The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tucker Carlson’s sloppy effort to leverage the Highland Park shooting

Fox News host Tucker Carlson leaves the stage after talking about “Populism and the Right” during the National Review Institute’s Ideas Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington on March 29, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Fox News host Tucker Carlson benefits from his format. He begins each show with a jeremiad against his perceived opponents, skipping along rapidly before viewers can stop and consider his claims. It works perfectly for a guy whose primary interest is stoking an emotion — usually fear or anger — and not informing those tuning in.

We get riffs like the one he offered Tuesday. The subject of Carlson’s opening monologue was the mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade outside of Chicago on Monday. He condemned Democratic elected officials and people on social media for “leap[ing] in to blame the other team” — that is, the political right — for what occurred … and then, in the first minutes of his show after the shooting, proceeded to blame the other team for the mass killing. Democratic legislators and officials were derided and mocked as ignorant or out-of-touch, because this is what he does.

“The first question a partisan asks never changes,” Carlson said at one point. “It’s this: How can I use other people’s misery to become more powerful myself?”

This is called “telling on yourself.”

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

Carlson’s monologue included an effort to tie mass shootings to prescription drug use, which probably will be a focus of much criticism. It’s not worth parsing the rickety rhetoric Carlson assembled to boost this claim; it collapsed even as Carlson offered it, and none of his loyal viewers will be reading this, anyway.

We can, instead, point out the incoherence of the claim even in its broad strokes. The alleged shooter in Illinois, Robert Crimo III, “seemed like a nut case,” Carlson asserted, judging by a photograph of the suspect. A number of other mass shooters were similarly “crazy,” he diagnosed. And then, ominously, he noted that several were known to have been on anti-depressants at the time of the shootings. He was operating in his standard “just asking questions” mode, the way he whitewashes his conspiracy theories to make them seem more intellectual. But the implication was obvious: Maybe it wasn’t the guns but the drugs.

Never mind that anyone stopping for even a moment might think, “Isn’t it more likely that the common root here was mental illness, not the treatment for it?” Insisting that those who commit mass shootings are mentally ill is a crutch for those looking to deflect away from the broad availability of high-powered rifles, of course, but some of those who commit such shootings are, in fact, suffering from mental illness. So isn’t it more likely that people who are mentally ill and commit mass shootings might also happen to be on drugs aimed at treating that illness?

Notice the other deflection here. Carlson is purporting that there’s a common trait among the shooters that causes the shooting sprees, ignoring the more obvious common trait: having a firearm.

Crimo was reportedly visited by police in 2019, at which point they confiscated a number of knives he’d purchased. Carlson used this to scoff at the idea that a “red flag” law would have been useful.

“What would they have done? Take away his guns?” he asked. “You get more knives!” As if someone sitting on top of a store throwing knives at people would have resulted in seven deaths and dozens of injuries.

At one point, Carlson showed a graph of mass shootings since 1991 as he claimed that prescriptions for anti-depressants had increased 3,000 percent since that point. That’s not surprising, given that drugs such as sertraline were approved for use only at that point. But the graph was meant to show how mass killings had soared.

Except they began soaring not in 1991 but more recently, around 20 years ago. Shortly after the ban on assault weapons like the AR-15-style rifles expired.

You’ll notice that that chart indicates shooters and alleged shooters who were young men ages 25 or under. That’s because this was another focus of Carlson’s.

“Why didn’t anyone raise an alarm” about how Carlson believed Crimo looked went he went to buy his gun? “Well, maybe because he didn’t stand out,” he continued. “Maybe because there are a lot of young men in America who suddenly look and act a lot like this guy.” Young men live in “a solitary fantasy world of social media, porn and video games,” smoking “government-endorsed” marijuana, Carlson said.

Yes, many recent mass shooters have been young men, often young White men. It’s not clear how significant that is as a stand-alone factor, given how many shooters don’t fall into that category. In the past five years, 16 of 37 shooters and alleged shooters tracked in Mother Jones’s database of the incidents have been men under 26.

There are some obvious reasons, of course. Teenagers in particular are understood to have weaker impulse control than adults, although this varies from person to person. And American men are more likely than women to own guns by nearly 2 to 1, according to polling conducted a few years ago by the Pew Research Center.

There’s also a wide and widening gap by political party on gun ownership. According to the General Social Survey, the difference in gun ownership between Democrats and Republicans was wider in 2021 than at any previous point, with Republicans being nearly twice as likely to own firearms.

This does not mean that Republicans are more likely to commit mass shootings. It does suggest that young men in Republican households are more likely to have access to firearms. In Pew’s polling, 60 percent of Republicans reported owning a gun or having one in their home compared to 25 percent of Democrats.

“They’re angry. They know that their lives will not be better than their parents’. They’ll be worse. That’s all but guaranteed,” Carlson said of the young men he claims are inspired to commit acts of mass violence. “ … Yet the authorities in their lives, mostly women, never stop lecturing them about their so-called privilege. ‘You’re male! You’re privileged!’ ” And so “a lot of young men in America are going nuts.”

This line of rhetoric is not important as an effort to excuse mass shootings. It is, instead, important as a representation of a narrative that is also being promoted to young men: that they are oppressed and discriminated against by women and the left. Carlson, who has often cast men as being under attack in the United States, suggests a theory of cause for mass shootings, when in reality he’s using the mass shooting to bolster his theory.

Carlson pushes a far-right vision of the United States as under attack from leftists and immigrants and does so as he promotes autocrats like the leaders of Hungary and Brazil. He uses mass shootings to argue that more Americans need to worry about government jackboots seizing their weapons — indicating that his viewers need to be better armed. He often frames his arguments in religious terms, as a battle between Christian rationality and evil.

By the time his breathless monologues conclude, his audience is left with little choice but to agree.