This article is part of Watching Fox, a Slate series about Fox News.
Tucker Carlson does not actually care if you think he is a racist. He pretends to care a great deal, of course, because this—loudly decrying purported liberal intolerance, that is—is his shtick now. Every evening on his Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight, the cable news veteran takes exaggerated umbrage at the notion that liberals would dare impute racist motives to conservatives’ words and policies on immigration. Pushing back on the liberal thought police is Carlson’s new bow tie, and it is just as much an affectation as the old one.
Since Carlson—the son of a former U.S. ambassador and stepson of a Swanson Foods heiress—assumed Bill O’Reilly’s old Fox slot a couple of years ago, he has come to assume his predecessor’s mantle as champion of the aggrieved white middle-class American. It’s not as natural a fit for the preppy Carlson as it was for Big Daddy Bill, but Carlson has made it work for him by focusing his energies on two issues: the scourge of illegal immigration and the purported intolerance of the political left. Coverage of the so-called migrant caravan has merged both of these passions into one malignant mega-issue just in time for the midterm elections.
Donald Trump’s GOP is a party of revenge and resentment. Trump and his boosters press hard on those two sentiments in order to motivate their voters to go to the polls and strike back at their critics. For two decades now, and especially since Trump took office, Fox News has been working to convince working-class Americans that their greatest oppressors are the liberal elite. With the midterm elections almost here, Fox News has redoubled its efforts to make this tendentious point.
The caravan—or, more precisely, liberal reactions to the caravan—has been a great boon to these efforts. I suspect a major reason why Trump and Fox News have been making so much noise about the caravan over the past couple of weeks—besides the xenophobia that they come to honestly—is that they want to goad liberals into calling them racist. Liberals say this, of course, because Trump is a racist. But when they call out his evident racism for what it is, Fox News springs into action, devoting hour after outraged hour to reporting on how liberals think Trump and his supporters are racist.
All of the network’s opinion hosts have been sounding this tune lately, but Carlson’s voice has bellowed loudest. Since I resumed watching Fox News for this Slate assignment, Carlson’s show has been almost single-mindedly focused on nurturing and feeding viewers’ resentments over being deemed racist by the liberal elite. Night after night, especially lately, his opening monologues and subsequent segments all center around the idea that liberals are only crying “racist” in order to chill free speech and silence conservative objections to their long-awaited open-border socialist utopia. Tucker Carlson’s viewers aren’t racist. Liberals are the real racists for presuming that Tucker Carlson’s viewers are racist. This is almost all that Tucker Carlson’s show is now—no matter which story is animating the news on a given day.
Here’s how Carlson began his Wednesday night show:
If you’ve been watching the other channels lately, there is at least one thing you learned about the caravan of Central American migrants currently marching toward our southern border: The whole thing is no big deal. These are nice people, every single one of them. Much better people than you are. They have the deep moral authority that comes from living in a Third World country, unlike you, Mr. Pampered Suburbanite. They’re not invaders, they are future model Americans. There is nothing at all to worry about, we’re told. Well, that’s been the chorus from politicians—and news anchors who think they’re politicians—for weeks and weeks now. If you have any concern at all about this caravan, you are a bad person. In fact, you, sir, are a racist.
Here’s Carlson on Tuesday night, discussing Trump’s idea to end birthright citizenship by executive order:
The [14th] Amendment was designed to ensure that newly freed slaves would be treated as the American citizens they were. The point was to enfranchise African Americans. The point was not to enable the rest of the world to scam our system, to abuse our generosity. Trump’s proposal will get us closer to the purpose of the 14th Amendment, and for that he is being denounced, naturally, as a racist.
And from Monday night, discussing the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting:
The murderer was angry about illegal immigration. If you oppose illegal immigration, you are very much like the murderer. Even if you never killed anyone, your views have inspired others to kill. You are implicated in this atrocity. You are a monster, just like the lunatic in Pittsburgh. You must change your beliefs. Otherwise, you will be punished. This is how free speech dies and free thought along with it. The range of acceptable opinion mimics the CNN script. Before long, everyone is nodding piously along in unison. There is no disagreement. There is only conformity.
Carlson isn’t alone in stoking these fires. Here’s Sean Hannity on his Tuesday night program:
The mainstream media, those on the left, are still going to great lengths, lying to paint a false narrative picture of the president, of Fox News, talk radio, and even many of you, the American people. Racist, condoning and inciting such reprehensible violence night after night, day after day, minute after minute. They paint all conservatives, most Republicans, as cancerous hatemongers.
And here’s Laura Ingraham on her Wednesday night show, as the chyron read “RACISM IS ONE OF DEMOCRATS’ FAVORITE TRICKS”:
Racism seems to be one of the most potent forces that the Democrats have in their trick bag this midterm season. Everywhere you turn, the refrain is the same. … Rather than mount credible arguments in the face of Trump’s success, it’s easier to tar him and all Republicans who ever supported him as racists or members of the Third Reich. They’re completely race-obsessed on the left.
As it happens, The Ingraham Angle celebrated its one-year anniversary the other day—congratulations, I guess?—so I revisited Ingraham’s opening monologue from her very first program. “The people took their power back on Election Day, and the establishment is mad as hell. Let’s face it. They really don’t like the American people, not very much at least—or their forefathers. There’s a self-loathing in the air,” she said on her inaugural broadcast. One year later, she’s still giving much the same speech, as are many of her Fox News colleagues.
Fox News has always been intent on convincing its viewers that liberals hate them and their way of life. The fact that Carlson uses rhetorically fallacious strategies to make these points—that he relies on straw men and assumptions and projections and such—is beside the point. The point is to make viewers feel as if they have been personally wounded by the things that Fox News tells them that liberals have said, so that they will then get very angry and stick it to the Democrats on Nov. 6—and, of course, keep watching Fox.
It’s a very effective plan, and a cynical one too. The network is boosting the story of the “dangerous” migrant “invasion” in part because it knows that liberals will be repelled by it. When liberals take Fox’s bait, the network then proceeds to generate content out of their repulsion. And not just a little content—the “liberal intolerance and hypocrisy” storyline generates hours and hours of programming for Fox every single day. It’s impossible for a Fox viewer to avoid it, and it’s very difficult to avoid being affected by it. You can have no real opinions about immigration, or the border, or the caravan, and still know that you don’t like being told that you, or people ostensibly like you, are a racist. Even if no one is actually calling you a racist, you might easily begin to think that they are, given that Tucker Carlson keeps loudly insisting that it’s so. “Do you think nations need borders in order to be nations? Did you imagine that as an American citizen, you should have some voice on who comes into our country?” he asked his viewers on Oct. 24. “The cable news geniuses have a message for you. Shut up, racist.”
So fear not, all you cable news nongeniuses out there: Tucker Carlson will never shut up. Why would he? Whether you think he’s a craven opportunist, an actual xenophobe, or both things at once—that’s my guess!—he has found a gimmick that works for our truly ugly times. Triggering the libs, it’s clear, is really about triggering his own audience in turn. It’s scary how well it works.