The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tucker Carlson’s rage at Zelensky caps a year of getting things wrong

Fox News host Tucker Carlson. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
5 min

After Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a rousing speech to U.S. lawmakers this week, Tucker Carlson unleashed a diatribe that put schoolyard sadists everywhere to shame. “No one’s ever addressed the United States Congress in a sweatshirt before,” he seethed, slamming Zelensky as a “strip club” manager whose presence was “humiliating” to “the greatest country on Earth.”

Carlson’s attack on the Ukrainian president, whose olive green garb was meant to dramatize his country’s wartime plight, has sparked outrage because of its demeaning quality at a time of extraordinary duress for the Ukrainian people. But this episode deserves a deeper look than Carlson’s adolescent belittling usually merits.

Carlson’s rant carried a more hateful edge than usual, a kind of shrill fury. Perhaps that’s because Zelensky’s presence before Congress was far more humiliating to Carlson and his ideological comrades than to anyone else: It demonstrated how badly they misjudged Ukraine’s will to resist Russian conquest and the durability of the U.S. commitment to our beleaguered ally.

This represents the failure of a worldview, a strain of far-right authoritarian populism, that goes well beyond Ukraine. A whole lot of things have happened that — in Carlson’s mental universe — were not supposed to happen.

In his diatribe, Carlson depicted Zelensky as little more than a sleazy street thug who had come to “demand money” from Congress, telling his audience that the lawmakers “love him much more than they love you.” He exaggerated Ukraine’s conditions for ending the war, depicting Ukraine as the unreasonable party.

Carlson has long insisted that Ukrainians are “pawns” in the United States’ quest for “regime change” in Russia, predicting our warmongering would trigger nuclear catastrophe. He has trivialized the invasion as a faraway “border dispute,” and has scoffed that Democrats are hypnotizing Americans into feeling “hate” for Russia.

Carlson’s obvious bet has been that voters wouldn’t care about the conflict and would see little virtue in U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Lawmakers would ultimately abandon the cause.

But Zelensky’s appearance itself forcefully repudiated all of this. It demonstrated that Ukrainian resistance is driven by its people’s own extraordinarily courageous commitment to self rule. It showed that U.S. support for Ukraine is unwavering. It displayed the success of President Biden’s careful balance, which has enabled Ukraine to regain substantial ground while avoiding direct U.S. escalation, refuting Carlson’s predictions otherwise.

There is an ideology behind all that wrongness, and Carlson has clearly laid it out. It tells Americans that Democratic elites prioritize Ukraine’s border over our own — they love Zelensky more than they love you. This conflation of the two borders, a widespread right-wing populist trope, encourages Americans to turn inward in multiple ways, washing our hands of responsibility for international allies and desperate migrants alike.

This worldview also rails against elite wokeness. Carlson frequently tells viewers that the same elites who want people to hate Russia and are obliterating the southern border are also brainwashing kids with anti-White racism.

As Cathy Young writes at the Bulwark, right-wing populist distaste for Zelensky is driven partly by Ukraine’s desire for integration with the liberal, secular, internationalism-minded West. That through-line links attacks on elite wokeness, pro-Ukraine sentiment and receptiveness to migration.

As a political argument, all this has proved pretty impotent.

Just before the midterm elections, Carlson wrongly predicted a “humiliating repudiation” for Democrats. Importantly, Carlson based this in part on Democrats’ wokeness and border policies, hubristically certain that voters would reject both.

Carlson’s show also promoted 18 GOP candidates who went on to lose, as tallied by Matthew Gertz of Media Matters. And while Carlson backed Ohio Sen.-elect J.D. Vance, he also hawked Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters as “the future of the GOP.” That’s almost certainly because Masters’s demonization of migrants (including ads featuring machine-gun fire at the border) was peerless. But Masters lost by 5 points — in a border state.

Outside our borders, Carlson also lionized Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as one of the great illiberal populist hopes of the Western Hemisphere. This year, Bolsonaro was ousted after one term. (To be fair, Carlson was able to celebrate a hard right victory — in Italy.)

And Carlson has been ham-handed in his efforts to counter the House committee investigating Donald Trump’s insurrection with his own propaganda, even smearing the committee as “Stalinist.” He used similar language about the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

All this also reflects Carlson’s broader dogma: The elites who obsess about Ukraine’s border and are brainwashing kids are also wielding the “deep state” against Trump and his supporters (which is supposed to discredit elites’ devotion to the Western liberal democratic project).

But the revelations in the committee’s final report are utterly damning, and they’re heavily based on Republican witnesses. The Mar-a-Lago search produced devastating evidence and courts have validated it. All this is advancing the rule of law, no matter how hard Carlson tries to lie that away.

None of this should prompt liberal overconfidence. Future electoral losses are inevitable. Cultural liberals need a proactive case against charges of wokeness. The war will grind on. Trump may still evade accountability. Carlson-style politics is being wielded effectively by a certain presidential aspirant in Florida who is crouched in the wings.

But a year ago one couldn’t have predicted that Carlson’s brand of politics would be repudiated in so many ways. If that prompts a bit of, dare we say, Carlson-grade smugness from his critics, well, it’s well deserved.