“Ultimately you are watching the flailing of the leadership class that loathes the country it governs,” he recently told his viewers. One of whom is President Trump, who regularly records Carlson’s show, according to aides.
Carlson’s clarity provides an intellectual guide to Trumpism while vowing independence from the man himself. With a prep school pedigree and an anti-elite message, he’s invaluable to the president and to his bosses, the Murdochs who control Fox News’s parent company.
Carlson, 50, will be particularly important as the impeachment inquiry begins its public phase this week. While fellow Fox host Sean Hannity will be running the network’s anti-impeachment war room, Carlson will simply be talking about why viewers should care about something — anything — else.
It’s been nearly three years since Carlson became a nighttime host on Fox News, and he’s since become the second-most-popular host in its conservative prime-time lineup, behind Hannity. His show consistently ranks as the most popular on all of cable during its time slot, not just cable news.
Carlson’s time in his high-profile perch coincides perfectly with the rise of the Trump administration and a hyper-focus on cable news.
“It’s been a really wild existence having nothing to do with the job necessarily but more to do with the moment where cable news seems closer to the center of the national conversation than it ever did,” Carlson said in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post last week. “Trump is convinced that everything is about him, and his opponents are convinced that everything is about him. So in that, they are in total agreement.”
Already his show has provided the White House with a crucial counterprogram to the impeachment coverage on other networks. Expect that to continue.
“I think impeachment is not only dumb, it’s boring,” Carlson said.
He delivers the same message on his show.
“I’d like to open this evening with a breathless update on how some obscure diplomat you’ve never heard of said something forgettable to an even more obscure Ukrainian government official about a topic that has literally nothing to do with your life or the future of our country,” Carlson solemnly said on his show one night last week, only the mildest tug at the corner of his mouth. “Then we are going to drone on about this non-story for the entire hour tonight, and every night this week, hoping that by sheer volume and repetition, we can give it the illusion of relevance. Hope you find it edifying.”
Then, Carlson broke into a wide smile. “Just kidding. That’s [CNN CEO] Jeff Zucker’s channel. On this show, we’re opting for actual news, things that matter.”
Some of the things that matter to Carlson these days include topics such as: “CNN is reaching new lows” . . . Elites “siding with Fentanyl smugglers” . . . “Joe Biden’s campaign is the saddest thing to happen in America” . . . Former Democratic congresswoman Katie Hill “playing the victim” . . . Beto O’Rourke leaving the presidential race after “thoroughly humiliating himself.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who he said is admirable for her passion, is also, according to Carlson, “a wild-eyed left-winger” and “an unapologetic bigot.”
Carlson’s message hews closely to those of former Trump senior strategist Stephen K. Bannon and former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who announced his run for Senate on Carlson’s show last week. It is a mix of populism — even though Carlson rejects the label — and 21st-century culture wars, all wrapped up in a College Republican intellectualism.
Following the shooting of nine American Mormons living in Mexico, Carlson featured “the brutal war raging out of control just over the border of our two most populous states.” He said Mexico was “becoming a failed state.”
“Does it make sense not to secure our borders?” Carlson asked the sheriff of Cochise County, Ariz. No, it does not, the sheriff replied.
Carlson frequently goes beyond the biggest headlines of the day to find obscure stories, as he famously did in August 2018 when reporting on what he described as the plight of white farmers in South Africa. Soon after, Trump tweeted that he was having his secretary of state look into the situation, which drew an appreciative response from former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke. (The South African government attacked the segment as racially divisive.) White supremacist site Daily Stormer has also praised Carlson’s work.
“Fox News opinion hosts are in the business of giving viewers what they want to hear, which is largely Trump-friendly perspective and even more so a suspicion or vilification of the media writ large and the left,” Rory Cooper, who served as an aide to former House majority leader Eric Cantor, said in an interview. “And I think it’s the latter part that is more sustaining than simply being pro-Trump.”
Cooper, who has known Carlson for years, said, “Tucker views himself as an antagonist, and he sees the entertainment value in that antagonism,” which represents “a business decision and a production decision — and I don’t know what Tucker really believes right now.”
Carlson has been the subject of two major advertising boycotts in a little over a year. In December, he bemoaned that the immigrants coming across the border make the country "poorer and dirtier," after which dozens of advertisers boycotted the show. In August, Carlson said white supremacy was "a hoax" of an issue, leading to another exodus. (According to a senior Fox executive, the number of advertisers on his show has recovered since August.)
During the first boycott, Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch reached out personally to support him. During the second one, it was Rupert Murdoch, Lachlan’s father, who reassured Carlson, according to people familiar with their exchanges.
Carlson defended himself against his critics and argued that he was not making a commentary about race, but an “economic critique of the people in charge.” Instead of engaging with his ideas on taxes or the economy, “they yell ‘racist’ at me in an effort to shut me up,” Carlson said.
