August 1, 2023   6 mins

At the end of the Nineties, I called Tucker Carlson to ask his advice. I was about 20. He spoke kindly to me, and I liked him.

He had started his Washington career working for the Right-leaning Weekly Standard magazine. In a town of grey suits and cement blocks, he wrote with cleverness and style. I covered local crime for a small newspaper in Alabama. But I wanted to write like he did, so I asked: to work for the Weekly Standard, did I need to buy into a whole ideology? Or could I write for the Left-leaning New Republic, too? I wanted to tell all kinds of stories.

I’ve returned to his answer many times since. “Just pick a side,” he said.

In the years that followed, Carlson rose, then fell, then rose higher again, and often I wondered how he did it. I believe among the millions of words he employed — the thundering waterfall of words; the warring, imprecatory, wheedling words — only one mattered most: “you”.

This was his great insight. Instead of describing events from around the globe with detachment, he invited viewers into a conspiracy of knowing. It was a modern Gnosticism, a rebellion outside the gates of information. And his audience — an ageing, shrinking middle class — found that call irresistible. It was ingenious television.

Never mind that he was one of the most influential figures in the ruling party. Never mind that the most powerful news network paid him $20 million per year for that influence, on the highest-rated cable news show in history. It wasn’t about him. The mobs are coming for you.

Then, a few months ago, Carlson suddenly lost his lofty seat. In a book published today, he claims Fox News fired him as part of a $787.5 million deal with Dominion Voting Systems, after the network broadcast Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud. “They agreed to take me off the air, my show off the air, as a condition of the Dominion settlement,” Carlson says in Tucker, a biography by Chadwick Moore. “They had to settle this.” (Dominion’s lawyers flatly deny this: “Dominion made no requests or demands whatsoever regarding Mr Carlson’s employment with Fox.”)

In the days after his downfall, Carlson posted a video to social media in which he described how most of it — the whole televised political battle — was a sham, but that he would soon reveal the truth. And he concluded with a final, second-person invitation: “See you soon.”

Now Carlson truly does find himself cast outside the gates, maybe for the first time. He’s been an insider since his magazine stories turned into occasional television appearances, which became regular guest spots on CNN, then a hosting job on the show Crossfire, which pitted him against the liberal commentator Paul Begala. Carlson’s most famous moment on that show was a catastrophic encounter in 2004 with the comedian Jon Stewart, who accused Carlson and Begala of faking their outrage. “You’re partisan — what do you call it? — hacks,” Stewart said. He had drawn back a curtain to reveal the machinery of television debate, and the show never recovered. CNN soon cancelled it.

Carlson moved to MSNBC, where he hosted a show called Tucker. It never really caught on, and after its cancellation Carlson retreated to start a website called The Daily Caller, a conservative tabloid that gained popularity but never much respect as a real source of news. Then, in 2013, Carlson began his true upward trajectory, joining Fox News to co-host the chatty Fox & Friends. In 2016, he took over his own primetime show.

His timing was serendipitous, coming in the churn of Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign. But Carlson didn’t win an audience of millions by accident; he was exceptionally effective at the job, in ways small and large. His pacing, for instance, is impeccable. Speaking on television is hard — too slow and you’re plodding, too fast and you seem nervous — but Carlson had perfect timing. More importantly, he understood historical timing; as white Americans shifted from majority towards minority, many hardened into a political bloc and eyed institutions with distrust. Carlson recognised the power in their grievance and made a shift alongside them, casting himself as a populist voice for the forgotten and downtrodden.

It was a deft dance with his audience. It required them to forget that he rose to prominence wearing a bow tie, an affectation he began at preparatory school; that he lunched at The Palm on DuPont Circle in Washington, deep inside the Beltway; that he embodied the very Republican establishment against which he raged. It required him to rage for you.

Carlson and his producers pioneered a new style of commentary. Instead of bowing to Jon Stewart’s accusations of manufactured outrage, they built a full-scale factory. It worked like this: producers would scour the American landscape for someone — anyone — behaving in outlandish ways. Hyper-wokeness worked best, but sheer nuttiness served at a pinch. Then they presented this fringe behaviour as central, as representative of them, the un-Americans who would supplant you.

