“Tucker Carlson Tonight” is a binary production. Here’s how it breaks down: The host, Tucker Carlson, either welcomes a guest with whom he agrees, in which case the segment is a facile lovefest, or he welcomes a guest with whom he disagrees, in which case the segment is a gutter-scraping slugfest.
A chat with Dutch historian Rutger Bregman was supposed to fall in the former basket, a nice, easy segment in which the host and guest find common ground on the hypocrisy of the world’s elites. In a display of common-sense advocacy, Bregman had appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos and hammered all the rich people there for avoiding taxes. The Post explained, "He started by saying that he found the conference’s mix of indulgence and global problem-solving a bit bewildering. ... ‘I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency. But then almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance. And of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one is allowed to speak about water.’ ”
With that, an invite to “Tucker Carlson Tonight” was hatched. In a careful effort over the past two years-plus, Carlson has attempted to cast himself as the anti-elite elite, a guy who understands the hypocrisy of the ruling class because he was born into comfort in La Jolla, Calif., and Georgetown — followed, eventually, by a well-paid career on cable news.
But Carlson’s interview with Bregman didn’t go well, as we learned last week from Bregman’s Twitter account.
Also included in Bregman’s tweets was an email from Carlson alleging that Bregman had turned out to be “far dumber, more dogmatic and less impressive than I expected.” The combative cable-news host also called Bregman an “a------.” In any case, Carlson’s show declined to air the segment, a move that senior executive producer Justin Wells blamed on Bregman, who “turned an opportunity to have a substantive, informative discussion into an obviously calculated personal insult campaign. We were disappointed in the segment and respect our audience’s time too much to consider airing it.”
Now the whole world can judge whether Fox News was respecting its audience’s time or just suppressing a segment that embarrassed a star host. Watch:
Here’s the fascinating part of this clash: Carlson starts out by bathing Bregman in praise for his remarks at Davos, which the video replays. “That’s one of the great moments — maybe the great moment in Davos history,” Carlson said, chuckling about the hypocrisy of the folks who travel by private jet to talk about the world’s problems in Switzerland. “If I was wearing a hat, I would take it off to you,” Carlson said.
Thus was established the planned rhythm of the interview. Bregman, you see, was brought in as a friendly voice, a fellow who would presumably play along with the host. That very status gave Bregman enough space to turn the whole conversation into a referendum on Carlson’s own hypocrisy. “The vast majority of Americans, for years and years now, according to the polls, including Fox News viewers and including Republicans, are in favor of higher taxes on the rich. . . . It’s all really mainstream but no one’s saying that at Davos just as no one’s saying that at Fox News,” Bregman said in the discussion. Folks at Davos and at Fox News, he alleged, had been “bought by the billionaire class.”
Carlson didn’t immediately anger, though he did try to steer the discussion elsewhere. When Bregman persisted in his critique of Fox News, Carlson said it would be “interesting” to know how much Fox News the historian had watched.
After some more back-and-forth, Bregman showed that he’d really, really studied the programming values of “Tucker Carlson Tonight”: “I think the issue really is one of corruption and of people being bribed and not talking about the real issues. What the Murdochs really want you to do to is scapegoat immigrants instead of talking about tax avoidance,” he said.
As Bregman continued showing a command of Fox News’s pro-elite advocacy, Carlson blew up. He called Bregman a “moron” and couldn’t figure out how this fellow had even viewed the network’s programming. “Fox doesn’t even play where you are,” said Carlson. “Well, have you heard of the Internet?” replied Bregman. “I can watch things whatever I want.”
By this point, Bregman, thousands of miles away, was sitting where Carlson usually sits — in complete command of the interview, setting the pace, putting his interlocutor on the defensive. The host was verily gasping for air. The most telling words of the interview came when Carlson said, “Wait — but, but can I just say?” That was just shortly after Bregman said Carlson was a “millionaire funded by billionaires.”
Someone had to blow the whistle on Carlson’s high-wire attempts to portray himself as a hero of the regular guy, even as he enjoys the fat paycheck of a Fox News host. So scandalized was Carlson about the situation that he could resort only to nastiness, which he commonly deploys, and profanity, which rarely makes it onto Fox News’s air. “Why don’t you go f--- yourself, you tiny brain.”
correction: An earlier version of this article's headline referred to Rutger Bregman as a professor. He is a historian. This version has been updated.
More from Erik Wemple: