The conservative television star Tucker Carlson, whose Fox News program last month became the highest-rated show in the history of cable television, is known to most Americans simply as “Tucker”.
But not everyone calls him that. On the strength of his regular, sneering rants about the danger of immigrants and refugees, the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has dubbed Carlson a “white supremacist sympathizer”. Her colleague Ilhan Omar prefers “racist fool”. The Nazi website Stormfront has called Carlson “literally our greatest ally”.
And in recent weeks, as his ratings have topped previous records, new labels have been mooted for Carlson: heir apparent to Donald Trump, leader of the Republican party and future president.
On his show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, which mixes news with heavy doses of commentary, Carlson, 51, often draws viewers into fantasies about confrontations with liberal offenders that end with Carlson and viewers “laughing in their faces”.
Judging by the numbers – Carlson attracts more than 4.3 million viewers a night – the program is a reliable pleasure for its audience, which like other Fox News programs skews white and male, although Carlson draws an unusual number of younger viewers.
But the fantasy that now has risen up around Carlson goes far beyond imaginary ideological fisticuffs. The new scenario has Carlson shifting, as Trump did, from the television studio to the halls of official power.
If Trump loses re-election in November, some Republicans now openly speculate, Carlson could swoop in to pick up the pieces by running in 2024.
“If I was in an opposing campaign I’d be very worried,” said Sam Nunberg, a Republican political consultant who advised Trump for years. “The reality is that the Republican nomination is Tucker Carlson’s oyster.”
Unforeseen developments could yet dull Carlson’s lustre. His show was thrown into sudden crisis on Friday night with the departure of his “top writer”, Blake Neff, on the back of a CNN report that Neff was behind a string of racist and sexist comments posted anonymously online in 2018.
“Black doods staying inside playing Call of Duty is probably one of the biggest factors keeping crime down,” Neff wrote in a “dark web” online forum, referring to a popular video game, according to CNN. Later Neff commented, “Honestly given how tired black people always claim to be, maybe the real crisis is their lack of sleep.”
“Blake Neff has resigned,” a Fox News spokesperson said on Friday night.
The sudden enthusiasm about Carlson as a candidate may betray a certain awareness on the right of lean political days ahead. Some Republicans have warned that with Trump, the party has careened down a dead-end street, with a base too small and a message too extreme.
But now, with the prospect of Carlson as standard-bearer, the party appears to be flirting with a giddy alternative strategy: grip the wheel and hit the gas.
“While voters may push away from Trump if he loses, it’s not that they didn’t like his agenda,” said Nunberg. “They won’t like that he failed in implementing it and failed at getting re-elected.”
Tucker Carlson Tonight runs for one hour in the heart of primetime, kicking off on the east coast at 8pm. At times, Carlson has won praise for practicing a moderating influence on Trump, who frequently retweets content from Carlson’s show and echoes the host’s policy prescriptions.
Carlson has been credited with personally talking Trump out of a military strike on Iran, and with convincing the president, at least temporarily, to take the coronavirus threat more seriously.
“He doesn’t have to do much to beat the spread in terms of expectations,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the progressive Media Matters for America. “You mean because he said coronavirus was real, we should be having a parade for the guy?”
Carlson has on-air guests, but more than what the guests have to say, the show is about how Carlson reacts to what his guests say. He often wears a baleful expression, a kind of hostile befuddlement, and he is quick to anger. Accused by the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman in 2019 of scapegoating immigrants, Carlson exploded, in leaked footage that Fox News has declined to air: “Why don’t you go fuck yourself, you tiny brain!”
“You can’t handle the criticism, can you?” Bregman coolly replied.
But the heart of Tucker Carlson Tonight is a nightly monologue by the host, in which Carlson picks an outrage from the daily news and emotes about it, inviting his audience to share his anger, and to see themselves as also under attack – from immigrants, from the left, from the media, from Democrats, from an unseen malignant conspiracy.
In a recent monologue, Carlson attacked the Democratic senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in combat in Iraq, for calling for dialogue about removing monuments and renaming military bases named for Confederate leaders.
Calling her “a deeply silly and unimpressive person”, Carlson furiously grouped Duckworth with people who “actually hate America”. “What a coward,” he added later.
Duckworth, a former helicopter pilot who uses a wheelchair in the Capitol, tweeted in reply: “Does @TuckerCarlson want to walk a mile in my legs and then tell me whether or not I love America?”
The political classes interpreted Carlson’s attack on Duckworth, who is under consideration as a potential Joe Biden running mate, as another sign of his desire to flex political muscle.
But the episode also had a much more disturbing resonance.
In his diatribe against Duckworth, who is Asian American, Carlson also attacked Omar, a Somali American congresswoman from Minnesota, and broadcast a picture of the two captioned: “We have to fight to preserve our nation & heritage.”
It was clear that the “heritage” he was talking about did not have room for the two non-white female leaders pictured. And for veteran Carlson watchers, the echo in that caption of the infamous white supremacist “14 words” slogan – “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” – was no accident.
“Tucker Carlson appears to be playing at least a verbal footsie with white nationalists,” said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, which tracks racial extremist movements.
