Media Matters, a left-leaning outlet, had just released audio of Carlson from a decade prior, recorded when he was a guest on a radio show whose host was named Bubba the Love Sponge. Carlson had called women “extremely primitive,” and deemed Iraq a place full of “semiliterate primitive monkeys.” He had joked about child marriage, and about leering at 14-year-old girls.
Was Tucker Carlson now prepared to apologize? He was not. He’d gone on his show to present himself as a martyr — the beleaguered victim of progressives who would stop at nothing to destroy him. “Since the day we went on the air,” he said, “they’ve been working hard to kill this show.”
It’s pointless to spend more than a minute or two explaining why Carlson’s old statements were offensive; their offensiveness is self-evident. Even if you believe he was speaking “in jest,” as he claims, surely you understand that jesting people can still cause harm. Mature people apologize for their bad-taste jokes.
His offensiveness was unremarkable, as offensiveness goes. It was uncreative and uninspired. I’m bored by his offensiveness.
But I’m fascinated by his eyebrows.
Twenty years ago, Carlson was a rapscallion — a scrappy thorn in the establishment’s side. Writing political profiles for magazines, he jabbed at political operative James Carville; he revealed that George W. Bush liked to swear. But now he’s not a thorn. Now he’s the settled, well-fed establishment. He’s a member of the media elite who uses his show to warn his viewers about the media elite. He declares that “Republican leaders are controlled by the left,” when it’s actually Republicans who control the White House and the Senate, who controlled the House until a few months ago, who have appointed two conservative justices to the Supreme Court.
Why does he spend so much of his time furrowing his eyebrows? Why does he spend so much of his time feeling victimized, or trying to convince his viewers that they are victimized? Why does he appear to be in such exquisite pain?
Tucker Carlson phoned me once, in response to an interview request. I was writing about an amateur genealogist who’d researched the immigration stories of several prominent anti-immigrant pundits; Carlson was one. On his show, he’d railed against accepting immigrants from “failing countries;” the genealogist had found a letter written by his great-great grandfather discussing how he needed to get out of economically depressed Switzerland.
In our call, Carlson gave interesting quotes, which I appreciated. He spent a long time talking about how he was being unfairly attacked, which was interesting — the amateur genealogist had a Twitter following of a few thousand; Carlson had a cable audience of a few million. I was the one who ended the conversation, which was unusual: famous people are busy, and in phone interviews they’re often trying to hang up as soon as they’ve picked up. But Carlson was happy to keep talking, earnestly reiterating that he didn’t know why he was being targeted.
The eyebrows of Tucker Carlson are a blend of smugness and bafflement, of fear and outrage, of concern and vitriol.
It’s the expression of privileged people who, squinting into the horizon, fear they can spot the waning of that privilege. It’s the expression of someone who knows they’re still untouchable, but only for now.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.