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Opinion | Tucker Carlson and the Politics of Suspicion

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By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

Across Donald Trump’s presidency and immediately afterward there was a lot of talk about realignment. Everyone could see that the Republican coalition was becoming more working-class and the Democratic coalition more dominated by upper-class professionals. The question was whether that shift would fundamentally transform the policy commitments of both parties, along lines suggested by Trump’s populist 2016 campaign, or whether Republicans and Democrats would snap back into their pre-Trump postures once he left the White House.

That question has not yet been fully answered. Seen from some angles, the parties look reshaped by their changing coalitions; seen from others, any deep realignment seems stillborn. Culture warriors are now more influential than class warriors on the left, but the Democrats are still resolutely redistributionist. The right is more protective of Medicare and Social Security than it was in 2012, but House Republicans are still pretending to be government cutters.

But if you look at cultural and intellectual life rather than policy and political coalitions, you can see a realignment that’s more coherent and complete. This is a transformation of mentality as much as substance: The newer (and especially, younger) right is defined by a politics of suspicion — a deep distrust of all institutions; a comfort with outsider forms of knowledge and conspiratorial theories; a hostility toward official mouthpieces and corporate-governmental alliances; a skepticism about American empire and a pessimism about the American future — that used to be much more the province of the left.

And for six years, up until his sudden firing this week, Tucker Carlson’s prime-time hour at Fox was the place to watch this transformation happening.

The master key to understanding Tucker Carlson’s programming wasn’t ideology; it was suspicion. He had been the reliable sort of cable-news pundit, once upon a time — the cheerful partisan, the “Crossfire” Republican, the talking points purveyor (even if he purveyed them with a little more irony than most).

Then something changed — after the Iraq war, after Jon Stewart helped kill “Crossfire,” he gradually became disillusioned, radicalized. You could see it before his Fox News gig came along, in the way he wrote about Donald Trump in 2016, and then you could see it in the way he ran his show. People said it was fake, the bow-tied rich kid chasing the populist audience, and for sure there was some of the audience capture that afflicts almost everybody in the pundit game: That’s how Carlson ended up treating the right’s election-fraud mania with kid gloves, not giving it the endorsement that some other hosts gave it but affording it, against his private judgment, a costly (to Fox News) form of unwarranted respect.

But Carlson wasn’t like the right-wing personalities — a Mark Levin, say — who surrendered to Trumpism reluctantly because that’s where their listeners wanted them to go. He was a Trumpist only insofar as Trump went where he himself was heading anyway — toward a rejection of everything the Western political establishment stood for, an extreme open-mindedness toward everything that it ruled out of bounds.

Which is why his show was the farthest right on cable news but also sometimes the farthest left. You could assemble a set of Carlson clips — encompassing everything from his frequent interviews with Glenn Greenwald to his successful opposition to a U.S. conflict with Iran in 2019 and 2020 — that made him seem like a George W. Bush-era antiwar activist given a prime-time show on Fox by some mischievous genie. You could assemble a similar array in which he sounded left-wing notes on economics.

These forays were not in tension with his willingness to entertain the far right’s “Great Replacement” paranoia about immigration or fixate on a possible F.B.I. role in instigating the Jan. 6 riot. They were all part of the same hermeneutic: For any idea with an establishment imprimatur, absolute suspicion; for any outsider or skeptic, sympathy and trust. It didn’t have to be political or contemporary, either. The U.F.O. mystery? He was there for it. The Kennedy assassination and the C.I.A.? He had questions.

His Covid coverage was a notable example: At a time when the public health and political establishments weren’t taking the coronavirus as seriously as internet alarmists, Carlson was willing to issue dire warnings, to break with the partisan optimism of the other Fox hosts, even to make a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to force Donald Trump out of his denial. But once the establishment went all-in on Covid restrictions, he swung all the way the other way, elevating not just criticism of shutdowns and vaccine mandates but the full anti-vaccine case.

In a recent interview with the “Full Send” podcast, Carlson was asked about his greatest regret. He said, first, supporting and defending the Iraq war. And second, this:

… for too long, I participated in the culture where anyone who thinks outside these pre-prescribed lanes is crazy, is a “conspiracy theorist.” And I just really regret that. I’m ashamed that I did that. And partly, it was age and the world I grew up in. So when you look at me and say, “Yeah, of course [the media] is part of the means of control.” That’s obvious to you because you’re 28, but I just didn’t see it at all — at all. And I’m ashamed of that.

There have always been conservative versions of this kind of suspicionism; Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” was directed rightward. But for a long time after the 1960s the most influential version of suspicionism was left-wing. It was the hippies. It was don’t trust anyone over 30. It was Noam Chomsky. It was Oliver Stone. It was Michael Moore.

The young Reaganite or the George W. Bush admirer certainly believed the media was liberal and that the Ivy League could not be trusted. But he or she believed in the C.I.A. and NATO, in General Motors and Wall Street, in Coca-Cola and the American Medical Association and the United States Marine Corps.

Not so for the conservatives who have come of age since the Iraq war, the financial crisis and the Great Awokening. Alienated from many more American institutions than their predecessors, staring at a record of elite failure and a social landscape where it seems like there’s little to conserve, they increasingly start out where Carlson ended up — in a posture of reflexive distrust, where if an important American institution takes a position, the place to be is probably on the other side.

Which is why Carlson, more than other cable-news hosts, found a younger audience to supplement the baby boomer foundation that (for now) keeps the Fox News enterprise in business, putting the very-old in touch with the very online.

The underlying boomer foundation is still solid enough (for a little longer, at least) that any successor will probably do just fine in the ratings, and any subsequent Carlson enterprise, on any platform, won’t command the kind of audience that’s available at 8 p.m. in Rupert Murdoch’s empire.

But it’s unlikely that Carlson’s successor will embody the cultural realignment as fully, or reveal as much about the alienated future of American conservatism, as the man who just disappeared from Fox.

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