The host was referring, of course, to the surging coronavirus health crisis. He was right, too: Italy is on lockdown; Iran recorded 54 deaths and 400 new cases within 24 hours; the United States is still struggling with test-kit shortages and the unknown contours of this crisis. “This is real,” Carlson said at one point, perhaps reflecting his familiarity with the coronavirus situation at Christ Church Georgetown, an Episcopal church in Washington that he has attended.
So don’t believe those who’ve been pooh-poohing this whole thing. “People you trust — people you probably voted for — have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem,” said Carlson. “It’s just partisan politics, they say. Calm down. In the end, this is just like the flu, and people die from that every year. Coronavirus will pass, and when it does we will feel foolish for worrying about it,” riffed Carlson, summing up the arguments from these “people.”
Yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to name these “people.” He could have named former acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who professed a media conspiracy against the president over coronavirus coverage. He could have named President Trump, spreader of false calm about coronavirus. He could have named Sean Hannity, his Fox News colleague who repeats what Trump says, and vice versa.
Instead, Carlson stuck with “people.” He’s not quite the fearsome and independent commentator that he likes to impersonate from his Fox News set.
What he is, at least on this point, is consistent. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” functions for its audience as a threat vigilante. It espies threatening people, threatening trends, threatening ideas, threatening words — and alerts viewers to the dangers.
Generally, the threats on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” come in brown skin. In July 2017, for instance, Carlson spoke of tensions in California, Pa., a town that was absorbing a group of Roma immigrants. "A small town in Pennsylvania trying to cope with streets covered — pardon us now, but it’s true — with human feces and headless chickens after immigration officials settle dozens of Roma — you may call them ‘gypsies’ — in their town. Is the federal government failing its own citizens, or do they need to just grow up and start appreciating diversity?” asked Carlson.
When Carlson in January 2019 introduced the topic of a Central American migrant caravan, he unspooled a formulation similar to his coronavirus pitch — our leaders won’t tell you this, but I will. “We’re often told there are no problems at the border. There is no border crisis. And you’re a nut case if you think otherwise. Tell that to the latest mass caravan headed straight for our southern border,” said the host on his Jan. 28, 2019, program.
Months later, Carlson spoke of a “total and utter collapse” at this country’s southern border. Commentator Tammy Bruce cautioned the audience of the situation: “Typhus is moving through Los Angeles. The CDC is now warning about tuberculosis. We have new outbreaks of Ebola. Certainly Zika — that’s in Congo — Zika, in Brazil, et cetera,” said Bruce on the June 5, 2019, edition of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” “And what’s not being dealt with here is the fact that you’ve got 144,000 as an example, moving across this border, none of whom, of course, we know if they’ve been vaccinated.”
Other examples jump from the Carlson-threat memory reserves: In 2017, he demagogued a rape case involving undocumented immigrants; the case then fell apart. In 2018, he hyped threats to white landowners in South Africa, only to walk back the scaremongering in the face of facts. Also in 2018, he said immigrants were making the United States “dirtier.” He accused Mexico of trying to “pack” the U.S. electorate with Hispanic voters. He blamed immigrants for the litter he encounters on fishing expeditions to the Potomac.
So: Of course Tucker Carlson isn’t going to join Hannity & Co. in deflecting the threat from coronavirus. Here is a public policy story that fits the “Tucker Carlson Tonight” story paradigm: It’s a bona fide threat, and it comes from a foreign country that Carlson already likes to bash on Fox News’s air. On Monday night, he lashed out against criticisms against those who, like himself, refer to the “Chinese coronavirus” or the “Wuhan coronavirus.” “On the left, you’ve heard them tell you that the real worry is that you might use the wrong word to describe what’s happening to this country. It’s racist, they’re telling you, to blame the most racist nation in the world for the spread of this virus. Right,” he said.
The World Health Organization explicitly instructs the media not to use “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” to avoid stigmatizing folks from those places.
Dannagal Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware, said in an recent interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter that the “base” of the conservative media “generally on average tends to be more concerned about issues related to pathogens and hygiene and cleanliness.” Since research is done on everything, there are papers about this link. “Contamination disgust, which reflects a heightened concern with interpersonally transmitted disease and pathogens, was most strongly associated with conservatism,” reads the abstract of one study.
“Once you start looking into this research, lots of things start to click,” Young told the Erik Wemple Blog in an interview. She cites Trump’s liberal use of the word “disgusting” to describe political disputes and statements — things not usually described, even pejoratively, with this particular adjective. And she notes that playing down the dangers of coronavirus doesn’t square with the natural role of a conservative media outlet. “Fox News has made a habit of capitalizing on threats,” says Young. “They identify threats, they identify out groups and all of their opinion shows are designed for this.”
It just so happens that this traditional role of Fox News now happens to clash with its more modern role of shilling for Trump, at least on many opinion programs. All of which is to say, Tucker Carlson is choosing the spirit of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” over the political expediencies of the moment. He knows his audience.