The rise and rise of Tucker Carlson conservatism

If you could confect the ideal pluto-populist, he would come from a privileged background, be apparently livid about the fate of the working class, support a low tax economy and sport a bow tie. Tucker Carlson, Fox News’s highest-rated anchor, dropped the neck gear a while back. In other respects, he embodies pluto-populism — the means by which rich demagogues divert public anger, notably towards minorities.

His reaction to Wednesday’s verdict on Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd crossed even his own thinly drawn lines. The jury’s triple guilty verdict, reached after 10 hours of deliberation, amounted to “an attack on civilisation”, said Carlson. It came as a result of Black Lives Matters threats against a jury that had unanimously reached the verdict: “Please don’t hurt us.”

The true cause of Floyd’s death, Carlson has repeatedly said, was a drug overdose — not the nine-minute asphyxiation that jurors saw over and over.

Carlson’s outburst is notable for two reasons. First, he is the most popular conservative TV anchor in the country, with a nightly audience of 3m. Since Donald Trump lost his Twitter account, Carlson has become the most influential voice of aggrieved white conservatism.

Some even believe he could be in the running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Several other hopefuls, including Josh Hawley, the Missouri senator, and Ted Cruz, the Texan senator, take many of their cues from Carlson’s show — on the exaggerated depiction of BLM, for example, which Carlson says has been terrorising America for the past year. Carlson has all but endorsed the “great replacement theory” that Democrats are using immigration to disenfranchise “real Americans”.

Second, Carlson’s outburst illustrated that US racial injustice is not close to having turned the corner. Shortly before the jurors announced their verdict, police in Columbus, Ohio, shot dead a 16-year-old black girl who was allegedly wielding a knife. During the trial, police shot and killed an average of three Americans a day, the majority non-white, including a 13-year-old unarmed black boy. Unlike Floyd’s death, these were not recorded on the mobile phones of passers-by. 

That footage meant Chauvin’s case was almost unique. Even then, Carlson wants viewers to believe that Chauvin was the real victim. As Groucho Marx might have asked: who should Americans believe, Tucker Carlson or their own lying eyes? For some people believing is seeing, rather than the other way round. 

A majority of those killed are white but black people are more than three times as likely to die from police bullets. US police last year shot and killed 1,021 Americans, many unarmed. Chauvin is likely to be among a tiny handful of officers to be convicted of unlawful killing. His fate is still the exception to the rule of police impunity. Less than 2 per cent of police officers are arrested, let alone convicted. 

Carlson’s line of argument offers a road map of where the Republican party might be heading. Last year, he and countless others, including Trump, warned that Joe Biden would bring in an age of jobs-killing socialism and violent street radicalism. There is no doubt that Biden’s economic agenda is more ambitious than even Democrats would have predicted. But it turns out to be popular with blue-collar Americans, whether black or white. Biden’s job performance rating is 59 per cent.

There is little upside to attacking what most Americans appear to want. That leaves violent radicalism as the other critique of Biden. Again, this is a fairly difficult one to pull off given the storming of Capitol Hill on January 6. Carlson, among others, claimed that the “stop the steal” mob was infiltrated by Antifa and other leftwing groups. Many of his viewers believe the election was stolen. Yet it is hard to conjure evidence from thin air. Carlson’s show remains stubbornly impervious to fact-checking. 

Which brings us back to pluto-populism. Carlson is an oddly transparent vector. He attended prep school in the US and Switzerland. His father was ambassador to the Seychelles, and his stepmother was partial heir to the TV-dinner Swanson fortune. His salary is $10m a year. Yet he seems perpetually enraged about the state of the world. Could it be that his anger is staged? The clues amass before our TV-addled eyes.

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