Tucker Carlson is shouting when he tells me he isn’t shouting. The barrage of his voice has been relentless throughout the interview.
“I don’t want to be John McLaughlin yelling at people. Why would I want to do that? I don’t need to do that,” he insists. “I actually don’t think the audience likes that. I don’t like it. But the idea that I win debates because I yell louder, it’s, like, absurd.”
“I didn’t say you win because you shouted. I just said there is a lot of shouting.”
“There is not a lot of shouting. I do the show every night. I know what’s on it.”
“Okay,” I say, “but you are shouting right now.”
“It’s because I talk loud. I was shouting before.”
I am confused. “You were definitely shouting before. That’s why this is funny,” I say laughing nervously. “Because you are like, “I AM NOT SHOUTING!”
Carlson then tells me how he is the loudest person in the restaurant. Just ask his family. I mean, sure he was shouting, but he’s a loud guy, okay?
We’ve moved from denial to acceptance in less than a minute. It’s pure Tucker Carlson, a move I’ve seen hundreds of times in the over 40 hours of Tucker Carlson Tonight clips I’ve watched on Fox News in recent months. Reporters go on his show believing they’ll be discussing health care or Donald Trump’s mental health, only to be met with the question, “Do you think you are practicing journalism?”
Reeling guests stumble and fall. “Answer the question,” Carlson demands. “Answer the question!” But the question is unanswerable.
What happened to Tucker Carlson? People in media ask themselves this question with the same pearl-clutching, righteous tone they use when discussing their aunt in Connecticut who voted for Trump.
In a tweet, Jon Lovett of Crooked Media and Pod Save America, noted, “Tucker Carlson’s transition from conservative serious-ish writer to blustery CNN guy to Daily Caller troll to race-baiting Fox News host is like ice core data on what led to this moment in our politics.”
In June, Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic, “Carlson squandered his considerable God-given talent for scrupulously true commentary, opting instead for clickbait at The Daily Caller or dumbed-down demagoguery at Fox.”
There’s something to all the liberal hand-wringing. In a speech Carlson gave to CPAC in 2009, he pleaded with conservative journalists to focus on reporting rather than punditry. He held up The New York Times as a standard bearer, begging writers “to go out there and find what is happening….not just interpret things they hear in the mainstream media.” His pleas were met with boos.
But just six years later, Carlson was calling out The New York Times for pro-Clinton advocacy, and in June 2018 accused the paper of blatantly lying to the American people about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Bashar Al-Assad, and Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
If we can figure out how an intelligent writer and conservative can go from writing National Magazine Award–nominated articles to shouting about immigrants on Fox News, perhaps we can understand what is happening to this country, or at least to journalism, in 2018.
If you ask his former editors, they’ll say they’re wistful when they think about the old Tucker Carlson.
Mark Warren, who edited him at Esquire: “He is an extremely talented writer. [Tucker’s] writing was done with such energy and vitality.”
Paul Greenberg, who edited Carlson at The Arkansas Democrat Gazette: “Tucker was a pleasure to work with. I knew he would fit right in in Arkansas when I discovered that he chewed tobacco.”
Adam Myerson, Policy Review: “Tucker was an enterprising, hard-working shoe-leather reporter.”
Tina Brown, who worked with Carlson at her short-lived Talk magazine: “Tucker is a tremendously good writer and I always thought it was a real shame that he kind of like got sucked into this TV mania thing. “
Perhaps fearful of what Carlson has become, few of his former editors were willing to talk on the record about his evolution, except for Brown, who noted crisply in an efficient, six-minute phone interview, “I really think Tucker is better than that.”
Ask Tucker Carlson whatever happened to Tucker Carlson, and he gets upset.
“Who thinks I’ve changed?” he demands. I didn’t want to give up any of my sources, a few of whom still count him as a friend, so I stammered out my editor’s name.
“Uh, Kyle Pope,” I said.
“Is Kyle kind of dumb?” Carlson responds.
(Editor’s note: Arguable.)
The question, What happened to Tucker Carlson? is worth answering. If we can figure out how an intelligent writer and conservative can go from writing National Magazine Award–nominated articles and being hailed by some of the best editors in the business, to shouting about immigrants on Fox News, perhaps we can understand what is happening to this country, or at least to journalism, in 2018.
