Who Could Mistake Tucker Carlson For Anything Else?
4:21 PM EDT on April 26, 2023
The writer Stephen Rodrick opened his 2017 GQ feature on Tucker Carlson with a story from Carlson's days at Trinity College. The CIA was coming to campus to recruit, which some students protested; other students, who disliked the first group, protested against that protest. "The students decided to hold a debate," Rodrick writes.
First the anti-CIA contingent gave a speech. Then it was the pro-CIA side’s turn, and they asked Carlson to speak on their behalf. He said yes and stood up to talk. He spoke from the heart, looking at both factions gathered on the quad. “Honestly, what I really think is you’re all a bunch of greasy chicken-fuckers,” he said. He then walked off.GQ
It is generally true that people grow and change as they get older, but that's not necessarily the same thing as saying that they become different. Some people just become more and more themselves, and do not so much grow as build addition after addition onto their home and then decorate all of them identically. The fixtures and finishes might get more expensive, but fundamentally it is the same four walls opening onto the same views. Wherever they go, there they are. They do not, would not and anyway could not, ever leave.
For someone like Tucker Carlson, staying in that space has been something like his job for many years. In that sense, it fits that Carlson's career reached its apex while hosting a show at Fox News that was, in every facet, an argument against going outside. Outside, things are disgusting and dangerous and depraved; inside, the television relentlessly reinforces this. Carlson, who cackled and leered and seethed on camera in a way that suggested someone who was authentically distraught about every single thing he encountered, was a perfect star for a network whose business model is increasingly leveraged on an ambitious gambit to replace the outside world with a substitute reality that is far worse. This room was like every other in which Carlson has spent his working life—blacked out, a camera trained on his face, very cold—and in it he did the thing that he has done for a living for many years, and which he has more broadly been doing for something like his entire life, which is act scandalized and disgusted and aggrieved. Carlson acts like a Republican for a living, for short, and as that has changed, he has changed along with it. Lately this has been a matter of descending and descending again into various sub-basements, taking a look around, and then hitting his mark as usual.
For a while, people who knew him through the circles in which he once moved socially—rich people Washington D.C., and media people in Washington D.C.—thought it was interesting to try to figure out whether and how much Carlson was acting when he did all this. When Carlson, someone with whom they had maybe had a drink or exchanged emails some years earlier, started delivering uncut Chan-board bigotry/conspiracy bullshit and eliminationist reactionary fantasy, it must have been unsettling. But, the standard rationalization went, Carlson was smart—which they knew to be true from those drinks or those email exchanges—and so he probably didn't believe all or maybe any of that stuff.
The question of whether any of that is true is not very interesting; the question of whether Carlson is smart is beside the point entirely. That Carlson, who was reportedly obsessed with the minute-by-minute ratings analytics that Fox provided, might merely have been giving his audience what they wanted doesn't exonerate him in the least. The decision "to double down on the white nationalism because the minute-by-minutes show that the audience eats it up," as one former Fox employee told The New York Times, is revealing about Carlson's audience but less so about Carlson himself. It's like talking about whether your dishwasher really hates dirt and grease. Whatever Carlson believes has never really been important, and would only be interesting to people who are not themselves very interesting, or interested in very interesting things. At this point there's no reason to believe that Carlson actually believes anything at all, or that those beliefs would even briefly complicate his job of Acting Like A Republican. There's no evidence of it.
Carlson was reportedly fired by Fox News on Monday, and much of the story since then has been more or less gossip. It is, most everyone agrees, unlikely that Carlson got fired for any of the reprehensible and dehumanizing shit that he said on TV every night; it is unlikely, by most accounts, that he was fired for being a shitty bullying boss and generally vampiric workplace presence, because Fox has an exceptionally high threshold for that sort of thing even by television standards. It might be somewhat likelier that Carlson's offenses against network kayfabe—the public emergence, in the run-up to a lawsuit against the network, of text messages in which Carlson disparages his network's audience, and the goof crew of swirly-eyed dead-enders the network brought on to support Donald Trump, and Trump himself—were behind the decision, but given the network's evident faith that it could not merely shape but supplant its viewers' reality, that feels doubtful. The clubhouse leader, or anyway the funniest option, is the possibility that the network's 92-year-old owner's experience of being very briefly affianced to a woman who truly believed Carlson was a prophet and a genius was behind the decision.
Again, though, this is not very interesting, because the people involved aren't very interesting. They are vain and self-interested and not intelligent in any interesting or insightful ways. It is meaningful, I think, to notice the ways in which Carlson's job has changed, or metastasized; where Acting Like A Republican once meant going on TV dressed like a child at a Connecticut wedding and sneering at hippies or putting on for small business owners, it now means talking in identically apocalyptic terms about both the immigrant hordes and the now-much-less-sexy Green M&M, and stopping teasingly short of demanding that both be put to the sword. The work product is darker, for sure, but not really different in any meaningful way because the job has not fundamentally changed.
I don't have to tell you that this job is a stupid, disgusting one, and one in which only someone who is facile and shameless could flourish to the extent that Carlson has. It is a demeaning thing, although it pays well; Carlson was compensated like a mid-career MLB star to play his part as a meat megaphone for the worst and oldest impulses in American politics. That the demands of the job changed in the way they did, such that the erstwhile rich-kid heel became a howling blood-and-soil fascist, is meaningful in a number of ways, but I think most significantly in how it reflects the vacancy and drift that define our increasingly theatrical and abstracted politics.
That Carlson, in his latest guise, also mixed in some vague maundering and unconvincing umbrage at the brutal grind and predation of neoliberal capitalism is interesting only as a new symptom of the virus that Carlson has represented for his entire career. None of it points in any new direction; it's hard to see how it could, given that "pointing in a new direction" is the exact opposite of the man's job. It speaks to the desperate vacuousness of American politics that even this aestheticized and undercooked grousing could be passed off as a critical stance against the status quo; it speaks to the value-neutral uselessness of simple contrarianism as a political position that anyone could ever have mistaken Carlson for an ally, or just someone worth defending. The situation is very bad, broadly speaking. But it is not so bad that anyone should mistake a charismatic nullity and lifelong champion of every anti-human instinct in American politics for anything but what he has very obviously, very publicly always been.
There is an empty space at Carlson's core that mirrors the empty space at the center of American political culture. It is what has made him so good at pretending to be whatever he has to pretend to be, and what keeps both him and the brutal entropic status quo that he has always, always served in place. Finding new and harsher ways of playing pretend, the spinning of bloodier and more all-encompassing fantasies—this is work, but it has no dignity. It's what happens instead of anything more necessary; it exists to make sure that nothing better will ever replace it. Only a ghoul could flourish in it as Carlson has; only a fool could mistake someone playing his part for anything but an enemy. His future remains bright.