For the quarter-century-plus that the Fox News Channel has been coming into America’s living rooms, it has operated according to a cardinal tenet: No one at the cable network is bigger than Fox News itself. It’s a lesson Glenn Beck, Megyn Kelly and Bill O’Reilly all learned the hard way after they left Fox and saw their fame and influence (if not their fortunes) evaporate. Once the biggest names in cable news, they now spend their days wandering in the wilderness of podcasts and third-tier streaming platforms. Even Roger Ailes, Fox News’s original architect and the man who devised — and then ruthlessly enforced — the no-one-bigger-than rule, discovered that he was expendable when Rupert Murdoch pushed him out as Fox’s chairman and chief executive in 2016 amid sexual harassment allegations. Mr. Ailes soon disappeared to a mansion in Florida and, less than a year later, died in exile from the media world he’d once commanded.
When Fox News abruptly fired Tucker Carlson, the network’s most popular prime-time host and the most powerful person in conservative media, many savvy press critics predicted the same fate for him: professional oblivion. Mr. Carlson had himself once replaced Ms. Kelly, and later Mr. O’Reilly, and each time he climbed to a new, better slot in the Fox News lineup he garnered bigger and bigger ratings. Now, according to the conventional wisdom, some new up-and-comer would inherit Mr. Carlson’s audience and replace him as the king (or queen) of conservative media. “The ‘talent’ at the Fox News Channel has never been the star,” Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote earlier this week. “Fox itself, which convenes the audience, is the star.”
But there’s good reason to believe Mr. Carlson will be the exception that proves the rule. For one thing, unlike previous stars who have left Fox News, Mr. Carlson departed when he was still at the height of his power, making his firing all the more sudden and shocking. Three days before his sacking, he gave the keynote address at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary gala. Two weeks before that, he browbeat Texas’s Republican governor into issuing a pardon to a man who had been convicted of murdering a Black Lives Matter protester in Austin.
More important, at Fox, he exercised power in ways that were new and unique for a cable star. He was a sophisticated political operator as much as he was a talented television host — to an astonishingly unsettling degree, as he continued to thrive while making racist and sexist comments and earning the praise of neo-Nazis. Like Donald Trump — to say nothing of other Republican politicians and conservative media figures — he gave voice to an anger, sense of grievance and conspiratorial mind-set that resonated with many Americans, particularly those on the far right. Unlike Mr. Trump — not to mention his motley crew of cheerleaders and imitators — Mr. Carlson developed and articulated a coherent political ideology that could prove more lasting, and influential, than any cult of personality. Mr. Carlson has left Fox News. But his dark and outsized influence on the conservative movement — and on American politics — is hardly over.
When Mr. Carlson met with Mr. Ailes in 2009 to discuss a job at Fox News, Mr. Carlson’s career was at a nadir. He’d been let go from both CNN and MSNBC. He’d developed a game show pilot for CBS that wasn’t picked up. His stint on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” lasted just one episode. His finances were so stretched that he’d decided to sell his suburban New Jersey mansion out from under his wife and four children.
“You’re a loser and you screwed up your whole life,” Mr. Ailes told Mr. Carlson, according to an account of the conversation Mr. Carlson later gave to his friend, the former Dick Cheney adviser Neil Patel. “But you have talent. And the only thing you have going for you is that I like hiring talented people who have screwed things up for themselves and learned a lesson, because once I do, you’re gonna work your ass off for me.”
Mr. Carlson didn’t disappoint. Relegated to weekend morning show anchor duties, he threw himself into the job, participating in cooking segments with guests like Billy Ray Cyrus, competing against (and losing to) his female co-anchor in a Spartan Race and even subjecting himself to a dunk tank. He did it all with a smile, but, for a man who once hosted two prime-time cable news shows, as well as a highbrow talk show on the Public Broadcasting System, it had to have been humiliating. When his wife, Susie, sent an email in 2014 inviting some of Mr. Carlson’s Washington friends up to New York to celebrate his 45th birthday, she told guests they might “throw eggs at the FOX studio window!” (Since Hunter Biden was a friend of Mr. Carlson’s at the time and on the invite list, the email was later discovered on Mr. Biden’s laptop.)
