Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” (Richard Drew/AP)
Media critic

Bill Kristol knew he was treading on sensitive turf. In a chat with CNBC’s John Harwood about Fox News, Kristol, the editor at large of the Weekly Standard, was attempting to characterize the political bent coming from host Tucker Carlson: “I mean, it is close now to racism, white — I mean, I don’t know if it’s racism exactly — but ethno-nationalism of some kind, let’s call it. A combination of dumbing down, as you said earlier, and stirring people’s emotions in a very unhealthy way.” Just what is “close” when it comes to racism?

The tone coming from “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” suggested Kristol, was part of a trend at Fox News; over the past six years or so — ever since President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012 — the network has taken a turn toward harder-than-ever conservatism. It’s a shaky claim betrayed by the activism displayed by the network in cheering on the tea party movement during the 44th president’s first term.

As a former boss of Carlson at the Weekly Standard, Kristol has some proprietary insight into one of the most compelling Trump-era phenomena at Fox News: Carlson himself, who holds down the 8 p.m. slot at the network, the former turf of self-described Fox News “table-setter” and fallen King of Cable News Bill O’Reilly. Carlson was kicking around in the broadcasting back streets of weekend “Fox & Friends” duty when he found himself elevated to prime-time work following the departure of Greta Van Susteren. That move came right after Trump won the presidential election.

There was no experimentation with formats: Carlson moved into the job with energy and a vicious mien toward Trump’s detractors. As this blog has noted, he did so with a great deal of guile, positioning himself not as a defender of Trump and Co. but rather a fact-checker, an inspector general for the Trump resistance. Guest after anti-Trump guest took uncivil poundings on Carlson’s program. Anyone who supported loose immigration policies, Democrats or the anti-Trump convention of the day was a fine candidate for an on-set tirade from the longtime cable-news hound.

As Media Matters’ Matt Gertz noted a year ago, Carlson’s beat-downs pleased the “worst racists, misogynists, and anti-Semites on the Internet.” Twitter confirmed as much, with guys such as David Duke — the former Ku Klux Klan leader — and alt-right figures praising the work of the Fox News star. “I like Tucker very much,” Duke told the Erik Wemple Blog in February 2017, adding that “I would consider Tucker to be alt-right,” a phrase for ethno-nationalists in search of whites-only state who often complain that whites in the United States are the ones who are under siege.

In a November 2017 interview, the Erik Wemple Blog asked Carlson about the positive comments from Duke. He responded by laughing and deriding:

Wemple: I’m interested in it all. Let me just continue here. This is a quote that I got in February: “I would consider Tucker to be alt-right.” That was David Duke, who I interviewed on February 9.

Carlson: [laughter]

Wemple: What do you say to that? I know that there have been, you know, some people —

Carlson: What do I say to that?

Wemple: I mean, does that make you feel —

Carlson: [laughter] I would say you reveal yourself as a moron even asking me a question like — I mean, I don’t, what do you mean? I’ve never met David Duke. I’ve never read a single word David Duke has written.

Wemple: Did you see the tweets he —

Carlson: I have no idea what alt-right is. I mean, so what you’re trying to do —

Wemple: You really have no idea what alt-right is?

Carlson: I honestly don’t. Why don’t you define it for me? This would be interesting. Why don’t you define your question: What’s alt-right?

Wemple: I mean, I think it’s a euphemism for racists and white nationalists.

Carlson: So are you asking me if I’m racist and white nationalist?

Wemple: No, I’m just saying that David Duke, the reason why I called him was because he had tweeted about you a couple of times.

Carlson: You called David Duke to ask him?

Wemple: Yeah, he was at a Whole Foods getting some things.

Carlson: If your blog was in the paper, I might have seen it.

Wemple: Good, good, good.

Carlson: I mean look, just even asking a question that stupid says a lot about you and nothing about me. If you have a question about what I believe, I’ll gladly answer it. Name an issue, I’ll tell you exactly what I think, on anything.

Wemple: Okay. But the thing is it, it doesn’t concern —

Carlson: David Duke! I mean, are you joking? How old are you? [laughter] What are you a child? I think you’re like, you’re not a recent college graduate, I don’t think? I mean, that’s like a kid question. “David Duke said something nice about you. Will you disavow David Duke?”

HA HA HA HA HA HA! It’s so stupid! It was like, when you went into journalism, I bet you never thought you’d find yourself in a place where you ask fake questions like that. And I bet your younger self would have hated your current self.

In fairness, Carlson’s brand of broadcasting doesn’t prevail across the Fox News lineup. He’s the sharpest-elbowed of the prime-time anchors and part of Fox News’s opinion wing. The news programming — such as “America’s Newsroom,” captained by the inestimable Bill Hemmer and Sandra Smith; “Fox News Sunday,” a strong accountability vehicle helmed by Chris Wallace; and “Special Report” with Bret Baier — doesn’t traffic in Carlson-style polemics and nastiness.

Fox News probably won’t care too much about Kristol’s assessment of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Like its competitors, it monitors the ratings more closely than the chatter of some conservative magazine editor. Carlson’s show finished 2017 second among all cable news programs, right behind “Hannity,” proof that pro-Trump programming pays. There are good numbers in watching a nimble and extremely well-read Washington fixture bloody liberal after liberal on live television. The Erik Wemple Blog has some firsthand expertise on this front.

The close-to-racism assessment comes just as Carlson is putting the white-grievance-cum-immigration-hard-line pedal to the floor of his Volvo station wagon. Earlier this month, Carlson actually ripped Trump for musing about compromises on the immigration front, demonstrating that his brand of conservatism will broker no compromise on this issue. And last week, he taunted a Phoenix mayoral candidate about immigration: “How many illegals do you need in your city to make it richer? Would more be better? How about 10 million? Would that make it even richer?”

Kristol, who served as a Fox News contributor for a decade before Fox News declined to renew his contract, remembers a different Tucker Carlson from Carlson’s days as a writer at the Weekly Standard. “Tucker Carlson began at The Weekly Standard. Tucker Carlson was a great young reporter. He was one of the most gifted 24-year-olds I’ve seen in the 20 years that I edited the magazine. His copy was sort of perfect at age 24,” said Kristol. “He had always a little touch of Pat Buchananism, I would say, paleo-conservativism. But that’s very different from what he’s become now.”

Through a Fox News spokesperson, Carlson said this: “I’m not even sure what he’s accusing me of. He offers no evidence or examples, just slurs, and then suggests that I’m the demagogue. Pretty funny. Kristol’s always welcome on my show to explain himself, though I assume he’s too afraid to come. What a shame. It would be revealing.”

Read more by Erik Wemple:

Tucker Carlson: ‘I like immigrants’ (when I’m not bashing them)

A ‘shithole’ lesson for pundits: Do you really want to praise President Trump?

‘I can’t reveal my confidential sources, Mr. Wemple’: The Tucker Carlson interview

James O’Keefe says he never ‘intended to plant a fake story’ in The Washington Post