“We live in a society where in 2018, 50 Americans were killed by white nationalists,” Ward said. “In 2019, 90% of all extremist violence in the US was at the hands of white nationalists.
“And Tucker Carlson, whether that is his intent or not, is fueling that extremism through his irresponsible rhetoric. And Fox must hold him responsible.”
A Fox News spokesperson did not respond to a request for reply.
For years, Carlson has been criticized for stoking the racial anxieties and fears of his largely white male audience. He has called white supremacy “not a real problem” and a “hoax” and attacked the idea that diversity is a strength. He has called Omar a “living fire alarm” and “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country”. He has fretted that Muslims are transforming Europe, and he has given Steve King, the congressman rejected by Republicans for his racist views, airtime to describe the importance of protecting “western civilization”. In December 2018, Carlson said that admitting Central American immigrants “makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided”.
The last assertion cost Carlson dozens of sponsors. But the more damaging sponsor exodus may have come just last month, following an attack by Carlson on the Black Lives Matter movement and protests after the murder of George Floyd.
“This may be a lot of things, this moment we are living through,” Carlson said. “But it is not about black lives, and remember that when they come for you. And at this rate, they will.”
Fox News later claimed that when Carlson said “they” he meant “Democratic leaders”. But Disney, the pizza chain Papa John’s, the online retail site Poshmark and telecom giant T-Mobile heard something different, and withdrew advertising from the show.
“His bigotry and hatred are infectious,” said Ward. “They are as dangerous of a virus as Covid-19. And rather than making people sick, it makes Americans turn on one another.”
Unlike other Fox News hosts, Carlson’s video clips regularly find traction on the far-right internet. A study of hate speech on six online forums including 4Chan’s /pol/, the Nazi Daily Stormer and the far-right social media platform Gab found “dozens of mentions of Carlson” that were “overwhelmingly positive”, according to the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting.
“When you have all these white nationalists celebrating Tucker’s show, you think, ‘What’s going on here?’” said Carusone, whose group has exhaustively documented Carlson’s rhetoric on the subject. “Then you look at the content, and it starts to become clear that what he’s saying is white nationalist tropes, he’s reinforcing this stuff.”
Contacted by the Guardian, Fox News did not offer a direct reply to the charges against Carlson. But the host has made statements on his show in the past that would not fit on any racist forum. In one segment, he called for “a colorblind meritocracy” in the United States.
“The alternative to that is disaster,” Carlson said. “Slavery and Jim Crow were immoral because they punished people for how they were born. Any system that punishes people for how they were born is immoral, always.”
Carlson grew up in San Francisco, his father a conservative media executive and his mother an artist who left the family when Carlson was six reportedly to live in France.
“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 about his mother’s departure.
In his early career, Carlson was a journalist and a writer of some distinction, admired by Christopher Hitchens. He was the youngest host on CNN with the program Crossfire, but the gig came crashing down in an infamous on-air confrontation in 2004 with the Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who accused Carlson of “hurting America” and called him a “dick”.
What followed was a bit of a trudge. Carlson helmed another cable program, soon cancelled, and appeared on Dancing With the Stars, losing immediately. Then, in 2010, he launched the Daily Caller, a conservative media site, and began filling late-night air time at Fox News.
None of which augured the success that lay ahead. At Fox, Carlson became a weekend host, then got his own show in 2016, then a year later replaced the former conservative titan Bill O’Reilly, whose show was canceled amid a sexual harassment scandal.
Carlson now makes a $6m salary at Fox, according to published figures. He lives in Washington DC and has four children in private school and college.
People who have known Carlson for a long time confess some perplexity over his current TV incarnation. One former colleague described him as bright and hard-working but also complex and enigmatic.
“I think people like Tucker Carlson will say anything in order to drive their ratings up,” said Ward. “And I would hate to break it to white America, but he’s not speaking on behalf of white men – he is using white men in order to drive his ratings up.”
The question of where Carlson’s heart lies resurfaced last year with the release of tapes from a mid-2000s radio call-in program on which Carlson, then in his late 30s, was a frequent guest. On the tapes, Carlson makes a stream of racist statements, saying Iraq is a “crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys” who “don’t use toilet paper or forks”.
Carusone said Carlson seemed to “view the world principally through the lens of race.”.
“Regardless of how refined he may have gotten in his articulation,” said Carusone, “his worldview now is more entrenched than it has ever been. He does and says it too many times for it to be not intentional.”
Even if Republicans try to draft Carlson as a political candidate, it’s unclear whether Carlson is really lined up for a political career, or even truly interested. But he would come with an enormous built-in popularity.
“The beauty of Tucker Carlson as a candidate, and it was the beauty of Donald Trump too as a candidate early on, was the more the cancel culture attacks him, the more they try to go after him, take food out of his family’s mouth, the stronger he becomes with voters,” said Nunberg.
In his early writing, Carlson occasionally became self-reflective, as when he mused on race in an essay about accompanying the civil rights leader the Rev Al Sharpton on a trip to Africa.
“Ultimately,” Carlson concluded, “I’m just not a guilty white person.”