The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tucker Carlson’s war on the ‘elites’ now embraces election denialism

Fox News host Tucker Carlson leaves the stage after talking about “Populism and the Right” during the National Review Institute's Ideas Summit in March 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s important to understand that Fox News host Tucker Carlson doesn’t see the fight for power in the United States as pitting red America against blue America. It’s not really about Democrats versus Republicans. It is in his view instead a battle between a cluster of elites and the rest of America. There’s overlap between those two struggles — the elites are mostly liberal in his estimation and their opponents are mostly Republican — but the fight he’s engaged in isn’t a partisan one.

So when Carlson arrives at an explicit embrace of the idea that Americans should reject the results of a close election if the Democrat wins, as he has multiple times in recent days, he gets there by a different path than others on the right. But the important thing, given the size and composition of his audience, is that he nonetheless gets there.

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On Wednesday night, the vehicle for his complaints was the debate performance of Pennsylvania Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D). By now you’ve likely heard both that Fetterman had a stroke earlier this year and probably that the effects of that stroke were apparent during the debate. Carlson joined the rest of his network in scoffing at the idea that Fetterman could therefore serve in the Senate — “there is no chance that under any imaginable circumstances John Fetterman could … serve in the U.S. Senate,” Carlson insisted — but differed in that he used Fetterman’s disability as a vehicle for bashing both doctors and the media. You know, the “elites.”

The doctor who wrote that Fetterman was “continuing to improve” from his stroke was a liar, Carlson said — conveniently leaving out that the letter also mentioned Fetterman’s challenges in communication. Instead, he pretended that the physician had written that “John Fetterman was as sharp and as healthy as you or me, as anyone in America,” in Carlson’s paraphrasing.

But the point of adjudicating this wasn’t Fetterman. It was returning to his efforts to downplay medical and scientific expertise, something that most commonly manifests on his show as anti-vaccine rhetoric.

“If you’re a physician, are you allowed to lie for partisan reasons?” Carlson said. “Don’t we have enough of that in this country?”

Then Carlson went after the response to an NBC News interview with Fetterman, which noted his challenges in communicating. Carlson cherry-picked frustrated responses to the report from opinion writers and hosts — people who have his job, in other words, and all of them women — to present them as “the media” at large trying to bring NBC back to heel for Team Liberal Elites. That his claim wasn’t supported by the evidence he presented was irrelevant, as it always is. He says vitriolic, untrue stuff and staples representatives of the out-group to his words and then goes to commercial break.

It’s worth noting here that Carlson is not simply a guy who has a TV show. He is a guy who has a TV show on a heavily watched network — a show that is consistently among the most watched on that network. He is a guy who is viewed much more favorably by Republicans than hosts like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Eight in 10 Republicans have an opinion of him; of those, 9 in 10 view him at least somewhat favorably.

What’s more, Republicans view him as truthful — despite Fox News’s own attorneys telling a court in 2020 that his show did not involve his “stating actual facts.” About 3 in 10 Republicans didn’t have an opinion as to whether Carlson was helping or hurting the country when asked by YouGov in May, but among those who did, three-quarters said he was helping the country.

How does he leverage his platform? Elevating spurious allegations about immigrants, the threat to White America, the Jan. 6 riot, the vaccines, elites elites elites. And, with the midterms looming, about confidence in the election results.

“The Democratic Party has such contempt for voters and for democracy itself and so much confidence in its ownership of the media and of Big Tech that it no longer has to try to win your votes,” Carlson said. “... They can even run mentally defective candidates who can barely speak and not only expect them to win but expect you to accept the outcome, no matter how transparently absurd it is.”

“On November 9th,” he continued, “they’ll be telling you that John Fetterman got 81 million votes in Pennsylvania and they’ll threaten to put you in jail if you don’t believe it. Why wouldn’t they do that? It worked with Joe Biden.” Then he introduced Glenn Greenwald.

That “it worked with Joe Biden,” is telling, certainly. Carlson was one of the rare voices on the right who, in the weeks after the 2020 election, treated claims of fraud with explicit scrutiny. When Donald Trump’s attorney Sidney Powell wanted to come on the air to hype her ludicrous and debunked claims of rampant fraud using voting machines, Carlson asked for evidence and called her out when it didn’t come. (This has come back to haunt his employer.) But it serves his purposes in the moment to suggest that the results that year were dubious.

When he hosted Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake last week, he did something similar, casting her as a rebel against a media hegemony with which she was tangentially associated and intimating that any election Lake lost was not one that could be trusted. Then, too, it wasn’t really that the voting would be tainted, just that the elites were going to writhe their tentacles and change the result.

You see that in his Fetterman rant. Carlson willfully conflated Fetterman’s obvious communications issue with broader cognitive ones, suggesting at one point that the candidate shouldn’t be allowed to operate a microwave. He wanted to reinforce the idea that Fetterman couldn’t win on the merits (even as he noted how partisanship could boost mediocre candidates to victory). Because he wanted to depict The Elites as omnipotent and nefarious.

It’s the same argument that Arizona Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters makes, as Carlson highlighted in a gushing half-hour show that aired on Fox News’s streaming platform this week: The 2020 election was tainted by elite liberal power, not illegal votes. And Carlson is helping set the stage for his allies and Republicans to cast any undesired outcome next month as invalid.

Millions of people watch his show and hear his arguments. He’s viewed favorably, as honest, as helping the nation. And this is what he’s saying.