A recent survey by Punchbowl News and Locust Street Group found that 87% of GOP congressional aides considered Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson to be “the most influential Republican voice” outside of lawmakers and former presidents or vice presidents. The survey highlights the conservative star’s meteoric rise in both right-wing media and Republican politics: The GOP has hitched its policy wagon to Tucker Carlson Tonight at the same time that Fox has gone all-in on branding Carlson as the face of the network. And the result is waves of culture war political posturing by Republicans that is informing everything from their tweets to legislation.
Fox has long been the communications arm for the GOP, and the revolving door between the Trump administration and the network laid bare the extent of the ties between the channel and Republican policymaking. With Donald Trump now out of office, the close relationship between Fox and the GOP continues -- with Tucker Carlson’s monologues effectively becoming the party platform.
In April, the Republican Party released a memo outlining its intention to keep the party aligned with Trump and their mutual cheerleaders at Fox. The platform highlighted GOP priorities such as “anti-wokeness,” the threat of China, and anti-conservative bias in Big Tech. The “traditional” issues of conservative politics -- taxes, deregulation, the national debt -- had disappeared, replaced by a list that reads more like a teaser for an hour of Fox News prime time.
Carlson has been curating the political priorities of his viewers for years. With an unofficial position as assignment editor to conservatism and a trademark “someone should do something” manner of presentation, Carlson has the ability to catapult virtually any topic to the top of the agenda. For instance, the recent panic over critical race theory that has seemingly possessed school districts overnight would have been impossible without Fox and Carlson. Notably, Carlson was responsible for platforming the harebrained drivel of Christopher Rufo, who served as director of the “initiative on critical race theory” at the Manhattan Institute and recently admitted that the goal of the hysterics is to turn the phrase into a dog whistle for myriad conservative grievances
In recent years, Rufo has made at least 15 appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight -- the same show which has dedicated at least 71 segments to attacking critical race theory since June 5, 2020.
And it's not just Rufo using appearances on Carlson’s show to get his message out; Republican politicians are also showing up to kiss the ring. In the last 18 months, they include GOP Sens. Josh Hawley (28 appearances), John Kennedy (13), Tom Cotton (8), and Marco Rubio (5), embattled Rep. Matt Gaetz (17), Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (8), and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (6).
And Carlson has used their appearances to drive the manic coverage of a network that regularly sets the public agenda for GOP legislators. For example, a bill recently proposed by Republican state lawmakers sought to ban the teaching of critical race theory and enshrine “traditional history” in Texas’ education system. Exactly what “traditional history” represents in this case, however, remains largely undefined. Instead, the bill and its components are a response to a fear manufactured by right-wing media. In other words, they echo long-standing tropes in the Fox cinematic universe: accusations that honest discussions about race are attempts at indoctrination or to rewrite history, suggestions that inclusive education is an attack on white students, and complaints that white people are the true victims of racism in America.
Curiously, the flurry of legislation in Texas and other states that would ban teaching “critical race theory” and other ideologies exists alongside ever-growing claims of anti-conservative censorship and repression that have swept Republicans over the course of the last year, with fearmongering from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight at the center of both.
The contrived panic behind the Texas bill and others like it is emblematic of the legislative process of the modern GOP. In that process, Fox, led by frontman Carlson, latches onto an issue and carves it into the consciousness of viewers, leveraging their reach and influence to pull elected Republicans into the fold or drag them along if need be. Attacks on critical race theory are only the tip of the iceberg.
In just the first three months of this year, Fox News aired at least 72 segments on trans athletes, with Tucker Carlson Tonight once again setting the tone for the network’s coverage. At the same time, a record-breaking number of anti-trans bills were also introduced in the United States this year, as at least 33 states considered such measures and governors signed legislation against trans athletes into law in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Carlson himself gave cover to this extreme anti-trans legislation by lying about medical care for trans youth, and he even went so far as to describe the existence of trans people as “a challenge to the perpetuation of the species.”
