By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
There are many shortages in this world, but words describing the Tucker Carlson phenomenon are not among them.
An independent voter who admittedly leans left on social issues, I’ve always been well aware of Carlson’s incendiary comments, particularly about race replacement theory and his sympathy for Vladimir Putin. I’d just never felt compelled to watch his Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” or even a segment of it until last week, as I prepped for this piece.
All I can say is a full dose of Carlson’s sneering frat-boy persona (some people claim he’s merely the Right’s answer to political humorist-commentators Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart), childish Trumpian insults of anyone whose views he dislikes, and his relentless Us vs. Them messages (Liberals hate you; world government, leftist elites, immigrants and people of color are coming to take what you have) made me fear for the future of this country even more than I already do.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to see Carlson’s phenomenal appeal. The sheer simplicity of his often-exaggerated and frequently false claims is mind candy for people whose response to challenges to their beliefs runs no deeper than a laugh emoji.
Carlson is the gold standard of commentators for anyone who doesn’t want to contemplate the gray areas and complexity of major issues or examine their own behavior, let alone admit they’ve been wrong about anything. There are an awful lot of folks like that. Carlson hosts the most popular cable news show in history, with an average of more than 3 million daily viewers. Millions more follow him on social media.
(On the off-chance that you’ve somehow managed to ignore the voice and face of modern conservatism, and for the sake of not devoting a lot of time and space to background, I urge you to read The New York Times’ recent series on Carlson, “American Nationalist."
I must admit I was shocked by Carlson’s show on May 25, the day after the horrific shootings at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex. Oh, I fully expected his boilerplate excoriation of Joe Biden for “dividing the country” and “defiling” the deaths of the 19 kids and two adults by “raising Democrat talking points” on gun control, but Carlson, after countering with Republican talking points, actually spent a few minutes pointing out that America needs to address some other important factors beyond guns: the alienating and deleterious effects the Internet and psychoactive drugs such as widely used antidepressants are having on our society.
Of course, it doesn’t occur to Carlson or many on the Right that making highly efficient killing machines easily available in an alienated society riddled with anger and mental health issues is not the wisest thing.
With his stature and influence, Carlson could do great good for a nation in sore need of calming voices that promote thoughtful reconciliation, common cause and common ground. Not that his audience would let him. FOX News’ ratings took a steep dive last year after some of its personalities dared to criticize Donald Trump, who was booed at one of his own rallies for simply suggesting that people take Covid vaccines that he facilitated with his Operation Warp Speed program in 2020.
And there is no irony deficiency in FOX News’ claim that “’Tucker Carlson Tonight' is the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness and group think” or the fact that Carlson is actively fueling America’s dire state of discord while he accuses Biden of dividing the country.
A rigid, hostile approach to those who disagree with you—now the norm in politics, media and daily life— makes thoughtful discourse, compromise and acceptance impossible. All it creates is entrenched animosity. And Carlson’s show constantly drives home to his viewers that they should quickly dismiss other points of view or facts and events that blow holes in his arguments and their own beliefs.
Carlson’s straight-faced claims that Jan. 6 merits “barely a footnote” in American history, and that people voted for Biden because they wanted liberals to shut up, are so absurd they make any rational, thinking person’s eyes roll right on out the door.
But Carlson and FOX News are merely giving their people what they want and demand. That is the most disturbing thing. Like Trump and his ilk, Carlson is a reflection of a huge segment of America that only wants to hear what it wants to hear, believe what it wants to believe, and attack people it wants to see as scapegoats.
Carlson, who may very well believe the poison he spews, is a lucrative creature of the Fox News business model that has been growing in power and influence since Rush Limbaugh started the modern conservative talk show and narrative in the 1980s. What we have now is an insidious and deeply entrenched feedback loop. Carlson’s audience has been fed a “liberals are always evil and must be defeated” message for 40 years. I'm sure there are some converts but I believe that many already felt this way and they thrill to hearing their voice come from a major public figure like a Limbaugh, a Carlson or a Sean Hannity.
This audience will accept no deviation. So I have to chuckle at calls to have Carlson fired for his racist and anti-immigrant remarks. Really? Fox News would fire its Golden Goose? There's nothing he can do or say that would cause that to happen ... except, probably, reject or sharply criticize the GOP machine and its talking points. He'd have to pull a Liz Cheney or a Madison Cawthorne. He's not that big a fool. He knows who butters his brioche.
Carlson, who has acknowledged the power of propaganda, is a master proprietor of it. He and the Murdoch family (the owners of Fox News) and many other powerful figures on the Right are harnessing an army of scared, enraged citizens that began to manifest itself on Jan. 6.
What incentive does Carlson have to do other than what he is doing? His current formula brings him a reported annual reward of anywhere from $6 million to $30 million, plus enormous fame and power. Even though some sponsors have fled screaming, he remains FOX News’ ad-revenue cash cow, the flagship of the network’s proudly trumpeted business model. And if he were to vanish tomorrow, someone else would take his place the same way he took Limbaugh’s mantel as the right-wing’s preeminent spokesman.
Carlson is a glaring example of the outrageous money to be made in maintaining America’s dysfunctional status quo. Whether it be bitter sociopolitical polarization, environmental pollution, over-reliance on debilitating medication, the proliferation of guns, or popular technology that fosters alienation, a lot of people will be put out of business if our most pressing problems are ever significantly improved let alone solved.
The reality is that Carlson’s brand of all-or-nothing confrontation is driving America to an explosion of mindless, neighbor-on-neighbor violence of the kind and scale that ravaged the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s, taking hundreds of thousands of lives. Such madness is fueled by messages like the ones Carlson peddles that excite and embolden his audience: You belong to our righteous tribe; they are your enemy and not real Americans; compromise is not an option.
I expect chaos to grow after the midterms in November and be more fully unleashed after the presidential election in 2024. For a sense of what is coming, consider what would have happened if the Jan. 6 insurrection had succeeded and Trump had remained in power. The ensuing nationwide protests would have resulted in violent clashes with right-wing militias and sympathizers, attempts by Trump to brutally repress them, and civil war.
The tragic truth is it’s much easier and profitable to hate and fight than it is to think carefully and accept that our problems will require a long period of concerted cooperation on many fronts. America’s democracy might have a fighting chance (pardon the pun) if there was more desire for — and great financial incentive in — being thoughtful, patient, empathetic, kind, generous, tolerant, accepting, well-informed and intelligent. But there isn’t.
Just look at Tucker Carlson.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.