Tucker Carlson extends influence on GOP
Fox News host Tucker Carlson isn’t the most powerful conservative in the country.
That label still has to be applied to former President Trump, who continues to influence the GOP at nearly every level of government as he considers a bid for reelection in 2024.
Yet with Trump banned from major social media platforms, Carlson, the top-rated host on Fox, is increasingly seen as a kind of kingmaker within the GOP. And ambitious Republicans looking to climb toward the White House have shown a willingness to bow to him in order to win favor with his audience.
The power balance was on vivid display just last week on the night of Jan. 6, when Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who finished second to Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, essentially apologized to Carlson as he tried to explain why he had described the attack on the Capitol a year earlier as “terrorism,” a description Carlson and his audience didn’t like.
“You called this a terror attack, when by no definition was it a terror attack. That’s a lie. You told that lie on purpose, and I’m wondering why you did,” Carlson said to the senator.
Carlson went on to question the sincerity of Cruz, calling his choice of words “sloppy.”
Cruz followed with several minutes of what news outlets described as “groveling” in an attempt to repair his image with Carlson’s audience and more broadly Trump’s base.
Amanda Carpenter, a former staffer for Cruz and now a columnist at the conservative but anti-Trump online publication The Bulwark, said during an interview with CNN last week the capitulation to Carlson and his viewers is an example of the senator’s “radicalization that happened right there in that interview.”
“This is how Tucker Carlson is guiding the message for the Republican Party on that network,” Carpenter said.
Jeff Cohen, a former cable news pundit and author of “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media,” said Carlson’s rebuke of Cruz is the clearest example in recent memory of the influence conservative media figures have on GOP ideology.
“It’s very unusual in a democracy … where a political party is so influenced by the talking heads in the media,” Cohen said. “Since [Rush] Limbaugh and Roger Ailes setting up Fox News with Murdoch’s money, Fox News has had incredible influence with the line and the tone of the GOP and the issues that the GOP thinks are important. And Tucker Carlson is now the king of Fox.”
Carlson’s show has exploded in popularity since it was launched in 2016. It is routinely rated as the most-watched cable program in prime time among all of the major networks. Nielsen Media Research shows his program finished 2021 averaging 3.2 million total viewers a night. At the same time, the pundit’s controversial segments focusing on topics spanning from immigration to crime and other social issues are regularly panned by leading liberals and media watchdogs.
Carlson produced a three-part documentary series, released late last year on Fox’s streaming service, purporting to tell an “alternative” view of what led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and earned Fox a rebuke from leading members of the congressional committee investigating the attack.
The project, dubbed “Patriot Purge,” also sparked the resignation of two longtime conservative contributors at the network, though Fox argued at the time of their resignation that the network did not plan to renew their contracts.
Both Carlson and Fox News declined to provide comment for this report.
Though Carlson’s segments often play well with the GOP’s most conservative base, the host has not shied away from scrutinizing Trump World figures and the former president’s allies.
One example came in November of 2020, when just weeks after the presidential election Carlson appeared to question the veracity of claims about alleged voter fraud coming from Trump attorney Sidney Powell.
“We took Sidney Powell seriously. We had no intention of fighting with her, we’ve always respected her work. We simply wanted to see the details,” Carlson said on his show of Powell’s unproven claims of global conspiracy to commit voter fraud.
“So we invited Sidney Powell on the show. We would have given her the whole hour — we would have given her the whole week, actually, and listened quietly … that’s a big story. But she never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of requests, polite requests. Not a page. When we kept pressing, she got angry and told us to stop contacting her.”
Carlson told his audience he was calling Powell out “because it’s true, and in the end, that’s all that matters. The truth. It’s our only hope. It’s our best defense. It’s what makes us different from them. We care what’s true. And we know you care, too.”
But Carlson faced unexpected backlash from Trump’s base for the statements, and he later updated his comments to say Powell’s lack of public evidence didn’t automatically disqualify her claims.
Media observers have noted Carlson’s relationship with the former president during his time in office has been decidedly less cozy than that of Fox’s other prime-time hosts.
Trump typically appeared on Sean Hannity’s show or with opinion hosts like Lou Dobbs and Mark Levin during his time in the White House.
Carlson’s name was also absent from a list of high-profile Fox hosts who had reportedly been texting with former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows during the Jan. 6 attack on Congress, pleading with Meadows to get Trump to stop the rioting.
Early in the pandemic, Carlson reportedly traveled to Trump’s resort and residence in Florida to warn him about the seriousness of the coronavirus.
“I think Trump has a really finely calibrated sense of danger and I think it served him well. I think a lot of the people around him, and I mean broadly around him—particularly Republican members on Capitol Hill, in leadership too—were determined to pretend this wasn’t happening,” Carlson told Vanity Fair of the early days of the pandemic.
“And so while I’m not in daily contact with Trump, I do live sometimes in Washington—I know it really well and I know everybody, and I was watching this and I was thinking, ‘That’s just wrong.’ And look, I couldn’t have greater contempt for the people who present the news. Most of them. I couldn’t have greater contempt. And I mean that. But that doesn’t change the truth of what I thought was happening. And the only thing I can control is what I say. And again, I felt like I had to do it, even though I suspected on some level it would probably hurt me if I did it. I thought I should.”
Carlson last summer criticized GOP leadership and its messaging heading into the 2020 elections, calling the party “inept and bad at governing.”
“The party is much more effective as an oppositional force than it is as a governing party,” he said during an interview with Time magazine. “What’s the point in having a convention or a political party more broadly if you can’t be bothered to define what it is you stand for? I found that contemptible.”
Carlson has thrown cold water on suggestions that he could have political aspirations himself one day, including a potential run for president.
“I mean, I guess if like I was the last person on earth I could do it, but I mean, it seems pretty unlikely that I would be that guy,” Carlson said on an episode of the conservative podcast “Ruthless” last year. “If I were running for president — which obviously I would never do, I would be insane to run for president, I would never do that.”
Carlson appears to have positioned himself to be a leading voice in the GOP even with Trump out of office. Some strategists believe his show will become something of a proving ground for would-be 2024 presidential candidates, especially if Trump opts not to run.
“Tucker is trying to catch Trump’s coattails and benefit from that built-in audience,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser. “The question is whether that audience continues to grow and stays engaged around the 2024 question, or if it shrinks as the public loses interest in Trump. Fox is going to follow the viewers.”
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