You Do Not, Under Any Circumstances, “Gotta Hand It to Tucker Carlson”
Among the various responses to Tucker Carlson’s precipitous ejection from Fox News, there’s a type that is perhaps best summed up as “anti-anti-Carlson.” The anti-anti-Carlson pundit recognizes that Carlson has said a lot of truly terrible and repellent things—but look at the good stuff!
For instance, in a post on her Substack site, the Free Press, Bari Weiss examines various theories of why Carlson was fired and then gives her own view of his merits and demerits:
Tucker thinks supporting Ukraine is the foreign policy equivalent of putting pronouns in your bio. I think supporting Ukraine is as morally obvious as rooting for America over China. Tucker spoke of “the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.” I think the idea of “legacy Americans” is reprehensible—every single one of us came from somewhere else—and that immigrants are the backbone of America. It goes on and on and on. He drove me nuts.
But you couldn’t deny how important he was (and is). Nellie and I watched his monologues not quite nightly but often the next day on YouTube—a ritual that started in 2020 when he was showing real footage sans the “mostly peaceful” chyrons of what was going on in cities that summer. He also openly questioned and mocked the irrational parts of the Covid lockdown—two things other network news hosts couldn’t or wouldn’t do. He was one of the only people on TV who made his viewers aware of the new military-industrial complex: the alliance between Big Tech and the government. And he consistently featured important journalists who do not fit a neat political box—people like Batya Ungar-Sargon, Abigail Shrier, and Aaron Sibarium.
Where to begin? First of all, Weiss’s sampling of Carlson’s faults is oddly anodyne. He doesn’t just deride support for Ukraine as a variety of woke virtue-signaling; he has repeatedly trafficked in Kremlin propaganda talking points, including debunked lies about U.S.-funded “biolabs” in Ukraine and bizarre claims about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky waging a “war against Christianity.” (Less than two weeks before his firing, he was caught “blatantly lying,” in the words of journalist James Surowiecki, about U.S. intelligence leaks supposedly showing that Ukraine has suffered much heavier casualties than Russia and is “losing the war”; Carlson’s casualty numbers came from a slide widely known to have been doctored.) Expatriate Russian journalist Igor Yakovenko has described Carlson as an American version of the odious Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, only with a much bigger reach. (Coincidentally, after Fox News axed Carlson, Solovyov publicly offered him a job as a panelist on his show.)
Likewise, Carlson hasn’t simply railed against immigration but he has promoted thinly veiled racist tropes about filthy Third World migrants (a 2017 segment about Roma or “gypsy” asylum seekers in a Pennsylvania town in which Carlson seemed obsessed with unconfirmed rumors of defecation in the streets is a case in point).
And Weiss, the author of the book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, overlooks Carlson’s forays into fairly brazen Jew-baiting. In December 2019, Tablet writer Liel Leibovitz, not exactly a doctrinaire progressive, accused Carlson of peddling “overt, dangerous anti-Semitism.” The segment that so incensed Leibovitz extolled the admirable, civic-minded, patriotic capitalism of industrialist Henry Ford and contrasted it to the rapacious capitalism represented by hedge-fund proprietor Paul Singer, whom Carlson portrayed as “feeding off the carcass of a dying nation.” Ford was, of course, a rabid and vocal Jew-hater; Singer just happens to be Jewish.
Nor does Weiss mention that Carlson didn’t simply question “the irrational parts of the COVID lockdown,” he relentlessly pushed anti-vaccination propaganda and refused to say whether he himself was vaccinated. (In September 2021, Carlson asserted that the real purpose of mandatory vaccination in the military was to carry out a woke takeover of the armed forces by weeding out “sincere Christians,” “freethinkers,” “men with high testosterone levels,” and political dissidents. Totally rational.)
As for Carlson’s supposedly impressive record of hosting “important journalists who do not fit a neat political box”: first of all, one could debate whether their appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight exposed them to a wider audience or trapped them in an ideological ghetto. Second, he also made a point of giving airtime to extremists and cranks, providing a huge platform to the likes of Darren Beattie (the onetime Trump White House staffer fired for white nationalist ties), “Stop the Steal” leader Ali Alexander, and prominent January 6th apologist Julie Kelly, to name but three.