Tucker McNear Swanson Carlson was always going to be a journalist, if only through inertia and nepotism; the talent was a bonus. Carlson is the son of Dick Carlson, a media executive, who used to direct the Voice of America and is a former CEO of The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Tucker was born in 1969, the older of two boys. Their mother, Lisa McNear Carlson, left the family when he was six. “Totally bizarre situation—which I never talk about, because it was actually not really part of my life at all,” Carlson told The New Yorker in 2017.
When Tucker was 10, Dick remarried to Patricia Swanson of the Swanson frozen dinner fortune; her uncle was Senator J. William Fulbright. Carlson and his brother Buckley went to the Rhode Island private school St. George’s and, later, Tucker attended Trinity College, where, as he told the CJR in an interview, he spent his days mostly drunk. He graduated in 1992 and married his high school sweetheart, Susan Anderson.
Carlson applied to the CIA, but his application was denied, so he turned to journalism. “You should consider journalism,” his father told him. “They’ll take anybody.”
And they did.
Carlson began working for Policy Review as a fact-checker. “I ended up working for this magazine because the standards are so low,” he explains.
The quip is Carlsonesque—disarming, self-effacing, self-aggrandizing, and a tad insulting. I’m a single mom, a freelance writer with two kids, swiftly facing a future with no healthcare. I’m cobbling together ghostwriting jobs, but it’s not enough. I tell Carlson this and he tells me it’s “all impressive.” The implication is clear. It’s fine for me, but he’s not good at that sort of thing.
“I have all kinds of problems with authority and being told what to do,” he says. “I was not suited for that kind of work.”
I think about the application I just filled out for Starbucks. Me neither.
Yet Carlson insists he, too, was motivated only by the needs of a growing family. He maintains that if someone handed him $5 million he wouldn’t have gotten out of bed. (And he’d be easy to believe, if he wasn’t, in fact, worth over $8 million, and hadn’t himself stood to inherit enough to keep him in a rotating series of beds until retirement.)
But it’s the story he’s sticking to. He had to do what he had to do. He didn’t have a choice. He has kids. DC has terrible public schools. His hands were tied. So, in addition to his staff positions, he took freelance jobs. He didn’t want to disappoint his family.
“I think this is true of almost everybody unless you happen to inherit a bunch of dough at a young age.” Carlson sounds cavalier as he says this, like the plight of sending kids to a private school in DC is the most relatable thing in history. I wonder about my own career in media. If providing for my kids was my only goal, I’d be back in my marketing job. Which reminds me, I need to check my bank account to make sure I can afford back-to-school shoes and after-school care.
I wonder which one of us is supposed to be the liberal elite media.
But Carlson’s story is the story of the working man. He is, in this way, a Trumpish avatar—roguish, rich, independent, and confusing as hell. Despite his pedigree, or more likely because of it, Carlson has managed to become a vox populi of the deplorables. His show attracts an audience of 2.7 million people who see him as a voice of independent Americans. His book Ship of Fools, which rails against the liberal media establishment, is due out in October. The man’s voice and his power are only growing.
Since Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News in October 2017, Carlson has cannibalized O’Reilly’s audience. According to Nielsen Media Research, the top-rated markets for the show are Ft. Myers, Florida; Knoxville, Tennessee; Jacksonville, Florida; West Palm Beach, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; Birmingham, Alabama; Orlando, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Greenville, South Carolina; and Buffalo, New York. Only half of these cities went for Trump in the 2016 election, but they are (with the exception of Birmingham and Atlanta) overwhelmingly white and middle class, with an average age of 36. A large part of the jobs held by men in each city are in retail or construction.
Despite his pedigree, or more likely because of it, Carlson has managed to become a vox populi of the deplorables. His show attracts an audience of 2.7 million people who see him as a voice of independent Americans.
These fans consider themselves independent thinkers, like Carlson; they love him for his unanswerable questions. Colleen H., from Utah, told me through Facebook Messenger, “I like the way he has his guests on and they can’t say anything but the truth. He asks them a simple question and they go round and round the truth. He stays right on top of the subject at hand, if his guests don’t…. They only have so long to answer. When they don’t, they’re gone.”
A man who goes by the name The Watchman on Twitter, and lives in West Virginia, explained that he likes Carlson because “he seems honest and sincere. I like how he always [asks] what seems to the Democratic Socialist/Liberals as tough questions and they never answer him.”