Mr. Carlson’s big break at Fox News arrived in 2016 in the form of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Although it’s hard to imagine now, Fox initially seemed intent on torpedoing Mr. Trump’s candidacy. So antagonistic were its hosts and commentators toward Mr. Trump in the early days of the 2016 race that it became a challenge for Fox to produce compelling television about the man who was dominating the G.O.P. field. No one — or at least no one Fox’s producers deemed camera-ready — seemed willing to make a sensible case for him.
Enter Mr. Carlson. He’d nursed a soft spot for Mr. Trump ever since the early 2000s, when he made a throwaway joke on CNN about Mr. Trump’s hair and Mr. Trump responded with a blunt voice mail. “It’s true you have better hair than I do,” Mr. Carlson recalled Mr. Trump telling his answering machine. But, Mr. Trump said, with a vulgar boast, he had sex with more women. Mr. Carlson, who’d never met or spoken to Mr. Trump, was amused. More than a decade later, when Mr. Trump ran for president, he became intrigued. And it was that early openness to Mr. Trump’s candidacy that facilitated Mr. Carlson’s rise at Fox.
Mr. Carlson had two motivations for not joining in the chorus denouncing Mr. Trump. One was ruthlessly strategic. Through the conservative website he launched with Mr. Patel in 2010, The Daily Caller, Mr. Carlson could see what got clicks: sensational articles about the twin scourges of illegal immigration and Black-on-white crime, plus slide shows of busty supermodels. The Caller’s web traffic metrics served as an early warning system for Mr. Carlson about where the conservative base was headed, and how a populist candidate who explicitly ran on nativism, white grievance and sexism might have a lane in a Republican primary.
Mr. Carlson’s openness to Mr. Trump also had something to do with his own ideological journey. He started his career as a writer at The Weekly Standard, as a standard issue Reagan conservative, albeit one with a contrarian streak. The Iraq War, which he initially supported despite harboring doubts, hardened his heterodox views. Then, as his professional struggles mounted, his contrarianism curdled into resentment against “the elites” who took the country into Iraq, triggered the 2008 financial crisis and refused to give Mr. Carlson a television role commensurate with his talents. He paired his staple rep ties and Rolex with this new populist streak — and assumed the role of class traitor.
That meant that in 2016, when most of his fellow conservative pundits still believed the G.O.P. needed to broaden its tent and so dismissed Mr. Trump out of hand, Mr. Carlson was able to recognize the potential appeal of the businessman turned reality-TV star turned populist politician. He was willing to say as much on air, which meant that Mr. Carlson began getting more and choicer opportunities at Fox to make the case that Mr. Trump should be taken seriously. Then, shortly after Mr. Trump’s election in November, as a reward of sorts for his prescience, Mr. Murdoch gave Mr. Carlson his own evening show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” By then, of course, Fox News was fully on board the Trump Train. Which is what made Mr. Carlson’s next move so interesting: He took a step off.
At one point during Mr. Trump’s four years in the White House, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” became the highest-rated show in the history of cable news, drawing over four million viewers on some evenings. But it was not a down-the-line, pro-Trump show. Each night, Mr. Carlson articulated a populist-nationalist ideology best described as Trumpism without Mr. Trump. He borrowed from (and sometimes, on his Fox Nation streaming show, even invited on air) “new right” intellectuals like the blogger Curtis Yarvin and the Claremont Institute fellow Michael Anton, smuggling their fringe ideas — about how the United States would work better as a monarchy, for instance — into the conservative mainstream. Indeed, Mr. Carlson himself often offered views that were more inflammatory and more extreme than the president’s — complaining that immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided,” for instance, and proclaiming that white supremacy was “a hoax.” A blog post on the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer celebrated: “Tucker Carlson is basically ‘Daily Stormer: The Show.’ Other than the language used, he is covering all our talking points.”
And when Mr. Trump wasn’t willing to go as far as Mr. Carlson, Mr. Carlson wasn’t afraid to call Mr. Trump out. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, he lambasted Mr. Trump for not cracking down harder on Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington and elsewhere. “If you can’t keep a Fox News correspondent from getting attacked directly across from your house, how can you protect my family?” Mr. Carlson said on his show. “How are you going to protect the country? How hard are you trying?” He was positioning himself, in opposition to Mr. Trump, as the vanguard of the American right. As Christopher Rufo, the ubiquitous conservative culture warrior whose own rise to prominence began with an appearance on Mr. Carlson’s show, once explained: “Tucker frames the narrative for conservative politics. Tucker doesn’t react to the news; he creates the news.”