But the Fox host is also willing to attack Republican officials who didn’t comply with his vision of the party platform. He savaged Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson in April for his initial veto of an anti-trans health care bill that the GOP leader described as a “step way too far.” The month before, Carlson targeted South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem over “whether she was ‘caving’ to the NCAA by not signing a bill barring transgender women from competing in women's sports.” Carlson followed up interviews with both Republican governors by continuing to criticize them in subsequent episodes, with right-wing media and anti-LGBTQ figures echoing his attacks.
Carlson has emerged as the unequivocal leader of the Republican Party’s war on democracy. From his Fox perch, he often railed against the pandemic-led increase in mail-in voting throughout 2020, often getting facts blatantly wrong. Weeks before the election, he launched a conspiracy theory that a cabal of Democrats were planning to use such ballots to launch a coup, clearly setting the stage for what was to come.
When it turned out that Trump lost and Biden won, Carlson continued with the lies, only embarrassing himself further. He briefly criticized Sidney Powell’s election conspiracy theories, only to later suck up to Powell associate, and Carlson’s leading advertiser, Mike Lindell for pushing virtually identical lies about the election. Carlson was named in Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox News. On January 4, Carlson claimed “virtually every power center on Earth” rigged the election for Biden.
And then the January 6 attack happened.
Carlson immediately set up his show as a spin room for a defense of the insurrectionists as people protecting their rights, declared that the attackers were not terrorists and it was not an insurrection, suggested that antifa was behind it, mocked people who feared for their life, launched a conspiracy theory about additional security after the attack, lied about white supremacist involvement, and demanded “answers” to his question while attacking efforts to establish an investigative commission.
Carlson then somehow hit a new nadir in recent days. Jumping off a blog post from a former Trump speechwriter fired after attending a white nationalist conference, Carlson claimed that the federal government was behind the January 6 attack on the Capitol building. Of course, he and his source were blatantly misreading charging documents, but Carlson was undeterred.
The claim was immediately picked up by some Republicans. Embattled congressional representatives Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Green called for an investigation into the FBI, a stark contrast to the established anti-commission position of Republicans. As conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones jumped on board, Carlson is suddenly leading a “truther” movement about the attack.
The canary in the coal mine for this particular conspiracy theory was Carlson laughing about a plot during the height of the pandemic by right-wing extremists to kidnap Democractic governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer.
And perhaps no area has Carlson’s influence over GOP posturing been more clear than the COVID-19 pandemic. Carlson took the stance that COVID-19 should be apolitical and addressed with seriousness at the very start of the public health crisis. But then he spent the next 15 months acting as the misinformer-in-chief. After declaring the pandemic over in April 2020, Carlson joined other Fox hosts to promote untested antimalarial drugs; championed protests against coronavirus mitigation efforts; ignored the climbing U.S. death toll and baselessly suggested it may have been exaggerated; mocked warnings of future casualties; accused Bill Gates of attempting to engineer “mass social control”; claimed the CDC’s vaccine distribution plan was “eugenics” against white people; denounced public health measures and the scientists who supported them; and helped turn face masks into a culture war flashpoint.
Carlson’s influence throughout the pandemic was key to turning public health and safety measures into high-stakes battles for the soul of the republic -- not only in the minds of his audience but also among prominent elected Republicans.
More recently, Carlson has insinuated that the vaccines may not be safe or effective and that scientists who say otherwise are lying. Clips of Carlson promoting anti-vaccine rhetoric have spread widely across social media, earning millions of views on Facebook. His recent claim that the COVID-19 vaccine was killing dozens of people a day was the culmination of months of speculation and fearmongering.
So what does it mean that the most influential voice in Republican politics trafficks in white nationalism, conspiracy theories, and outright falsehoods while at the same time wielding the power to shape public and legislative opinion? The GOP now largely has to deal with issues on Fox’s terms, and Carlson’s bad-faith hysterics over critical race theory, transgender people, the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter, anti-fascism, immigration, and myriad other issues have created a climate in which legislative priorities do not match the tangible needs of the American people. Instead, conservative politics has been consumed by a feverish race to the far-right on issues that appear in Fox News’ prime time -- with Tucker Carlson setting the agenda and enforcing the new party orthodoxy.