First comes the piece of timber. Then the strip of leather. Then the fence, the mountain, the trees, the river. The pictures whirl, like icons in a Western-themed slot machine, until they land on their final image: the smiling face of Tucker Carlson.
This spring, Carlson began hosting a new show on Fox Nation, the network’s digital streaming service. Tucker Carlson Today features interviews, one-on-one and in-depth, with Carlson’s preferred guests—skeptics of multiculturalism, skeptics of science, skeptics of “the system” as it currently operates. The show is pretty much what you’d expect it to be, save for one thing: It takes place in a Foxified version of Frontierland.
It begins, episode after episode, with that reel of images. And Carlson hosts it from a gaudy facsimile of a log cabin. The set is constructed almost entirely of wood, or a wood-like substance. Just behind Carlson’s chair is a backlit American flag. The space is otherwise spare: a shelf with a display of tattered books, a sepia-toned globe, a rug, a large desk (made of thick glass, the set’s one concession to cable). A screen mounted on the wall sometimes serves as a portal for the guests who do not come to Carlson’s cabin in person. Its default image, however, offers a window into the cabin’s imagined environs: a farmhouse and a field, overlaid with the words—rendered in lowercase, because all things are casual in the daytime—tucker carlson today.
Log cabins, those mainstays of American iconography, typically suggest hardiness, homeyness, humility. Carlson’s version, though, is a show of force. Tucker Carlson Today, a homestead on a manufactured frontier, is one of the spoils of Fox’s deep investment in its star, evidence of the trust the network has placed in him to continue its basest and most basic project: insisting that some Americans are more American than others. Fox has long reinterpreted manifest destiny as a media product, treating the American mind as a vacant space upon which any dream, or any delusion, might be constructed. The network’s webward expansion continues that effort. Tucker Carlson, spewer of marketable mistrust, has conquered prime time. Now he is coming for the rest of the day.
On the June 16 episode of Tucker Carlson Today, Carlson hosted a man the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as an extremist—ideology: white nationalism—on the basis of his use of “racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the Black and Latino communities, women and the poor.” Carlson spoke with Charles Murray for nearly an hour. He flattered. He fawned. “We are honored to have you,” Carlson told him.
Murray, who disputes the SPLC’s assessment of him, spent the episode issuing the kinds of claims that have made him infamous. At one point, he stated as fact that white people are more qualified for cognitively challenging professions than Black people are. Carlson did not push back on the assertion. He nodded appreciatively as Murray dismissed Fox News’s latest manufactured threat, critical race theory, as “a repudiation of the American creed.”
The Carlson of the evening is overt about stoking his audience’s anxieties; a recently updated intro reel for Tucker Carlson Tonight features a Border Patrol vehicle and a person holding a sign that reads Freedom over fear!! America. The Carlson of daytime is more casually branded: just Carlson and a pal, the whole thing suggests, chatting in his cabin after a day of hunting or fishing—a little bit cable, a little bit Cabela’s. The setting helps hide the propaganda in plain sight. It takes the argument implied in most everything that Carlson broadcasts—they are coming for you—and recasts it as a natural outgrowth of rugged individualism. The April 26 episode of Tucker Carlson Today, an ode to the AR-15, is titled “I Will Not Comply.” The May 12 episode warns of the American education system leading to the “complete indoctrination of all kids K through 12.” The June 21 episode takes a stand against the “climate consensus.”
Fox News, at this point, is a fantasy factory, churning out historical mythologies in real time. Cancel culture gives way to woke culture gives way to critical race theory, the terms denuded of their true meanings and summoned as metonyms for people Fox does not include in its vision of “real America.” The pilot episode of Tucker Carlson Today featured Douglas Murray, an editor at The Spectator in the United Kingdom and a critic of identity politics as Fox defines it. He claimed that the path to success in today’s America is “to show that you are an oppressed minority.” He cast aspersions on “race hucksters and oppression-mongers” and proceeded to offer the kind of insight that can get one booked on the inaugural episode of a Fox News talk show: “The American people are proud. They have a lot to be proud of.”
America deployed as an easy branding exercise is not new. What is new, though, is the insistent ahistoricism of this version of America. Also new—and given the way propaganda has worked in the 20th century, this should serve as a dire warning—is the notion that the facts of the past should be sources only of national pride. Many conservatives, the historian Matt Karp recently argued, are abandoning the old rhetoric of the Lost Cause in favor of a more flexible form of nostalgia. “People on the right seem to be sort of sacrificing the Confederacy, to some extent, because it doesn’t do the work they want it to do,” Karp told Slate’s Rebecca Onion. “What does work is laying claim to the nation at the heart of the idea of America. Not in the old-school ‘the founders were geniuses and set aside universal freedom from everyone’ Lynne Cheney kind of a way, but in a new school way that just says, ‘America, fuck yes!’”
This approach to America is so enamored of its own woozy mythology that it treats reality itself as unpatriotic. QAnon’s followers aren’t conspiracy theorists, they insist; they’re patriots. This is the version of America that is summoned when Fox hosts, in reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s protests, express more indignation about “the flag” than they do about violence done against their fellow Americans. It is the America that is evoked when the ultraconservative Prager University sends a since-deleted Fourth of July tweet noting that “You should NOT be ashamed to #FlytheFlag,” accompanied by an image whose flag contains the wrong number of stars. It is America seen not as a nation but as an ongoing work of fan fiction.