Mr. Carlson’s criticism of Mr. Trump and the wary distance he kept from him — sometimes even refusing to take his calls — made him that much more intriguing to the president. “Tucker was the hot girl that didn’t want to sleep with him,” says one former Trump White House official. “I think Trump was fascinated by this idea that ‘Everybody else is calling me. Why aren’t you calling me?’” Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as Mr. Trump’s White House communications director, recalls the president frequently fretting about getting on Mr. Carlson’s bad side. “He’d say, ‘Tucker’s crushing us, our base is going to leave us,’” Ms. Farah Griffin says. It was an acknowledgment from Mr. Trump that Mr. Carlson had become bigger than Fox.
That certainly seemed to be the view inside the cable network. When Mr. Ailes ran Fox News, the pecking order was clear. If a host or reporter stepped out of line, Mr. Ailes would simply yank that person off the air, instructing producers to “show ’em the red light.” Mr. Carlson’s ascension at Fox occurred after Mr. Ailes’s departure from the network. The executive team that replaced him — the Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott and Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan, who’s the chief executive of the Fox Corporation — did not enforce as much discipline. Mr. Carlson repeatedly seemed to step over lines at Fox — endorsing the racist “great replacement theory,” circulating false conspiracy theories about Covid and Jan. 6, and attacking other Fox hosts on-air — only to have Fox execs then move the line. If Mr. Ailes was always goading disgruntled hosts to quit, telling them they would be nothing without Fox, Mr. Carlson seemed to be daring his bosses to fire him.
After Mr. Trump went kicking and screaming from the White House (as well as from Twitter and Facebook), Mr. Carlson, still ensconced on Fox News and with unfettered access to social media, emerged as the far right’s standard-bearer in America’s culture wars, coming to occupy the same mental real estate — among both conservatives and liberals — that Mr. Trump once did. He was no longer just a cable host but a movement leader — working to bring the G.O.P. in line with his own views. On his show, he boosted ideological comrades like J.D. Vance, who shared Mr. Carlson’s skepticism about U.S. support of Ukraine in its war with Russia, gifting Mr. Vance hours of free airtime in the run-up to the Republican primary for the 2022 Ohio Senate race. Off-air, he personally lobbied Mr. Trump to give Mr. Vance his endorsement. At one point Mr. Carlson spent nearly two hours on FaceTime with Mr. Trump, while Mr. Trump golfed in Florida, making the case that Mr. Vance believed what Mr. Trump believed and that, were Mr. Trump to run for president again, he needed someone like Mr. Vance in the Senate. According to a person familiar with the call, Mr. Trump ended it by telling Mr. Carlson, “You’ll be happy.” A few weeks later, Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Vance, propelling him to the Republican nomination and, eventually, the Senate — one of the few 2022 bright spots for Republicans.
As Mr. Carlson turned his attention toward the 2024 presidential race, his relationship with Mr. Trump, once again, became complicated. On the one hand, he was dead-set opposed to Nikki Haley, for whom he’d developed an intense personal dislike during an ill-fated hunting weekend about 10 years ago. (After Ms. Haley eventually launched her presidential candidacy in February, Mr. Carlson told his viewers, “Nikki Haley believes in collective racial guilt,” before going on to say, “She believes identity politics is our future. ‘Vote for me because I’m a woman,’ she says. That’s her pitch.”) On the other hand, Mr. Carlson, like many at Fox News — including Mr. Murdoch, who, in the wake of Jan. 6, told a former executive that Fox was seeking “to make Trump a nonperson” — appeared to be leaning toward the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, as a less erratic, more electable alternative to Mr. Trump. (In 2020, Mr. Carlson moved from Washington, D.C., to the small resort town of Boca Grande, Fla.)
