The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What if Tucker Carlson’s wrong about more than just Russia?

Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses “Populism and the Right” during the National Review Institute's Ideas Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel March 29, 2019 in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Normally, Tucker Carlson can be found offering his thoughts on American politics in segments that air on Fox News. Late last month, though, he could be seen pontificating on two other channels — at least, once his words had been translated into Russian.

It’s not hard to see why Russian state media would find the following riff from Carlson appealing.

“Joe Biden is calling for an unconditional surrender from Vladimir Putin,” he said in his Aug. 29 broadcast. “Here’s the weird thing. By any actual reality-based measure, Vladimir Putin is not losing the war in Ukraine. He is winning the war in Ukraine and Joe Biden looks at that and says we won’t stop until you proffer an unconditional surrender.”

Thanks to the Internet Archive’s catalogue of Russian broadcasts, we can see what happened next.

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The host of a program on Channel One Russia introduced Carlson to the assembled panel to discuss.

Then, over at Russia-1 TV, a similar presentation.

No one in the world is more invested in the idea that Russia is winning in Ukraine than the Russian president, hence the alacrity with which television stations loyal to his regime touted Carlson’s assessment.

The Fox News host has been cited regularly on Russian television since the invasion of Ukraine in February, of course. A few days before, he’d been proclaimed “the most popular TV host in the U.S.,” a useful presentation of his authority, if a debatable one. Carlson’s views of the war have consistently been favorable to Russia — not surprising, given that in 2019 he explicitly stated that he preferred Russia win in its then-more-limited conflict with Ukraine. And that’s made him useful to the Putinites.

This time, though, Carlson’s assessment aged particularly poorly. In the days since he scoffed at the idea that Russia was doing anything other than winning, Ukraine has swept into Russian-held parts of the country and pushed Russia back toward its own border. The Washington Post reported on the shift on Sunday:

“In the end, the Russians fled any way they could on Friday, on stolen bicycles, disguised as locals. Hours after Ukrainian soldiers poured into the area, hundreds of Russian soldiers encamped in this village were gone, many after their units abandoned them, leaving behind stunned residents to face the ruins of 28 weeks of occupation.”
" ‘They just dropped rifles on the ground,’ " Olena Matvienko said Sunday as she stood, still disoriented, in a village littered with ammo crates and torched vehicles, including a Russian tank loaded on a flatbed. The first investigators from Kharkiv had just pulled in to collect the bodies of civilians shot by Russians, some that have been lying exposed for months."

Military experts attribute the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive to a number of complicated factors, from erosion of Russian morale and support systems to Western support for the Ukrainian military. Asked about the shift in energy on Monday, the White House described it cautiously: “it is clear they are fighting hard to take back territory.” But the idea that Russia is unequivocally “winning the war in Ukraine,” as Carlson put it, much less “by any actual reality-based measure” has become increasingly hard to defend.

More to the point, it was also hard to defend at the time that Carlson made the claim. That’s why Russian TV jumped on it: it was a rare moment in which someone outside of their own circle was claiming that everything was going fine. (In the wake of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, incidentally, even some of them expressed new pessimism.)

There’s an obvious question that arises here: why, exactly, is Carlson so eager to present Putin as obviously winning? In part, it seems, it’s because of the bubble from which he broadcasts. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, Carlson’s show is increasingly the domain only of like-minded allies. So Carlson followed up his assessment of the state of the war two weeks ago by interviewing retired Army colonel Douglas Macgregor — someone even Fox News’s own Jennifer Griffin once described as an apologist for Russia live on air.

But it’s mostly because Carlson’s point wasn’t about Russia. It was about President Biden.

“This isn’t bad policy,” Carlson said of Biden’s demand for surrender. “This is nuts. It makes no sense. In fact, it only makes sense if the goal is to completely destroy the West in order to make way for Chinese global dominance. What would be the other explanation for this behavior?”

Well, one explanation would be that Biden understood that the Russian invasion — meant to be a blitzkrieg that quickly toppled the Ukrainian government days after it was launched — had stalled and was on the brink of being reversed. That Biden and other outside observers saw Russia’s massive loss of materiel and soldiers as reflective of something more than a cannon-fodder approach to inevitable victory.

Carlson’s untempered praise for the Russian war effort wasn’t simply a naive assessment of the war’s progress. It was an enemy-of-my-enemy play. The Fox News host has invested an enormous amount of energy since Biden’s inauguration in presenting the administration as a dire threat to the political right and to Americans more broadly. So when Biden says that maybe the war isn’t going as Russia expected, this is about clearing the way for Chinese global dominance, apparently. Despite China having already aligned with the Carlson-Putin side in the conflict.

Praising Russia and Putin because they contrast nicely with the American left is hardly new. When Putin first seized Crimea in 2014, some voices on the right praised his strength in contrast to President Barack Obama’s perceived weakness. The rise of Donald Trump brought Putin-fetishism to a new level, with Trump explicitly embracing various autocrats in part because of their performative toughness.

Other Republicans similarly tried to draw a contrast between that sort of bravado and what they presented as the downward slide of the United States. In May 2021, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) amplified a tweet in which an ad for enlisting in the U.S. Army was contrasted with a tough-as-nails presentation of the Russian military.

The American military, dependent on volunteers, was hoping to demonstrate that it was a welcome place for men and women of every race and religion. But because the ad touched on inclusivity, it was framed as weak — because that served as a bank shot sinking left-wing politics more broadly. It has not gone unnoticed by Cruz’s critics in recent days that his comparison has aged poorly.

Carlson, though, is a special case. It’s not solely that he praises Russia because it is easily contrasted with Biden. He’s obviously enamored of authoritarians in the same way Trump was, in recent months visiting both Hungary and Brazil to hype the leaders of those countries.

Then he overextended himself. Wanting to cast Biden as trying to undermine American hegemony, he scoffed at the entirely defensible idea that Putin’s war wasn’t going according to plan. Aiming to depict the American president, not the Russian one, as a pathetic loser, he leaned into the idea that the invasion was an indisputable success.

For Fox News viewers, then, a question might be worth asking: Is it possible that Carlson’s other claims about Biden’s ineptitude and deviousness are similarly unfounded nonsense?

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