There is never a good time to talk about Tucker Carlson. As John Oliver recently reminded us, offering up attention to those who seek attention in a media world driven solely by monetizing our scarce attention feels uniquely horrible. But Carlson has been pushing harder and harder on his defense of a national voting regime that limits the ability of what he described last week as “new people, more obedient voters from the Third World” to vote. His flirtation with anti-immigrant dog whistles has become a full-on marching band, which means it may be time to talk about him. As he invoked “white replacement theory” last week, Carlson was at pains to say that he wasn’t endorsing the “great replacement theory,” a noxious idea prevalent in white supremacist circles that describes the ways in which white cultures are reverse-colonized by Black and brown immigrants—led by Jews, progressives, and globalists—who are building to an extinction-level event. The theory is cited time and again by mass murderers and Nazi enthusiasts. In defending Carlson this weekend, Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch insisted that Carlson wasn’t amplifying these white ethno-nationalist talking points; he was merely talking about who gets to vote. That’s quite strange because Carlson wasn’t talking only about voting and, as his clarification of his position this week makes clear, he wasn’t only talking about immigrants either.
In response to a call from the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt to fire the Fox host over the dip into dangerous racist tropes, Murdoch insisted that “a full review of the guest interview indicates that Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory.” In Murdoch’s fun retelling, Carlson actually renounced the theory when he said the following: “Everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it. Oh, you know, the white replacement theory? No, no, no, this is a voting rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?” Not to be too lawyerly about it, but adding the words no, no, no before parroting a racist theory about a foreign-born electorate that dilutes your vote doesn’t represent a real disavowal.
But the most interesting aspect of Carlson’s choice to hide behind “voting rights” in his claims about “new people” and “obedient” voters helicoptered in from the “Third World” isn’t just that it’s of a piece with the burgeoning conservative trend of stating outright that some minorities should absolutely have a harder time voting—a triple lutz perfected last week in the pages of National Review. The weird thing is that in hiding from accusations of the kinds of racism that alienate sponsors, Carlson ended up saying that his biggest problem is actually with natural-born American citizens who vote for Democrats in red states. In other words, he’s building himself a pretext sandwich: He isn’t just decrying immigration or immigrants voting; he is also decrying Americans voting so long as they are Democrats.
As Heather Digby Parton points out, Carlson’s strange alternative “demographic” complaint isn’t actually about immigration at all, lawful or otherwise. It is about how some Americans are less American Americans. Perhaps he thinks it gets him out from under the pile-on about being anti-immigrant, but it also vaults him into pre–14th Amendment, Dred Scott–sounding claims that citizens of one state may not be citizens of another, or even of the U.S. And as jarring as the racism may be, the attack on some Americans as foreigners in their own country is almost more radical.
Following calls for his firing over the anti-immigrant comments, this week’s Tucker Carlson wants us to be reassured that he is just as worried about Californians who move to Texas as he is about everything else. In a new turn, Carlson railed against replacement within the country because, he warns, lawful U.S. citizens have flipped states from red to blue. He pointedly raised recent “white liberals” from New York turning Vermont blue and Massachusetts residents doing the same as they move to New Hampshire—“demographic change,” he called it, that brings “their bad habits with them.” He can’t be invoking racist replacement theories as long as he’s blaming the white yoga instructors who have ruined Aspen in the same way that he blamed the “Third World” immigrants he deplored last week. The “brand-new electorate” of non-Americans are just as worrisome when they’re coming from New York and Massachusetts. And Carlson’s new concern is not merely the dilution of his own vote, but also the deterioration of “beautiful places” because liberals are fleeing to the “pallid hideaways of Boise and Bozeman, distorting local culture and real estate markets as they do it.”
It’s not the worst sleight of hand, pretending that so long as you also loathe rich white people from California (note: Carlson is a rich white person from California), you can’t be a racist. But he’s not even fully committed to the cover. Having made his point about New York liberals who ruined Vermont, he swiftly reverts to his primary point: “But in most of this country, it is immigration from other nations more than anything else that has driven political transformation. This is different from what we’ve seen in places like Vermont. Americans have every right to move to new states if they want, even if they have silly political opinions. But our leaders have no right to encourage foreigners to move to this country in order to change election results. Doing that is an attack on our democracy.”
It’s easy to say the whole white yoga instructor thing was just pretext, jazz hands to stop advertiser boycotts. But that doesn’t feel like the end of the story. Because by calling into question the white liberals who move from state to state within the country, he was also implying something sinister about their voting rights. The implication on this front is that there is something illegitimate happening whenever Democrats relocate from one state to another. There is something illegitimate happening whenever the people within a historically red state make a different choice when they cast their ballots. And lest it sound insane to claim that any red state vote for Biden is fraud, recall that that was also the root of Trump’s big lie about the 2020 election as well as the Jan. 6 attacks on the capitol. By connecting immigrants who vote in America to American voters who pull the lever for Democrats, Carlson has in fact leashed the increasingly vocal claims that the parts of the electorate who voted for Biden are not real Americans to his own claims that anyone who emigrates to the United States is an inherently suspect voter.
That’s new. And by connecting these two ideas—and padding them in a lot of mumbo-jumbo about being canceled and his personal heroism in speaking suppressed truths—Carlson isn’t just trying to immunize himself against the ADL’s original claims about racism. He’s adding to the growing drumbeat that holds that any vote for a Democrat is itself an act of democracy-killing fraud.
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