It started with mere exaggeration about issues that genuinely, legitimately, do matter to Americans. Immigration, for instance. In 2017 in Pennsylvania, a Roma refugee child couldn’t make it to a bathroom on time, pulled down his pants, and defecated outside. By the time Carlson injected the story into the national consciousness, “gypsies” had overrun the town and left “streets covered — pardon us now, but it’s true — with human faeces”.

Viewers reacted with anger and fear. And soon Carlson’s show grew so big it competed less against other news programmes than the internet itself. But rage is a market with inflation. By the end of his tenure at Fox, Carlson railed against candy: “Woke M&Ms have returned. The green M&M got her boots back, but apparently is now a lesbian maybe?”

For a time, a conscientious viewer could overlook the widgets tumbling from Carlson’s outrage assembly line because they mattered so little. “You know the official story about pandas. They’re cute but adorably helpless, which is why they’re almost extinct,” he told viewers in 2018. “But like a lot of what we hear that’s a lie.”

Then, in 2020, the country suffered a presidential election so fractious it tore at the fabric of American society. The author Mark Bowden and I wrote a book about the effort to overturn that election, and much of our attention went to the literal machinery of democracy: the vote tabulators made by Dominion and Smartmatic. As we pieced together accounts from county-level election officials — themselves almost all conservative Republicans — reality diverged ever-further from the version put forward by Carlson and his colleagues on Fox News. And we wondered: how are they getting away with this?

Carlson had retooled the factory, and instead of cranking out horny pandas and woke M&Ms, the show offered viewers conspiracies about matters of life and actual death. The apparatus of democracy. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol. The war in Ukraine.

Segments from Tucker Carlson Tonight started appearing in Russia’s internal propaganda. And suddenly he wasn’t getting away with it. Dominion weighed in with a gargantuan defamation lawsuit against Fox News, a suit so strong that Fox scrambled to apologise, repeatedly and in prime time. Then, thanks to the suit, the private text messages of Fox’s biggest stars went public, revealing that they didn’t believe the lies from Trump’s team. “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane,” Carlson wrote of Trump’s lawyer, to a colleague. “Our viewers are good people and they believe it.” Carlson didn’t believe any of it. But he had picked a side.

Uglier, if less consequential, revelations followed. The day after the January 6 attacks, for instance, Carlson had sent the following text to a producer:

“A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a video of people fighting on the street in Washington. A group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid and started pounding the living shit out of him. It was three against one, at least. Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight.”

All of it — the Dominion reporting, the hypocrisy about Trump, the racist messages — led Fox News in April to pull their highest-rated host from the air. In Tucker, Carlson’s biographer describes Carlson’s downfall not as the consequence of his own actions, but instead, naturally, as the result of a conspiracy with foreboding consequences for the reader: “What’s most stunning was the brazenness. A major network had caved to political and regulatory pressures, and the leftists behind it didn’t even feel the need to pretend otherwise. This is the way healthy societies die.”

Carlson remains under contract with Fox — still receiving a paycheck according to the new book — although he has created a showdown with the network since then by broadcasting on Twitter (since renamed “X”). The videos portray Carlson in exile, and there’s an element of truth to it. He’s still fabulously wealthy and famous, but he no longer sits on the Fox News throne. Instead, he broadcasts from a less polished set, where he uses his hand to scroll his own teleprompter, and his shows feel like an attempt to grab a piece of a younger, online zeitgeist. Take the two-and-a-half-hour interview with “alpha male” influencer Andrew Tate, which Carlson began by claiming public schools in America are removing urinals from boys’ bathrooms because “masculine qualities are oppressive” and boys should “sit down when you pee, like a good little girl”. Carlson used a different set, for that episode, as Tate is under house arrest in Romania, awaiting trial for rape and human trafficking.

It is impossible to say where Carlson will go next. Maybe he’ll find a larger, younger audience. Maybe, like Howard Stern, the former broadcast radio shock jock who turned to satellite radio, he’ll shift to a narrower but even more lucrative format. Only one option seems unimaginable: that he could simply fade away.

At the end of the new biography, Carlson muses on his future, and makes what he intends to be a jab at television. One last conspiratorial offering for you. But for years he was the leading voice on the format, so instead it comes across as unintended confession: “You can tell when someone’s lying to you or when someone’s shading the truth or trying to spin you,” he says. “And there’s a lot of artifice in television.”

Matthew Teague is a journalist and co-author of The Steal.