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Why have media personalities come to dominate the American right? Charlie Sykes on how Tucker Carlson is channeling and changing conservative politics in the U.S. after Trump.
The Signal
The Signal
(Originally published 2021 | 08.12)
Tucker Carlson “may be the most powerful conservative in America.” That’s Time magazine’s assessment of the Fox News commentator, whose prime-time TV program debuted shortly after former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and is now the most-watched show on U.S. cable news. Carlson frequently provokes outrage on the American left—and in the mainstream American media—for promoting a politics of right-wing cultural resentment that sometimes includes conspiratorial speculation and outright bigotry. He drew controversy last summer with broadcasts from Budapest, where he interviewed and promoted the authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, claiming that Hungary has “a lot of lessons for the rest of us.” Since then, he’s continued to advance the “great replacement” theory that progressive elites are systematically replacing native-born Americans with “obedient” foreigners. He’s hosted a documentary series that floated conspiracies about the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, including that it may have been a “false flag” event. How did these extreme ideas become such a regular feature of prime-time U.S. television—and what does Carlson’s prominence suggest about where the American right is headed without Trump in the White House?
Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor at large of The Bulwark, based in Washington, D.C., who worked for decades as a prominent conservative talk-radio host in Wisconsin. According to Sykes, Carlson shares Trump’s rejection of many small-government ideas that had defined the conservative movement from the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency—and embodies much of the same politics that Trump embraced, including harsh stances on immigration and an often furious engagement in the U.S. culture wars. Yet as an “intelligent demagogue,” as Sykes calls him, Carlson has also sought to move his audience beyond Trump’s ideas, shaping as well as reflecting the right-wing populism of the moment. “The entertainment wing of the Republican Party is dominant right now,” Sykes says, and Carlson is more than a megaphone: “Donald Trump is a follower. One of his skills is watching what people like Tucker are talking about and then following along with it. Trump is always in synch with cable news and talk radio, and the feedback loop doesn’t necessarily start with his ideas.”
Graham Vyse: How do you understand Carlson’s influence?
Charlie Sykes: You start with the obvious—that he has a large and influential audience. But how did he get it? Tucker is very conscious of building his image by constantly pushing the limit of outrageous he can be. He knows where the audience is, but he also knows that if he pushes a few degrees further, that will make him even more influential.
Vyse: He knows where the audience is. You mean, he’s become as influential as he has by understanding something about this audience that others haven’t understood?
Sykes: Yes—though it’s tough to say what it is, exactly. One thing Tucker doesn’t have is a set of coherent, conservative intellectual principles that he feels the need to stick to. He’s able to move with the tide. He understands that a lot of what motivates the conservative base now is insulting and humiliating people they don’t like, and he’s very good at that. He can channel a sense of victimization very effectively. He also has an ability to convince people that he’s going to tell them things no one else is going to tell them—exposing all the secret knowledge out there—and an ability to deconstruct liberal or progressive narratives in a way that other hosts, like Sean Hannity or Dan Bongino, really don’t have the ability to do.
Guys like Tucker are smart; they’re talented; they know what they’re doing. When Tucker pushes the replacement theory [that progressive elites are conspiring to replace white Americans with non-white people who will support the Democratic Party] or advances vaccine disinformation, it’s with a malice of forethought.
Vyse: What did you make of his recent trip to Hungary, in this regard? How do you see the significance of that?
Sykes: Something Tucker has been doing very effectively, and alarmingly, is taking ideas that have percolated in the fever swamps of the right and moving them into the mainstream. He’s given ideas like replacement theory a respectability—a forum they’ve never had before—which is appalling. Fox News ought to be much more concerned about it.
The trip to Hungary was a logical extension of this kind of thing. A fascination with post-liberal authoritarianism has been spreading on the right. There’s an intellectual constituency for it. I’m not sure how broad it is among the grassroots base, but clearly, there are people who have grown tired of American democratic values and want something more exciting, so they’re looking abroad.
There’s a long American history of ideological tourism and fawning over foreign dictators, mainly on the left—Lincoln Steffens going to the Soviet Union, for example, and saying, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Going to Hungary right now—as Viktor Orbán is ruling by decree, attacking universities, undermining the media, waging culture war at a very aggressive level—is normalizing and glamorizing an unapologetic, unsubtle illiberalism.
A short time ago, embracing someone like Orbán would have been way beyond the pale for U.S. conservatives. There’s a process of redefining American conservatism into a right-wing, European-style ideology, and Tucker Carlson, because of his position, is able to do that.
More from Charlie Sykes at The Signal:
Tucker is influential in part because there’s a huge void. What other conservative intellectual leaders are there? Who are the guardians and thought leaders? One of the things that have happened in the last five years, in the era of Trump, is that conservative thought has profoundly dumbed itself down. We’re not living in a moment of intellectual giants on the right.”
You can’t overstate the significance of William F. Buckley—and of National Review as a forum for, and also a gatekeeper for, conservative ideas. There was, at one time, considerable clout among publications like National Review, Commentary, The American Spectator, the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, and then the rise—in the late 1980s and during the 1990s—of a conservative intellectual infrastructure of well-funded think tanks. People like me thought the future of the conservative movement would be determined by think tanks. In fact, the conservative movement was overtaken by the entertainment wing of the right.”
In the era of Trump, nobody understands what conservative ideals are. What does it mean to be a conservative? Tucker understands that we’re not only post-liberal but also post-conservative. He’s willing to jettison Reaganism and the ideas of small government, and all of that. He knows the right wants a strong-man figure. … Part of the argument is that the left is dominant and it’s going to destroy everything—they control the universities and the culture, and the only thing the right has is political power, which it needs to use to win this fight.”
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