Dispatches from the present
For a huge swath of the New Right, Tucker Carlson’s 8 p.m. slot was not only a TV show; it was a portal to the Tuckerverse. The old-school idea of “the news” assumed that there were objectively important events and it was the reporter’s duty to inform the public of them. Tucker Carlson Tonight, the most popular cable news show in history, rejected this premise. Carlson pursued stories—frivolous ones full of culture-war red meat, but also more substantial ones about massive financial corruption and deaths of despair—that few major pundits had picked up. But he wasn’t just interpreting the news; he was making it. What made something newsworthy was whether it fit into the narrative.
The Tuckerverse was the apotheosis of a style of infotainment where the host is no mere talking head, but a controversy-courting prophet. Carlson perfected, to his own ends, a format originated by the liberal comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. This format eventually migrated from Comedy Central to the mainstream networks and became one of the dominant styles of news commentary in the 2010s. Using the near-infinite archive of clips made accessible by digital technology, Carlson recontextualizes them with tightly written monologues, turning real-world people and events into recurring characters and narrative themes taken up show after show. As Tucker Carlson Tonight went on, the number of segments where Carlson debated an opposing guest dropped to nearly zero, while his monologues grew longer and revisited his preferred narratives nearly every night. On the show, these recurring segments were often marked by an identifiable graphic and punning headline—another trope copped from The Daily Show.
As the advertising-based mass media model collapsed, for-profit media companies, including large news organizations like Fox, have had to reinvent themselves with a “digital first, subscriber first” business model geared at commanding viewer loyalty. Amid the internet’s infinite deluge of information, hot takes and perspectives, having a trusted figure interpret the world for us, provide a signal among the noise, is the single most valuable thing they can provide. Stephen Colbert (in character at the Colbert Report as a Carlson-like conservative host) was more prophetic than he knew when he stipulated in his debut monologue that “anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”
Carlson was uniquely skilled at constructing a comprehensive picture of the world by marrying this media magic borrowed from his liberal precursors to the constant repetition of his bêtes noires, all supercharged by the power of his personal charisma. A case in point: from September 2022 until a week before he went off the air last month, Carlson routinely ran stories about a trans shop teacher from Ontario named Kayla Lemieux, who was photographed wearing large prosthetic breasts to school. Carlson’s refusal to drop the story wasn’t just prurient interest. He used it as a pretext to monologue variously on wokeness in schools, the malice and incompetence of school boards, the autogynephilia theory of transgenderism, schoolteachers as “groomers” and the very possibility of Western civilization’s collapse. In the Tuckerverse, the stakes are always existential and only one man is willing to tell you the truth. He is the self-appointed Virgil through the Inferno of postmillennial American culture.
Carlson played master of ceremonies to a roster of voices that spanned the conservative realignment, as populist forces seek to permanently displace the old pre-Trump GOP. Conservative leaders like Senator J.D. Vance and Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts made frequent appearances. But so did dozens of conservative voices that prosecuted the culture war, attacked immigration and foreign trade, mocked blind devotion to the free market, highlighted ruling-class hypocrisy (including of GOP elites and donors), questioned military intervention abroad and otherwise violated GOP establishment shibboleths. Via his online programming for Fox Nation, Tucker gave a platform to influencers who are not household names but whose reach extends among the young right-wingers who power conservative legislative offices, think tanks and activist groups: neoreactionary blogger Curtis Yarvin, manosphere-adjacent seed-oil conspiracy theorist “Raw Egg Nationalist” and technology guru James Poulos, to name a few. Deviating from the standard Fox News fare, he gave airtime to explorations of his more niche interests—in UFOs, cigarette smoking, testicular tanning and deep-state conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination and Watergate—and signaled to the highly online world of right-wing provocateurs that he was one of them.
The Tuckerverse has been a smashing success. Observers across the political spectrum have noted Carlson’s large and devoted audience. Clips of Carlson’s monologues or guest segments flit about social media and private chat groups, while those of any other Fox News host are nary to be seen. Young D.C. Republicans would not be caught dead admitting to watching Hannity (a “cringe Boomer”). But as Saurabh Sharma, the twenty-something head of conservative talent development organization American Moment, told me: “There was only one thing tying the young right to Fox News: Tucker Carlson. With him gone, there is nothing in their lineup to attract anyone under the age of forty to the cable box.”
Fox News’s recent defenestration of Carlson and his next act—which, as he announced yesterday, is to be literally staged on Twitter—raise questions about the future of not just conservative media, but also the possibility of a shared sense of reality. While other media pioneers like Alex Jones have already blazed this path, we have yet to see a figure with Carlson’s massive audience, right-wing bona fides and cultivated network attempt it. Unlike his predecessors, Carlson retains a large, willing-to-pay audience (Fox Nation, where his programming is the main draw, has over a million paying subscribers), and a political movement that wants him to succeed, even, or perhaps especially, at the expense of the Murdoch media empire. “The best you can hope for in the news business at this point,” he says in the video announcing his move to Twitter, uploaded at 3:42 p.m. on Tuesday, “is the freedom to tell the fullest truth that you can. But there are always limits. And you know that if you bump up against those limits often enough, you will be fired for it. That’s not a guess—it’s guaranteed.”
Some have said that no figure, on the left or right, who lost a media perch as prominent as Carlson’s has ever bounced back bigger than they were before. But when Jon Stewart eviscerated Tucker Carlson in 2004 (and Paul Begala got caught in the crossfire), no one would have expected Carlson to host his own show again, much less to become the most highly rated cable news host in history. There’s no guarantee that Carlson will once again refine his message, his style and his media format to perfectly match his new business model to his existing eager audience. But you’d be foolish to bet against him.