Tucker Carlson does not think he is an “especially” good person. He knows he can “get mad” and “make a mistake,” that he can “overstate” things as a result of getting “caught up” in his own rhetoric. He also knows he can sometimes get “self-righteous,” and this, as we speak on the set of his Fox News show on a recent Friday, seems to bother him the most. Because it is everything Carlson disdains in others—the elitist sensibility that, in his mind, leads figures such as former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power to espouse a worldview whose essence, as he puts it, is “I’m a really good person, and you’re not.”
This is in large part how a wealthy Washingtonian like Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson—with his prep-school education and summer home in Maine—convinces millions of viewers, weeknight after weeknight, that he is one of them. It’s not just that Carlson purports to have empathy where he believes others—such as the Stanford Law professor Pamela Karlan, who testified in favor of President Donald Trump’s impeachment and whom Carlson calls a “drooling moron”—lack it. Carlson also enjoys reminding his viewers that the same people who for years told you that you were wrong, that you were a bad person, have long ago written him off, too.
Carlson tapes live from Washington, D.C., five nights a week, with all the trappings of any major cable-news set—the bright lights and pixelated backdrops and row of producers studying his every move. But the Tucker Carlson Tonight studio also pulses with a kind of frenetic energy, one that perhaps comes only when your show’s basic message is a gleeful fuck you.
“Our leadership class is narcissistic,” Carlson tells me. “And like all narcissists, they’re incredibly shortsighted. The moral preening is a symptom of something deeper, which is narcissism.”
On that recent Friday night, I watch from behind the cameras as Carlson, toggling between his signature expressions of deep concern and manic delight, berates the conservative establishment. He showcases ProPublica’s reporting on how the American Enterprise Institute, the prominent conservative think tank, for years published glowing pieces about Purdue Pharma, the maker of oxycontin and, incidentally, a major donor to AEI. “If you’re starting to suspect the conservative establishment doesn’t really represent your interests, there’s a reason for that,” Carlson said. “They’re every bit as corrupt as you think they are.”
Such segments seem to fulfill the initial promise of Tucker Carlson Tonight, a show that once looked primed to thoughtfully channel the anti-elite sentiment sweeping the right, and perhaps disentangle it from the racial appeals long used to buoy it. At the time of the show’s launch, six days after Trump’s election, it didn’t seem insane to think that Carlson might fashion himself as the voice of a new right-wing populism: Here was someone who even pre-Trump had spoken out against the corporatist, globalist tropes captivating the leadership of both parties, who before focusing on TV was a widely respected writer for the likes of Weekly Standard, Talk, and Esquire. If there was anyone who could articulate a meaningful iteration of Trumpism, one with the intellectual heft to persist beyond the Trump era, maybe it was Carlson.
Three years later, Tucker Carlson Tonight is a massive success. According to Nielsen, the show averages 3.4 million viewers a night in its 8 p.m. time slot, more than its CNN and MSNBC counterparts—Anderson Cooper 360 and All In With Chris Hayes—combined. Carlson has distinguished himself from the rest of Fox’s prime-time lineup in large part for his willingness to denounce Republicans. He’s probed the destruction wrought by “vulture capitalism” in small towns and called Trump generally incapable of getting things done. He’s praised Elizabeth Warren’s economic policies as “pure, old-fashioned economics” that “make obvious sense.”
All of which could make Carlson singularly poised to rewrite conservatism, to cohere the populist tenor that continues to attract much of the electorate. And yet when we sat down for our interview, not half an hour after his standout segment on AEI, Carlson seemed to trade that appeal to nuance for something else. When I asked him how one could square segments such as the one I’d just watched with his comments last year, for example, that immigrants make America “dirtier,” he looked appalled that I might wonder whether one take was more sincere than the other. “I hate litter,” he said. For 35 years now, he said, he has fished in the Potomac River, and “it has gotten dirtier and dirtier and dirtier and dirtier. I go down there and that litter is left almost exclusively by immigrants, who I’m sure are good people, but nobody in our country—”
“Wait,” I said, cutting him off, “how do you know they’re—”
“Because I’m there,” he said. “I watch it.”
