With the revelations of Tucker Carlson’s texts in the Dominion lawsuit, his viewers might be confused: Isn’t Tucker Carlson Trump’s number one booster? Yet here was Tucker sharply criticizing Trump, relishing the idea that he wouldn’t have to discuss Trump on his show.
In fact, this is fairly consistent with Tucker’s views on Trump expressed prior to this scandal. What follows is a synopsis of Tucker’s interesting career, with many twists and turns, and some insights into Tucker’s true feelings on former President Donald Trump.
Tucker as a Magazine Journalist
Author Michael Wolff’s assessment of Tucker is someone who doesn’t particularly work his tail off. Rather, he effortlessly puts out his product on cable TV. Wolff briefly worked with Tucker at New York Magazine, where he found Tucker’s writing “sharp and waspish”(90), but ultimately both Tucker and the magazine considered Tucker’s time at New York Mag to be a vexing experience. For Tucker, it required too much work and discipline, especially compared to his breezy approach to broadcast journalism.
The Debate Style of Broadcast Journalism
Wolff points out that Tucker’s style of cable news reporting, such as his show Crossfire, had become old-hat:
“The presumed need to have a contrary voice was now seen as lamely transparent–so don’t bother–and, as well, taking a slot that could otherwise be occupied by a personality and a view more effectively targeted to the increasingly one-sided market. Why offer viewers something they don’t want?” (90)
This is an important insight into the changing landscape of cable news. There used to be opposing commentators that genuinely represented both political parties and ideological viewpoints. You really don’t get that anymore– not even on the supposedly staid and august Sunday news shows such as Meet the Press and Face the Nation. Rather, you have token conservatives who happen to also be against Trump; in other words, people who aren’t really there to debate. Yet the debate style shows weren’t necessarily great infotainment either. Hannity and Colmes became just Hannity. Tucker’s show on Fox News didn’t have the pretense of being a debate type show, nor did this detract from his presentation.
Tucker was a country-club Republican who could not countenance a New York celebrity such as Trump.
Interestingly, Tucker opined in his Twitter video Wednesday night that “real debate” was lacking on cable TV. Tucker’s short video, which has 22 millions views at the time of this writing, referred to something about debate:
“What you realize when you take a little time off is how unbelievably stupid most of the debates on television are. They’re completely irrelevant. They mean nothing. In five years, we won’t even remember that we had them. Trust me as someone who’s participated.”
Tucker then goes on to list important topics that do not receive any debate, which leaves the tantalizing possibility that Tucker wants to create a show with just that kind of debate. Some are even speculating that he’ll do such a show with Don Lemon.
In the Wilderness
Following Tucker’s exchange with Jon Stewart on Crossfire (an exchange in which Tucker got the better of Stewart in my opinion) Tucker was fired from CNN and without a clear career trajectory. Stewart called him a “d*ck,” which doesn’t exactly show a sharp wit, and indeed Tucker showed the sharper wit in his criticism of Stewart’s sanctimony. Stewart’s sanctimony only got worse after his crude insult to Tucker, which was hailed as some kind of cultural moment.
Tucker was out in the wilderness for a while. He founded Daily Caller (a website where I’ve been published, full disclosure). Roger Ailes considered buying Daily Caller, but was dissuaded by Steve Bannon, who then ran Breitbart. As a “consolation,” Ailes hired Tucker as a guest host for Fox News in 2016. Wolff describes this purgatory-like time in Tucker’s career:
“Carlson largely warmed the bench as a fill-in host and as a weekend anchor, having to commute to New York from Washington. It was a grueling schedule and a backwater job. But as a father of four, and one with complicated tax troubles, he hung on” (91).
Tucker gingerly appeared on Fox and Friends when needed early in the morning, once even falling asleep in a commercial break and into the next segment, to his cohosts’ amusement. He was overqualified intellectually but enthusiastic. It was clear then that he was the most talented commentator on this channel, though underutilized. Before that, Tucker hosted a nightly show on MSNBC. The views he espoused then were not too different than his current positions; perhaps just packaged to be more palatable for the MSNBC audience–though even MSNBC was not quite so liberal in the Obama years. It was even watchable at that time.
A Critic of Trump?
A theme of Wolff’s writing is that Trumpworld figures actually dislike and have contempt for Trump. This is the theme of his 2018 book Fire and Fury, and also in his sketches of Kushner and Bannon in his 2022 book Too Famous. He alleges the same about Tucker, which is to say that Tucker did not like Trump nor respect him. Tucker was a country-club Republican who could not countenance a New York celebrity such as Trump:
“The Carlson family’s Republican party is a perfect one. It’s blond, it’s Episcopalian, it’s country club. It’s also, in every fiber of its being…anti-Trump” (92).
According to Wolff, Tucker has done “everything possible to undermine Trump” (94). Though Wolff doesn’t give examples of what specifically Tucker might have done, it at least piques one’s curiosity, seeing as that Wolff appears to have access to Tucker and knows him personally. According to Too Famous:
“...immediately off the air his critique of Trump is full of disgust and repugnance. (What’s more, his critique of the other Fox News sycophants is bitter and lacerating).” (93)
How then did Tucker go from being anti-Trump (at least according to Wolff) to being so closely associated with the Trump movement? It also tracks with Tucker’s recently released texts in the Dominion lawsuit, in which he expressed how sick he was of covering Trump:
“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can't wait. I hate him passionately.”
I hate to repeat Tucker’s private texts, which were so ill-gotten. But it’s out there, and it gives us at least some insight into his thinking on Trump. Simply stated, Tucker has mixed emotions about Trump. Perhaps Carlson was initially put-off by the Trump persona, but then realized the potential of Trump’s political career.
Prime Time at Fox News
Once Ailes was fired in 2016 for sexual harassment, the Murdochs involved themselves directly in managing the channel. Bill O’Reilly was also out for alleged sexual harassment, which led to Tucker being moved to 8pm around 2017. When Rupert Murdoch took the reins, he might have thought he would create a less polemical, more centrist Fox News. But that is not what the Trump era (and the Tucker era) demanded. Instead, Trump was what the audience wanted and therefore what the ratings demanded. Frankly, it was a welcome departure from the neocon, globalist brand of conservatism that tended to dominate Fox News prior to Trump and Tucker.
This also might go some way towards explaining Fox’s seemingly abrupt firing of Tucker. If Tucker did not fit Murdoch’s vision for Fox News, Murdoch had to concede that Tucker got great ratings. But ultimately, when there were incentives on the other side (such as the Dominion lawsuit and the resulting damaging texts), Murdoch had no problem cutting ties with the “aging preppy,” as Wolff calls him.
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