Carlson also has one very big fan in the president of the United States, who watches his show and gleans policy ideas. Only weeks ago, after Carlson spoke on his show about a South African policy of seizing property from white landowners, the president tweeted that he was having his Secretary of State look into the matter. (Both Carlson and Trump misinterpreted the policy. Carlson later clarified his remarks on the issue; Donald Trump has not.)
Other vocal fans of Carlson include Richard Spencer, David Duke, and white nationalist website The Daily Stormer. On August 24, 2018, The Daily Stormer published a post that noted gleefully, “Tucker Carlson is basically ‘Daily Stormer: The Show.’ Other than the language used, he is covering all of our talking points.”
Pointing out the similarities between Nazi supporters and positions advocated by Carlson has become a subgenre of DC media. The most thorough examination was by Carlos Maza, a journalist for Vox, who recently broke down the ways in which Carlson’s talking points resonate with professional racists. His video is worth watching in full, but he points out how Carlson’s show cherrypicks stories of immigrants committing crime and ties illegal immigration to the crime rate. (Studies from the FBI and the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, have proven no link between immigration—illegal or otherwise—and crime.)
But he’s not a racist, Carlson insists. It’s bogus. Just because he believes everyone should be able to say what they want without being punished for it, doesn’t mean he supports them.
“If you think my views are bad tell me how. But [my accusers] don’t, because they’re either too dumb or they don’t care. They are trying to silence people they disagree with…And they are leading the effort to silence people they disagree with, without any debate, with out any intellectual due process, not legal, intellectual due process.”
Carlson’s voice is rising. He begins to mimic liberals in a higher pitched voice. “Shut up, Nazi. I get to punch you now.”
That, he says, is where the world is going.
So is he a racist? “My god, I’m not a racist. I hate racism. Tell me how.”
He kept going, mimicking the debate he believes his accusers/liberals/me are having about him. “It’s like ‘Oh, creepy people like your show. Therefore, you shouldn’t have a show.’ What? How could you go along with that? I don’t understand. Like, that’s the lowest form…that’s so contemptible. And it’s, it’s amazing to me that that kind of goes on uniformly. Shut up. You’re a bad person. Go away. You’re fired now. What? Tell me what he did wrong. Speak slowly so that I can understand. What did he say that’s untrue? What did he say that’s not allowed? What’s the right position? Why don’t you explain it to me? Shut up, Nazi.”
His publicist calls after our interview to make sure I know that Carlson is not a racist.
Like many white male journalists, Carlson used to idolize Hunter S. Thompson. And his own early journalism is indeed gonzo-like: freewheeling, voice-driven, squibbish narratives. It is as if Thompson donned a bow-tie, and thought maybe poor people should work a little harder.
At Policy Review Carlson made a mark for himself with pieces like a cringey look at Dunbar High School in Washington, DC. Carlson depicts the historically black high school as on the decline. Fair enough. The high school is one of DC’s worst-performers. But then he traces the roots of the decline to the desegregation of DC schools. The kicker of the article reads, “By heeding its past, Dunbar could once again inspire greatness.”
That past is one of segregation. He advocated this line of thinking again in 1996 in an article about the “Lost Black Aristocracy” of Washington. According to Carlson, desegregation meant the loss of rich black people in the city. These black aristocrats, Carlson notes, “had both light skin and, like their ancestors, profoundly integrationist views—seemed like museum pieces in a city whose local politics were increasingly defined by black nationalism.”
With them gone, Carlson mourns, “no force remained to keep the excesses of the civil rights class in check. Political leaders stopped identifying with bourgeois values and began pandering in earnest to the underclass.”
Carlson left Policy Review, to work under Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Paul Greenberg at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. In 1995, he left to work for the Weekly Standard, where he profiled James Carville. The 1996 article, “James Carville: Populist Plutocrat” skewers Carville for getting rich off his message of populism. It’s a fun piece. Carlson writes with the hooks and jabs he’s famous for on TV, but they’re rendered more deftly on the page:
A wine aficionado (northern Rhones are his favorite), Carville once consumed no fewer than 11 drinks in the company of a reporter on a flight to Los Angeles. He and his wife (former Bush partisan and talk-show host Mary Matalin) have what he calls a “country house” in rural Virginia. He enjoys quality room service, plush bath towels, and cars that come with drivers. He’s a frequent patron of The Palm, one of Washington’s most expensive restaurants. And, as if to make the caricature complete, he loves to play the stock market.
