Tucker Carlson plays dumb on TV — but his stupidity is strategically weaponized

The Fox News host's arguments are maddeningly stupid on purpose. He's trying to destroy rational discourse itself

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 23, 2021 1:30PM (EDT)

Fox host Tucker Carlson (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Fox host Tucker Carlson (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)

One thing was inevitable: The Republican propaganda machine was always going to latch onto racist hysterics about Afghan refugees as their primary response to the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Actually surprising, however, is how the propagandists haven't even bothered to make plausible-sounding arguments, going straight for the stupidest claims possible instead. 

The master class in idiotic right-wing arguments comes, of course, from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who on Wednesday tried to blame political refugees for the housing crisis in the United States. "America is becoming a lot more crowded than it ever was," Carlson raved, "and one of the reasons for that is that we are now living through the biggest influx of refugees in American history."

Intrepid Media Matters analyst Matt Gertz quickly debunked Carlson's nonsense, pointing out that this is "the lowest ebb of refugees admitted to the United States since the establishment of the refugee resettlement program in 1980" and that the reason for the housing crisis is "land use regulations make it effectively or actually illegal to increase housing supply." 

As important as it is to counter Carlson's lies, Gertz nonetheless expressed despair on Twitter.

"I have a masochist streak," because "it's fruitless to fact-check a wildly dishonest demagogue like Tucker Carlson." 

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Gertz's gloom is understandable. He's debunking an argument so dumb that it's unlikely that either Carlson or his audience really buys it. Carlson is aware — since he covered the story in his usual "echoing neo-Nazi talking points" way — the most recent census shows U.S. population growth is the lowest it's been since the 1930s. Anyone who passed 8th-grade math understands that even tens of thousands — hell, hundreds of thousands — of refugees are merely a drop in the bucket for a nation that has over 332 million people. Even those bad at math can understand that it's incoherent to argue that refugees cause overpopulation but all the extra babies from white women would not. 

The whole incident illustrates one of the most pernicious problems with modern right-wing discourse: stupidity is strategically weaponized. And the strategy is as simple as it is sinister: make arguments so transparently false and silly that it makes people feel stupid for even engaging with you.

Carlson, in particular, is the master at playing dumb. It is a tactic that requires none of the hard work of learning, only shamelessness and a lack of basic morality. Carlson regularly makes claims so preposterous that it's unlikely even the most QAnon-addled conspiracy theorist can take him seriously. On Friday, for instance, Carlson defended Owen Shroyer, a host on the disinformation site Infowars, after Shroyer was charged for his role in the January 6 insurrection, by claiming Shroyer merely "stood on the Capitol steps." (Absolutely no one is actually confused about the events of that day, or why someone like Shroyer was there.) The day before, Carlson compared being criticized for being unvaccinated to lynching and described racist terrorism as little more than "people that want to turn on the unpopular kid." (Absolutely no one actually believes lynchings were about "unpopularity" instead of white supremacy.) In a segment on the census earlier this month, he said "the non-white people [are] cheering the extinction of white people" and that it's "evil." (Absolutely no one actually believes white people — who are still the majority in the U.S. are going "extinct.") 

Even Carlson's famous "gosh darn it, this is so confusing" expression he wears throughout most of his show — which, no doubt to his delight, is routinely screenshot and mocked by liberals on social media — is part of the act. There is no way that he doesn't know how he looks. But looking dumb is part of the playing dumb act, and it's all an elaborate troll aimed at one end: dismantling the very concept of rational discourse by flooding the zone with extremely stupid arguments. 

While deliberate stupidity is, well, stupid, it's also maddeningly effective. Carlson's playing dumb act works primarily as permission to his audience to let go of any lingering attachment to good faith or rationality. He allows them to instead glory in bullshit. After all, asinine arguments that don't make any sense at all drive the liberals up the wall, and nothing matters more than "owning" the liberals. Why bother being correct when you can be glib instead? 

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As many, many people have pointed out, there is nothing new about this. No less than the famous French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about it in an essay about the use of bad faith in fascism. He wrote that fascists "know that their remarks are frivolous," but they "are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words."

Brooke Binkowski, a professional debunker at Truth or Fiction, has repeatedly hammered at this point: Disinformation is permission, not persuasion.

So while some people who claim that Donald Trump is the "real" winner of the election or that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous may really believe that nonsense, most who say these things do not. What they believe is that truth does not matter. All that matters is power, and if crushing the truth under their boot is what is required to have power, that's what they'll do. That's why the work of debunkers like Gertz is often so demoralizing. The people who are echoing Carlson's lies aren't actually confused and therefore aren't going to say, "Oh gosh, my bad, I will revise my opinions to reflect the facts now that you have shared them with me." They know Carlson is lying, and they are delighted by it because it's social permission to be glib liars themselves. It's why making fun of Carlson's dumb face is missing the point. Liberals may think looking dumb is embarrassing, but for conservatives, it's strategic. So they can't be embarrassed by it because they think they're the smart ones. They've turned being dumb into a weapon. 

It's why Tucker Carlson's arguments are often transparently stupid, to the point where they self-debunk. He is training an audience in the bad faith that Sartre so eloquently described when he wrote that fascists "delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert." It is what modern people call "gaslighting." It's different than lying because liars are often trying to legitimately deceive people about the truth. This isn't about trying to deceive anyone, so much as it's about taking a hammer to the very idea that words mean things, facts matter, and rationality is important.

The right knows they can't win in a debate based on facts and reason. Instead, they're turning political discourse into a whirlwind of meaningless noise. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Afghan Refugees Bad Faith Commentary Housing Crisis Tucker Carlson