Tucker Carlson and the “Debate Guy” Racket

How the Fox News host pulled off the longtime, lucrative ruse that his heinous opinions don’t matter.

Tucker Carlson
Tucker Carlson poses for photos in a Fox News studio in New York on March 2, 2017. Richard Drew/AP

As TV talking heads go, Tucker Carlson was, even before the Media Matters recordings aired, less a respectable polemicist than an exhausting archetype. His persona has long been the “debate guy.” You know the one: He’s the dude in college who liked to play devil’s advocate by defending unpopular or terrible ideas on the grounds that real philosophical inquiry demands it. But it’s actually a game to be won to him, and he takes obvious pleasure—even pride—in keeping a cool head while watching people with genuine investments get “irrationally” worked up. And he acted the part. Most of Carlson’s signature moves—the blinky open-mouthed listening, his gently patronizing “now hold on,” the chuckles at his guests’ frustration when he interrupts, the borrowed dignity with which he furrows his brows—are gestural shortcuts for reasonableness. And they’re part of a Carlsonian tool set that’s frankly pretty derivative: Carlson yells like a younger Bill O’Reilly and spars like a slower Jon Stewart, all while carefully insisting he’s “not defending” everything from Trump to Christopher Columbus to the Daily Stormer.

Still, the recently unearthed racist, misogynistic bilge he spewed between 2006 and 2011 during his discussions with radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem alarmed plenty of people—and provoked a backlash to his show—partly because Carlson was thought, even by those who remember his embarrassing Crossfire encounter with Stewart, to exist on a slightly higher plane than Fox News’ Jeanine Pirros and Sean Hannitys.

It should arguably have been clear that the Carlson who presents himself as a judicious devil’s advocate shares an awful lot with the Carlson who thinks child rape is a thought experiment. Both treat real, enormous human suffering as if it were irrelevant and abstract. “The rapist, in this case, has made a lifelong commitment to live and take care of the person, so it is a little different,” Carlson says in the unearthed recordings with Bubba, in a conversation about Mormon fundamentalist leader Warren Jeffs marrying a 14-year-old, against her will, to an adult. If you listen, you’ll hear him taking a condescending, last-adult-in-the-room tone in this exchange. “Let’s be honest,” he adds. It’s cunning framing: He, the guy challenging the blinkered but popular idea that child rape is wrong (even when the rapist marries his victim), is the “honest” one.

The exchange sheds light on how hard he has leaned on that reasonable-guy affect, because that tone shows up on his show all the time. It’s a crutch, of course; the “real debate” Carlson ostensibly craves is just a shell game the guest is doomed to lose. “I don’t ever want to hurt people or cause them pain or anything like that. I’m interested in debating ideas,” he told Erik Wemple in 2017, little suspecting that a video of him melting down and swearing when Dutch historian Rutger Bregman actually did debate him would go viral a couple of years later. Bregman released it after Carlson refused to air it.

The “debate-guy” persona is a fraud, but Carlson’s strategy of projecting it has mostly worked. At the heart of his success is a strategic refusal to commit to any one identity, even within the same show. He bills himself as the devil’s advocate, the just-for-the-sake-of-argument dude with no real investment in an argument’s outcome. At other times he acts like a moralizing truth teller. These identities should theoretically be at odds. That they aren’t, and that both are in any case obviously fictions, has not seemed to matter to his viewers. How did the guy who called Elena Kagan ugly and child rape a “lifestyle” successfully bill himself a defender of American families? Why has this shabby schtick worked?

America has spent generations strenuously ignoring the contradictions of people like Carlson, usually on the grounds that an ethical posture this contorted is—without being coherent or right—too common to be objectionable. Curiously, this joking/not-joking posture isn’t generally seen as cowardly. Tradition in fact encourages us not just to embrace the “rough edges” of such men but to equate their conventional but obscene reflections with blunt speaking and freethinking.

Our learned tolerance for this sort of contradiction partly explains why Carlson can appear to be both outraged and blasé on his show: His modus operandi is to inflame his viewers to howling heights of anger while excoriating sincerity of any kind as “preening” and insisting that nothing he says really matters. “There’s this illusion, and it’s created by the people who live here, that everything is meaningful, everything important,” Carlson told GQ. “It’s not.” This is less a humble admission of irrelevance than a deflection of responsibility, and it’s a strategy he shares with much of the far right, which has spent the past two years insisting that the things the president says and tweets don’t actually matter (except, of course, when they do).

