Image by Gage Skidmore
On 2 June 2020, Tucker Carlson delivered a 26-minute monologue on Fox News, as part of what he described as an effort to “create a record of this moment right now, to show you what’s really going on in your country.” Carlson’s speech was lauded by many conservatives: Steve Deace described it as the “greatest monologue in cable news history”; the Federalist reprinted it in its entirety; and many other commentators praised it as a pivotal moment in the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death.
The theme of all this approbation was the idea that Carlson spared nobody on either side of the aisle—as the Hill‘s Joe Concha put it, “no one got a pass.” Sean Davis, co-founder of the Federalist, highlighted this quotation: “Someone in America needed to tell the truth to the country. Instead, almost all of our so-called conservative leaders joined the left’s chorus, as if on cue.” Other media outlets regarded Carlson’s criticism of Republicans (including President Trump) as the main story: the headline in Politico read “Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Goes After Trump and Kushner Over Protests,” while the Washington Post announced that “Tucker Carlson Slams Trump’s Response to Protests.”
It’s true that Carlson went after Trump. After running footage of Fox News correspondent Leland Vitter being attacked in Lafayette Square, Carlson observed, “On Twitter the next morning, the president reassured America that he and his family were just fine. The federally funded bodyguards had kept them safe. He did not mention protecting the rest of the nation, much of which was then on fire. He seemed aware only of himself.” Despite the fact that Carlson is normally a staunch defender of Trump, the monologue he delivered last week was far from an aberration. It was perfectly consistent with the persona he has spent years cultivating—it was peak populism.
Trump is a populist president. He has no ideological core, but he has a strong instinct for identifying grievances that are simmering underneath the surface of American society, and he knows how to give voice to those grievances like no other politician. Trump channels populist resentment and anxiety all the time, which is why Twitter is such a useful medium for him—he needs a platform that allows him to break through every buffer (his own press team, the media, etc.) and speak directly to his people. And, make no mistake: he’s talking to his people. He has never even tried to be a president for all Americans.
Carlson understands this intimately, which is why, when it comes to the attitudes and actions of the president of the United States, he’s the most influential media figure in the country. In the same way that President Lyndon B. Johnson regarded Walter Cronkite as a bellwether for the opinions of Middle America, Trump knows that Carlson represents his people better than anyone—if he’s lost Tucker, he’s lost his base. That is what made Carlson’s monologue important: it was a direct assault on Trump’s greatest strength—the loyalty of his voters—and a reification of his deepest fear—the disillusionment of those voters.
According to Carlson, “For people who like Donald Trump, who voted for Donald Trump, who support his policies, who have defended him for years and years against the most absurd kinds of slander,” the president’s response to the riots was “distressing.” He continued:
The first requirement of leadership is that you watch over the people in your care … People will put up with almost anything if you do that. You can regularly say embarrassing things on television. You can hire Omarosa to work at the White House. All of that will be forgiven if you protect your people. But if you do not protect them—or, worse than that, if you seem like you can’t be bothered to protect them—then you’re done. It’s over.
The people Carlson is talking about here—who are in Trump’s “care” and who will evidently put up with anything as long as they feel safe—are, by definition, Trump supporters. The people who already plan to vote against Trump in November clearly won’t put up with anything. Although the word populism implies broad appeal, it’s always divisive in practice. Like Carlson, Trump’s concern about Americans is conditioned on whether or not they support him. That is why he instructed Vice President Mike Pence to cut off communication with governors who weren’t “appreciative” of his administration’s Covid-19 response.
Like Carlson, Trump knows how to inflame his supporters’ grievances and activate their sense of tribal loyalty. There’s no greater engine of populist rage than the sight of rioters and looters smashing storefronts, beating people up and setting police cars on fire. This is why, a few months after the violence on the streets of Chicago in 1968, Richard Nixon assured voters that the “wave of crime is not going to be the wave of the future in the United States of America” and promised to “restore order and respect for law in this country.”
The headlines about Carlson “slamming” and “unloading” on Trump shouldn’t obscure the fact that he also celebrated Trump’s speech promising to deploy the military to quell riots and “dominate the streets.” He described Trump’s visit to St. John’s church as a “powerful symbolic gesture” and a “declaration that this country—our national symbols, our oldest institutions—will not be desecrated and defeated by nihilistic destruction.” Carlson also observed that “In 2016, Donald Trump ran as a law and order candidate because he meant it, and his views remain fundamentally unchanged today.” However, he argued that Trump’s “famously strong instincts” have been “subverted at every level by Jared Kushner” and other “key advisers.”
Carlson continued: “Several times over the past few days, the president has signaled that he would very much like to crack down on rioters—that is his instinct … But every time he has been talked out of it by Jared Kushner and by aides that Kushner has hired and controls.” Anyone who has seen the footage of police around the country during the protests and riots has to be wondering what Carlson means by “crack down on rioters.” Of course, many officers did their duty responsibly, but there’s no shortage of clips of journalists and peaceful protesters being attacked, often with what appears to be excessive force. It’s clear that Carlson regards the response as unpardonably weak so far, but it’s unclear (and disturbing to imagine) what he thinks would be sufficient.
