Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz.
On Sunday, exactly halfway between the resounding Conservative Party victory in the soon-to-be-less-United Kingdom and the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, The Atlantic ran a profile on the most prominent media figure on the American right, Tucker Carlson.
The piece was written by Elaina Plott, a 27-year-old, Alabama-born recent Buckley Fellow. In her short career since leaving Yale, she has carved out a niche of gauzy coverage of her fellow conservatives while subtly—often undetectably—calling them out for slights such as being too overtly racist. (It’s a winning career choice: Starting this week, she will be a political reporter for the New York Times.)
Plott and her editors framed the piece around a false premise: That it’s hard to figure out how a “wealthy Washingtonian … with his prep-school education and summer home in Maine” can appeal to the masses, with a national nightly program featuring overt white supremacy and venomous attacks on immigrants, women, and minorities. As if searching his soul for something to redeem their own, the magazine titled it: “What Does Tucker Carlson Believe?”
There’s nothing unusual about aristocratic racists throwing red meat to their angry followers. We’ve seen it in every generation, from the Confederacy to the first pro-Nazi America First movement of the 1930s, to the present day. Carlson is part of a long conservative tradition, as Corey Robin has written, of “a ruling class resting its claim to power among a sense of victimhood.”
How such a vapid question could even get out of the drafting stage in an age when Fred Trump’s billionaire scion and the Etonian Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson are carrying the banners of white populism on both sides of the actual Atlantic is beyond me.
But what really got my attention was the quote pulled for the piece’s subhead. Confronted with a milquetoast quote from David French, in which Plott’s former National Review colleague aired his baseless hopes that Carlson will somehow confront “the reality of right-wing populism’s race problem,” the Fox News host responded: “Whatever. I’ve made a complete break mentally with the world I used to live in.”
Every piece of that—both question and answer—is bullshit. Carlson has occupied a share of the American spotlight for over two decades. And in that time, he has never changed the white supremacist rhythm behind his tune. Plott’s central “get” in the piece—Carlson’s racist rant about “immigrants” supposedly polluting the Potomac River—was just a rehash of the similarly fact-free racist rant he’d hosted a few days before, in which he and a guest smeared Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district of New York.
He’s been saying similar things for years. Back in 2006, he was ranting on nationally syndicated radio about the supposed worthlessness of immigrant laborers (“illegals,” he slurred), arguing: “People who come to this country ought to have something to offer. Be hot, be really smart, you know what I mean?”
In 2008, he railed that “the Congressional Black Caucus exists to blame the white man for everything,” credited “the white man” for “creating civilization and stuff,” and called an effort to increase diversity in radio programming “worse than Jim Crow.” (These examples and more were collected by Madeline Peltz of Media Matters for America.)
Carlson put his white supremacy into practice at the service of the Bush administration. As the conservative co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, he would shout government propaganda at a liberal stand-in, such as actor/activist Jeanne Garofalo:
TUCKER: You said a minute ago that there is no evidence that Iraq has any links to al Qaeda. Yet you claim to read the paper. Those claims are uncontested.
GAROFALO: No, they aren't, Tucker.
TUCKER: … Then why has the head of the CIA, the secretary of state, the national security adviser and the prime minister of Great Britain [Tony Blair] all said we have seen the evidence that there are members of al Qaeda living in Baghdad [and that] there was an agreement between al Qaeda and Saddam. Are they all making it up?
But the specifics of Bush’s lies were never the point. The point was America’s imperial dominance of people Carlson has never seen as fully human. Three years into the war, believing he was talking to an audience friendlier to his racism than CNN’s, Carlson shat on Iraqis in particular and the Middle East in general. “I just have zero sympathy for them or their culture. A culture where people just don’t use toilet paper or forks,” he said. “They can just shut the fuck up and obey, is my view.”
Two years later, Carlson blamed the victims of the war he had helped sell. “Iraq is a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys,” he cracked on the radio. “That’s why it wasn’t worth invading.”
All the way back in 2006, he imagined the rise of a Trump-like figure—a former Democrat who would promise voters: “It’s these lunatic Muslims who are behaving like animals, and I’m going to kill as many of them as I can if you elect me.”
“If a Democrat were to say that, he would be elected king, OK?” Tucker said.
So why was it necessary to ask what someone who has loudly and assertively proclaimed his racism for decades—who founded a conservative website that has employed blatant white supremacists and hired a Charlottesville Nazi to cover his own rally—really “believe[s]?'“
In her piece, Plott writes that “for a time” the question of whether Carlson was a white supremacist “could be written off as unserious, a voguish desire to ascribe racism to anyone who might not support increased immigration.” She doesn’t say who wrote that question off, so I’m guessing it was her. Carlson, like both of their intellectual forebears—including the McCarthyite, segregationist William F. Buckley, Jr., himself—came up in the “quintessential American proving ground” of conservatism, as Corey Robin wrote, “where garbage achieves gravitas and bullshit gets blessed.”
After years of selling imperial wars on the basis of bigotry, Carlson and the murderous “king” he foresaw now promise to offload the consequences on their victims: demonizing refugees, corrupting foreign policy to ever-more-personal ends, shifting blame to the opposition, and closing the borders Americans long fought to extend. Recognizing the unchanged ideology that has led us to this point, and which will invariably make things even worse, risks holding the actual ruling class accountable, and ending the myth of victimhood they use to extend their power whenever threatened. If my meal ticket was at stake, I might treat it as a great mystery too.
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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire through the life of the legendary Marine Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Updated 12/20/19 with link to Media Matters collection of Carlson’s quotes.