Tucker Carlson's Twitter show could upend Fox and the GOP — if it actually happens
Ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s Tuesday announcement that he plans to relaunch his show on Twitter sent a shockwave through the U.S. political and media class — and for good reason. The move could reshape a broad swath of the nation’s information ecosystem in the leadup to the 2024 elections.
Carlson was near the peak of his power when Fox announced last month that it had cut ties with its longtime star. The notorious bigot and conspiracy theorist had millions of devoted viewers and exerted a strong gravitational pull on the rest of the network’s hosts, the broader right-wing infotainment ecosystem, and the Republican Party.
On Tuesday, he effectively went to war with the network that had employed him since 2009. Calson told his followers that “starting soon we'll be bringing a new version of the show we've been doing for the last six and a half years to Twitter” in a video posted to the social media platform. Shortly thereafter, Axios reported that Carlson’s lawyers had sent Fox a letter accusing the company of fraud and breach of contract, a possible precursor to a lawsuit.
The announcement is a blow to Fox, which reportedly sought to keep Carlson under wraps. It preferred to pay out the remaining years of Carlson’s contract and keep him off the airwaves until it expires in 2025. But Carlson reportedly wanted to get back on the air so he could play a role in the 2024 presidential election, and tried to pressure the company to let him out of his deal in the days leading up to his Twitter declaration.
There are a lot of unanswered questions and a great deal of uncertainty about how Carlson’s move will turn out. It could have dramatic ramifications for Carlson himself; for Fox and the rest of the right-wing media; for the Republican Party; and for Twitter. Unless, that is, the whole thing is vaporware.
What it means for Tucker Carlson
Carlson, in his decades in media, has been fired from CNN, MSNBC, PBS, and now Fox. His latest gig would be a bet on himself.
The former Fox host will likely be more unhinged than ever on Twitter. He will need to accomplish the difficult task of converting his Fox audience into viewers on a different platform.
The best way to accomplish that will likely be to garner as much attention as possible — and extremism is the easiest pathway to attention. Given that his past record includes regularly mainstreaming neo-Nazi conspiracy theories, valorizing right-wing vigilantes and January 6 rioters, and calling for violent action against perceived enemies, that is reason for alarm.
Carlson’s show could also prove a full employment program for the white nationalists he claims do not exist but whom he somehow keeps hiring. In 2020, Fox fired Carlson’s chief writer after CNN revealed his bigoted message board posts. A response like that seems unfathomable now.
Carlson will likely be able to retain an audience, and he very well could end up making more money than he did at Fox. The question is whether, shorn of his ties to the network and his spot in its prime-time lineup, he will be able to retain his influence.
The record for former Foxers who struck out on their own is not promising. Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Megyn Kelly were all stars at Fox, and they still make plenty of money giving their views on other platforms — but none of them have controlled a news cycle since they left.
On the other hand, Carlson was more powerful at the time Fox canned him than any of them ever were.
What it means for Fox News and the right-wing media
Fox has for decades been the single most powerful force in right-wing media, using its sizable ratings to mint stars and dictate the stories on which lesser outlets focus. Carlson’s departure doesn’t change that — but it does represent an unusually stiff challenge for Fox.
Carlson’s Twitter show could exacerbate Fox’s ratings tumble since it cut ties with him. The network’s viewership has dropped across the board, reflecting furious calls from right-wing influencers and commentators at other outlets to boycott Fox in response to its treatment of Carlson. And that decline has come with Carlson on the bench — his return via Twitter could further cut into Fox’s ratings dominance.
If Carlson returns on a new platform and his show succeeds, he could create a secondary pole in the right-wing ecosystem. Commentators are used to monitoring his show for insights into effective messages and important storylines and following his lead, and they would continue to do so. And Fox would be put to the test — will its executives ban on-air talent from promoting stories that emerge from Carlson’s new gig, or even force right-wing guests to choose sides, in order to preserve the network’s power?
