the living hell out of them.” 

But even if Carlson had convinced the president to avoid further escalation, that tangible benefit to the anti-war movement -- and the country -- would be paired with huge risks. Remember, Carlson’s argument is that a Middle East conflict would distract from the need to take action against the “invasion” of migrants and refugees seeking to cross the southern border and the millions of undocumented immigrants living peacefully in this country. What happens if Trump trains his attention where Carlson is trying to point him? What havoc would he wreak on those vulnerable populations beyond what his administration has already done?

Let’s turn from Trump and consider the impact the Fox host’s commentary might have on the rest of his more than 3 million nightly viewers.

Carlson is pushing his audience to consider questions about further conflict with Iran that his colleagues are not, providing a rare respite from the all-systems-go war cheerleading elsewhere on the network. But you can’t separate Carlson’s conclusion from his argument tying it to an “invasion” of Hispanic would-be immigrants. 

This argument is, in part, wrong on the facts in a way that shields the president from culpability -- Trump reportedly pushed for the strike on Soleimani, alarming top Pentagon officials, after “fuming” over “television reports [that] showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American embassy in Baghdad.” It draws a connection between the advisers’ Iran warmongering and their immigration stance for which Carlson has provided no evidence. And it relies on an incredibly toxic premise -- that southern migration constitutes an “invasion” -- that has already triggered serious consequences against both the purported “invaders” and those who apparently support them.

Last August, a gunman allegedly targeting “Mexicans” murdered 22 people and injured 26 more at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, after leaving behind a manifesto describing his desire “to exact revenge against ‘the Hispanic invasion of Texas,’ to forestall what he called ‘cultural and ethnic replacement,’ and to ‘reclaim my country from destruction.’” The year before, a shooter who blamed Jewish people in the U.S. “for bringing in an invasion of nonwhite immigrants” killed 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

There’s value in having an anti-war message pierce Fox’s bubble to reach its viewers, the president included. But this particular message could have ominous results for others.

Update (1/7/20): Carlson made headlines again for criticizing the escalating tensions with Iran on the opening segment of his Monday broadcast. But later in the same segment, Carlson argued that “tar pits like Afghanistan and Iraq and now Iran distract our leaders from the business they were hired to conduct, which of course is improving our lives.” This time, the issue Carlson said leaders were being distracted from was declining conditions in U.S. cities, which is the subject of a series the host will be running all week under the title “American Dystopia.” 

The first installment, which he subsequently aired, was on San Francisco, where he claimed “civilization itself is coming apart” with “city sidewalks ... littered with junkies and feces and dirty needles.” “As you watch it, remember this: This is what they’d like to do to your neighborhood,” Carlson said before airing the package, which featured dehumanizing footage of homeless people and attacked the city’s needle-exchange program. He concluded the segment, “Hard to believe it’s your country.”

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Citation From the January 6, 2020, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

Fox aired dozens of segments demonizing homeless people in 2019, with a particular focus on California. On September 10, The Washington Post reported that Trump “has ordered White House officials to launch a sweeping effort to address homelessness in California,” which may include “razing existing tent camps for the homeless” and institutionalizing people experiencing homelessness. 

Later in the same program, Carlson attacked birthright citizenship, which he argued is “just one of the many ways that America’s open borders have turned into a disaster for this country.”