Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
Tucker Carlson is attempting to stay the course amid an advertiser exodus from his Fox News program because of his racist commentary. Carlson had been a mouthpiece for white supremacy, and since being promoted to a prime-time slot on Fox, he has elevated fringe “alt-right” grievances into mainstream media.
But what are the consequences of airing unfettered, explicit white supremacy five nights a week on the top rated cable news channel in the U.S.? They’re that Fox News viewers, including the president, are exposed to extremist ideology that, thanks to the veneer of respectability a top-rated show carries, has become part of the acceptable spectrum of political discourse — but that actually puts marginalized communities under direct threat of material harm.
In the absence of any identifiable editorial standards at Fox News, naked white nationalist rhetoric has metastasized. Carlson has interpreted this state of affairs as a blanket mandate to host a program centered around the idea that there is a crisis of discrimination against white men in America. Since his show launched on Fox News in November 2016, it has filtered story after story through the lens of white grievance,including claiming that reports of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh exposed “race hatred”, warning about the imaginary threat of white “genocide,” and spending a bewildering amount of time attacking the value of diversity. These segments track with both the rhetoric and smear campaigns cooked up online by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, men’s rights activists. Every night, he speaks on behalf of a fringe online community that endorses white nationalism and amplifies this message to an audience that would likely not have been exposed to it elsewhere. This sets off the invisible process of radicalization: avowed racists and neo-Nazis spew hatred online, Carlson picks it up, sanitizes it, and uses it to bolster the Trump agenda. This process projects explicit white supremacy (as opposed to Fox’s long-term peddling of implicit white supremacy) into the homes of Fox’s audience, blending seamlessly into the network’s long-established brand of conservative media.
Arie Kruglanski, a research psychologist at the University of Maryland, broke the radicalization process down into three parts in The Washington Post. The first step capitalizes on the drive to life a meaningful life, which white supremacy fulfills by imbuing people’s identity (“gender, religion or race”) with superiority. Carlson trafficks in these toxic white identity politics and validates the fantasy that dominate groups are actually the ones being persecuted. The second element of radicalization is what Kruglanski calls “the narrative.” He says this narrative — “usually that there is an enemy attacking your group, and the radical must fight to gain or maintain respect, honor or glory” — gives its believers “permission to use violence.” The constant barrage of coverage about a migrant caravan “invasion” is just one recent example of how Fox’s narrative creates an enemy to fuel racial resentment. Carlson’s show was no exception in that regard. The third piece, Kruglanski says, is forming a “community, or the network of people who validate the narrative and the violence.” Fox helps in this goal broadly across the network by sowing distrust of other outlets by raving about “fake news” and a subversive liberal agenda in mainstream media. In other words, Fox News foments an “us against the world” mentality in its viewers. Carlson specifically builds community among racists by centering “alt-right” issues and talking points in his commentary. They know they’re in this together with him because many of the stories he covers come directly from their online community. Stories about “white genocide” in South Africa and attacks against Georgetown University associate professor Christine Fair bubbled up in white supremacists’ circles online, and their adherents recognize that Carlson is playing their game.
Imagine a man, not unlike Charlottesville murderer James Fields, who is angry and captivated by the white supremacist ideology that he finds on YouTube, Twitter, and Gab. He sees Carlson take up those same issues and feels validated by seeing them presented with the glossy veneer that cable television provides. He hears his “alt-right” peers reciprocate this praise on their podcast networks. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a man like this experiences a destabilizing event, whether personal or political, and is moved to take violent action targeting those he perceives to be the enemy of white men.
The Overton window is a concept in political science that describes the range of ideas considered acceptable within the mainstream body politic. The consequences of white nationalist viewpoints airing on national television extend beyond the individuals who are radicalized as a result — the entire spectrum of political discourse is shifted toward normalized fascism. With the rise of authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump, extreme right-wing ideas pull the Overton window to the right, such that what was previously considered to be far-right suddenly looks like the middle ground. The white supremacist rhetoric of Carlson’s show suddenly seems tempered, opening up space in mainstream conservative media for dog whistles about demographic change, white “genocide,” and the end of Western civilization. Fascists turn the oppressors into the oppressed as justification for reactionary attacks on women, immigrants, people of color, and anti-racist activists.
