Tucker Carlson Is the Emblem of GOP Cynicism

A personal reflection on the fallout from a rich man’s toxic hubris

Tucker Carlson
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Tucker Carlson is, for now, off the air and lying low. But his rapid slide from would-be journalist to venomous demagogue is the story of a generation of political commentators who found that inducing madness in the American public was better than the drudgery of working a job outside the conservative hothouses.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

Pushing the Needle

Tucker Carlson has been fired, and you’ve probably already read a bushel of stories about his dismissal, his career, and his influence. Today, I want to share with you a more personal reflection. (Full disclosure: Carlson took a bizarre swipe at me toward the end of his time at Fox.) I always thought of Carlson as one of the worst things to happen to millions of Americans, and particularly to the working class. As Margaret Sullivan recently wrote, “Despite his smarmy demeanor, and aging prep-school appearance,” Carlson became “a twisted kind of working-class hero.”

Not to me. I grew up working-class, and I admit that I never much cared for Carlson, a son of remarkable privilege and wealth, even before he became this creepy version of himself. I am about a decade older than Carlson, and when he began his career in the 1990s, I was a young academic and a Republican who’d worked in a city hall, a state legislature, and the U.S. Senate (as well as a number of other less glamorous jobs). Perhaps I should have liked him more because of his obvious desire to be taken seriously as an intellectual, but maybe that was also the problem: Carlson was too obvious, too effortful. I was already a fan of people such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer, and I didn’t need a young, bow-tied, lightweight imitator.

But still, I read his writing in conservative magazines, and that of others in his cohort. After all, back in those days, they were my tribe. But the early ’90s, I believe, is where things went wrong for this generation of young conservatives. Privileged, highly educated, stung by Bill Clinton’s win—and, soon, bored—they decided that they were all slated for greater things in public life. The dull slog of high-paying professional jobs was not for them, not if it meant living outside the media or political ecosystems of New York and Washington.

A 1995 New York Times Magazine profile of this group, some of them soon to be Carlson’s co-workers, was full of red flags, but it was Laura Ingraham, whose show now packages hot bile in dry ice, who presaged what Fox’s prime-time lineup would look like. After a late dinner party in Washington, she took the Times writer for a drive:

“You think we’re nuts, don’t you?” muttered Laura Ingraham, a former clerk for Clarence Thomas and now an attorney at the Washington offices of the power firm of Skadden, Arps. Ingraham, who is also a frequent guest on CNN, had had it with a particularly long-winded argument over some review in The New Republic. It could have been worse. They could have been the dweebs and nerds that liberals imagine young conservatives to be.

Or, more accurately, they could have been the dweebs and nerds they themselves feared they were. And in time, they realized that the way to dump their day jobs for better gigs in radio and television was to become more and more extreme—and to sell their act to an audience that was nothing like them or the people at D.C. dinner parties. They would have their due, even if they had to poison the brains of ordinary Americans to get it.

Carlson joined this attention-seeking conservative generation and tried on various personas. At one point, he had a show on MSNBC that was canceled after a year. I never saw it. I do remember Carlson as the co-host of Crossfire; I didn’t think he did a very good job representing thoughtful conservatives, and he ended up getting pantsed live on national television by Jon Stewart. He was soon let go from CNN.

When Carlson got his own show on Fox News in 2016, however, I noticed.

This new Tucker Carlson decided to throw off the pretense of intellectualism. (According to The New York Times, he was “determined to avoid his fate at CNN and MSNBC.”) He understood what Fox viewers wanted, and he took the old Tucker—the one who claimed to care about truth and journalistic responsibility—and drove him to a farm upstate where he could run free with the other journalists. The guy who returned alone in his car to the studio in Manhattan was a stone-cold, cynical demagogue. By God, no one was going to fire that guy.

What concerned me was not that Carlson was selling political fentanyl; that’s Fox’s business model. It was that Carlson, unlike many people in his audience, knew better. He jammed the needle right into the arms of the Fox audience, spewing populist nonsense while running away from his own hyper-privileged background. I suppose I found this especially grating because for years I’ve lived in Rhode Island, almost within sight of the spires of Carlson’s pricey prep school, by the Newport beaches. (This area also produced Michael Flynn and Sean Spicer, but please don’t judge us—it’s actually lovely here.)

Every night, Carlson encouraged American citizens to join him in his angry nihilism, telling his fans that America and its institutions were hopelessly corrupt, and that they were essentially living in a failed state. He and his fellow Fox hosts, meanwhile, presented themselves as the guardians of the real America, crowing in ostensible solidarity with an audience that, as we would later learn from the Dominion lawsuit, they regarded with both contempt and fear.