But Carlson does have one unique gift, and it’s the remarkable sleight of hand with which he transitions from a sputtering Daffy to a rascally Bugs without letting his viewers notice the Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. His sincerity (like his outrage) is a game, so he whizzes from one affect to another, and the effect is confusing enough that viewers start to see actual hate speech as coextensive with dickish jokes. So what if he says immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier.” So what if he called Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys” years ago—or alluded two months ago to “some obscure Middle Eastern hellhole our leaders claim we should be policing forever.” He put a chyron up while Michael Avenatti was talking that called him a “creepy porn lawyer”! What a scamp.

Carlson is basically a rich huckster, and America loves few things more than the jolly rule bender who winks while he cheats. This figure is all over the place in American culture, from Frank Abagnale to Saul Goodman to crooked televangelists to, of course, our current president—talking people into bad decisions via confusion and charisma, bombast and speed. The huckster can turn on a dime to be surprising, funny, aggressive, demanding. He’ll tap into wells of fear and fellow feeling, find a way to earn your trust, make you feel he’s on your side, and then the con is on. Now that he’s facing criticism and losing advertisers, Carlson issued a statement: “We will never bow to the leftist mob’s attempts to silence us,” he said, the millionaire posing as an embattled Everyman. Only a practiced grifter could capably reframe his real selfish and grasping message—“my problems are yours”—into a martyr’s “your problems are mine.”

For many media types, the conventional-wisdom read on Carlson has long been that he was once a good reporter, has an interesting mind and a knack for performance, and might not actually believe what he says. The bigotry and fearmongering could just be a spectacle for ratings. After all, this is a guy who, in 2009, urged conservatives to be more careful with facts and suggested that the right-wing media should aspire to the standards of the New York Times. That this has earned him some plausible deniability—causing many to regard him more as a polemical clown whose actual ideology is hard to divine rather than a bona fide white supremacist—is a testament to just how available this grift has historically been to men predisposed to exploit it.

It makes sense that Carlson said this stuff in conversation with a shock jock. Shock jocks were once a demoralizing and inescapable plague if you happened to be a radio listener. They used to be everywhere, these bros braying into microphones across the country, laughing at the same tired jokes that stepped over the same trampled lines and crowing at their own courage. The shock jock’s basic con, which Carlson happily participated in, was to say stuff that every bit of mainstream culture sanctioned and reinforced and laughed at—under the fiction that this was awesome comedy and brave convention-busting.

In this context, the garbage Carlson said, horrifying though it was, passed as almost—almost—normal. This is a point David French makes well in his spirited defense of Tucker Carlson: “At the time, [Tucker’s words] passed through the media ether without notice or comment.” French sees this as evidence that Carlson’s words weren’t “ ‘hurtful’ or ‘offensive’ in the truest sense.” French is right that Carlson’s words did go unremarked upon by the media—in other words, by those with the power to object.

This strikes me less as evidence that the words weren’t truly “hurtful,” though, than indicative of just how blinkered the media was back then, and of how little power those who didn’t think child rape or drooling over teenagers was especially funny had to register their views. Consumers were expected to absorb the lesson that denigrating women wasn’t just smart, edgy, and hilarious—it was what free inquiry looked like. The vastly different reaction to Carlson’s comments now versus when they first aired doesn’t prove the banality of the original comments; it just makes Carlson seem like a kind of morbid bellwether for exactly how our culture has changed.

But in the end, despite the backlash, Carlson’s career will surely be fine. Tempting though it may be to investigate whether he is actually a racist or simply plays one to an audience that’s radicalizing across the globe, puzzling over how his public invective squares with his real beliefs seems like a dead end. What matters is that now, the slippage and plausible deniability people like Carlson have cultivated for years between dickish jokes and white supremacy (or jokes and actual child rape) are leading to real-life consequences. That handy joking/not-joking loophole has become an ugly part of our politics. Americans still tend to let men get away with this slippery both-and–ing as if they were uniquely morally separable from their theatrical utterances. Men are the one demographic for whom saying objectionable crap scans not just as cool gladiatorial edge but also—paradoxically—as healthy social adaptability. For them and them alone, saying the outrageous and cruel thing without being saddled or defined by it is so normal it has a name: locker-room talk.