The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carlson hates Trump but needs his base — like the rest of the right

Tucker Carlson talks with Donald Trump during a golf tournament in Bedminster, N.J., in July. (Seth Wenig/AP)
6 min

My first reaction upon seeing the text message in which Tucker Carlson declares that he “hate[s] [Donald Trump] passionately” was to try to assess the validity of that assertion.

The Fox News host is prone to both hyperbole and hyperventilation, and, at a glance, it’s not clear that this isn’t that. This is quite literally an expression of passion! Is he venting? Is this maybe just another bit of telling his audience (in this case, a colleague) what he thought his audience might want to hear?

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Besides, there’s no question that Carlson has some appreciation for the former president’s approach to politics. Trump first ran for office in 2015 echoing what he was seeing on Fox News. More importantly, though, Trump ran against a loosely defined cadre of “elites” in business and politics. This is very much aligned with Carlson’s view of accessing and deploying power.

There’s little external evidence of hostility. There was that golf tournament last year in which Carlson and Trump (and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.)) were palling around at Trump’s club in New Jersey. When Trump visited an Ohio McDonald’s last month, Carlson gushed over the appearance. Perhaps he actually likes the former president?

Well, probably not. Carlson has long been more skeptical of Trump. Soon after the Fox host was given his own show in early 2017, he stood out for offering Trump unusually challenging interviews — at least relative to his peers. In the wake of the 2020 election, it was Carlson who called out lawyer Sidney Powell for her failure to offer any evidence for her sweeping, ridiculous voter-fraud claims.

In the same chain of Jan. 4, 2021, messages in which he expressed his loathing of Trump — messages revealed as part of a lawsuit heavily centered on Powell’s claims — Carlson thrilled that “we are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights.” A review of airtime shows that, unlike his colleague Sean Hannity, Carlson really did stop talking about Trump so much once Joe Biden was inaugurated as president.

In that case, why would Carlson be so publicly obsequious to Trump? Another message from November 2020 summarizes one likely answer.

“What he’s good at is destroying things,” Carlson said to a colleague. “He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong. It’s so obvious.”

That is the essence of Fox News’s quandary after the 2020 election. Many were ready to move past Trump, as revealed in other messages released as part of the defamation lawsuit. But they worried about losing their fervently pro-Trump base to fringier networks if they didn’t play along with Trump’s false and baseless claims of rampant election fraud.

“We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for” the past four years, Carlson said in the Jan. 4 text message thread, “because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”

This sentiment probably sounds familiar. A Trump-adjacent actor who secretly dislikes the former president but who is too afraid to challenge him? This, more than anything, summarizes Trump’s career in politics. From the outset, the Republican establishment has been in Carlson’s precise position, needing Trump’s supporters but seeing relatively little upside to the candidate himself. And, as with Carlson, it’s the party that incurs damage from operating in this space, not Trump.

Trump’s 2016 opponents for the Republican nomination assumed that they could wait out his candidacy and, if they were gentle enough in pushing him out the door, vacuum up his supporters. Only belatedly did they realize that they needed to take him on directly, by which time it was too late. As president, Trump was at the center of various scandals and allegations. Yet, even when they found his actions distasteful, Republican officials wary of seeing his supporters turn against them held their tongues. When Trump lost his reelection bid and began claiming that the election had been stolen, the party again tried desperately to avoid seeing what was going on.

“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” one official told The Washington Post soon after the election. “ … It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

This renewed assumption that Trump would simply go away spawned one of the most notoriously incorrect assessments of presidential action in U.S. history.

In the months after that election, Fox was caught in the same trap. The documents obtained as part of the lawsuit indicate widespread frustration there that Trump was spreading false claims about his election loss — but wider frustration that his supporters were demanding that Fox News and other outlets agree with Trump’s allegations. Frustration at the guy, fear of his base.

Even as the 2024 nomination contest heats up, the same pattern is evident. Candidates who have joined Trump in declaring their intention to seek the Republican Party’s nod have been unwilling to hit him hard. Former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has made vague comments about Trump’s age and win-loss record; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has mostly resorted to punching back at Trump. Just need to humor him for a bit and then vacuum up his supporters once he collapses. Can’t-fail strategy.

Carlson’s dislike of Trump is probably rooted to some extent in their being ideological neighbors. Carlson wants to generate attention and support as he turns his viewers against the establishment. Trump is competing for those same Republicans, but in the service of aggregating power for himself, not of upending American politics. Then there’s Trump’s scattershot clumsiness about all of it; Tucker is Frank Grimes to Trump’s Homer Simpson.

So, yes, of course Trump annoys Carlson. All that power and all that support, pointed near but usually not at Carlson’s targets. And Carlson has little choice but to play along until he can peel his supporters further away from Trump’s worldview and closer to his own. If he ever can.

In other words, Carlson dislikes Trump the way so many others in the right-wing firmament have disliked Trump for going on eight years.