Tucker Carlson finally spoke Wednesday night about his firing from Fox News—sort of. In a bizarre video posted on Twitter that ran over two minutes and never directly acknowledged the week’s events, he said, “True things prevail. Where can you still find Americans saying true things? There aren’t many places left. But there are some, and that’s enough. As long as you can hear the words, there’s hope.”
The video is vague and borders on meaningless—unless you know whom Carlson is trying to talk to. While much of his elder Fox News audience isn’t likely to follow him away from the network, his conspiratorial fringe has been looking for signs from him since Monday.
“Until he announces it, it’s a rumor,” a user wrote on a popular right-wing forum soon after the news broke. When another user posted a link to the press release on Fox’s website that confirmed the news, the original user replied, “I don’t believe Fox News ever since that Arizona election debacle. Do you have a more reliable source?”
By the end of the day, once it became clear the news was true, the Carlson faithful came to a conclusion: “Tucker was the closest to unadulterated truth we have ever had on TV. That’s why he was a massive threat that needed to be eliminated.”
The “truth” these users spoke of refers to Carlson’s inflammatory rhetoric about immigration and the “great replacement” theory, the white nationalist message that made Tucker Carlson Tonight resonate beyond people susceptible to MyPillow ads. Carlson’s statement on Wednesday included barely veiled winks at that audience. One extremism researcher sent me a flyer circulating Wednesday that echoed Carlson’s rhetoric and speculated he would soon enter the 2024 presidential race. After all, it reasoned, he speaks “the same truths that got Donald Trump elected president in 2016.” Fox News had become part of the “anti-white controlled opposition.”
The question now is how long Carlson can keep this going—and whether Fox News’ move will ultimately make any difference. “The white nationalist movement has lost one of the most important promoters of their ideas. And that’s really significant,” said Lindsay Schubiner, a director at the Western States Center, a progressive anti-extremism group. And yet, she said, “in many ways, a lot of the damage has already been done. I don’t expect this to fundamentally change the dynamics of the mainstreaming of bigotry.”
Pasha Dashtgard, the director of research for American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab, is not upset to see Carlson go. “Some of the orders that are taking effect in Missouri, for example, denying gender-affirming care to residents and creating a massive panic as a result of this fear campaign in right-wing media—the loudest person in the room on that was Tucker Carlson. And that pressure will be slightly alleviated with his absence,” Dashtgard said.
But as someone who spends much of his time “on all of the worst parts of internet,” he too is skeptical of how much this moment will ultimately mean: “There’s this kind of mutual-reinforcing thing—Tucker Carlson is bad and is doing harm, but also, there is clearly a market for that kind of rhetoric. And it remains to be seen whether or not replacing that guy will mean that the teleprompter has different content on it as well.”
The liberal watchdog group Media Matters, which has tirelessly chronicled Carlson’s descent on Fox, is also reluctant to celebrate. Madeline Peltz, its deputy director of rapid response, told me Carlson was the “main conduit” between internet conspiracies and mainstream politics. “He invented a bridge between 4chan and 8chan and the fringes of the internet and mainstream conservative media institutions like Fox News,” she said.
Peltz watched Carlson every night for years, and noticed early on how theories that originated on the online fringes, particularly white supremacist ones, were repeated by the prime-time host. She expects that to continue. “Fox News is still Fox News. And I think it’s really important to keep that in mind,” she said. “Those deep structural forces are still all in place. And whatever climber—grifter—is looking to take over for Tucker Carlson, they’re going to try to build on what he brought to that hour and make it worse.”
Meanwhile, the audience Carlson helped coax out of the woodwork remains. Dashtgard said there is not much that would bring that group back to reality. “De-radicalization is a really hard thing to do. And it’s not scalable. I might be able to, like, counsel somebody over many years to change their worldview, to change their ideology. But it takes a lot of time and resources, and it takes a willingness on the part of the person to de-radicalize. That’s why we are really into prevention-based interventions, because the idea is: Can we offramp people before they go down the rabbit hole?” he said.
Dashtgard’s view was borne out by what I saw online this week. “He mentioned demographics,” a user posted on a fringe platform after Carlson’s statement Wednesday night, in which he slyly invoked demographic change. “That put a smile on my face.”