- The Fox News host Tucker Carlson has said the threat of white nationalism is a hoax or exaggerated.
- A segment last week that evoked the Great Replacement theory prompted calls for him to be fired.
- Experts say the moments are part of a broader trend and are most likely intentional.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot, America’s conservative movement faced a reckoning.
Rep. Liz Cheney, a leading voice on the GOP’s moderate wing, called on Republicans to “make clear that we aren’t the party of white supremacy.” She pushed her party to reject the ideology espoused by some of Donald Trump’s supporters who had attacked the seat of US democracy.
Yet on Fox News’ top-rated show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the host Tucker Carlson went on to take a very different approach. Carlson has sought to downplay the threat from white nationalism while, critics say, himself pushing white nationalist narratives about migration and liberal elites.
In comments on his show last week Carlson appeared to endorse the white nationalist Great Replacement conspiracy theory, prompting outraged responses including a call from the Anti-Defamation League for him to be fired.
Before this Carlson had for weeks argued that the Capitol riot had been overblown by liberals as part of a plot to persecute conservatives, and he has said there is “no evidence that white supremacists were responsible for what happened on January 6.”
The facts say otherwise, with law-enforcement agencies having charged close to 60 members of far-right organizations, including the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and Proud Boys, with involvement. Rioters were pictured in the Capitol bearing Confederate banners, wearing far-right insignia, and chanting far-right slogans.
At the heart of Carlson’s persona is a challenge to those he portrays as smug liberal elites, who he claims have sought to disenfranchise ordinary Americans for decades. It’s a stance that made him one of the defining conservative voices during the Trump years.
But when applied to downplaying the threat of white nationalist violence, it’s a view that has imperiled lucrative advertisement deals on his show.
Back in August 2019, numerous advertisers abandoned Carlson’s show after he claimed white supremacy was a “hoax” in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, by a gunman who posted a white nationalist manifesto on social media before murdering 22 people.
Matt Gertz, a researcher at the progressive media-monitoring group Media Matters, said Carlson’s core narratives had a common strand and sought to play on fears about shadowy elites.
“Carlson’s narrative is that white supremacists pose no significant threat, that those who argue otherwise are lying elites who are dividing the country in order to gain and retain power, and that the real targets are everyday Republicans like the viewers watching at home,” he told Insider.
“He’s stuck with that argument in spite of a rash of white supremacist violence, which he either ignores or lies about.”
Carlson mainstreams white nationalist rhetoric, say critics
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, said that since the ’60s Republicans had sought to covertly appeal to the racist fears of white voters, but also broaden their appeal. It’s a balancing act Fox News hosts have also long performed, he said.
On the one hand, he said, Carlson was seeking to shield the Republican Party from claims that in the Trump era it became closely entangled with white nationalist extremism.
“Tucker Carlson is trying his best to repeat this mantra,” Vaidhyanathan said. “And if he keeps saying this enough, his followers will learn that the mantra and they will repeat it again and again, in their daily lives,” he said.
“So his goal is to seed a change in the conversation, to make the Republican party less vulnerable to those sort of criticisms.”
In response to a request for comment from Insider, a Fox News representative pointed to a list of quotes by Carlson from past interviews and broadcasts in which he emphatically rejected racism.
“I’m sure that people who hate my politics will try to discredit them by calling me names, but there is no show that I’m aware of that has made a stronger case for a color-blind meritocracy than ours has,” Carlson told Variety in 2020.
“I believe that all American citizens, regardless of how they were born, should be treated equally under the law. As I say on a nightly basis, we should not impugn people for things they cannot control, for their immutable characteristics. That is an argument against racism.”
Carlson has long veered between positions, on the one hand urging Trump to accept the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet also eroding faith in vaccines.
Despite his stated opposition to racism, critics see in Carlson’s comments disturbing echoes of white nationalist narratives.
“Tucker Carlson is the single most popular mainstream media figure in white nationalist circles for the simple reason that he mainstreams their talking points to a huge audience,” Gertz said.
Media Matters has published a timeline stretching back to 2008 of what it says are times Carlson embraced white supremacy.
Gertz said Carlson had used his show to push the Great Replacement conspiracy theory. The Media Matters timeline highlights instances in 2017 and 2019.
The theory holds, groundlessly, that liberals have long plotted to erase America’s white majority and consolidate their grip on power.
Last week, Carlson claimed on his show that Democrats were “importing a new electorate” of “Third World” immigrants to “dilute” the political power of Americans, his most striking engagement with the theory so far.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the segment an “open-ended endorsement of white supremacist ideology” and said Fox News should fire Carlson for it.
A Fox News representative on Saturday told Insider that Carlson was making an argument about voting rights.
Last year a writer on Carlson’s show, Blake Neff, resigned after it was exposed that he had been writing racist and other bigoted remarks on an online forum under a pseudonym.
Carlson in comments on his show afterward condemned the remarks, said they bore no connection to anything on the show, and then warned of the dangers of self-righteousness.
Gertz said people “used to have to search the darker corners of the internet for bigoted conspiracy theories about global elites making the country poorer and dirtier through an invasion of Third World migrants as a way of engineering the replacement of the US voting population. Now you can hear that on one of the most watched cable news shows in the country, thanks to Carlson.”
Vaidhyanathan said Carlson was most likely at least in part pushing the narratives to drive ratings and appeal to the Trump-supporting base that forms his core audience.
“It’s very difficult, increasingly difficult to make any money and build an audience unless you are engaged in the practice of motivating some base,” he remarked of the news media more broadly.
GOP fails to confront white nationalism
Carlson’s brand of provocation has been a huge ratings winner for Fox News. He’s among the best-known conservative media voices in America, and clips of his show are widely shared on social media and covered by other news outlets, including Insider.
As the raw shock of the Capitol attack fades, some conservatives are adopting Carlson’s line that the violence was not a stark warning of the peril America faces from the threat of far-right extremism but has instead been exaggerated and distorted by liberals.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in an interview on March 13 said he “never really felt threatened” by the Capitol rioters, whom he described as largely “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break a law.”
For Gertz, Carlson instead of moderating his rhetoric in the wake of January 6 is dialing it up as he seeks to continue building his huge audience.
And it’s a key factor, he said, holding the Republican Party back from attempting to seriously confront the threat from white nationalist extremism.
“He has created a clear disincentive for Republicans to join any effort to stem the growth of white supremacist violence, lest they provoke his wrath and the ire of his legions of fans,” he said.