For now, the incentives for right-wing commentators seem to favor targeting Fox and siding with Carlson. But those circumstances could change quickly — without Fox’s backing, he’s just another loudmouthed demagogue with a microphone, and if they smell weakness and think they can tear him down to harvest his audience, they’ll switch sides in an instant.
What it means for the GOP
Carlson’s lies, bigotry, and conspiracy theories did not stop him from becoming perhaps the Republican Party’s single most powerful unelected figure over the last few years. He advised Donald Trump and shaped his White House’s policies, brokered Kevin McCarthy’s rise to the House speakership, ushered favored political candidates through the party’s primaries, and sanitized the GOP’s most extreme elements.
It’s unclear whether that hold on the party will continue now that he’s off Fox’s airwaves. Republican leaders uncomfortable with Carlson’s influence have already toasted his firing, confident that without his show on Fox, he will no longer hold sway over, say, the party’s position on military aid to Ukraine. Given Carlson’s recent unfettered support for Trump, the former president’s primary opponents may feel similarly.
That may be premature. It’s reasonable to guess that Carlson will lose relevance as quickly as did the likes of Beck and O’Reilly. But that’s just a guess — since neither of them had anywhere near Carlson’s control over the GOP when they left Fox, his sway may be more persistent.
What it means for Twitter
Carlson’s announcement that he is taking his talents to Twitter solidifies the platform's role as a radicalization engine for the far right.
Since Musk took control of the company, Twitter has reinstated Trump and an array of other right-wing accounts previously banned for hate speech and misinformation; removed protections for trans users and terminated policies against COVID-19 misinformation; and ended legacy verification, which helped users identify credible news outlets.
Carlson has celebrated Musk’s stewardship of Twitter, and he’ll fit right in as the site sinks deeper into the right-wing muck.
The benefits for Twitter seem somewhat less clear. Musk has been speed-running the role of a media business executive, and he has now apparently reached the pivot to video. But Twitter does not have a good track record as a platform for longform video and has been a glitchy mess following Musk’s 2022 purchase. Carlson’s involvement is also toxic for brands, many of which have already dropped their advertisements on the platform.
What if it isn’t happening?
It’s possible Carlson has no intention of actually making a Twitter show his primary post-Fox vehicle. The idea seems undercooked, with no solid timeline and a dubious business plan, and the primary players in the drama are a notorious liar and a con man.
When is this supposed to happen? Carlson said in his video only that he plans to launch the show “soon”; CNN's Brian Stelter reported Wednesday that even Carlson’s own team has no idea when it might debut.
Who will watch? Carlson has appeal to young far-right activists, but he has a cable news audience made up of older people who may be difficult to port over to a new platform. In fact, an unusual amount of Carlson’s future influence rests on whether Trump’s aides can teach the former president how to watch the show on Twitter.
And how is the audience to be monetized? Musk posted on Tuesday that there is no “deal” with Carlson — the former Fox star, like other users, will make money off of “subscriptions and advertising revenue share.” But according to Musk, software for the latter doesn’t currently exist! Given how frequently his claims about future Twitter plans have fallen apart and the slipshod way he’s going about putting a video product together, it’s reasonable to question whether it ever will.
It’s possible that Carlson is an unemployed buffoon mired in a midlife crisis who threw away tens of millions of dollars on blind faith that a habitual scam artist will come through. But another option is that this is a PR move intended to help him move past weeks of brutal news coverage of his past comments and actions. Carlson has rolled out a story in which Fox’s executives stabbed him in the back and then tried to silence him, and he’s trying to break away to a place that respects “free speech.” That is a much better news cycle for Carlson than one about whether he habitually calls women the c-word.
Maybe a year from now Carlson will really be using a show on Twitter as his primary way of communicating to the world. But don’t be shocked if it never gets further than the former Foxer posting some clips to the service and his eventual landing spot is somewhere else.