In the right-wing media universe, the 500-pound gorilla is now and has long been Fox News. There have been challengers, certainly, including some robust ones. Breitbart’s effectiveness in pulling rhetoric from the fringe into the mainstream conversation about a decade ago, for example, and cable news start-ups like One America and Newsmax more recently. But Fox News has weathered such challenges through co-option, heft, institutional support and combinations of the three. So, when Republicans are asked where they get their news, they are most likely to say Fox.
And within the Fox News universe, the 500-pound gorilla is Tucker Carlson.
It used to be the case that the most-watched host on the network was Sean Hannity. His prime-time opinion show (using Fox’s gauzy differentiation from its purportedly objective news programming) was not only the top show on Fox but, from 2017 to 2020, the most-watched show on cable news overall.
But that was the era of Donald Trump, who operated in symbiosis with Hannity. After running neck-and-neck with Hannity in 2020, Carlson passed Hannity in annual average viewers the following year, a lead he held in 2022.
Carlson also generates more attention in general. In 2020, Carlson started generating more search interest on Google than Hannity, a lead he has maintained every month of President Biden’s tenure in office.
Carlson achieved this position in large part because he retains credibility as someone who wants to tear down the establishment. Hannity’s loyalty to Trump ensnared him in the new GOP firmament, leading the Fox host to line up behind Trump’s endorsed candidates for office and to reflexively defend the president (and former president) as needed. His effort to cater to his audience meant Trump loyalty. Carlson’s approach is different, picking up the rhetoric that propelled Trump to the White House — the entire system is corrupt and the elites are trying to destroy you — and deploying it against all comers.
His disparagement of the powers-that-be is often starkly — or obnoxiously — articulated in service of his us-vs.-them framework. He’s taken to describing a loosely aggregated group of international business and political leaders — the sorts of people who attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for example — as “lizard overlords.” On Wednesday night, he suggested that this vague group was for some reason trying to limit the ability of people to access cash, a discussion that occurred over on-screen text reading: “IT’S LOOKING MORE LIKELY THAT WE WILL SEE THE DAY WHEN OUR LIZARD OVERLORDS BAN CASH.” Carlson has a track record of incorrect predictions (like his recent insistence that there would be violent protests after the release of video showing the police beating of Tyre Nichols), but he never allows that to encumber him.
This reflexive opposition to the elites in power, and his willingness to move individuals into and out of that group as it becomes useful, has led Carlson to some unusual positions. His autocratic sympathies are unsubtle; he’s offered fawning interviews to leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, people who contest the Western leaders Carlson disdains. He has explicitly rationalized the Russian invasion of Ukraine on multiple occasions, making his commentary a regular feature of state-run programming in Russia.
It’s hard to disentangle his support for Russia: Is it enthusiasm for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic approach to governance? Is it that Russia is fiercely committed to kneecapping the same group of Western elites as Carlson? The trigger isn’t obvious, but the effect is. Carlson is a nexus of skepticism about Ukraine, and that has drawn him closer to politicians on the right-most fringe of the Republican Party who echo or share his position. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), who parlayed her large platform of support to ally closely with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), is a frequent Carlson guest and a vocal opponent of funding for Ukraine’s military.
This week, former British prime minister Boris Johnson, a member of that country’s Conservative Party, came to Washington. During an event Wednesday at the Atlantic Council about the war in Ukraine, Johnson called out Carlson specifically for both his position on the invasion — and for his grip on the American right.
“I’ve been amazed and horrified by how many people are frightened of a guy called Tucker Carlson. Has anybody heard of somebody called — has anybody heard of Tucker Carlson?” Johnson joked in response to a question about responding to Russian aggression. “What is it with this guy? All these wonderful Republicans seem somehow intimidated by his — by his perspective.”
“I haven’t watched anything that he’s said,” Johnson continued. “But I I’m struck by how often this comes up. Some bad ideas are getting into — starting to infect some of the thinking around the world about what Putin stands for, what he believes in. It’s a disaster. He stands for war, aggression, systematic murder, rape and destruction. That’s what he stands for.”
Carlson, of course, seized upon the comments in his show later that night.
“Former British prime minister Boris Johnson rolled, sashayed into Washington yesterday,” Carlson began. He said that he’d invited Johnson on the program only to learn, a few hours beforehand, that Johnson was going to pass. Carlson framed this as: “Boris Johnson, reputed to be the smartest leader of any English-speaking country in the world, did not want to publicly defend his position on Ukraine. He was afraid to take questions about it.”
Then he showed a clip of Johnson’s comments.
“All these cowards in Washington are afraid of this show, Boris Johnson said derisively,” Carlson said. “Yet somehow he never mentioned that he is one of them.”
Carlson, understandably, framed this as being a function of timidity, instead of a function of dismissiveness. And to support the idea that Johnson was afraid, he suggested that Johnson was “trying to sell lawmakers on a new world war.”
“Millions would die in the war that Boris Johnson is promoting,” Carlson claimed at one point. “The public has a right to know. Why are we doing this before it starts? And as you can probably tell, it looks like it’s starting very soon.” He added that there’s “no popular support in this country or in any country in Europe for what Boris Johnson is now pushing.”
This is how it works. Carlson casts Johnson as part of The Elite and, specifically, as someone who wants a full-scale conflict between Russia and the West. There’s no validity to this; it’s just Carlson extrapolating out from a consensus position — we should support Ukraine militarily — to an imagined one.
He’s been offering similar warnings since the earliest days of the war. He or his guests warned that the conflict could lead to World War III on March 4, March 10, March 15, March 16, March 22, March 25 and March 28 of last year — and that was just March.
Johnson’s message was clear, even if off the cuff: There’s no reason to fear this guy. But Carlson’s response shows why so many people do. Carlson will claim that the worst possible thing will happen and that his opponents are participants in schemes that seek to ensure the worst possible outcomes for average Americans. He has invested years in stoking a sense among his viewers that wealthy political and business leaders are not only indifferent to them but actively hostile, and it’s trivial to simply slot new characters into this cabal. It’s a Ship of Theseus approach to fearmongering: The constituent elements aren’t even the point.
It’s made him the biggest force on the cable news channel that’s the biggest force in his political universe. And while Johnson is obviously right, it’s hard to imagine that his comments about Carlson will have the desired effect. Carlson’s talking to millions of people a night. Republicans are therefore more worried about what he might say than what Johnson already did.