Between an argument for cultural assimilation and gibes at freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked his viewers on Thursday night to consider a hypothetical situation.
What if President Trump were sick of being president, he mused, and wanted to doom his own chances of reelection?
“It wouldn’t be a crazy conclusion,” said Carlson, who did not apologize last month after the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America surfaced old recordings of him making racist and sexist remarks. “How would you like to spend your 70s locked in the White House?”
But what would the commander in chief need to do, practically speaking, to arrange his escape?
Carlson offered some ideas, in what amounted to a thinly veiled broadside against the president. The segment stood out at a network — the most watched on American cable — that has been extraordinarily friendly with the White House.
Its hosts ape Trump’s rhetoric about the border and the special counsel’s Russia probe. And he rewards them in turn, defending Jeanine Pirro when she was sidelined after suggesting that a Democratic congresswoman was disloyal to the Constitution because she wore a hijab. Sean Hannity appeared onstage with the president at a rally before the midterm election last fall.
But Carlson, who also on Thursday professed not to know what a “white nationalist” was, strives to cut a different figure. He has not shied away from disparaging the president. Asked in a December interview with the Swiss weekly “Die Weltwoche" whether Trump has “achieved nothing,” the Fox host answered bluntly: “Not much. Not much."
It was a winter of some discontent at Fox News, where several of its most visible personalities denounced the compromise that Trump was forced to accept to keep the government open. Hannity called the deal “garbage.”
But Carlson’s suggestion that Trump may be actively seeking to avoid a second term, and, if not, that his administration is so severely off the rails that self-sabotage is a reasonable interpretation of his approach to governing, marked an escalation of his criticism.
It all began much more subtly. What if the president were trying to lose?
First, he would cut Medicare.
“That’s something that nobody outside the libertarian symposia circuit wants to see,” Carlson said.
Second, he would slash funding for the federal E-Verify database, an electronic system that enables employers to check documents provided by new hires against government records.
“That would allow companies to keep hiring illegal alien labor, in violation of a key campaign promise,” Carlson observed.
In further engineering his own defeat, Carlson said, Trump might allow more low-skilled workers into the country, reduce the prison sentences of people convicted of drug crimes and “continue our pointless military intervention in Syria, which in no way benefits the United States.”
“If the president did all that, the message would be very clear,” the Fox host said. “He has no idea what he ran on in 2016. He just wants out.”
But if voters still didn’t get the message — perhaps they were “too distracted by the Russia hoax to notice,” Carlson said — one final move could really drive the message home.
“You’d raise gas taxes,” he said.
The punchline was that the Trump administration has done — or is reportedly thinking about doing — each of these things.
Notably, among the policies that Carlson identified as misguided, several have been championed by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has aligned himself against Trump’s more nationalist and economically populist impulses and influences.
These policies include the First Step Act, signed into law in December, which eases sentencing requirements for nonviolent drug offenders. More recently, Kushner has been working on a plan that would bring more low- and high-skilled workers to the United States legally, according to Politico.
Some of the other changes denounced by Carlson reflect priorities in Trump’s 2020 budget proposal, unveiled last month. The blueprint, which is subject to considerable congressional revision, includes $845 billion less in Medicare spending over the next 10 years. It also cuts funding for E-Verify.
In February, Trump decided to leave 400 U.S. troops in Syria, after declaring in December that he was bringing all American forces home “now.”
Finally, the administration is reportedly open to raising gas taxes, an idea that could put Trump on common ground with some congressional Democrats.
To Carlson, that possibility was most troubling of all. Increasing levies on gas, he said, is "so mindless and counterproductive there’s literally no way you could get reelected after doing it."
“And, in fact, the administration is proposing just that,” he said incredulously.
He said the policy is popular in the capital because political heavyweights are “too rich to care what gas costs.”
“But if you live outside the coastal cities, and you’re not rich, higher gas prices are a disaster,” Carlson said.
In fact, Carlson’s view is in line with the consensus on the Hill about the political hazards of asking more of people at the pump, even though numerous presidents, including Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton, increased levies on fuel in their first terms and won reelection. Still, in a case study of how vexed the issue can be, France recently backed down from a plan to raise diesel prices after violent demonstrations by yellow-vested protesters.
The Fox host called the idea “nuts,” adding, “If you’re really sick of the job, go with the gas tax.”
The possible playbook for political suicide featured as an interlude Thursday in a show otherwise focused on Ocasio-Cortez, whom Carlson called an “idiot."
He pilloried the 29-year-old for her comments about immigration, accusing her of shutting down debate.
According to Carlson, it is impossible to have a “serious” conversation about the border because “you are met with either accusations that you’re a racist or a white nationalist — whatever that is; you’re a bad person." Or, he said, "you’re met with these, again, platitudes.” He chided his interlocutor, Univision anchor Enrique Acevedo, “Please don’t quote the poem at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty to me.”
The aside by the Fox host, who has been accused of both parroting white nationalists and inspiring them, sounded similar notes that Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) struck when he inquired, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
Carlson also ridiculed concerns about climate change.
“How did we wind up with a country in which feminists do science?” he asked, mocking a study that addresses the relationship between gender norms and environmental consciousness.
Ocasio-Cortez, ever the eager combatant, fired back, writing on Twitter, “Democracy and civil rights is how we got a country where ‘feminists do science.’”