The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tucker Carlson and Stephen Miller offer a predictable campaign pitch: fear

It didn’t work in 2020, but why not try again in 2022

Tucker Carlson, left, talks with former president Donald Trump during the final round of the Bedminster Invitational LIV Golf tournament in Bedminster, N.J., on July 31. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Fox host Tucker Carlson began his show on Thursday night focused on something he found deeply concerning: Republicans might not regain control of both the House and Senate in November.

His is an opinion show, you’ll recall, one that viewers are expected to understand traffics in “exaggeration” rather than “actual facts.” (Those quotes are from Fox News attorneys.) And his opinion is that it is “bad” that polling suggests that Democrats won’t be blown out in the midterms (this time, a quote from Carlson) and that he was “certainly praying” this would occur.

Carlson’s consistent approach to his show is to craft various strawmen and then show off how extravagantly he can immolate them, like Fireball from the movie “The Running Man.” So on Thursday, Carlson expressed bafflement that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) might have cited candidate quality as a reason to be pessimistic about Republicans regaining the Senate — shortly after he described Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker as someone “everyone likes.” This was as sincere and honest an assessment of Walker’s deeply flawed candidacy as was Carlson’s effort to pretend he was unfamiliar with the term “crudités.”

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The reason Carlson was cobbling together this narrative about how Republicans were flailing more because of McConnell than candidates like Walker — or Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, whose video about the price of vegetables was the prompt for Carlson’s crudités bemusement — is that he wanted to let viewers know he had a solution. Oz shouldn’t be talking about inflation, he said. He and his party should instead be talking only about Carlson’s own obsessions, crime and immigration.

“Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you ran a campaign on illegal immigration and crime,” he said. “These are two issues that didn’t just arise out of nowhere. They’re the product of policies the Democratic Party put in. They were intentional outcomes. We have millions of people coming in illegally, and we have a lot more murders than we had two years ago.”

“These two issues, immigration and crime, don’t simply annoy voters, though they very much do,” he continued. “These two issues threaten the existence of our society. So maybe you should run on them.”

You’ll notice, in this brief patter, how Carlson expands the issues outward into something horrible. Democrats are intentionally seeking to have “millions of people coming in illegally” and intentionally promoting an increase in murder. This is just great replacement theory, once again, the Fox News host’s long-standing hobbyhorse that coincidentally aligns with the rhetoric of white nationalists.

The former point, by the way, is not actually true, dependent on the same sort of rhetorical stumbling that has elected officials pointing to massive drug seizures as somehow bad. The latter point, meanwhile, was bolstered by anecdotal snippets Carlson showed, like a gun-related incident in Philadelphia. He showed a clip from Fox News talking about how crime is up, including that robberies are up 40 percent in New York City — a cherry-picked stat meant to imply a big rise in crime, even though homicide is down by 11 percent year-over-year. Carlson doesn’t care, of course.

To emphasize how great an idea this was, this focus on these existential threats to the country, Carlson brought on perhaps the only American more committed to the idea than he was: former Trump administration official Stephen Miller.

What the Republicans should be saying, Miller said, was: “Elect Republicans, and in January we seal the border. We reform law enforcement to go after criminals, not Republicans, and we end the war on America’s children.”

One might be skeptical that President Biden would sign such legislation, but so be it. Carlson, of course, agreed wholeheartedly.

The pair insisted that this had worked before: President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 reelection landslide was rooted in a message about crime. What that argument overlooks, of course, is that the violent crime rate in the five years before Nixon’s reelection had jumped by 60 percent. It also overlooks that Donald Trump very recently tried to run a reelection campaign making the same case — certainly with Miller’s direct encouragement — and lost.

What’s noteworthy about this, though, is how detached it is from reality. Carlson might no doubt be forgiven for assuming that his viewers believe that immigration and crime are existential threats above all else, and he might also be presumed to believe that his arguments to that effect have been broadly influential. But they have not been.

YouGov polling conducted for The Economist shows that, despite Carlson’s pooh-poohing of the idea, Americans really are more worried about things like inflation than about crime or immigration. Three-quarters of Republicans say crime is a very important issue to them, and two-thirds say the same of immigration — but that’s much less common among Americans overall.

Carlson and Miller think crime and immigration are very important because they’re Republicans! Non-Republicans aren’t as compelled by the issues — and it seems unlikely that browbeating them is going to change their minds.

After all, consider another question asked by YouGov: what’s the most important political issue to you. While Republicans do think crime and immigration are more important than Americans overall, even they don’t put either issue in their top four most important issues.

One in 8 Republicans say crime or immigration is the most important issue there is. Only 1 in 12 Americans overall say the same thing. Carlson has a big, important TV show and Miller has the ear of a former president, but that doesn’t mean that even their own party thinks those things are more important than prices or jobs.

There’s a useful analogy here, one that would no doubt make Carlson very annoyed: immigration is to him what climate change is to many on the left. He thinks it is of utmost importance, and he argues that it is an existential threat, but it simply doesn’t get traction. The same holds for many Democratic officials when it comes to global warming. The difference, of course, is that there’s scientific evidence to support the idea that climate change poses a dire threat whereas Carlson’s presentation of the threat of immigration — America itself is being undermined! — is rhetoric.

The other difference is that Democrats are actually convinced of the urgency of tackling climate change, with 17 percent of respondents identifying it as the most urgent issue in their eyes.

Maybe Carlson isn’t as good at persuading people of his opinions as he clearly believes.