At the same time, Carlson has appropriated leftist ideas about challenging corporate power and American imperialism and used them to persuade people of his worldview. He claimed he agreed with Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) criticism of Amazon’s use of tax breaks to build additional headquarters in New York and Virginia. He’s encouraged an end to the United States’ never-ending presence in the Middle East, warned against instigating conflict with Iran, and mocked national security adviser John Bolton’s bloodthirstiness to his face. He has said that the Democratic Party panders to corporate interests (it does) and has criticized tax cuts for corporations. And of course, he claims he’s a champion of free speech. It’s not hard to see why taking these positions is popular. But Carlson is playing a shell game. An excellent review of Carlson’s book “Ship of Fools” in Current Affairs explores how this combination of criticizing unfettered state and corporate power combined with ethno-nationalism is “destructive and inhumane” because “it has a kernel of accuracy, it will easily tempt readers toward accepting an alarmingly xenophobic, white nationalist worldview.”
Carlson won’t cover poverty and other issues important to the left unless he’s using them as a bludgeon to demonize immigrants. In a white supremacist framework, the distinction between poor immigrants and poor citizens is of paramount importance. Tucker wants to convince his audience that immigrants cause poverty, violence, declining wages, and disappearing jobs. Carlson agonizes in his book about the loss of a “European, Christian and English-speaking” majority in America. He lays the blame for capitalism’s harm at the feet of women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, and people of color. It’s effective because it identifies legitimate systemic problems that are robbing people of their liberty and weaponizes those issues against the marginalized population. This is populism predicated upon racism, better known as national socialism.
The normalization of white nationalism on Fox News, spearheaded by Carlson, encourages violence against members of marginalized communities who are deemed persona non grata. The goal is to dehumanize those who oppose racism and authoritarianism or whose very existence is in conflict with white America. In a world where all human beings are not considered full human beings, there are no restraints on how poorly they can be treated. In the words of The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, “The cruelty is the point.” Migrant children have repeatedly faced down the full force of American imperialism; they’ve been tear-gassed and forcibly separated from their parents. Transgender people are the targets of the Department of Justice, which seeks to legally erase them from existence. Who benefits from erasing transgender identities except for those who seek to perform cruelty? What is the point of ending temporary protected status for Haitian migrants and exposing Vietnam war refugees to deportation except to follow through on the white nationalist project of ethnic cleansing, sending those deemed undesirable back to their “shithole” countries? Carlson is the mouthpiece for this agenda.
Incidents of right-wing violence are increasing and it’s killing people. According to the FBI, hate crime incidents rose 17 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year, and almost three-fifths were driven by race or ethnicity. There’s a clear through line from the escalated rhetoric on immigration to the massacre of 11 Jewish people in a Pittsburgh, PA, synagogue and the tear-gassing of children on the border. White male terrorism is validated by a toxic online ecosystem of racism and extremism that migrates from the dark corners of the internet into mainstream conservative media, and the main conduit of this filth is Tucker Carlson. The lives of women of color, immigrants, disabled people, and refugees are threatened when white nationalism infects the most popular cable news channel on the planet; the consequences of this programming extend beyond the internal politics of media into a direct threat to the lives of vulnerable people.
Without advertisers, Carlson would have a harder time spewing his hatred. The segment where he said immigration makes the U.S. “dirtier” caught the attention of advertisers this time — but it happens on a nightly basis, almost always without consequence. It is a moral imperative that Carlson be held responsible for spreading white supremacist ideology that radicalizes a mainstream audience, moves the Overton window toward fascism, and puts marginalized groups in harm’s way. Advertisers and media buyers have the ability to make this change; it’s clear Fox News won’t hold him responsible. After all, the network has completely abdicated editorial control when it comes to other ethical crises. Without action from the companies that sponsor this hate, the undemocratic threat Tucker Carlson poses to political discourse in this country will continue unabated, and his targets will continue to suffer.
Header image by Melissa Joskow / Media Matters