Tucker Carlson 2024: Is the Fox News superstar positioning himself as Trump's natural successor?

Carlson has run up record numbers — and lost all his advertisers. The next chapter seems almost inevitable

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 6, 2020 9:12AM (EDT)

Tucker Carlson (Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson (Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)

Well, that was a Fourth of July weekend for the books, wasn't it? As a deadly pandemic continues to sweep through the country, resulting in an economic disaster, the president of the United States gave a couple of fiery speeches in which he barely mentioned any of that and instead declared war on half of America.

On Friday the 3rd, Donald Trump flew to Mount Rushmore to appear before a flock of adoring fans and deliver the message he intends to carry him through November. He declared that the country is under siege, not just by the "invisible enemy" COVID-19, or even the usual invading hordes of foreigners and terrorists storming the borders. He thundered:

Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.

That wasn't all:

The next night, back in Washington, he delivered a solemn promise to his small but devoted audience of specially invited guests on the White House lawn:

He also repeatedly promised to unify the nation, presumably after all the left-wing fascists, Marxists, anarchists, agitators and looters have been vanquished. First things first.

If you liked his "American Carnage" inaugural address, you had to love this pair of angry declarations of war against fellow Americans on the day the country celebrates its freedom and independence. They certainly reeked of patriotism and love of country.

Actually, they just reeked. Reportedly they were the work of Trump's senior adviser and dark passenger Stephen Miller, who is usually known for his odious demonization of immigrants. It seems he's turned his evil talents to vilifying American citizens as well.

Of course, Miller had plenty of inspiration from the man himself. The president's loathing for any American who doesn't bathe him in glory and admiration has long been obvious. But lately he's turned the volume up to 11 in the hopes that he can whip the culture war to fever pitch by persuading people that these enemies within are literally coming to kill them in their beds. We've known his feelings on these issues since he took out a full-page newspaper ad back in the 1980s headlined, "Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police."

Trump has made a decision that he's not going to talk about unarmed Black people who are killed by police and he's certainly not going to discuss the pandemic that is still ravaging our nation while the rest of the developed world is returning to some version of normal. He's decided instead to take up the lost cause of the Confederacy and Richard Nixon.

He's been getting advice — from someone who has recently received what Trump no doubt considers the most impressive accolade the world has to offer:

"Tucker Carlson Tonight" finished the quarter as the highest-rated program in cable news history, tallying an average of 4.33 million viewers.

As you know, in Trump's mind TV ratings are far more indicative of popularity than political polling, which he still doesn't understand. And Tucker Carlson is killing it on Fox News with his white supremacist fear-mongering, night after night. That is bound to impress the president as a sign that it's the winning formula.

Jonathan Swan of Axios has rounded up a few of the rhetorical parallels between Carlson's recent monologues and Trump's July 4 speech. Here's a small sampling:

  • Carlson: "For more than a month, mobs of violent crazy people have roamed this country, terrorizing citizens and destroying things."
  • Trump: "Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities."
  • Carlson: "The education cartel, enforced on your children, enforces their demands."
  • Trump: "In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance."
  • Carlson: "The Cultural Revolution has come to the West."
  • Trump: "Make no mistake: This left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution."

Carlson should sue Trump for plagiarism. The Washington Post's Paul Waldman has compiled and annotated some of Carlson's other white supremacist screeds, herehereherehereherehereherehere and here.

Carlson is definitely having a moment. Politico reports that those high ratings (even though they have cost him virtually all his advertisers) have Republican insiders buzzing that Carlson is a natural presidential contender for 2024. Apparently, they are assuming that, win or lose this fall, Trumpism is their future.

Carlson is far more savvy than Trump, as are a number of others who define themselves as right-wing populists and natural heirs to the house that Trump built. I've written about Carlson's specific brand before, and it's considerably more dangerous than anything Trump, with his George Wallace old-school Confederate-flavored racism, can come up with. Carlson is much more in line with the new right-wing populism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, which is a sophisticated program that plays on the same fears and resentments as Trumpism but has deeper ideological roots and more serious authoritarian goals.

Pundits and commentators seem to be taken with the fact that Carlson often excoriates the Republican establishment and puts out curious feelers to certain ideas more commonly associated with the left, as if he were some new and unique brand of open-minded conservative. Apparently they forget that until Trump came along and "tamed" the GOP establishment, the Tea Party types had excoriated Republican leadership for years. Recall that then-House Speaker Paul Ryan was booed heavily at a Trump rally in 2016.

As for Carlson's supposed populism, he's simply stoking the same white grievances that Trump does, but simply has a better understanding of how to wrap economics into it. It's a shtick that works for him as a cable news host. It seems that many people in the Republican Party have now decided that the only people they trust to run the country are TV celebrities, so that makes Carlson an early favorite to carry the Trump banner.

There's one highly intriguing wrinkle in this scenario: What if Donald Trump loses this fall and decides he wants to take another run at it in 2024? He'll be the same age then as Joe Biden is now, and it's hard to imagine he wouldn't seize the opportunity to bilk his cult followers out of as much money as possible over the next four years to prepare for a rematch. I don't think anyone's going to be allowed to run with Trumpism until Trump himself is finished with it.

We know what Trump is capable of. But Tucker Carlson already looks like one of the nastiest pieces of work in American politics for a long time — and he's not technically in politics quite yet. A primary battle between them would be brutal. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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