Tucker Carlson's embrace of foreign authoritarian leaders
Carlson's friendly interviews with foreign strongmen promote anti-democratic ideology to his American audience
In the past two years, Tucker Carlson has repeatedly hosted global leaders with authoritarian tendencies and embraced anti-democratic regimes on his Fox News and Fox Nation shows.
In interviews with Hungary’s president Victor Orbán, El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele, Poland’s president Andrzej Duda, and most recently, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, Carlson has pitched softball questions, praised anti-democratic ideas, and allowed lies about some of the regimes to go unchallenged. Carlson has also repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, excusing his regime’s aggression in Ukraine.
By promoting and celebrating anti-democracy leaders to his audience of over 3 million viewers, Carlson is whitewashing their authoritarian tendencies and inaccurately covering the implication of their policies. Reeling from the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection, the majority of voters believe American democracy is already at risk. Carlson's embrace of authoritarian ideologies from around the world only further threatens its future.
Fox News has a documented pattern of supporting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Tucker Carlson has clearly led this charge.
A month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Carlson praised Nigel Farage for saying, “Whatever we may think of him [Putin] as a human being,” he is “actually on our side.”
Media Matters has documented Carlson’s extensive history of pushing pro-Kremlin talking points on Tucker Carlson Tonight.
He has mocked criticism of the Russian president and downplayed the significance of his invasion of Ukraine. He also suggested the Biden administration backs Ukraine only because of Hunter Biden’s ties to the country and questioned the U.S.’s efforts to support Ukraine, asking, “Why do we care so much” about “Russia messing around in Ukraine or Estonia or Crimea or whatever?” and “Why wouldn’t we be friends with Russia?”
He even went so far as to throw a jab at his Fox News colleague Jennifer Griffin’s reporting on the region, accusing her of “lying” while not bothering “to do any reporting whatsoever.”
Putin leads an authoritarian state in which he cannot be prosecuted and officials in his government are protected under strict confidentiality laws. The country has cracked down on free internet access by limiting access to social media platforms, and critics of the Kremlin are labeled “foreign agents” and silenced. A Media Matters report from April 2022 found that Facebook videos featuring 5 pro-Russian segments from Carlson received more than 2 million views and nearly 200,000 interactions.
In 2019, Carlson asked on his show, “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am,” in reference to the conflict with Ukraine. (Later in the show he claimed he was joking.)
In return for his fealty, the Kremlin has praised Fox and Carlson, amplifying segments of Carlson’s show on its state-run social media accounts and state-run television. A leaked Kremlin memo distributed to Russian media outlets instructed broadcasters to use as many clips from Tucker Carlson as possible.
In June, Carlson traveled to Brazil to film a new documentary for his “Tucker Carlson Originals” series. While there, he interviewed Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who, since he assumed the presidency in 2019, has created a government in Brazil that is anti-LGBTQ, anti-Black, and anti-woman, once even stating he would rather see his son “die in an accident” than have a gay family member.
Despite international attention on Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic regime, Carlson hosted the Brazilian president for a friendly interview, during which they promoted a variety of false claims and conspiracy theories. Bolsonaro and Carlson embraced their similar ideologies, with Bolsonaro praising Carlson’s show and Carlson suggesting Brazil gets its own Fox News Channel.
Carlson and Bolsonaro pushed a number of other right-wing talking points.
- Carlson cheered on Brazil’s pro-life and Christian ideology, and Carlson and Bolsonaro agreed “the left” in Brazil will be responsible for the downfall of the good, Christian-centric society. Carlson implied the same would happen in the United States.
- Carlson falsely claimed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “arms Nazis,” saying Bolsonaro is not like him.
- Carlson claimed Bolsonaro is a “liberal” and has “done nothing to stop civil liberties in Brazil” although the president is known to arrest and investigate his critics under a vague national security law.
- Carlson and Bolsonaro repeatedly called a man who attacked Bolsonaro in 2018 “leftist” and claimed the stabbing was politically motivated although a judge ruled the attacker was mentally ill after he told investigators he was “acting on the orders of God.”
- Bolsonaro shared false claims that he did not need the COVID-19 vaccine because he had previously had the virus.
- Bolsonaro also promoted both ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as effective COVID-19 treatments.
