Tucker Carlson’s Final Moments on Fox Were as Dangerous as They Were Absurd

The host spent some of his last minutes on the network mocking a cult. He did not seem to appreciate the irony.

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Jason Koerner / Getty.

Tucker Carlson was in a good mood on Friday night. He was giggly. He was giddy. For the final segment of his Fox show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, the host was joined on set by a newly famous pizza-delivery man: While en route to drop off some pies earlier this month, the man had seen a police chase in action and had tripped the fleeing target with a nonchalant kick, pizzas still in hand. The scene had been captured on a doorbell camera; Carlson had aired it repeatedly on his show. Now the man in question had driven—from Pennsylvania—to deliver pizza to his studio-bound fan. He and Carlson ate the slices together, taking big bites (“It’s actually still hot!”) as they bantered. Carlson, still chewing, offered a merry sign-off to his viewers. “We’ll be back on Monday!” he said.

Except, of course, he wasn’t. Friday’s episode, it turned out, was the last one Carlson would film for Fox. The most-watched host on cable has left the network for reasons that may involve lawsuits, prickly office politics, or the ongoing liabilities of a say-anything star. What seems clear for now is that Carlson’s departure had little to do with the dangerous vitriol he spewed on his show—and that the decision to “part ways,” as Fox’s announcement put it, was as much a surprise to him as it was to everybody else. Carlson is a very good actor—he has spent the past seven years convincingly playing a propagandist—but his final show gave no indication of the new script. Had he known, he probably wouldn’t have ended his run on Fox with a mouth full of interstate pizza. And he probably wouldn’t have chosen, as his swan song, a bizarre and menacing riff about castration.

“Heaven’s Gate! Remember that?” Carlson began the segment, cheerfully. He proceeded to rehash the well-known details of the cult that made so many headlines in the ’90s: the mass suicide; the bowl-cut-sporting co-founder, Marshall Applewhite; the belief that the Hale-Bopp comet was an interplanetary message. “Members of the cult believed they were part of an alien species trapped in human form,” Carlson said. “Applewhite taught them to give up all human attachments: their relationships with their families, their friends, their jobs, their possessions, ultimately their names”—here, he paused for dramatic effect—“their genders, and their own bodies. Sound familiar?”

Applewhite castrated himself, Carlson told viewers, in an effort to achieve “androgynous immortality,” and encouraged his fellow cult members to do the same. “You can go on Wikipedia and read all about it,” Carlson said, “and we recommend that you do. Why? Because, once again, it sounds familiar. Heaven’s Gate is proof that when religious fanatics command you to surrender your gender and become androgynous, castrate yourself and your children—it’s probably not going to end well.”

And then, abruptly, the segment ends.

Carlson’s lawyers have argued that he is not a journalist but instead, effectively, an entertainer—that anyone who might see him as a reliable purveyor of facts is making a foolish category error. His show’s appeal, though, depends on its gaudy adjacency to journalism: Carlson’s segments look like the news and act like the news, even as they regularly distort the news. But his Heaven’s Gate rant defied that logic. The cult’s deaths took place in 1997; as far as I can tell, they have no explicit connection to the current moment. Except, that is, for the cultish commands that Carlson treated as abiding dangers to his viewers: Surrender your gender. Castrate yourself, and your children.

The host shares a skill set with the man he once called “a demonic force” and a “destroyer.” Both Carlson and Donald Trump have a way with words. They wield them not simply as tools of meaning but also, often, as simple punctuation. What Trump does in his writing—the repetition, the ad hoc capitalization—Carlson does in his speech. He turns the core message of every segment he airs—they’re coming for you; be afraid—into a rhythmic proposition. Like a jingle rendered in a minor key, Carlson’s show turns fear into music.

And here is the grim refrain of his Heaven’s Gate riff: castrate. The segment may have seemed discordant; it was, on the contrary, all too harmonious with everything else. One of Carlson’s most consequential legacies, my colleague Charlie Warzel writes, will be his mainstreaming of hard-right agendas. This is what Carlson was doing as he offered up his weird little history lesson. He was vilifying transgender people—in particular, transgender women. He chose to mock 39 people who died 26 years ago in order to make an insidious suggestion: that those who identify as transgender are in the thrall of a cult.

The segment bears one more mark of a typical Carlson screed. For all its insinuations, it retains plausible deniability. In an earlier moment on Friday’s show, Carlson referred to the Nashville school shooter as a “transgenderist terrorist,” the invented adjective suggesting an ideological choice rather than a human truth. But in the Heaven’s Gate segment, Carlson never says transgender. He merely implies, and hints. Were he questioned, he could easily argue that the segment was a throwaway, a callback to the ’90s that filled space in the waning minutes of a Friday-night broadcast. That ambiguity—that willingness to air words that are vetted and violent at the same time—is a core element of Carlson’s rhetoric. The slippery language flatters his audience. They’ll understand its grammar, the implication goes, in a way those woke liberals won’t. The language protects Carlson. It serves everyone involved—save for the people who have to live in the shadow of Carlson’s insinuations.

It was an apt coincidence, then, that Carlson spent his final moments on Fox mocking the failures of a cult. Cults and conspiracy theories tend to share similar dynamics: They offer community to their adherents. They rationalize the world’s chaos. They start from their preferred conclusions, and work backwards. “It’s super-simple,” Carlson said in an opening segment on Friday’s show, as he spun a dizzying argument that combined home appraisals, FICO scores, HUD, Kamala Harris, redlining, job training, and marijuana legalization into a claim about Democrats’ electoral machinations. (“If you want total control over the entire country,” Carlson said, “you need demographic change everywhere.”)

Conspiracy theories tend to involve what scholars call epistemic or cognitive closure: Their tales create vacuum-sealed worlds where truth becomes tautological, where everything has an easy answer, and where earwormy refrains—the ruling class, the woke left, the PC police—anchor every melody. Fox may brand itself as a bold teller of truths, fighting against conformity and groupthink; in fact, as so much reporting has suggested, the network is desperate to keep its adherents from doubting their mission or defecting from the cause. So too with Carlson. His show offered opinion; what it really sold, though, was daily reassurance: that his viewers’ fears are justified, that their biases are noble, that the world is precisely as disordered as they claim it—and need it—to be. Carlson gave his audiences the stories they wanted to hear; in return, they gave him fervent loyalty.

And so, now, Carlson is a celebrity with a massive fan base and a minimized platform. (Given that his $20-million-a-year contract will reportedly be paid out, he will also be doing what he has spent years deriding others for: getting paid for not working.) Carlson, in leaving Fox, has attained that most powerful of statuses. He is a free agent with a following. He could become the next Alex Jones. He could become the next Bill O’Reilly. He could become the next president. Carlson might have already hinted—ambiguously, teasingly—at his plans. Yesterday, his personal website transformed to acknowledge his departure from Fox. TuckerCarlson.com, like a ground game in waiting, instructs fans to text Carlson. In exchange for their data, the new language promises, they’ll be among the first to learn the answer to the question so many are waiting to hear: “what Tucker’s up to next.”