"Dark Brandon Tonight": Joe Biden, Tucker Carlson and the lure of the unsayable

It was just a coincidence that Biden announced his next campaign right after Tucker's downfall. Or ... was it?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 30, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Tucker Carlson as "Dark Brandon" (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Tucker Carlson as "Dark Brandon" (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There are more people who love Donald Trump than who love Joe Biden; I think that's indisputable. 

The thing is, love isn't all that important in politics — or at least in Normieville, so-called-democratic politics. To a large degree, that's what confused a lot of people into storming the Capitol in stupid outfits, and a much larger number of people into believing it was kind of cool and at least somewhat justified that it happened. It was about magical thinking and conspiracy theory — which are both really compelling — and about the obvious fact that many, many people had passionate feelings about Trump, while hardly anybody had any such feelings about Biden. 

At a certain level of subconscious logic, it didn't make sense that a candidate who struck so many people as a profound and semi-mystical embodiment of the American spirit — and it wasn't just his fans who saw him that way — could lose to a candidate of maximum "meh," understood even by most Democrats as a symbolic safe harbor, the best available option under the circumstances. 

This expressed not just a difference between Democrats and Republicans but, to use the overwrought terms of this moment, the difference between those who aspire to democracy and those who yearn for fascism. When liberal democracy is more or less functioning (in other words, not right now), politics is the art of the possible, the search for half-a-loaf compromises and least-bad options. It's only in authoritarian politics that we find a quest for the absolute, the beautiful and the true. That's what makes the charismatic leader at the pinnacle of power, the hero athwart history, ultimately irresistible at both extremes of the political spectrum; that's why Ezra Pound saw a fundamental connection between poetry and fascism.

Speaking of major cultural figures with troubling trajectories, it was intriguing, if not entirely surprising, to learn that Tucker Carlson is not among the people who love Donald Trump. Their symbolic relationship has always been complicated, although their audiences overlap to a great extent and Carlson has arguably done more to promote, shape and mainstream Trump's worldview than anyone else on the planet. I suspect Carlson has done more for Trump — or at least more for the Trump persona and the MAGA "movement" — than Trump himself has, given the former president's bottomless appetite for self-destruction.

Joe Biden launched his long-expected re-election campaign this week, less than 24 hours after the far less expected news that Fox News was kicking Carlson to the curb, apparently having decided that his persona or his rhetoric or his theatrics, or just his sheer Tucker-ness, was more trouble than it was worth. 

There's no explicit connection between those headline-making events, only a sort of funhouse-mirror distorted reflection. I believe Carlson was speaking from the heart in saying that he hates Trump "passionately," but of course that doesn't mean he prefers Biden, who as noted above does not tend to stir the passions. What agitates Carlson about Trump, I imagine, is the intense frustration of being forced to put up with such a bumbling, small-minded buffoon as the only available figurehead for a (supposedly) noble project of American renewal and transformation. 

Tucker Carlson clearly has actual beliefs, even if they're mostly paleoconservative retreads. He may have something approaching a political or cultural vision, in a medium-terrifying social-fascist vein. It must rankle him endlessly to see that Trump transparently cares about nothing except his own aggrandizement and that Trump's millions of supporters — trapped in a flattened fantasy universe of coded signals and endlessly posable stick figures (George Soros! Hunter Biden!) — don't really seem to mind.

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But was the Biden announcement, coming so soon after Tuckergeddon, really a coincidence? As all those blue-check users out there lamenting the fact that the "woke mob" somehow got to Logan Roy — sorry, I mean Rupert Murdoch — already understand, there are no coincidences. It's the next chapter of the Great Replacement: Dark Brandon, the only truly successful own-goal scored against the right in the political meme wars, is literally replacing Tucker Carlson, whose next-to-last offering in the Fox universe was a video about how it's gross to eat bugs. 

OK, that isn't what "literally" means: Unfortunately, we're not quite ready to roll out "Dark Brandon Tonight," a full hour of nightly woke-mind virus subversion that will soon have once-manly American patriots going nonbinary, driving toy-scale electric cars and spreading bug-tofu cream cheese on their spelt bagels. 

Now that the "woke mob" has conquered Fox News at last, it's nonbinary pronouns, toy-scale electric cars and bug-tofu cream cheese for every formerly red-blooded American.

A lot of stuff has been written about Tucker Carlson since his abrupt departure, and a lot of it displays the distinctively American discomfort with ambiguity and contradiction. Another way of saying that is Americans (of whatever ideological stripe) don't really do history: We just project our current obsessions and preoccupations onto the past, as if it were a giant movie screen, and then congratulate ourselves for seeing so clearly what we have projected.