Carlson’s guests may not have fit into political boxes, but they invariably fit into Carlson’s agenda. One of his last outside-the-box guests was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime far-left conspiracy theorist who had, among other things, advocated shutting down organizations that promote climate change skepticism and putting some conservative political donors on trial in the Hague “with all the other war criminals.” But RFK Jr. is also a longtime, pre-COVID anti-vaccine crusader, so he fits right in.
Another anti-anti-Carlson commentator, veteran journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan, finds things to like not only in Carlson but in the Carlson/Kennedy tandem. He concedes that “it would be easy and probably wise to dismiss them as cranks and conspiracy theorists.” Go with that feeling, Andrew. But no:
Both Tucker and Bobby represent, it seems to me, something nonetheless real: a deepening suspicion of corporate and government authority, a refreshing willingness to junk partisan orthodoxy, and, in an age of utter cowardice, what can only be called nerve.
But all these are qualities that can very easily cross the line from laudable to deplorable. And Sullivan, in fact, acknowledges that Carlsonism is often deplorable:
There are aspects to Carlson’s message I find repellent, specifically the refusal to call January 6 what it was, the fathomless cynicism behind his public defense of Trump, his absurd love-in with Viktor Orbán, and the racist tinge to some of his comments on immigration.
But, Sullivan writes, “Carlson sees the totalitarian essence of wokeness, its denial of core American values, and the cynical distraction of critical theory madness when most middle-class Americans are overwhelmed, overworked, and dying prematurely in large numbers.” Also, he’s against “the US war against Russia” (i.e., support for Ukraine). Unlike Weiss, Sullivan considers that an asset; like Weiss, he doesn’t mention to what extent Carlson’s anti-Ukraine position recycles Kremlin propaganda tropes, conspiracy theories, and lies.
Sullivan also approvingly mentions an article in the American Prospect giving Carlson “some love from the left” as evidence of his orthodoxy-bucking—and notes that this article provoked outrage and “a pathetic apology from the editor.” But the article, by staff writers Lee Harris and Luke Goldstein, was a particularly egregious example of anti-anti-Carlsonism, and while I’m not a fan of editorial apologies for controversial content, the one from David Dayen was not particularly pathetic. (There were no breast-beating mea culpas for having “caused harm” or “upheld oppression,” just an acknowledgment that the article failed to discuss the context and the motives for Carlson’s supposed working-class populism.) Harris and Goldstein praised Carlson’s “willingness to challenge and mock ruling elites,” his ability to tap into Elizabeth Warren-like “populist instincts,” and his knack for “cutting through left- and right-wing echo chambers and putting hard questions to corporate executives and members of the political establishment.” They only passingly acknowledged his “obsessive nativism” and managed to praise his critical coverage of a Paul Singer-orchestrated merger in Nebraska without mentioning the antisemitic streak in Carlson’s attacks on Singer. Even Carlson’s “incessant mockery of first lady Jill Biden’s insistence on being called ‘Dr. Biden,’” which the authors acknowledge “bordered on the absurd,” is credited for “subtly exposing an elite obsession with credentials and meritocracy.”
Former Intercept writer Lee Fang, now an independent Substack journalist, defended the article on Twitter as “balanced.” Earlier, he had offered his own praise for Carlson’s intrepid journalism:
Tucker Carlson last week ripped big pharma spending hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads and news outlets routinely parroting drug industry talking points. Is there a single example of a CNN, MSNBC or other Fox News host ever discussing TV advertising corruption? pic.twitter.com/vVfi4BohcK
— Lee Fang (@lhfang) April 24, 2023
The influence of advertising dollars, including pharmaceutical company advertising, on news coverage is a serious subject worthy of more scrutiny and discussion. But Carlson’s focus in this segment, which is the idea that the mainstream media pushed COVID vaccines because they’re in the pocket of their “Big Pharma” advertisers, is . . . probably not the best example of this problem.
