The lead item in Politico’s signature morning newsletter asked if a certain public figure was “losing his mind.” His rants made him seem ever “more unhinged.” Then again, they might be theatrical, a way to “keep you guessing as to whether he’s just putting you on.”
Those words, or their rough equivalents, were used scores if not hundreds of times to describe Donald Trump.
But they were written last Tuesday about … Tucker Carlson. And they settled the matter: He’s the new Trump. Not Ron DeSantis. Not Josh Hawley. Not Rick Scott. Certainly not Ted Cruz.
Those other men are vying merely for Trump’s political mantle, with the occasional side trip to Cancún.
Carlson is seizing Trump’s theatrical mantle as well.
Moving to fill the empty space created by Trump’s ejection from the White House, his banishment from social media and his petulant quasi-hibernation, Carlson is triggering the libs like Trump triggered the libs. He’s animating the pundits like Trump animated the pundits.
Case in point: Carlson’s endlessly denounced, exhaustively parsed jeremiad against masks on his Fox News show on Monday night.
“Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid at Walmart,” Carlson railed. “Call the police immediately. Contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re looking at is abuse. It’s child abuse.”
What lunatic hyperbole. What ludicrous histrionics. And what timing. Carlson shares Trump’s knack for that — for figuring out precisely when, for maximum effect, to pour salt into a civic wound.
His free-the-children bunk played on the weariness of more than a year of coronavirus vigilance. It came just as Americans were puzzling over the need for masks once they’re vaccinated or when they’re outdoors. It was juiced by arguments about what degree of caution remains necessary and what’s just muscle memory or virtue signaling.
And it was helpfully succinct and tidily packaged so that other commentators could tee off on it. Carlson understands what Trump always has and what every practiced provocateur does: You don’t just give your detractors agita. You give them material. That way, everything you say has a lengthy half-life and durable shelf life.
Several shows on MSNBC covered Carlson’s rant. Several shows on CNN, too. “The View” waded in. So did Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel. When you’re the subject of late-night comedians’ monologues, you’ve really made it.
Just two and a half weeks earlier, another of Carlson’s soliloquies — in which he peddled the far-right paranoia about a Democratic Party scheme to have dark-skinned invaders from developing countries supplant white Christian Americans — became its own news story, making him more of an actor in our national drama than a chronicler of it.
It was hardly his first lament about immigration, and he had dabbled in the “great replacement theory” before. But this time around it was more helpfully succinct, more tidily packaged, more honed. “Every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter,” he fumed. “I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate.”
He made voters sound like Mazdas and America like a car lot.
Like Trump, he has decided that virality is its own reward. And he’s being amply rewarded, as exemplified in this very column. I’d prefer to ignore him, but I face the same irreconcilable considerations that all the others who aren’t ignoring him do.
To give him attention is to play into his hands, but to do the opposite is to play ostrich. In April, his 8 p.m. Eastern show drew an average nightly audience of about three million viewers. That made him the most-watched of any cable news host — ahead of Sean Hannity, ahead of Rachel Maddow — and it meant that he was both capturing and coloring how many Americans felt about current events. His outbursts, no matter how ugly, are relevant.
Remind you of anyone now clomping through the sand traps near Mar-a-Loco?
The amount of real estate that Carlson occupies in political newsletters that I subscribe to seems to have grown in proportion to the amount that Trump has lost. (That’s my own replacement theory.) And it proves that we need not just villains but also certain kinds of villains: ones whose unabashed smugness, unfettered cruelty and undisguised sense of superiority allow us to return fire unsparingly and work out our own rage. Carlson, again like Trump, is cathartic.
Trump’s dominance was so profound from early 2016 through early 2021 that there’s now something of an obsession with naming his successor, even though it’s not at all clear that he’s willing to be succeeded. All the men I mentioned earlier covet that crown. But not all of them fully understand that Trump’s métier wasn’t politics. It was performance.
Carlson gets that. If advancing arguments was his exclusive or primary goal, he wouldn’t allow for so much confusion regarding the flavor of his invective. But debates about whether he’s genuinely making points or disingenuously pressing buttons might well be a ratings boon. To keep people guessing is to keep people tuned in.
I’m not saying that he’s Trump’s doppelgänger. He’s neither orange nor ostentatious enough. He can be as verbally dexterous as Trump is oratorically incontinent, as brimming with information as Trump is barren of it. Carlson reminds you of a prep school debate team captain all puffed up at his lectern. Trump reminds you of a puffy reality-show ham — what he was before he rode that escalator downward, a harbinger of the country’s trajectory under him.
But both barge through the contradictions of being both populists and plutocrats. Both pretend to be bad boys while living like good old boys. Both market bullying as bravery.
“Part of the appeal of Carlson’s show is its tendency to generate knockouts rather than split decisions,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in an excellent profile of Carlson in The New Yorker in 2017. “His unofficial Reddit page features pictures of guests judged to have performed especially poorly; over each face is written ‘wasted.’”
That “wasted” reminds me of Trump’s “loser.” It’s the vocabulary of mockery, a sport in which Carlson is a champion. But it’s stranger when played by him than when played by Trump, who never pretended to be thoughtful. Carlson was thoughtful, back in the days when he was writing long articles for ambitious magazines.
Then came television and then high-decibel duels on television and then Trump, the shark to Carlson’s pilot fish. Carlson, who flattered him, got the time slot on Fox News that had belonged to Megyn Kelly, who feuded with Trump.
And now? The pilot fish has grown his own mighty jaws, and the ocean’s only a little bit safer.