What’s clear is the fact that Carlson is calling upon Trump to reclaim his status as the “law and order” president. “Donald Trump’s response to these riots,” Carlson argued, “is the singular test of his presidency.” That’s an extraordinary thing to say at a time when the United States is in the grip of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans, sickened millions more and caused the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression.
But Carlson’s statement is the perfect encapsulation of Trump’s priorities—like all populists, he struggles when confronted with a crisis that calls for responsible leadership, deference to experts and careful, innovative policymaking. That is why populists like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Trump have been so ill equipped to handle Covid-19, while technocratic liberal democrats, like Germany’s Angela Merkel, have been more successful. It’s also why Brexit has been such a disaster. Populists often have good political instincts (it’s no surprise that Carlson used the word “instinct” more than once in his descriptions of Trump), but they struggle with the actual task of governing. Trump is the clearest example of this phenomenon.
Carlson doesn’t think Trump’s response to the unrest over the past week is the “singular test of his presidency” because it will have a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of Americans. Just consider how much greater the impact of Covid-19 has been compared to that of a few days of rioting and looting: months of quarantine, the loss of over 100,000 friends and family members and the fact that more than 40 million Americans are now unemployed. Carlson believes that this is such a crucial moment because it’s an opportunity for Trump to do what he does best: attack his enemies and energize his supporters, by appealing to their fears and hatreds.
Of course, Carlson wouldn’t put it that way—but that’s exactly what he’s doing, too. “This is how nations collapse,” he gravely informed his audience last week. “The worst people in our society have taken control. They did nothing to build this country. Now, they are tearing it down. They are rushing us toward mass suicide.” After arguing that the rioters are “trying to topple our political system,” Carlson decided that they’re actually going to take part in that system come November: “Some Democrats have openly embraced what is happening. Really they don’t have much of a choice. These are their voters cleaning out the Rolex store. These riots effectively are the largest Joe Biden for President rally on record.”
When he wasn’t describing rioters as “animals,” “destroyers” and Democratic voters, Carlson complained that “all our leaders do is set us against each other” and said “we will love our neighbors relentlessly in spite of all of it.” When Carlson calls for unity among Americans, it’s clear that he’s thinking of a very specific kind of unity—not with the “worst people in our society” who are “rushing us toward mass suicide,” for instance. He’s thinking of the kind of unity that only comes from shared hatred. Carlson’s segment went far beyond the condemnation of rioters and looters—it presented an apocalyptic vision of the country, which implicated millions of Americans, from the “vicious psychopaths” on the streets to the entire Democratic Party.
Carlson’s segment was praised for its ostensible lack of partisanship, but his attacks on Republicans often just demonstrated his own extremism. For example, he attacked National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien for a completely anodyne statement of sympathy and solidarity with the Floyd family in which he declared, “We’re with the peaceful protesters.” To which Carlson replied: “Really? Can you be more specific about that? Who are you talking about, exactly? Is it the people spitting foam as they scream, ‘F the police’? Is it the one standing next to the arsonist doing nothing as they set fire to buildings? Is it the kids laughing as they film the looting and the beatings on their iPhones?” Carlson appears to believe that the mass peaceful protests across the country simply didn’t occur.
Carlson has a habit of saying one thing and then saying the exact opposite all in the space of about 60 seconds. After playing a montage of rioters destroying things and brutally attacking people, he said that the rest of his footage was “too incendiary” to run on Fox News. “We understand that television is an emotional medium, and we don’t want to make things worse.” After claiming that the rioters were trying to “topple” the political system, he said they would be dutifully participating in that system to elect Joe Biden. After describing rioters and looters as animals, he said, “we will love our neighbors relentlessly … because they are human beings, and they are Americans.”
Despite his awkward and contradictory appeals to unity, the sole purpose of Carlson’s segment was to infuriate his viewers. “Americans are bewildered, and they are afraid,” he said. “But most of all, they are filled with rage, angrier than they have ever been.” This wasn’t just an observation—it was a prescription. Populists appeal to their supporters’ worst instincts because they know that’s a powerful way to galvanize and mobilize them, which is why Carlson addressed his most important viewer in the language he understands best: “What Americans want most right now is an end to this chaos. They want their cities to be saved. They want this to stop immediately. If the commander-in-chief cannot stop it, he will lose in November.”
A week ago, Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He boasted that protesters in front of the White House “have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” He walked across the street for a photo op at St. John’s after protesters were tear gassed to clear the way. He deployed active-duty troops to Washington, D.C. (something he would clearly like to do throughout the country), and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper echoed his boss when he said “We need to dominate the battle space.”
After all this, Carlson thinks Trump should be more belligerent and divisive if he wants to avoid losing in November. This isn’t just a sign that Trump will run as a “law and order” candidate—it’s a sign that his basest populist impulses and his survival instincts will be one and the same, which is like two supercells colliding with one another. It’s impossible to know what effect the next five months will have on American civil society, but we should be prepared for the storm.