Then, in case you think he’s a conservative in good standing, in 1999, Carlson profiled George W. Bush for Tina Brown’s Talk magazine. He quoted Bush saying “fuck” a lot and had him mimicking a panicked Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer on death row, pleading for her life. Carlson writes: “‘Please’, Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don’t kill me.’”
Karen Hughes, Bush’s communications director, denied Carlson’s version of the events. But it was enough to mark Carlson as a journalistic rascal. “He really could’ve been one of the very great journalists,” Brown says. “You know because he had an amazing eye for observation. He’s terribly funny and you know he’s just a great stylist. There was a kind of flair to it that I thought was great.”
Probably the pinnacle of this journalism career was a 2003 article about traveling to Liberia with Al Sharpton; Cornel West; and Franzo King, archbishop and lead sax player of the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, in San Francisco. About King he writes, “King tends to speak in riddles and dictums and parables, and at an almost inaudible volume. One day I told him that I considered some person or other a bit of a phony. King looked at me intently for a moment, then put his hand on the back of my head and pulled my ear to his lips. ‘Is a tree phony because it loses its leaves in winter?’ he whispered.”
In this article, Carlson all but accuses Sharpton of reverse racism. His argument in the article, 15 years ago, will sound familiar to anyone who watches his show today. “The idea that I’d be responsible for the sins (or, for that matter, share in the glory of the accomplishments) of dead people who happened to share my skin tone has always confused me,” he wrote. “Racial solidarity wasn’t a working concept in my Southern California hometown. Most people barely had last names, much less ethnic identities. I grew up feeling about as much connection to nineteenth-century slave owners as I did to bus drivers in Helsinki or astronomers in Tirana. We’re all capable of getting sunburned. That’s it.”
For this, he was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
He didn’t win, but who cares? “I can’t imagine a less coveted accolade than an award from sad, alcoholic former newspaper editorialists, you know?”
Go on. “I don’t respect my peers at all. I mean, I just can’t imagine a group whose approval I’m less interested in, because I think so many of them are just so unbelievably mediocre. I mean, mediocre.”
“It’s like ‘Oh, creepy people like your show. Therefore, you shouldn’t have a show.’ What? How could you go along with that? I don’t understand. Like, that’s the lowest form…that’s so contemptible. And it’s, it’s amazing to me that that kind of goes on uniformly. Shut up. You’re a bad person. Go away. You’re fired now. What? Tell me what he did wrong. Speak slowly so that I can understand.”
Despite the loathing of his own profession, Carlson went to Pakistan for The New York Times Magazine right after 9/11 and almost died in a plane crash. He traveled to Iraq and wrote a sympathetic profile of military contractors and interviewed Paul Ryan, both for Esquire. (None of those assignments, it seems obvious to say, would likely go to Carlson today.)
Along the way, Tucker pivoted to video. Which, in some estimations, was (and is always) a big mistake. To hear Carlson tell it, he stumbled into television the same way he wandered into journalism, because it was quick, easy, and they’d take him. In his 2003 book Politics, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News, Carlson recounts that his first television appearance happened because he came home early from lunch.
I was heading back to my desk with a take-out hot dog one afternoon when I ran into the receptionist. She asked me what I knew about the O.J. trial. My instinct was to answer honestly (“just about nothing”), but for some reason I caught myself. I asked her why she wanted to know. Well, she explained, Dan Rather’s booker just called looking for an O.J. expert to go on 48 Hours tonight. Everyone else is still at lunch. Can you do it?
After that, Carlson was on TV regularly as a talking head. Five years later, in 2000, he was asked to go on CNN to give commentary after the Lieberman-Cheney debate. That analysis launched the CNN show The Spin Room, co-hosted by Carlson and Bill Press. It aired at 1 in the morning, then 11 and 11:30 at night, before finally coming to rest at 10:30. The show was short-lived, and little-loved: “Press is a hopeless, dithering wimp who makes Carlson’s bow-tied twit look like The Rock,” wrote a critic in Entertainment Weekly in 2001. “Between them, Carlson and Press would be hard-pressed to win a debate with network weatherman Flip Spiceland over whether or not the sun is out in Atlanta.”