Ask someone who knows Carlson about the past three years, and you’ll likely hear a lamentation. It’s one of the trendier virtue signals among political and media types: saying you believe that Tucker Carlson is so smart, that it really is such a shame, because he of all people should know better, and what, pray tell, happened to him?
The subtext of these conversations is the question of whether Carlson is, as Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently claimed, a “white supremacist sympathizer.” For a time, the question could be written off as unserious, a voguish desire to ascribe racism to anyone who might not support increased immigration. But in recent years, Carlson and some of his guests have lent more and more plausibility to the label. On August 6, for example, days after a white gunman killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, motivated by a fear of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” Carlson took to his program to argue that white supremacy was “not a real problem in America,” but rather a “hoax” drummed up by Democrats.
Carlson should “know better,” the thinking goes, because he once centered his work on “his God-given talent for scrupulously true commentary,” as my colleague Conor Friedersdorf puts it. Now 50, he began his career writing for newspapers and magazines in the 1990s, and his editors from that time described him to the Columbia Journalism Review as “enterprising,” “hard-working,” and “extremely talented.” For those familiar only with the Carlson of television, it might come as a surprise that the left-leaning New Republic once likened his writing, which includes a profile of George W. Bush for Tina Brown’s Talk, to David Foster Wallace’s and Michael Lewis’s “best reportage.”
Carlson, during our post-show interview that Friday, said he’s learned to drown out any accusations of white supremacy, because “it’s so far from the truth that it has no effect at all other than to evoke in me contempt for the people saying it, because I think it’s that dishonest.” He went on to defend his most controversial segments as an effort to show how America’s “obsession with race” and “constant talking about race” is a “diversion tactic” used by “people who don’t want to talk about economics.” “And the reason people don’t want to talk about economics,” he said, “is because the economy is rigged for the benefit of a small number of people. They don’t want to talk about it—they would much rather the population was high and hating each other on the basis of race.”
There’s a hint here as to who Carlson is at his best, someone who can communicate what my colleague Shadi Hamid calls an “economics of meaning,” wherein economic or class critiques “are a means to channel anger, create meaning, and build solidarity rather than to implement better policy outcomes.” When Carlson agrees with Warren that her policies reflect “economic patriotism,” for example, he is defying what as recently as four years ago was Republican orthodoxy, scoffing at those who choose to preen over matters like the national debt rather than celebrate the ethos of a plan that serves American workers instead of “the rhetoric of markets.”
The question, then, is whether this larger worldview Carlson is espousing each night, encompassing restrictionism, protectionism, and anti-interventionism, has currency with GOP voters absent a race-based appeal—in other words, whether an economics of meaning alone can sustain a populist revolution on the right. Carlson says it does, and it can.
His programming tells another story. On his December 6 broadcast, one day after our interview, Carlson featured Pete D’Abrosca, a North Carolina congressional candidate campaigning on an end to immigration. D’Abrosca’s plan appears rooted in his belief that white Americans are “being replaced by third world peasants who share neither their ethnicity nor their culture.” He’s been lauded by the white-nationalist website VDare and is strongly supported by the so-called Groyper movement, an offshoot of the alt-right led by Nick Fuentes, a 21-year-old who has, among other things, denied the extent of the Holocaust and argued that the First Amendment was “not written for Muslims.” D’Abrosca went on Carlson’s show to advertise his proposed 10-year moratorium on immigration. “I think that there’s a new Republican Party in town,” D’Abrosca said.