An especially hateful aspect of Carlson’s rants is that they often targeted the institutions and norms—colleges, the U.S. military, capitalism itself—that help so many Americans get a chance at a better life. No matter the issue, Carlson was able to find some resentful, angry, us-versus-them angle, tacking effortlessly from sounding like a pompous theocrat one day to a founding member of Code Pink the next. If you were trying to undermine a nation and dissolve its hopes for the future, you could hardly design a better vehicle than Tucker Carlson Tonight.

But give him credit: He was committed to the bit. A man who has never known a day of hard work in his life was soon posing in flannel and work pants in a remarkably pristine “workshop,” and inviting some of the worst people in American life to come to his redoubt to complain about how much America seems to irrationally hate Vladimir Putin, violent seditionists, and, by extension somehow, poor ordinary Joes such as Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson.

Carlson is emblematic of the entire conservative movement now, and especially the media millionaires who serve as its chief propagandists. The conservative world has become a kind of needle skyscraper with a tiny number of wealthy, superbly educated right-wing media and political elites in the penthouses, looking down at an expanse of angry Americans whose rage they themselves helped create. As one Fox staffer said in a text to the former CNN host Brian Stelter shortly after the January 6 insurrection, “What have we done?”

If only Carlson and others were capable of asking themselves the same question.


Today’s News

  1. The Walt Disney Company is suing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, alleging that he has weaponized government power against the company.
  2. As part of their ongoing debt-ceiling standoff with the Biden administration, House Republicans are pushing for work requirements for some of the millions of Americans receiving food stamps and Medicaid benefits.
  3. Volodymyr Zelensky held his first conversation with Xi Jinping since Russia invaded Ukraine. China has declared itself to be neutral in the conflict.


  • Up for Debate: The singer, actor, and civil-rights hero Harry Belafonte understood persuasion, Conor Friedersdorf writes.

Explore all of our newsletters here.

Evening Read

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

How I Got Bamboo-zled by Baby Clothes

By Sarah Zhang

To be pregnant for the first time is to be the world’s most anxious, needy, and ignorant consumer all at once. Good luck buying a pile of stuff whose uses are still hypothetical to you! What, for instance, is the best sleep sack? When I was four months pregnant and still barely aware of the existence of sleep sacks, a mom giving recommendations handed me one made of bamboo. “Feel—soooo soft,” she said. I reached out to caress, and it really was soooo soft. This was my introduction to the cult of bamboo.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

The front pages of a book of Wheatley poetry
Heritage Art / Heritage Images / Getty

Read. The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley, a new biography of the poet that shows how she used poetry to criticize slavery.

Listen. Harry Belafonte’s legendary album Calypso. The late artist showed how popular songs could be a tool of the struggle for freedom.

Play our daily crossword.


I am, strangely, revisiting some childhood memories while redecorating my home office. (I’ve posted some pictures on Twitter.) For many years, I had something of a standard academic’s home office: a lot of books and maps, a bit of conference swag here and there. But I’ve decided in my dotage to bring in some color from the 1960s, including a framed collection of Batman cards (the kind that came with that dusty-pink stick of gum), a Star Trek wall intercom, and an original poster from the Japanese sci-fi classic Destroy All Monsters, starring Godzilla and a cast of his buddies. While I was hanging the movie poster, I wondered: Why do we love those Godzilla movies? They’re terrible. Are we just nostalgic—as I sometimes am—for the old, velvet-draped movie palaces full of kids? I think it’s something more.

If you’ve never seen the original Godzilla, it’s actually kind of terrifying. It’s way too intense for young kids; I can’t remember when I first saw it on television, but it scared the pants off me. The stuff that came later, with the cheesy music and the cartoonish overacting by the guys in the rubber kaiju outfits, were versions that kids and adults could watch together. They answered all of your toughest kid questions: What if Godzilla fought aliens? (I am a King Ghidorah fan.) What if Godzilla duked it out with … King Kong? (I thought Godzilla was robbed in that one.) I love scary monster movies, but now and then, you want more monsters and fewer scares. Maybe the analogy here is Heath Ledger and Cesar Romero: Both are great Jokers, but sometimes, you’d like to enjoy the character with a shade fewer homicides. Being able to enjoy both is, perhaps, one of the subtle rewards of growing up.

— Tom

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.