But somehow, despite the cancellation of his debut show, Carlson’s career as player in political TV was on. In 2001, Carlson was asked to co-host Crossfire with Paul Begala. He also hosted a weekly public affairs show on PBS, Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered. The most notable moment of Crossfire, the one everyone remembers, aired on October 15, 2004. That was the day Jon Stewart came on Crossfire and called Tucker Carlson a dick.
It’s an infamous moment in cable news history. Carlson and Begala seem to think Stewart is there to promote his book, but he immediately begins criticizing the show. Any attempt by the co-hosts to retake control comes off as weak and wheedling. They try to bait him, but Stewart won’t budge. He defends himself as saying he’s just entertainment, a defense that in hindsight feels misleading considering the way The Daily Show changed news and comedy. In response, Carlson stutters. He’s defensive. He laughs nervously, an early sign of what would become a trademark tic.
“Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America,” Stewart begs Begala and Carlson. The conversation escalates from there, with Stewart lecturing the duo on their cable news theater which masquerades as journalism. Begala says little. It’s Carlson who tries to parry Stewart’s blows. But Stewart does what Carlson would later learn to do so well, he comes out of the gate with an impossible line of questioning and a disingenuous defense.
At one point, Carlson notes, “I do think you’re more fun on your show. Just my opinion.”
Stewart doesn’t miss a beat. “You know what’s interesting, though? You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.”
Carlson clearly still has scars from the exchange. “Jon Stewart was far more popular than I was,” he says, “and so he was recorded as having won the argument. But I never understood what the argument was.”
The argument, of course, was that Carlson was hurting America with his rhetoric. And in some ways, that’s still the argument. The power dynamic has changed. And now, Carlson is the one making people stutter defensively.
Though Stewart has long been off the air, the parallels between the two men still resonate. Today on his show, Carlson often comes right out of the gate with impossible and leading questions, like Stewart did. He recently asked Julissa Arce, an immigrant rights activist and author, if she had regrets for committing a felony. And he asked law professor Ekow N. Yankah when it became acceptable to generalize about people based on race. In 2004, people saw Stewart as a rogue, a truth teller, someone who skewered both sides equally. Carlson sees himself the same way. “I think you’ll find a lot of people who say I’m repugnant or expired or whatever, but I don’t think I’m fake.”
Crossfire was cancelled a few months after the Stewart appearance, and former CNN President Jon Klein tells CJR that yes, he did agree with Stewart. He cancelled the show in order to change the culture at CNN. “The original premise that two intelligent people from opposite sides of the spectrum could shed some fascinating light on the issues of the day had devolved in a predictable Punch and Judy show.”
Then he goes even further. “Canceling Crossfire was one of the best decisions I made,” says Klein. In response to Klein, Carlson shot back, “I was long gone from CNN and employed at another network by the time Crossfire got canceled. But for the record Jon Klein is a small and dishonest person.”
For about a second, the moment marked a watershed for Carlson. He seemed to change. He got an MSNBC show and told people it would be different. He wouldn’t shout. He ditched the bow tie.
In a 2005 interview about his now-cancelled MSNBC show, Carlson told Television Week, “This is not ever a show that will ever have guests debating each other. Ever. That is the form in cable news. We’re never doing that. Ever. That’s a worn-out format, and I am not going to do that…‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’ I hate that.” That same article described Carlson as saying “no” to shouting matches.
He then went on Dancing with the Stars and was immediately voted off.
After MSNBC cancelled Carlson’s show, in 2008, he and his college roommate, former Dick Cheney aide Neil Patel, launched a media start-up, The Daily Caller. The Caller was supposed to be a new kind of conservative outlet—thoughtful, responsible, researched. They hired Megan Mulligan from The Guardian to run the day-to-day editorial operations, and for awhile at least, Carlson was hands on. He’d go to editorial meetings with note cards full of ideas.
But the site was probably doomed from the beginning. To start with, The Daily Caller was funded by conservative philanthropist Foster Friess, who is famous for telling Andrea Mitchell that in his day, “gals” used to clutch aspirin between their knees as a form of birth control. Editorially, Carlson insisted the site would be independent, and in March 2010, the Caller ran a story about RNC chair Michael Steele using party funds on a private plane and an evening at a bondage-themed nightclub. The story was poorly sourced and drew more skepticism than accolades.
