Tucker Carlson’s genteel upbringing becomes clear when he reaches behind his back to pull an insult from his quiver. We’re talking about a recent segment on Tucker Carlson Tonight that critics pounced on as racist. Carlson, his voice rising, isn’t having it. “It’s an argument against racism, dummy.”
For the most part, aside from the occasional four-letter word, that’s about as angry as Carlson got in a conversation that covered a lot of ground, from the election of Donald Trump to his dramatic rise to power at Fox News, where he’s quickly become second only to Sean Hannity as the highest-rated host on the most-watched network in cable news.
Ratings released by Nielsen this week show that in the third quarter of 2018, Tucker Carlson Tonight had an average total audience of 2.775 million viewers, far ahead of the competition at 8 p.m. ET: MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. In Q3 2018, only two shows had larger ratings: MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show (2.947 million) and FNC’s dominant Hannity, with 3.340 million.
That’s all the more impressive given that Carlson only launched his show in prime-time less than two years ago (Hannity dates to 2009, and Maddow recently celebrated its tenth year in prime).
For Carlson, rising to the top means a place in the national discussion–and a jarring change to his personal life. “I can‚Äôt go to dinner. Like literally, so I don‚Äôt. That‚Äôs fine. I‚Äôve been to a lot of dinners. I‚Äôve been to dinner my whole life. I‚Äôve had enough dinners, I don‚Äôt get to go now, okay, poor me. I‚Äôm not going to whine about it,” he says, before turning slightly more serious. “I mean, if the question is has it affected my personal life? Yeah, it‚Äôs completely rearranged it.”
In a recent interview, Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity noted that there are people who watch his show every night hoping to find material they can use to attack him. ‚ÄúWe know they exist,” he told me. “That‚Äôs kind of a chilling environment when you know groups hire people to monitor shows for the purpose of finding one word, one phrase, one sentence that they can take out of context, attack your advertisers, silence your voice.‚ÄĚ
The same is true for Carlson, who says most of the people who talk about him online probably know little about what he talks about on his show each night. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think they‚Äôve watched a single minute of it.‚ÄĚ
Carlson says he’s not trying to convert his critics, and he’s perfectly okay with people taking issue with what he says. “I‚Äôm liberal, actually,” he says, reciting a list of his bedrock beliefs: “I believe in free speech. I‚Äôm suspicious of secrecy. I think that due process is vital, you know I don‚Äôt think that everyone accused is guilty. I think I have much more in common with 1970s-era liberals than most people at The Washington Post.”
Carlson has some tough talk for modern journalism in his new book, Ship of Fools, which was released this week. He accuses journalists of being “handmaidens to power” who care a lot more about protecting people like themselves rather than advocating for their viewers and readers. The constant focus on President Trump’s tweets and errors, he says, misses what’s really important: the policies keeping the elite in power.
“Calling Trump out for his stupid prevarications or misstatements–you know he said there were 10,000 people, there were only 7,000 people. Okay, that‚Äôs fine, you know whatever. I‚Äôm not saying that shouldn‚Äôt be a story, I‚Äôm saying that‚Äôs not challenging power. Challenging power is when you say wait a second, what are the effects of lowering interest rates to zero? What about all the normal people who thought they were supposed to save money and that debt was bad? What about them? Obviously, the finance sector benefits from that, tons of cheap money printed at public expense, but what about people who don‚Äôt have access to private equity? What‚Äôs the entry fee for private equity anyway? How much do you have to put down to get into this game? The average person is by definition excluded from that. Nobody ever says anything like that. Why do we tax labor at twice the rate of capital?”
Carlson says in writing his book, he returned again and again to the same question: “what happened that the country got so mad they elected Trump? How did we get here?” Content countries, he writes, don’t elect people like Donald Trump.
But the media veers away from the why in a rush to cover the larger-than-life character that is Trump. “I honestly feel that most days I’m the only person in America that doesn’t think Trump is as interesting as Trump thinks he is.” Carlson says the media’s non-stop focus on the man–and not on his policies and the forces that brought them to power–exposes the media’s real agenda. “It’s totally self-indulgent and I think it tells you everything about who they really are. The¬†media aren’t there to inform you. They’re there to protect their own prerogatives and those of their class.”
To explain Trump, Carlson says reporters would need to talk about class and economics, and where’s the fun in that when you can spend a full hour dissecting a presidential tweet for typos? “The coverage of basic economics is like nil,” he says. “Most of our coverage of the financial markets is of financial markets; what‚Äôs up, what‚Äôs down, how‚Äôs the NASDAQ doing today, should you stay in equities, what are bonds doing. Okay, fine. That‚Äôs interesting, I guess, if you‚Äôre a trader or if you want to call and harass your broker or something. But it says absolutely nothing about the deeper forces driving the society.‚ÄĚ
If asking questions, as he did on Fox News Friday night, about whether diversity is a “strength” in America or not means people call him a racist, he’s okay with that–even if some of the reaction from podcast hosts, newspaper columnists and others often veers away from the substance of his ideas to the facial expressions he makes on TV or the first name given him by his parents.
“I think that we‚Äôre in a really emotional moment right now where people are seized with these very intense feelings and a lot of people feel threatened,” Carlson tells me. “And when you feel threatened, and this is how I feel, when I feel threatened I become way less reasonable and way more reactive, much more hostile and much dumber. I think that‚Äôs an evolutionary response. But I think if you‚Äôre giving your opinions for a living, you‚Äôve got a responsibility to at least try to rise above that and to explain what things mean.”
Got that, dummies? If everyone sticks to debating the issues of how the country got to the Trump era and where it goes from here, maybe people like Tucker Carlson can have dinner out one day. Though he admits, that may take time, where even some smart people get caught up in trying to tear down the other side. “You know I hate you, I‚Äôm going to scream at you at dinner, I‚Äôm going to show up at your house with signs, I‚Äôm going to threaten your kids,” Carlson said. “Like, really? You want to live in that country?”