“I was shocked by the whole thing,” Carlson tells me, looking back on the episode. “I didn’t want to be mean to him. I really didn’t.” Though he has earned a reputation among his media antagonists for being an ambush artist—luring guests onto his show under false pretenses and then humiliating them with “gotcha” questions—Carlson says he’s always upfront while booking interviewees, and strives to avoid mean-spiritedness.
“If I find myself wanting to be mean to anyone, it’s time to stop,” he tells me.
“Does that happen sometimes?” I ask.
He glances down at his salad. “It’s happened once, yeah.”
“With, um, a woman from Teen Glamour.”
I know instantly what interview he’s talking about. “You mean Teen Vogue?”
The segment is one of his most notorious—an interview just before Christmas with the liberal writer Lauren Duca. The discussion was supposed to focus on the harassment Ivanka Trump had recently endured during a commercial flight. But the segment got off to a contentious start, and it quickly descended into Carlson nitpicking Duca’s diction and taking petty shots at her employer. After mockingly reading a handful of headlines from Duca’s celebrity fashion coverage, he ended the segment by advising, “You should stick to the thigh-high boots. You are better at that.” The interview promptly went viral, and the host came off looking mean, sexist, and faintly pathetic.
Carlson says now that he regrets the way he handled the interview, and blames his bad behavior on his own lack of preparation for the segment. “I don’t ever want to get mad … I think it diminishes me and the show, and I don’t want to be that way.”
When I ask him why he was so infuriated by Duca, he thinks about it for a moment.
Finally, he answers, “It was the unreasonableness … It’s this assumption—and it’s held by a lot of people I live around—that you’re on God’s side, everyone else is an infidel, and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.”
Fair or not, this is the essence of Carlson’s case against the educated elites and well-heeled technocrats that comprise America’s ruling class (not to mention his neighborhood). They are too certain of their own righteousness, too dismissive of dissenters, too unwilling to entertain new ideas.
When Carlson first joined primetime last year, he assigned his show a mission statement: “The sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and groupthink.” To his critics, the slogan is crazy-making for the brazen hypocrisy they believe it displays. But the potency of the host’s performance is not rooted in personal purity—it’s in his ability to capture the sentiment of a rapidly mutating conservative movement.
Even as denizens of the right continue to sort out what they stand for in the Trump era, they remain united in their hatred of a common enemy, the smug elites who Carlson rails against every night. And while he may have spent his life happily living among them, he’s clearly demonstrated he has no qualms about taking them on.
“Putting smart people in charge of things is fine, but what you really want is wise people,” he tells me, and then quotes something his father used to say: “The beginning of wisdom is to know what an asshole you are.”