- Bolsonaro repeated the generally discounted theory that COVID-19 was started in a “laboratory on the other side of the world.”
- Responding to a Carlson question about the expansion of gun ownership in Brazil, Bolsonaro claimed an increase in civilian gun ownership is what caused a “drop in the number of people who are killed by firearms in Brazil,” though the president though in reality states where civilian gun ownership increased the most did not see crime fall by any significant amount in comparison to states with less growth of gun ownership.
Dubbed “Trump of the tropics,” Bolsonaro campaigned on heavy military presence, after years of supporting Brazil’s military dictatorship, and violent policing. He had a plan to appoint military leaders to top government posts and following the election he did just that. Bolsonaro also claimed he would not accept the results of the election if he lost and has “threatened to destroy, jail or drive into exile his political opponents.”
During the 2020 municipal elections in Brazil, Bolsonaro spread narratives meant to discredit the country's democratic voting system after his party’s candidates lost. He has begun to push for restricting votes to paper ballots only for the 2022 election, echoing Trumpworld’s conspiracy theories about compromised electronic voting machines.
On his first day as president in 2019, Bolsonaro targeted Indigenous lands by preventing new lands from becoming demarcated for protection and has since dismantled the country’s environment ministry through cutting the budget, and overseen increased deforestation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro’s failed policies resulted in hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths. Bolsonaro spread false narratives about the pandemic, refused to follow the World Health Organization’s recommendations, and even blocked local or state governments that attempted to follow prevention advice such as implementing mask mandates. Federal police have investigated multiple people who criticized the president’s COVID-19 response in public media.
Carlson’s coverage of President Viktor Orbán and his governance in Hungary has garnered a flurry of mainstream media press attention in the American press. He has interviewed Orbán, filmed an antisemitic documentary targeting philanthropist George Soros, and spoken at a conference put on in Hungary by a right-wing organization tied to the Orbán government.
Carlson has shown his enthusiasm for authoritarian ideas and frequently connects Hungary’s move to the right as an example the U.S. should follow.
- Carlson suggested the U.S. adopt Hungary’s nationalistic immigration policies while calling immigrants “chaos and filth and crime growing all around us.”
- He hosted Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto in an interview titled “Here's what America should learn from Hungary” in which they discussed Hungary’s extreme immigration policies.
- Carlson suggested that without Orbán’s strict immigration policies, “there will be no more Hungarians” and claimed that “neoliberals” would rather “import a replacement population from the Third World,” once again pushing the fascist great replacement theory.
- Carlson celebrated Orbán’s election victory in 2022, noting, “Orban described the victory as a win for sensible nationalism -- which it certainly is.”
- Carlson claimed on his nightly show that calling Orbán a “facist” or “authoritarian” is “the greatest of all” lies. Orbán is widely known for minimizing democratic freedom in Hungary.
- While in Hungary, Carlson claimed “left-wing NGOs” are vilifying Orbán for his facist policies and claimed it’s “insane” to consider Hungary less free than South Africa. He was referring the nongovernmental organization Freedom House’s 2022 list saying Hungary was “partly free” due to “antimigrant and anti-LGBT+ policies, as well as laws that hamper the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)” created by Orbán’s government.
Carlson has repeatedly promoted Orbán’s policy ideas and supported his political career while repeatedly pushing for similar change to come to the U.S. In an introduction to one his interviews with the Hungarian president, Carlson claimed the U.S. media frequently lies about Orbán and “how repressive Hungary is.” Carlson went on to imply Hungary is a more free nation than the U.S., saying people who “loudly and publicly attack Joe Biden’s policies” are “silenced” and “might very well have to hire armed bodyguards” and falsely claiming “opposition figures here [in Hungary] don’t worry that they’ll be hurt for their opinions.” Carlson commended Orbán’s conservative policies and bashed U.S. leaders who “vilified” him for them.
The admiration goes both ways. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Hungary in May, Orbán described Carlson as a “friend” and told his audience that Carlson’s show should be “broadcasted day and night.”
Orbán recently gave a widely condemned speech during which he railed against “race mixing,” prompting one of his closest advisers to resign. He has downplayed Hungary’s involvement in the Holocaust and promoted antisemetic stereotypes as propaganda.