When writer Mickey Kaus published an article criticizing Fox News, Carlson immediately removed it. Carlson had a contract with the network as a commentator and, according to Kaus, he said he couldn’t criticize Carlson’s employer. So much for independence. Kaus insists he respects Carlson’s decision and that it’s all “water under the bridge,” but the dream of a rogue outlet of hard-hitting, conservative journalism was never realized. And the site withered from there. Right now the site highlights sensationalist stories about “illegal aliens,” justifiable homicide, and a hit piece on Beto O’Rourke.
What The Daily Caller became, a former employee told me, was far different than what it was intended to be. “They used all the technology that told them who was reading the site and what they wanted. So, they gave the people what they wanted.”
Which brings us to where we find Carlson today and what the hell happened to him.
Every segment and every outburst that “media elites” criticize just make his fans love him more. The more outrage he inspires, the braver, the bolder, the more courageous he seems to his audience.
So, the question What happened to Tucker Carlson? is, in the words of Carlson, Are you dumb? If you are asking it, he isn’t for you, and perhaps he was never for you.
The two ways of seeing Tucker Carlson are best explained through the titles of YouTube videos: “‘The Day CNN Will Never Forget’ Jon Stewart Wrecks CNN to Pieces” one Tucker Carlson clip is titled. “FLASHBACK: Tucker Brutally Exposes Hypocritical Stewart on Crossfire” another claims. They both link to essentially the same video footage, the day Carlson was lectured by Stewart. Similarly, “Tucker Carlson Meets His Maker Lauren Duca” and “Tucker Slays Crazy Lauren Duca” show the same clip. These clips are a lesson in the disconnect between the Americas.
For his fans, the criticisms of him and the controversy drummed up by the show create the perception of Carlson (a rich white man who owns multiple homes and could inherit even more money) as an underdog. A charming rogue. Someone who succeeds no matter what the liberal media tries to smear on him. “My role is really simple,” he tells me, “I want to tell the truth as I see it. I want to be as honest as I can. I don’t think of myself as representing any group of people anywhere.”
Every segment and every outburst that “media elites” criticize just make his fans love him more. The more outrage he inspires, the braver, the bolder, the more courageous he seems to his audience.
And who doesn’t love a rogue? Since the day Hermes stole Apollo’s cattle, people have always loved a renegade. Hell, America voted for a rogue as president. In that way, Carlson is perfect for this moment in history. A man without loyalties, except to the truth. And for what it’s worth, Carlson has always characterized himself this way. He belongs to no clubs except a fly fishing one. He belongs to no party. He even says he has a spotty history of voting.
A former co-worker likens Carlson’s appeal to that of a rowdy prep school frat boy. “What’s the reputation of frat boys? They go get drunk, chase after women, okay?… What’s not to like? What’s not to identify with? It’s basically what a lot of American culture is about.”
And Carlson has a rowdy frat-boy reputation. He is rumored to have dumped a drink on the head of Grover Norquist, after Norquist insulted his father. (Carlson clarified to me through his PR person that it was not water.) Carlson also once gave a party for Jack Abramoff, as a way to spit in the eye of the DC elite. Additionally, according to an account he wrote about in Politics, Partisans, and Parasites, he was almost brought down by scandal when was accused of raping a woman in Indiana. The woman, whom he names in the book, Kimberly Carter, accused Carlson of drugging and raping her at Harper’s Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. CJR tried to speak to Carter about the incident, but was unable to reach her and her lawyer did not return calls and emails requesting comment. But according to the book, the incident was groundless. Carter and Carlson were never in the same room together, the charges were dropped and Carter recanted.
The book itself is a frustrating compilation of anecdotes that includes a vigorous defense of Gary Condit and the line, “I couldn’t imagine [Monica Lewinsky] wearing a thong. I couldn’t imagine wanting to see it.”
I’m sorry, are you offended? That’s the whole point of the book—his irascible and contrarian humor. And if you don’t find it funny, well, he writes, “Liberals used to be funny. They edited magazines like National Lampoon. They had a claim on cool. Then something happened. They became sour and earnest and neurotic about secondhand smoke. The Democratic party became the party of the uptight establishment, the that’s-not-funny-young-man party, the party of no fun.”