Carlson knows failure. This, in his view, is why, despite going to the same schools, working in the same town—gaming the same “system”—as the elites he rails against, he doesn’t share their “narcissism.” “When you get fired in TV, you know, especially when you’re running a show with your name on it, it’s impossible to evade responsibility for it,” he told me, referencing his MSNBC show, Tucker, which in 2008 was canceled during its third season. “When your show goes under, it goes under because people don’t like you. Like, you’re a loser … I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but it certainly is the only way you ever learn anything—by being humiliated, and crushed.”
Yet Carlson also knows success. And if the lesson of failure is that it’s time to “learn a new trick,” he explained, the message of success is sometimes to sit still.
Talking with Carlson reminded me of a moment from my interview with President Trump earlier this spring. He was reminiscing about his first evening in the White House residence. “I’ll never forget,” he told me. “I came into the White House, I was here for my first night, and I said, ‘Wow. Four years is such a long time.’”
Four years ago, Paul Ryan, the GOP’s boy-wonder champion of entitlement cuts and immigration reform, was grudgingly settling into the speakership, having been drafted as the best hope of uniting his conference. Four years ago, the governor of Alabama was stumping on behalf of John Kasich in the GOP presidential primary. Four years ago, pundits were still calling Donald Trump a fluke.
Now we are here in this studio, where Carlson is reaping praise for a blistering segment on a Republican mega-donor, Paul Singer, that showcased how the billionaire hedge-funder had sapped a small Nebraska town of jobs after helping engineer the takeover of a sporting-goods chain that was headquartered there. He’s listening as Jeanine Pirro calls the impeachment of Donald Trump “hogwash” and reads passages from The Federalist Papers by way of explanation. In a few minutes, he’ll excoriate the think tank that served as the ideological bedrock of George H. W. Bush’s administration and was predicted to be Paul Ryan’s employer post-Congress.
A lot has happened in four years, and Carlson believes he understands why in a way his Beltway neighbors don’t. Perhaps it’s not right to say, then, that Carlson ensures his appeal to an economics of meaning gets lost when he insists that immigrants litter more than native-born citizens, or when he offers a platform to guys who are too alt-right even for the alt-right. Perhaps it’s that he knows what it takes to keep his audience listening.
So cue the lamentations again, this time from the movement conservatives, who might have hoped to see him contend with populism’s fraught history and Trump-era manifestation and shape it into something different. “Carlson has radically reinvented himself,” says David French, senior editor of the conservative outlet The Dispatch, “and one would hope he’d reinvent himself again, grant the reality of right-wing populism’s race problem, and do something determined and intentional to overcome it.”
When I relayed that sentiment to Carlson, he burst out laughing. “Whatever,” he said. “I’ve made a complete break mentally with the world I used to live in.” He later followed up with an official statement: “David French is a buffoon, one of the least impressive people I’ve ever met. Only in nonprofit conservatism could he have a paying job.”
Which brings us to perhaps the most crucial metric of success for Carlson: how many people in Washington think he’s wrong. About what, it doesn’t matter, really. Just as long, he says, as whatever “costume” the Morning Joe folks are wearing—“fighting for private equity,” “making alarmed noises about Tehran,” believing “a woman’s right to choose is the bedrock of human freedom”—is the opposite of his own.
And maybe one day, he said as we wound down our interview, he’ll decide everything he’s saying in this moment is wrong. He’s certainly recanted his viewpoints before. “There’s no topic on which my views haven’t changed, because the country has changed so much,” he said. “And what I have learned is that a lot of the things I believed were totally wrong, a lot of the information that I was basing my opinions on was wrong, or dishonest, false, even fraudulent in some cases. A lot of the things conservatives were saying at one time have been completely disproven.”
But when it comes to the Tucker Carlson of the Trump era, don’t expect any sort of personal reckoning in the near future. “It’s very hard when you’re succeeding to see your own flaws. It’s very hard,” he said. “Because everything about the experience reinforces what you’re doing.
“So I just know, of course, I’m making mistakes,” he adds. “It’s just harder to see what they are.”