Orbán’s government has pushed far-right legislation, including banning LGBTQ representation in educational materials and media for kids and passing extreme anti-migrant legislation that goes against the European Union’s policies. Orbán has also undermined free and fair elections in Hungary and tightened his control over national media.
Mainstream media in the U.S. have closely covered Carlson and Orbán’s close relationship. The New York Times has published multiple articles drawing connections between Orbán and the political right in the U.S., and the relationship has inspired a number of think pieces by other media outlets.
Carlson has also interviewed Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele on his Fox News show. Carlson focused on Bukele’s promise to curb gang violence in the country by increasing police funding and military presence while also applauding Bukele’s conservative stances and pushing for similar policies in the U.S.
- Bukele claimed his solution for MS-13 gang violence is to “give more funds to the police, apply tougher dynamics, get the criminals, and put them in jail” and compared El Salvador’s crime rates to those of popular Fox News target Chicago, saying under his new tactics, crime in the country has fallen below that of the city.
- Carlson applauded Bukele’s efforts and called the supposed solution to crime rates “obvious.”
In the past, Carlson has repeatedly referenced MS-13 when fearmongering about supposed white replacement and immigration in the U.S.; most well-known was his claim that Biden would release gang members into U.S. neighborhoods. Carlson also defended Trump when he made comments about immigration from “shithole countries,” even suggesting that El Salvador was indeed a “shithole country” or it wouldn't need immigration protections.
Carlson focused his interview with Bukele on his response to gang violence in El Salvador, praising him for cracking down through police and military power. However, Bukele policies has resulted in human rights violations in many of El Salvador’s jails including torture and death of prisoners, according to Amnesty International.
According to the Journal of Democracy, Bukele’s measures to limit judiciary independence following his rise to power in 2019 were a “serious blow to Salvadoran democracy” and his actions include “classic authoritarian behavior.” He claimed electoral authorities and the media were part of a voting fraud conspiracy during the 2021 election despite his party winning a legislative supermajority. As a candidate, Bukele avoided public debates and press interviews during the campaign, which left many to believe he was “intolerant.”
Since his election, Bukele has used the country’s military to bully opposition into voting for his budget and disbanded an anti-corruption body. Bukele has used his supermajority power to consolidate his power, firing high level judges and the attorney general. After his attacks on the judicial system, the top court in the country announced sitting presidents will be able to run again, even though El Salvador’s constitution states otherwise.
Carlson also interviewed Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and claimed Duda is an example of leaders “who actually care about their people” and who “defended their populations against international interference.” The interview included staples of Carlson’s conversations with conservative foreign leaders including comparisons to the United States, promotion of conservative and Christian ideals, and blatant lies.
Carlson started the interview by describing Duda’s efforts to stop the European Union from resettling refugees in Poland in 2015 as fighting back.
When asked about the power of technology companies in Poland, Duda stated the government has never introduced any kind of social media restrictions. Buth in 2021 the government planned to create a “Freedom of Expression Council” as a workaround to social media platforms’ power to ban accounts in the country, shortly after Twitter suspended Trump’s account. They ended the interview discussing the importance of pro-heterosexual family and Christian conservative ideals in government.
Duda has eroded judicial independence in Poland, forcing out sitting judges by establishing age limits and taking control over judicial appointments. An outspoken homophobe, Duda is known for his so-called “Christian values.” His administration has banned gay parents from adopting children, and under his regime “LGBT-free zones” have appeared across the country. Duda himself has called LGBTQ rights a “more destructive” ideology than communism.
His anti-abortion laws prevent abortion in almost all cases — recently, a bill was introduced to ban abortions for cases of fetal abnormalities — and they have rallied pro-abortion protestors and political opposition against the president. Duda’s government has also cracked down on the free press by introducing a new law that makes it impossible for media entities to be controlled by anyone outside the EU and has amended laws to allow the government to choose the heads of state-run media organizations.
With similar ideologies taking hold in the U.S., Fox News is giving Tucker Carlson free reign to embrace authoritarian leaders from around the world. Carlson has gone out of his way to promote false and conspiratorial narratives that have been repeatedly debunked while pushing these ideas onto his audience.