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Opinion How did Tucker Carlson turn into a Putin apologist?

Fox News host Tucker Carlson again offers his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin on his Tuesday night show. (Screenshot via YouTube/ and Screenshot via YouTube/Fox News/Screenshot via YouTube/Fox News)
5 min

Back when Tucker Carlson practiced his punditry on MSNBC in the 2000s, he held Russia in low esteem. “The bottom line here is that freedom of the press is disappearing in Russia,” Carlson said in August 2005, after Russia barred ABC News staffers over the network’s interview of a Chechen rebel leader. Carlson agreed with a fellow pundit’s assessment that a “reinstatement of the Russian police state” is afoot; he said that Russia and China “have very different goals from our goals,” that Vladimir Putin was “in league with our enemies,” and that action should be taken against Russian entities doing business in Iran.

That was then.

These days, Carlson is providing comfort to the Russian president in what the host on Tuesday night termed a “border dispute” with Ukraine. Addressing the Biden administration’s determination to oppose Russian aggression, Carlson said, “You’re going to win an important moral victory against dastardly old Vladimir Putin, who is much, much worse than Justin Trudeau, just so you know.”

“So you can feel good about that, because — because,” snarked the host. “Let’s see, come to think of it, why would you feel good about that?”

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As with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the building blocks for Carlson’s Russophilia — or at least Russoindifferentia — have been lining up for several years now. So his propaganda during this crisis shouldn’t shock his devoted, polemic-accustomed audience.

In November 2019, Carlson was discussing the impeachment of President Donald Trump, which involved U.S. military aid to Ukraine meant to assist in its fight with Russia in Crimea and the country’s east. “Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia?” Carlson asked. “And I’m serious. Why do I care? Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.”

Just before that show concluded, Carlson issued a retraction: “Earlier in the show, I noted that I was rooting for Russia in the contest between Russia and Ukraine. Of course, I’m joking. I’m only rooting for America.” Several days later, however, he clarified where his allegiances stood: “I don’t think that we should be at war with Russia. And I think we should probably take the side of Russia if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine. That is my view,” said Carlson.

Perhaps looking to subtweet Carlson’s whitewash, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow later that week rummaged through an inventory of Russian atrocities: annexing Crimea; helping North Korea evade sanctions; bombing hospitals and civilians in Syria to prop up an authoritarian regime; doping Olympic athletes, “then sabotaging the whole worldwide anti-doping infrastructure”; interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election; exporting high-end organized crime; and, of course, killing Kremlin critics.

There’s little chance those outrages escaped the notice of Carlson, who’s easily the best-read, best-informed troll on cable news. He understood the horror of Russia back in his MSNBC days and understands it these days, too.

Which is to say, Putin hasn’t changed; Carlson has. A convincing explanation for his embrace of Putin — as well as of Hungary’s strongman, Viktor Orbán — comes from the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum: “The aggrieved Americans who now find their way to Orbán or Vladimir Putin also dislike their own country, albeit for different reasons. They cannot abide its racial diversity, its modern culture, its free press.”

The core of Carlsonism is a roaring contempt for immigrants, whose alleged crimes he hypes and who he says make this country “poorer and dirtier.” Now compare that platform with Putin’s position: “This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected,” Putin told the Financial Times.

Ideological affinity poured out of Carlson’s on-air lecture Tuesday, in which he blasted “permanent Washington" for its anti-Putinism.

“Why do I hate Putin so much?” mocked the host. “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”

The message: Putin is no worse than American liberals and various other malefactors.

Perhaps the simplest explanation, however, is just that Carlson is showing off his extremist bona fides for MAGA viewers. Say stuff that no one else is saying, no matter what; out-Trump Trump; watch the ratings spike.

Consider how Carlson fared when he was voicing less autocratic thoughts. The low-rated MSNBC program that featured him as a reasonable-yet-combative conservative went through “two names, four time slots and multiple formats” before network executives dumped it in 2008.

On this Thursday’s show, Carlson finally bowed to programming realpolitik. With Russian forces blasting their way through Ukraine, the host struck a new tone, calling the Russian action “awful” and saying, “Vladimir Putin started this war. So whatever the context of the decision that he made, he did it.”

But history — and everything we know about Carlson — instructs us not to be fooled. Don’t forget that he denounced the violence of the Capitol riot on the night of Jan. 6, 2021, then adjusted and adjusted until he was casting the rioters as persecuted freedom fighters.

Tucker Carlson has morphed into an unreasonable nihilist who boosts white nationalism, autocracy and whatever other lunacies are left in the Fox News cupboard. That formula has made his program the No. 1 show on cable news; it’ll mark its sixth baleful year on air this fall. Don’t expect Putin to stay the bad guy that long.