Sensing this, Mr. Trump tried to win back Mr. Carlson, but Mr. Carlson refused a sit-down. Finally, last July, Donald Trump Jr., with whom Mr. Carlson has become close, traveled to Mr. Carlson’s summer residence in rural Maine. There, according to people familiar with the visit, Mr. Trump Jr. pressed Mr. Carlson to meet with his father. A few weeks later, Mr. Carlson showed up at Mr. Trump’s Bedminster resort in New Jersey on the same weekend it was hosting the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour. The result was pictures of Mr. Carlson yukking it up with Mr. Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene in the tournament’s V.I.P. section.
And the two have grown closer since. Although Mr. Trump was reportedly upset when text messages from Mr. Carlson calling Mr. Trump “a demonic force” and claiming “I hate him passionately” were released in March as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit against Fox, the two patched things up in a phone call. And in April, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” devoted a whole hour to Mr. Carlson’s one-on-one softball interview with Mr. Trump — one of Mr. Trump’s longest appearances on the cable network since he was in the White House.
Less than two weeks later, Fox fired Mr. Carlson. The reasons for his sacking remain unclear. It may have had to do with offensive comments he had made about Fox executives in texts uncovered in the Dominion suit. Or it could have been because of another lawsuit, from Abby Grossberg, a former head of booking on his show, accusing him and the network of creating a hostile work environment. Or it might have had something to do with a potential lawsuit from Ray Epps, a Jan. 6 protester from Arizona who was at the center of Mr. Carlson’s false conspiracy theory about the day. Or perhaps, as some reporting from Semafor suggests, the 92-year-old Mr. Murdoch has simply become erratic in his decision-making.
Whatever the reason, Mr. Carlson now finds himself with no shortage of options. He could go to work for Newsmax or One America News Network, two upstart right-wing networks that have been trying to outflank Fox. (By Wednesday, two days after Mr. Carlson’s firing, Fox News’s ratings in the 8 p.m. hour had plummeted by roughly half, to their lowest levels in more than 20 years. Meanwhile, Newsmax’s audience in that time slot rose more than 300 percent over the previous week.) He might strike out on his own and form a media company to stream his show online. (“The world is Tucker’s oyster,” says one person who spoke with Mr. Carlson this week. “Many billionaires and others with deep pockets would be eager to fund a new venture.”)
Ratings at Fox News during Mr. Carlson’s former time slot have plummeted
Total weeknight viewership at 8 p.m.
By The New York Times
And there’s always the chance that he could run for office. That’s a prospect that Mr. Carlson has long pooh-poohed. “I have zero ambition, not just politically but in life,” he demurred last summer when he was asked about any White House ambitions. But one of his friends recalls a family member discussing the possibility of Mr. Carlson running for president as far back as 2012.
On Wednesday night just after 8 o’clock — the time when, until his firing two days earlier, he’d usually be launching into his opening monologue on Fox News — Mr. Carlson reappeared with a short, somewhat cryptic video on Twitter. He talked about “how unbelievably stupid most of the debates you see on television are” and complained that both political parties and their donors “actively collude” to shut down discussion of the truly important issues: “war, civil liberties, emerging science, demographic change, corporate power, natural resources.” America has become a “one-party state,” where the “people in charge” know that the old “orthodoxies” won’t last, he said, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. “True things prevail. Where can you still find Americans saying true things? There aren’t many places left but there are some, and that’s enough,” he continued. “As long as you can hear the words, there is hope. See you soon.” In under two hours, the video racked up 11 million views.
It was vintage Mr. Carlson, and it showed how he had already incorporated his firing into the apocalyptic worldview he’s so successfully promulgated these last few years. Fox News was now part of “the elite consensus” Mr. Carlson seeks to overturn. And in this moment of unraveling, when hostility toward and distrust of institutions and elites is at an all-time high, it’s not hard to imagine a good segment of Americans following along with this logic. In their minds, Fox will now join Wall Street and big tech, globalists and the deep state, the Republican establishment and the woke as something that must be opposed. And in a world in which an increasing number of Americans are already fracturing into their own realities, Mr. Carlson will stand, for many of them, as the one person who’s independent and courageous and powerful enough to tell them the truth. Just as Mr. Murdoch and Fox failed to make Mr. Trump a nonperson, they likely won’t be able to make Mr. Carlson one, either.
Jason Zengerle (@zengerle) is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a New America national fellow. His book about Tucker Carlson and conservative media, “Hated by All the Right People,” will be published in 2024.
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