Fox News' Tucker Carlson is the new premier voice of Bannonism
Last night from 8pm ET on Fox News, Bannonite-in-chief Tucker Carlson executed his formula and landed a rip-roaring show.
His opening monologue alleged that “illegal aliens” commit more crimes, and that illegal immigration “costs Americans their lives”.
He then interviewed rightwing pundit Mark Steyn, who asserted, on the basis of Hispanic birthrates in Arizona, that “the border has moved north”, and insisted that the views of white supremacists should be prioritized over “illegals” because “they are citizens”. Later on, he badgered a Latina mayoral candidate from Phoenix, asking repeatedly how many “illegals” had started tech companies.
Finally, he let Congressman Scott Perry speculate as to whether Isis agents might have been responsible for the Las Vegas massacre.
Steve Bannon may have lost control of Breitbart, but as long as Tucker Carlson is around, Bannon-style rightwing populism will have a powerful voice in the media.
Since around the time of Trump’s election, Carlson has consistently articulated the nationalist, anti-immigran and anti-establishment program that Bannon took to the White House. He’s also shown he’s prepared to maintain a hard line on these issues at Trump’s expense. Last week, he blasted the president for meeting with “the very swamp creatures he once denounced” to try to reach a deal on Daca.
“Congress,” he said, running a familiar populist line, “is full of people from both parties who believe that the point of our immigration policy is to provide cheap labor to their donors and to atone for America’s imaginary sins against the world.”
Outside the far right proper, perhaps only Ann Coulter was harder on Trump over negotiating with the Democrats.
While rightwing Republicans are generally anti-immigration, Carlson has found ways to go further on issues of race than shock jocks like Sean Hannity or Mark Levin. Last July, he devoted a long segment to drumming up fear and loathing for Roma in Pennsylvania, a fairly exotic prejudice to promote in the context of the American right.
Certainly, it’s unrelated to any US policy debates. Some observers have suggested that in such moments, Carlson is actually pitching to a broader sense of “European” (ie white) cultural and ethnic identity. In other words, Carlson is promoting values associated with the alt-right.
At the same time, he may be mainstreaming their message. He stood up not only for Confederate statues, but for flyers put up at a high school reading “it’s okay to be white”, a phrase which was propagated as an alt-right slogan. He has also taken time to defend the alt-right social network, Gab.
And he reserves his most scathing attacks for the far right’s sworn enemies – not only leftist academics, but hate-monitoring groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Prominent alt-right figures have returned the favor. In a celebratory tweet last year, Richard Spencer affirmed that one “can’t cuck the Tuck”. On the Daily Stormer, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin approvingly called the combative Carlson “a machine of ultimate destruction”.
How much of this does Carlson, formerly a more conventional conservative, really mean?
Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University who studies conservative media, thinks that a lot of what Carlson does is driven by sheer contrarianism, and a desire to produce lively television.
He points to his journeyman history on a series of cable networks – including MSNBC and CNN, where he was infamously lectured by Jon Stewart – and the evolution of the Daily Caller, which Carlson co-founded, suggesting that he has learned that viewers love fireworks.
“His show is less about what he thinks, and more about ‘owning the liberals’,” he says, though he adds that Carlson seems to have few limits on what he is willing to say in coming up with his particular brand of political bloodsport.
Carlson’s contrarianism is most visible in his signature technique: confrontational interviews in his “Tucker Takes On” segment. His tone is important in making them shareable – his lighthearted sneering sets him apart from the hectoring anger that so many other conservative media figures rely on.
What’s notable about Carlson’s viral interviews are his targets. Some of them would be irresistible to any rightwing pundit, like the Chicago Democratic alderman whom Carlson called a “loathsome little demagogue” on Wednesday night. (One wonders why so many local politicians and campus advocates agree to enter into in a no-win situation).
But Carlson also had a notorious on-air brawl with Max Boot, a neoconservative who advocated for and later defended the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. He has repeatedly excoriated “Russia hawks” in the foreign policy establishment, and those who argued for Middle Eastern adventurism in the previous decade. This lines up perfectly with the isolationism of many in the alt right.
On the other hand, Carlson has given a warm reception to a select group on the left. Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald and Alternet’s Max Blumenthal have each been given a respectful hearing by Carlson, who has chosen to emphasize their common ground – skepticism about US overseas adventurism, the “Russiagate” narrative and Clintonian liberalism.
Whether he is cynical or sincere, Carlson continues to blur the lines between the far right and the mainstream, and is prepared to employ any weapon that comes to hand in taking on establishment conservatives and liberals alike. There’s no sign that he is looking to change what has been a successful formula.