Tucker Carlson, Unmasked

The self-styled champion of individual liberty wants you to call government agents to punish Americans for their parenting.

Tucker Carlson
Bryan Anselm / Redux

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Social media has so conditioned people to expect hyperbole that there’s a perverse satisfaction when a clip is truly as bad as advertised. Last night, a viral tweet claimed that Fox News’s Tucker Carlson had told his audience to harass people on the street wearing masks—and to “call the police immediately; contact child protective services” if they saw a child wearing one.

Surely, this couldn’t be a fair description; naturally, it was. Having spent the early part of the month espousing the white-supremacist “great replacement theory,” Carlson is now seeking to use the power of the state to harass and immiserate his political opponents:

Carlson delivered his rant with the combination of astonished indignation, obvious bad faith, and smug sarcasm with which he delivers everything these days, a volatile mix that makes it impossible to know when and to what extent he’s trolling. Like his fellow traveler Donald Trump, Carlson delights in making appalling statements with a straight face and then insisting he was just joking; unlike Trump, Carlson has in the past shown enough of a sense of humor that you can’t discount that possibility.

Trying to figure out Carlson’s “real” feelings is not only impossible but beside the point. Whether he’s disingenuous or delusional, many people will hear what he says and take it seriously and literally. We have several recent examples of the Fox audience being misled into believing falsehoods, including denying the reality of COVID-19 and subscribing to bogus claims about fraud in the 2020 election.

Carlson’s diatribe is a useful data point for how American conservatism has transformed, especially in the Trump era, from a movement that (at least putatively) believes in limited government to one that primarily prizes marshaling the power of the state to punish those who disagree with it. With Trump in eclipse, Carlson is the most visible face of the new conservative movement.

Although Carlson makes a lot of ridiculous claims in a short period in this clip, it is his comments about children that are most disturbing. After complaining that mask mandates imposed by the state are equivalent to living in North Korea, Carlson executes two athletic rhetorical maneuvers. First, he goes from describing mask wearing as excessive to describing it as abusive, and second, he elides the difference between a government mandate and a personal choice.

“As for forcing children to wear masks outside, that should be illegal,” Carlson sputters. “Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from seeing someone beating a kid at Walmart: Call the police immediately; contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re looking at is abuse. It’s child abuse, and you’re morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.”

One doesn’t need a lot of imagination to game out where this is going. Some viewers will take Carlson’s possibly arch exhortations to heart. They’ll call the police and child protective services. In most cases, authorities will ignore those calls. In some cases, especially if the callers repeatedly summon police as Carlson demands, they could be charged with filing false claims; it’s a good bet that neither he nor Fox News will be there to help them if they are. In other cases, encounters will end poorly for the innocent parents involved. The news is full of examples of how police called to respond to petty or wholly imagined offenses end up gravely injuring or even killing people. (Carlson believes Derek Chauvin was wrongly convicted.)

But when government authorities fail to intervene—because, of course, no laws are being broken—Carlson’s fans may feel the moral obligation to take matters into their own hands, just like Edgar Maddison Welch, who stormed into a Washington, D.C., pizzeria heavily armed in 2016, because he wanted to prevent child abuse that he wrongly believed was occurring there. No one was hurt in that incident, though someone easily could have been. Welch spent about three years in prison.

Carlson’s argument isn’t really about masks. As he grudgingly admitted, the Biden administration had already signaled that new guidance would soon make clear that mask wearing outside is not necessary for fully vaccinated people; the CDC released that guidance this afternoon. Perhaps the change could have come faster, but conservatives have traditionally applauded the deliberate process of government, because it prevents tyranny and abuse of citizens.

Even after new guidance, some people will decide to continue wearing masks outside. Perhaps they feel more comfortable that way. People exercising sometimes extreme caution about their health is neither new or a nuisance. Perhaps they are immunocompromised, or have immunocompromised family members or friends. Ultimately, it’s none of my business or Tucker Carlson’s business why they are doing so, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, which neither he nor anyone else has established they are.

That’s the sort of personal choice that conservatives have also traditionally defended. Though Carlson masquerades as a defender of free speech (one of several poses he’s tried on over the years), he must know that the government has no business telling citizens what they cannot wear. It is, to borrow Carlson’s analogy, like being forced to wear a Kim Il Sung pin in Pyongyang. Unlike mandates to wear masks, which stem from a public-health interest, a government rule punishing people for wearing masks during a pandemic serves no compelling interest. As for children, conservatives have long argued that families should enjoy autonomy about their parenting decisions, without undue interference from the state.

But Carlson doesn’t object to the state harassing people or exercising undue power. He delights in it, as long as the state is harassing the people he hates. The cruelty, as my colleague Adam Serwer has said, is the point. This is the lodestar of the Trump and post-Trump GOP, which values owning the libs above all—not merely rhetorically, but with the fist of government. Thus Trump asserted that he had the authority to override state and local coronavirus shutdowns (before hastily backtracking when it became clear that he had no such power). He sought to involve the federal government in decisions of colleges and universities in order to muzzle speech. And he celebrated police violence, even as he moaned that he was the victim of overzealous law enforcement.

It is tempting to read incoherence in Trump’s arguments, or in Carlson’s: How can they both be against government mandating masks, on the basis of personal liberty, and also demand that the government prevent people from wearing them? In fact, the principle is straightforward enough. Small government for me, but not for thee.