Immediately after his musings on the dour moralizing of liberals, Carlson describes a drunk Jim Traficant’s attempting to assault a cable news employee. It’s a funny anecdote for him. “It was always acceptable to be amused by Jim Traficant, and I usually was,” he writes. It’s the equivalent of a man telling you to go make him a goddamn sandwich, then calling you uptight when you cross your arms and frown. I can imagine Carlson telling me I was humorless for writing this. He’d be bored by my moralizing, and as a former employee of his told me, “Tucker hates to be bored.”
It’s like Carlson wrote about Bill O’Reilly: “[He is a] guy who tells the truth and demands that others do the same. A man who won’t be pushed around or take maybe for an answer … And like everyone in media he has a schtick … It works. But there’s a price. O’Reilly’s success is built on the perception that he really is who he claims to be. If he ever gets caught out of character, it’s over.”
He then concludes that O’Reilly won’t get caught out of character, because his real life persona and TV character have merged. It’s an insight that feels jarring in light of O’Reilly’s sexual misconduct allegations. And it’s something I heard people say over and over about Carlson—that on TV he was a persona. But by the time I spoke to him, I couldn’t see the difference. It’s a Shakespearean conundrum, one Hamlet grappled with as he pretended to be mad. Insisting, until the end, that he knew a “hawk from a handsaw.”
Spoiler alert: The stories of O’Reilly and Hamlet don’t end well for anyone.
Yet whatever grand unified theory of Carlson you believe impacts how you see his career. How you see America.
And we could go round and round. All theories seem to be truth and untrue. But this wily incongruity of Carlson—his refusal to be pinned down, his legendary contrarianism—is why his audience loves him. He’s an independent thinker, just like them. He’s not loyal to a party, just like them. He tells them to think for themselves. To trust no one. The mainstream media is lying to you, he says. Everyone, except him of course. It’s like the scene in the movie, The Life of Brian where Brian, tells a crowd of people, “You are all individuals.”
“We are all individuals!” they yell in unison.
“Well not me,” one man pipes up from the back.
Carlson’s “independence,” says Richard West, professor of communications at Emerson College and author of five books on interpersonal communications, is “change-the-subject conservatism.” Meaning that Carlson’s deftness in defying any one party or ideology and is more about a winning rhetorical strategy than a noble enterprise.
“It’s quite a remarkable tactic,” West explains, “because you don’t give people an opportunity to digest … I do believe he’s a conversational narcissist. He hijacks the conversation and contorts it to his own value structure.”
Carlson, through his PR person, stated, “I have no idea what that means and West is welcome to come on the show anytime. But I bet you dinner, he is too afraid.”
What Carlson’s fans hear, in response to that kind of intellectual moralizing from West, is just another boring lib who doesn’t get it. In a Kindle single titled Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson: The Transition of Very Different Conservative Hosts at Fox News the author, Richard West (but not the communications professor from Emerson), revels in Carlson’s tricksterism. This West notes that in August of 2017, Carlson stated that Donald Trump staring at the eclipse without protective eyewear was the “the most impressive thing a president has ever done.“
This comment catalyzed a lot of people to mock Carlson. But for Carlson and his supporters, it was an inside joke. Carlson later told Business Insider, “It was a test to see if liberals are really as slow and humorless as people claim,” Carlson said. “Turns out they are.”
It’s a neat trick. Say something and when challenged, insist it was a joke. As if jokes themselves rise above criticism. Or by not laughing you are a humorless bore—a liberal. It’s just a play on another Carlson rhetorical move: Say something and then, when criticized, insist that criticism is an attempt to infringe on free speech.
This was the circle of hell I found myself stuck in during my interview with Carlson. I had expected a genial conversation. Every profile of Carlson depicts him as a lovely, rational man—fly fishing, making pancakes, leaning back in a chair and chewing Nicorette. Sources have told me he’s charming. He’s engaging. He’s fun and interesting. And all of that was from people who think his politics are abhorrent. My editor offered to send me out to meet him, but Carlson declined. I got a phone call instead. Which, okay, maybe he was busy and besides, I’m not famous. But after our initial conversation about how much we both love Cheetos and both wish we had more kids, the conversation devolved into a lecture on free speech. It was a kind of boring lecture, the kind Carlson abhors. It seemed like a moot point. He has a large platform and all the money and privilege. Who is censoring him? And by that token, conservatives have won. They have the White House and congress. So much winning, right?