Over several decades in the 1900s, the Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco traveled around the United States. He embarked on a tour a bit like the one that the French mega-tourist Alexis de Tocqueville took—but this journey was focused not on what America was but on what it wasn’t. Eco produced a travelogue that explored Americans’ “faith in fakes.” He went to Disneyland, Hearst Castle, Las Vegas. He marveled at the American habit of turning illusion into architecture. Even in those days, Eco diagnosed an underlying quality of American culture: an assumption that the best kind of art and entertainment is that which is “realer than real.”
Watch a little of Tucker Carlson Today and you might be reminded of Eco’s insight. The artificiality of the show’s set—its shiny wood walls, its backlit flag, its screen that acts like a window into a lost American naturescape—channels that faith in the fake. In Carlson’s world, the news itself operates as hyperreality.
Carlson describes cities on fire, quaint towns invaded, Stalinist reeducation taking place in kindergartens. His 2018 book, Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution, is replete with claims about an illusory America. Among them: “Girls thrive when boys fail: this is the underlying assumption of modern feminism,” or “The main reason elites no longer talk about unfairness is that they don’t believe it exists.” No provocateur has gone wrong challenging the hegemony of the “elites”—even when the provocateur in question, the product of boarding school and generational wealth, is a member of the class he denigrates. Carlson claims that he is speaking for “America.” He refuses to be hindered by the fact that the America he is speaking for quite often doesn’t exist.
Carlson recently told an interviewer that were he to do it all over again, he’d move to Montana or Idaho. “I wouldn’t participate in the system at all,” Carlson said. “It’s a dead end. It’s collapsing. It certainly doesn’t want people like me.” The line is classic Carlson. Here he summons the majesty of the American landscape only to decry the corruption of the American “system.” He punctuates it with casual grievance. By “people like me,” Carlson means his viewers; he means “real Americans,” as Fox has taken pains to define them. Why are the “Dems” and the “libs” to be feared? Because they are not what you are. Why are the media to be mocked? Because they tell lies about your country. They are false flags in human form. And they are coming for you.
You might read this sort of rhetoric, fairly, as a form of neo-McCarthyism. It is on display in many episodes of Tucker Carlson Today: the Un-American Activities Committee not of the House, but of the Performatively Rustic Cabin.
Carlson, too, long ago abandoned any semblance of decency. He makes claims—claims that are bigoted, cherry-picked, fabricated; claims about the dirtiness of immigrants, about the danger of vaccines, about the existential threats posed by those who are not white or male or Christian—and answers the objections with a ready reply: He is not a journalist. He is merely an entertainer. This is the cynical core of his daily performances; people who criticize him, he insists, are missing the joke. People who believe him are missing the point. Carlson’s new set codifies that logic. Yes, Charles Murray came on his new show and argued that white people are more qualified for cognitively challenging professions than Black people are, but he did so from a Log Cabin syrup bottle brought to life. Can’t you recognize lighthearted entertainment when you see it? Why so serious?
The trick works. It has elevated Carlson to a position of direct influence over American hearts and minds. He is using the platform to do more than anyone, including quite possibly Donald Trump himself, to continue the grim work of Trumpism. He is, in that way, transcendent. A recent iteration of the Fox Nation site laid out five topic-oriented verticals: Fox Politics, Fox History, Fox Justice, Fox Religion, and … Tucker Carlson.
Many historians describe the election of 1840 as the first modern presidential contest, a race fueled by the assorted cynicisms of political-image management. Many, too, describe it as the “log-cabin campaign.” The Whigs, attempting to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Martin Van Buren, spun their candidate as hale and humble, living off the land and within, yes, a log cabin. Supporters of William Henry Harrison, some cosplaying as “frontiersmen,” built decorative log cabins on wheels, parading them around town. Harrison rallies amassed huge crowds—despite the fact that the candidate they celebrated declined to declare major policy proposals. The emptiness served the endeavor. Harrison’s still-famous campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” said nothing, lyrically, and his carnivalized humility lent itself to easy merchandising: log-cabin-branded shaving soap, log-cabin-stamped coins, an ad hoc campaign newspaper called The Log Cabin.
The branding was also a fiction. Harrison, the person, was the wealthy son of a onetime governor of Virginia. He was 66 years old when he was nominated for the presidency, and not notably hardy. He lived in a mansion. But the fantasy was more fun. As often happens in American politics, then as now, the lies won.
You might see, in the log-cabin campaign of 1840, the primordial outlines of the current moment. You might see Tucker Carlson, a member of the elite he finds it convenient to decry, fabricating his own version of Frontierland. Carlson is constantly rumored to be considering his own presidential run. If so, the setting would serve the attempt. Americana, in Carlson’s vision, is its own justification. The patriot does what he must, not for Americans but for America, the ideal. “Left untended,” Carlson remarks in the concluding chapter of Ship of Fools, “democracies self-destruct.” He continues:
There are two ways to end this cycle. The quickest is to suspend democracy. There are justifications for this. If your voters can’t reach responsible conclusions, you can’t let them vote. You don’t give suffrage to irrational populations, for the same reason you wouldn’t give firearms to toddlers: they’re not ready for the responsibility.
Who does Carlson mean by you? What does he mean by irrational populations and responsible conclusions? The answer is, like so much of what Carlson says, both teasingly vague and wincingly clear. “America,” in this vision, is permission. You can draw a direct line from Carlson’s spin on “America” to the radiating ferocity of the Big Lie; the attempts by state legislatures to suppress—and, in some cases, invalidate—Democrats’ votes; the January 6 Capitol insurrection. When you become convinced that your only cause is “America,” you can convince yourself of much else along the way. “America,” the Capitol rioters screamed, as they readied their nooses. “America,” the legislators shrugged, as they restricted Americans’ votes. “America,” Carlson cajoles, from his fabricated frontier, as he helps bring the country to a breaking point.