Tucker Carlson is gone from Fox News, but his influence on conservative politics may linger — at least for a while.
Carlson, during his more than six years in Fox’s prime-time lineup, became perhaps more closely aligned than any other host with the strain of right-wing populism that has coursed through the GOP and transformed the party.
His detractors — inside and outside of conservative media — would see that as sheer opportunism from a calculating figure who initially made his name as a bow-tied quasi-intellectual.
But if Carlson merely determined which way the wind was blowing among conservative Americans, he also cut his sails with unusual success.
His show was notable for adopting many of the stances that are shared by former President Trump and by the broader right-wing populist movement.
Those included, but were not limited to, ferocious opposition to illegal immigration, an “America First” isolationism on foreign policy, a propensity to minimize the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, and a skepticism about many of the measures that were pushed to combat COVID-19.
In 2018, Carlson sparked one of many uproars by contending that “leaders” were dishonorably suggesting that the United States has “a moral obligation to admit the world’s poor … even if makes our own country poorer and dirtier.”
That kind of language seemed in lockstep with Trump, who had launched his campaign with a reference to “rapists” being sent across the southern border and who later reportedly complained about people coming to the U.S. from “shithole counties” in Africa and the Caribbean.
Critics across politics and the media also contend that Carlson has helped mainstream the racist “replacement theory,” which holds, in essence, that white people are being intentionally supplanted by nonwhites, often for nefarious political reasons.
A New York Times report in 2022, for example, noted comments from Carlson the previous year in which he argued “that Democrats were deliberately importing ‘more obedient voters from the third world’ to ‘replace’ the current electorate and keep themselves in power.”
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But Carlson’s influence stretched far beyond migration.
His open skepticism about the level of U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine is perceived to have got Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) into trouble last month.
DeSantis, who would be Trump’s most serious rival for the GOP presidential nomination if he enters the race as expected, was replying to a questionnaire from Carlson’s show when he described the war in Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” in which the United States did not have “vital interests.”
DeSantis later sought to finesse those remarks, telling interviewer Piers Morgan that they had been “mischaracterized” and that “obviously” the Russian invasion “was wrong.”
At other times, Carlson has cited poorly sourced claims that COVID vaccinations correlated with heart attack deaths; broadly downplayed the seriousness of the Capitol riot; and — of course — given a platform to false claims about malfeasance around the 2020 general election.
His behavior on the final of those matters was one of the central issues in the defamation case taken by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox. The case was settled last week after Fox agreed to pay $787.5 million in damages — but with no apology from the network.
Republicans and independent observers alike acknowledge Carlson’s influence in recent years. His show routinely pulled in an audience of around 3 million viewers.
The populist strain within the GOP is clearly not going anywhere, they say — but that’s a different question from whether Carlson himself will maintain his profile and relevance.
“Absent a significant platform, I think his influence will wane,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and the chair of the Travis County Republican Party in Texas. “His ideological and policy agendas have dovetailed pretty closely with Trump. Now, with Trump a declared candidate again, I think he is going to get bigger and Tucker’s is going to get smaller.”
Mackowiak noted other figures who have left Fox News — Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Megyn Kelly — didn’t recapture the prominence they enjoyed while on the network.
Of Carlson, he added, “It would be foolish to underestimate his influence, but I also think he is in a very uncertain place.”
Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor emeritus who specializes in political communications, contended that Carlson’s role as a performer was more enduring than his political influence.
“First and foremost, he is a showman — a high-wattage performer. Sometimes you go out on the ledge a little more than you should. But the show must go on, and you have to get those ratings. That might have been a motivator for some of his more outlandish thoughts.”
Outlandish or otherwise, Carlson clearly both rode and fueled the populist wave.
That wave seems likely to keep rolling even now that he has crashed.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.