And it should come as no shock at all that the thread quickly filled up with people suggesting that Carlson’s firing right after he took on Big Pharma was more evidence of nefarious collusion.
Appreciating the virtues of authors or television pundits with whom you disagree on various issues is generally a good thing. I admire many people with whom I have vehement disagreements—on abortion, foreign policy, social welfare, you name it. Perhaps you do, too. Finding common ground despite strong differences is essential to liberal democracy and civil society.
But you have to draw the line somewhere—at views that are not just different from yours, and not even just wrong, but (to quote Weiss and Sullivan) “reprehensible” and “repellent,” especially if those views are not just occasional eccentricities on fringe issues but the core of someone’s public persona. To take extreme examples, you don’t look for the good opinions of a prominent Holocaust denier, a self-proclaimed Stalinist, or an advocate for the decriminalization of adult-child sex.
Carlson’s repellent views don’t go that far. But his flirtations with white nationalism and authoritarianism, his forays into barely disguised racism and antisemitism, his apologism for the “stolen election” lie—thoroughly cynical, as revealed by his text messages uncovered in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit that led to his firing—and for the January 6th mob attack on the Capitol should be enough. Carlson is the guy who, among other things, aired a breathtakingly dishonest report spinning January 6th surveillance footage to support his narrative that the rioters were harmless protesters, that Capitol Hill police treated them like tourists, and that the violence was incited by undercover federal agents.
And there’s so much more. For instance, none of the anti-anti-Carlson pundits mentions his frequent dives into misogyny, which probably reached their nadir in a 2021 segment arguing that America’s failure in Afghanistan was due in large part to supposed attempts to impose “neoliberal” feminism on the Afghan population via initiatives promoting the rights of women and girls. When Carlson asserted that the people of Afghanistan “like the patriarchy,” it seemed pretty clear that he was endorsing the sentiment.
There’s also the free-floating, Alex Jones-level paranoia that emanates from Carlson’s rants about the liberal elites. In an 18-minute January segment on “the left’s culture wars,” discussing proposed bans on menthol-flavored cigarettes, Carlson asserted that “they hate nicotine [but] they love THC,” the main psychoactive component in cannabis, “because nicotine frees your mind and THC makes you compliant and passive.” Along the way, Carlson also mimicked a whiny liberal crying that “menthol cigarettes cause cancer” and suggested that such products are being banned because they are used by despised poor people. One could say that this weirdness is relatively trivial compared to election subversion and “Great Replacement” rhetoric; but there is no question that the constant drumbeat of “they are out to get you” adds to a toxic cultural climate.
It also seems to me that you should find Carlson especially objectionable if, like the anti-anti-Carlson crowd, you agree with some of his culture-war points. If you’re concerned about the excesses of “wokeness”—such as preoccupation with ferreting out real or imagined racism in every aspect of American society—it would seem to me that the last person you’d want amplifying your views is the guy who dabbles in actual white nationalist tropes. If you think the progressive left is too cavalier about street crime and riots, the guy who makes excuses for the far-right, mostly white January 6th rioters is not a great messenger. If you think we’re too cavalier about the dangers of escalation stemming from U.S. military aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia, you really want to avoid the ally who sounds like Vladimir Solovyov dubbed into English. And so on. Whatever your issues are, Carlson is the “Please don’t be on my side” guy.
But in today’s media landscape, people who dissent from “establishment” opinion tend to see allies in self-styled rebels against authority. And so we end up with Yes, Tucker Carlson is awful in a lot of ways, but. . . apologias.
To the people making such arguments, I’d offer this question: If someone sent you a gift box containing a couple of dead and decomposing rats, a dozen live cockroaches and a large glop of excrement, would you be pointing out that the sender also threw in a nice bottle of wine and a box of your favorite chocolates? Even if you love the chocolates Tucker throws in with all that other stuff, it’s just not worth it.