His contention is that neoconservatives (a group of which he used to be a part) are too concerned with the health and well-being of populations abroad rather than those at home. He added: “The second critique is that capitalism has been distorted for the benefit of the few to the detriment of the many.”
Carlson, owing to inherited family wealth, is one of the few. He spends his summer in remote Maine with his wife and four children, alongside his brother, Buckley, and his family. They stay in a big old house that has been in their family a long time. He is an avid outdoorsman. His long stays in Maine are facilitated by a studio he had built in town, constructed partly from the wood he got from a friend of his in the area.
He does not drink or smoke, and Carlson announced in a surprise on-air celebration of his 50th birthday in May, that he had recently stopped a 36-year habit of chewing Nicorette gum, which he did when he wasn’t chewing tobacco.
Born in San Francisco, Carlson attended elite private schools and Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. His parents divorced when he was a child, and his father, who ran Voice of America and later became the U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles, married an heiress to the Swanson fortune, who adopted Tucker and his brother. His birth mother, who passed away in 2011, left her two sons $1 each in her will. It’s a topic that Carlson doesn’t like to discuss.
Carlson started off writing for conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard, and after turns at CNN and MSNBC, he landed at Fox News as a contributor in 2009. Two years later, he co-founded the conservative website The Daily Caller.
He was always conservative, but his views appeared to shift, turning against the Iraq War after having been a proponent of it. Eventually, Carlson co-hosted “Fox & Friends” on the weekends, renting a Midtown Manhattan apartment and commuting from Washington.
He stayed at Fox News and was ready to fill in when Greta Van Susteren left the network in November 2016. When Bill O’Reilly was forced out in the spring of the following year, Carlson took up his time slot.
His transformation from a bow tie-wearing Weekly Standard type to a Fox News firebrand has puzzled some of his former associates. His supporters say he has simply come into his own.
Brit Hume, senior political analyst at Fox News, said that “Tucker has always been a superior writer with an irreverent spirit, but his skills as a broadcaster have grown with time.”
Carlson also says his evolution was part of a natural progression.
“Everyone’s views have changed!” he said hotly. “America is a completely different place from what it was 28 years ago when I started in this business. A lot of the things I thought to be true turned out to be totally wrong,” he adds, rattling off the list. In addition to his support for the Iraq War: “I used to support the death penalty! I used to be pro-choice! I used to be in favor of our tax code! It’s hard to think of a view of mine that hasn’t changed.”
Like Trump, Carlson is part professional media critic, and he enjoys trashing cable news rivals CNN and MSNBC, as well as newspapers such as The Washington Post, which he calls "Bezos's pamphlet," and the New York Times. He keeps several televisions in his office tuned to his rivals and to Fox News and notes with disdain that "every one is about Trump."
Carlson’s approach has gained the appreciation of the Murdochs, who have grown concerned over Fox News’s seeming alignment with Trump, according to people who have spoken to Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch about the subject. Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Fox Corp., disputed this notion, adding that “the Murdochs value all the talent.”
Fox has always been defined by its prime-time opinion hosts, who are crucial to the network’s dominance in the ratings, and executives have begun to think about life after Trump.
They seem to be betting on Carlson. His recent on-air fight with longtime news anchor Shepard Smith in September was the final straw in Smith’s decision to leave the network after more than 20 years, according to people familiar with his departure, who requested anonymity to speak about private discussions. It represented a triumph of Fox News’s overheated opinion programming over a network veteran and frequent Trump critic. It was also interpreted as indicative of Carlson’s internal power given his seemingly favored status with the Murdochs.
Carlson and his Daily Caller co-founder Neil Patel penned a column in early October that began simply: “Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden. Some Republicans are trying, but there’s no way to spin this as a good idea. Like a lot of things Trump does, it was pretty over-the-top.” But the column went on to argue that Trump’s actions do not merit impeachment.
“No one is pretending that this call with the Ukrainian president is why he’s being impeached,” said Carlson, even though that is exactly what Democrats are saying. “He’s being impeached because everyone hates him!”
Carlson has also provided the Murdochs with a vision of the future for the channel that just three years ago felt like it could be on the brink of collapse. He is a reminder to both Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch, who founded the network alongside Roger Ailes, that Fox can survive beyond its current stars.
“[Carlson] is the most important thing in that place,” says a former executive who has spoken recently with the family. “He’s that crucial to them.” Carlson’s success in prime time is for the elder Murdoch “proof that the enterprise was bigger than who had run it before,” said the former executive, who requested anonymity to describe private discussions.
For his part, Carlson was effusive about his bosses. “You couldn’t ask for a better relationship,” he said. “They are completely supportive. They are nice. They are fun to eat with. They’ve never asked me to go easy on this person or tough on that person. They always stood by the show when people were clamoring for my firing.”
He knows who will be writing his Fox News checks after Trump leaves office, be that five years from now or in just a few months.