After our initial conversation about how much we both love Cheetos and both wish we had more kids, the conversation devolved into a lecture on free speech.
But according to Carlson, censorship is everywhere. Liberals are suppressing free speech in America by saying they are offended by everything, he tells me. The tech guy at Google, he says, who was fired for exercising his free speech. Carlson is referring to the ex-Google employee James Damore who wrote posts on an internal company message board attributing psychological differences between men and women as the reason there was a gender gap at Google. Damore, Carlson argues, was fired for exercising his free speech. He was the epitome of diversity. And he got fired in the name of diversity. America, what a country. It’s totally Orwellian.
And did I know that biologists have proven there are only two genders? Just two. And no high school teacher in the world would tell me otherwise. But it makes liberals mad when you say the truth. Get a biologist to say he’s wrong and he’ll listen but until then. No.
I point out that sexuality and gender are inherently different and maybe he’s conflating the two. “Look biological reality is… super deep and exists apart from whatever social construct you’re buying into…and that comes with all kinds of physical consequences,” he explains, explaining nothing.
After the interview, I sent his PR person a link to an article that explains how science has indeed concluded that gender is not binary. His PR person told me “he has no comment on that.”
Carlson sees himself as brave for pointing out these truths in the minefield of liberal feelings. He likens it to Galileo, put to death for saying the earth is round. “You should be allowed to say what is provably true and I guess if you don’t agree with that…. that’s by definition irrational and it freaks me out when a large organization punishes people on the basis of irrational belief, because once that starts happening, like, why not kill the people that disagree with you?”
“Is this censorship,” I manage to ask, “or just consequences? Doesn’t speech have consequences?” But Carlson dodges.
“You agreed there are some things we are not allowed to say because of diversity,” he says.
“No, I don’t agree with that.”
“No. No. No. No.”
“Because consequences. Yeah you did.”
So apparently, by asking, I’m censoring.
I think about the power imbalance. This man. Who has money. Status. 2.7 million viewers. He holds the attention of the president. And me? I might be “the liberal elite,” but I buy groceries at Wal-Mart, live in Iowa, and after 12 years of working as a writer, I still can’t get many outlets to even respond to my pitches.
Carlson’s PR person was concerned about silencing, too. She demanded that Carlson be able to respond to every criticism in this piece. And then, if the people who made those criticisms had a response, that Carlson be able to respond to that.
“You want him to have the last word?” I asked.
“Yes!” she shouted. She was shouting at me, too.
I told her he has a show. He has a large audience. He has a website. He has a Twitter following. I was sure he’d be able to find a way to respond without an endless feedback loop. She insisted. She didn’t want him to be silenced.
But Carlson isn’t being silenced. He’s plenty loud enough. And anyway I don’t want to silence him. I don’t want to end free speech, I just want to tell him speech has consequences. I tell him that a year after Trump was elected I ended my 12-year marriage to a Republican.
“I’ve seen speech have real disastrous consequences. I am going through a divorce right now because of the way speech and politics and religion have worked out in my own marriage. So yes, I see intellectually, free speech. But personally, I see the deep pain. Like everyone, I see a problem in America and I don’t know a way around it.”
“You don’t know,” says Carlson, “Well, I do know… You oughta let people say what they think and you shouldn’t punish them for that, period. That’s how I feel.”
I am trying to listen. I am trying to understand. I want to understand. If I can figure out what happened to Tucker Carlson, how he went from successful magazine writer to contrarian journalist to raving Fox News host, I believe I will understand what happened to my country, my life even. What happened to make a rich white man the vox populi? How did I, a mom in the Midwest who can’t afford health care, become the humorless, censoring, liberal elite? How are the winners still insisting they are losers? What happened to this whole mess of a world? So I listen and listen. But I get no answers. Most of the quotes I get don’t make any sense. And I’m no closer to an answer now than when I started.
All I know is, he was definitely shouting.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that St. George’s school is in DC. It is in Rhode Island. A previous version also stated that Richard West is a professor at Emerson University. He is a professor at Emerson College.