“How can you lead a country you despise?” Tucker Carlson snarled from his desk on Fox News Tuesday night, in a widely panned segment. Under chyrons like “HATING AMERICA IS A MAJOR THEME FOR DEMS RIGHT NOW,” the red-faced wonder shouted at images of Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Ilhan Omar and called them “vandals” set on plundering American culture.
Carlson called Duckworth “a coward,” “a moron,” “a callous hack,” “a fraud,” “deeply silly,” and “unimpressive.” He made it easy for many to come to her defense. None was more forceful than presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, whose spokesman accused Carlson of “hate speech masquerading as journalism.” The New York Times called the attacks “nativist smears” in the news pages. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Dick Durbin, as well as columnists for the Washington Post and CNN, all defended Duckworth; CNN said Carlson had “crosse[d] the line.”
Notably absent from this outcry was the other subject of Carlson’s rant: Ilhan Omar. Carlson has hit her over and over again, famously drumming up hysteria for her “some people did something” gaffe, and not stopping since. “If anyone should love America, it’s Ilhan Omar. This country rescued her from a squalid Kenyan refugee camp,” Carlson said Tuesday, leaning into the racist trope of the ungrateful immigrant. “But Ilhan Omar is not grateful. She hates us for it.”
Carlson went on for a while after that, but he was more animated by Duckworth’s refusal to come on his show in the segment, and seemed content to hoist up Omar’s image and use her as a trusted boogeyman alongside his new target. But it still seemed notable that while the segment was worth a full write-up in the Times, Omar was mentioned only in passing. CNN’s condemnation—which said “Carlson’s attacks on [Duckworth], his literal questioning of her patriotism, should be considered far out of bounds by most reasonable standards of public decency”—didn’t mention Omar at all. Didn’t Carlson’s comments about her cross the line, too?
Duckworth is a combat veteran, a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who earned a Purple Heart after her Black Hawk helicopter was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. She lost both legs and some mobility in her right arm. The vulgarity of suggesting she’s a “callous hack” who hates her country is obvious, and if I had to guess, Carlson’s provocations on Tuesday night were designed to draw Democrats and his CNN adversaries into condemning him. It’s good for ratings: His show was No. 1 on Fox News in June, propelled by the same kind of vitriol.
But his claims about Omar were no less grave than his comments about Duckworth, and they haven’t been for the past two years, since Omar was elected to Congress. She now travels with extra security because of sustained threats on her life. But the forceful defenses of her rarely ever come. When she was being smeared as an anti-Semite, many in her party equivocated on its support for her, and now, many seem content to pretend she isn’t there at all.
The comments Carlson was attacking Omar for last night, by the way? “We cannot stop at the criminal justice system,” she had said. “We must begin the work of dismantling the whole system of oppression, wherever we find it.” That’s it. But in a strangely telling moment, Carlson took “system of oppression” here as a personal attack, extrapolating the comment to mean Omar had called to “dismantle the American economy, and the American system of government.” “We hate this country, we want a new country!” he told his viewers Omar was saying, mocking both the congresswoman and his own viewers for being dumb enough to believe his words more than the video he just aired. (A few weeks ago, Fox News lawyers argued in court that Carlson’s own viewers don’t believe he reports facts.)
The last time he used tropes like these, Omar delightfully shot back, “Not gonna lie, it’s kinda fun watching a racist fool like this weeping about my presence in Congress.” She gives the image of blithe resolve in the face of this. But letting comments like Tuesday’s pass with anything less than the forceful rejection Duckworth received is a major lapse. Maybe it simply doesn’t seem newsworthy anymore that a Fox host used Omar as a punching bag. Maybe it’s politically safer to publicly defend a U.S. veteran than a Black Muslim refugee. But broadsides like these endanger both Omar and other immigrants like her. “We have every right to fight to preserve our nation, our heritage, and our culture,” Carlson said venomously on his program, the possessive making it clear whose country this is, and who must be cast out. Rhetoric like this threatens lives, not just “public decency,” and it’s no time to be politically expedient in whom we choose to defend.
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