Tucker Carlson is a uniquely toxic figure in the current media landscape because he is a uniquely contradictory figure; the two things are not opposed or in conflict. There are plenty of other folks in the moldy recesses of right-wing media eager to launder or rationalize white supremacist conspiracy theories formerly consigned to the outermost fringe, or to promote incel-flavored laments about the relentless persecution of white heterosexual men. Most of them suck at it. Only Carlson had the cunning or genius (or perhaps the conviction) to combine those primordial far-right impulses with occasionally fiery populist critiques of corporate capitalism and neo-imperialist U.S. foreign policy, views otherwise exiled to the socialist and/or libertarian margins. 

It's neither useful nor necessary to claim, as anguished liberals often do, that Carlson's unorthodox opinions on economics and global affairs are just cynical posturing or part of a nefarious long-con propaganda campaign on behalf of Vladimir Putin. Carlson's admiration for Putin is right out in the open (as is his loathing for Volodymyr Zelenskyy), but I see no reason to regard any of that stuff as insincere. It all fits into a far-right American worldview with a venerable if not honorable tradition, one that Carlson has almost single-handedly rebooted for this century: isolationism, nativism, mythic and sentimental individualism, an ingrained and unquestioned ideology of white supremacy and male supremacy, a generalized mistrust of all large institutions, all centers of power and all forms of academic or professional expertise. In other words, know-nothingism, now repackaged as know-everythingism.

Carlson's non-right-wing apologists (a select but colorful group!) have a point, sort of — but it isn't the point they think they're making. The fact that Carlson was the only cable news host with a large national audience who was willing to put certain anti-war or anti-corporate voices on TV speaks to the impoverishment and groupthink of liberal-centrist public discourse in general, and CNN and MSNBC in particular. But it doesn't tell us much about Tucker Carlson, and you don't have to venture far into Tuckerville to figure out that his purported areas of agreement with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are strictly rhetorical, and not at all about boring details like health care, unions, reproductive rights and the transition to a green economy.

An already infamous article at the American Prospect fell into this chasm in spectacular fashion, spinning out a dime-store contrarian "Tucker: Cooler than you think!" narrative at considerable length. Beyond a bland reference to "nativism," authors Lee Harris and Luke Goldstein never mention that readers in, y'know, certain categories of humanity might feel personally or collectively under threat as a result of Carlson's torrential hatewashing, or that actual professed fascists are among his biggest fans.

That article was feckless and dopey, but if anything Andrew Prokop's effort in Vox to both-sides the ensuing controversy was somehow, and hilariously, worse. There is, Prokop writes, "a long-simmering tension within the liberal-left coalition":

Are social justice politics — combating racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry — so important that any enemy of that project, especially one with views as virulent and influence as immense as Carlson, should be declared anathema?

Or are issues like challenging the US foreign policy establishment or corporate power important enough that it's worth finding some common ground with people who espouse bigoted views — even people who espouse them quite loudly and often?

That's the sort of binary equation that sounds true for a split second until you actually read it and think about it. It's just journalism imitating Twitter, and not in a fun way. Is there a living human anywhere in the real world who would fully subscribe to either of those statements, both of which have been prevaricated away into meaninglessness by the time we reach the question mark?

In the actual world of politics, culture and society, context matters. History matters. Tucker Carlson has a history and also belongs to a clear historical tradition, neither of them pleasant or edifying. (Father Coughlin's pro-fascist, antisemitic 1930s magazine was called Social Justice!) He doesn't get a hall pass from the radical left for coincidentally or instrumentally signing onto a few worthwhile debating points. If there are always a handful of dewy-eyed leftists ready to tumble for the latest iteration of the "red-brown" coalition with the far right, maybe the editor of the American Prospect should suggest they read a book.

Liberal orthodoxy, and the related tendency to circle the wagons around a Democratic president, have an unfortunate history too. I have a bad feeling about the fact that it's tough to ask legitimate questions about the Ukraine war (about causes, objectives and ends, for instance) without being called a Putin stooge or an eight-dollar Elon cuck. 

Making certain things unsayable only increases their allure, as Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson both understand. Dark Brandon doesn't say the unsayable, and in his civilian identity as president of the United States, he doesn't say much of anything. Maybe that's the source of his power; those other two guys are showing cracks.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Commentary Dark Brandon Donald Trump Elections Fox News Joe Biden Media Tucker Carlson