Tucker Carlson’s New Preppy Bully Pulpit

Tucker Carlson (Credit: Fox News)
Tucker Carlson (Photo: Fox News)

Tucker Carlson has a new show on Fox News called Tucker Carlson Tonight. It takes the place of Greta Van Susteren’s show, and thus serves as a lead-in to The O’Reilly Factor. Carlson’s new hour could be seen in part as a deserved reward for enduring his previous Fox assignment: sitting on a sofa with two people not operating on the same level as he does, as co-host of the weekend edition of Fox and Friends. There were some Saturdays at 6 a.m. when Carlson announced an upcoming segment featuring, say, new barbecue equipment, or a hot-yoga demonstration, and you could almost see his soul shuddering a little. Tucker Carlson Tonight makes better use of his talents.

But what exactly are those talents? Carlson’s TV persona is that of the Smartest WASP in the Room, the plu-perfect preppy. His rep tie and self-consciously mussed hair are the status symbols of the sort of jaunty yet pious fellows who are fixtures of summer homes up and down the Connecticut-to-Maine corridor. As such, Carlson is a deft debater, trained since posh boarding school in how to appear to win any argument not merely with logic and rhetorical vigor, but also his superior gaze.

In all this, he’s the exact opposite of a self-styled working-class brawler like Bill O’Reilly, which actually makes them excellent time-period companions. Their styles could not be more different, yet they both relish steamrolling over anyone with the temerity to disagree with them. Twelve years ago, Jon Stewart went on a self-righteous rant on CNN’s Crossfire when it was co-hosted by Carlson and Paul Begala, accusing their show of “hurting America.” (Stewart was both prescient and full of himself; time has not been kind to this tirade.) Now Carlson has become a pure entertainer who makes no pretense of convincing you he truly believes half the stuff he says. He’s there to rumble, alternating a frown of faux-earnestness with a grin of happy triumphalism.

Tucker Carlson Tonight has been on the air only since mid-November, but it didn’t take long to establish its tone and format. At the top of every show, Carlson proclaims that his hour is “the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and group-think.” It’s certainly refreshing to turn on a prime-time Fox News show that doesn’t feature the usual array of Fox bobbleheads such as sonorous Charles Krauthammer or that scary Sheriff David Clarke. Instead, the first segment of each edition of Tonight is usually given over to a current news item, for which Carlson books a guest who might represent the side that Carlson takes issue with. These topics have ranged from a critique of the Trump electorate with the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, to a very small-beans story about the head of an Albuquerque Internet marketing firm who announced he didn’t want to do business with Trump supporters.

In both cases, Carlson smiled, thanked the guest for appearing on the show, and then proceeded to come down on him like a ton of bricks. Carlson said that Kristof’s recent columns have characterized Trump supporters as Nazis and Ku Klux Klan supporters. Kristof pointed to the column Carlson held in his hand and said, “No, I said precisely the opposite: that one cannot stereotype Trump voters,” but his protest fell on intentionally deaf ears. And so it went, with Carlson telling Kristof he “hasn’t thought deeply about the suffering of your fellow Americans” and Kristof citing one column after another in which he had; Carlson throwing out more points he said Kristof hadn’t made, followed by Kristof quoting himself, refuting Carlson’s charges. “Good to be in the lion’s den,” Kristof said upon leaving, looking a little dazed.

In the case of the Albuquerque CEO, Matthew Blanchfield, Carlson scoffed at his announcement that he didn’t want to do business with Trump supporters. When Blanchfield defended himself, Carlson wrapped up the segment by saying, and “Boy, you are on a moral vanity trip like I’ve never seen,” and “I think we’re veering into hysteria here.”

This is a common Carlson tactic — when he can’t refute a point or answer a question lobbed back at him by a guest, he starts blowing smoke, yelping to Wesleyan University president Michael Roth (with whom Carlson debated so-called sanctuary campuses), “I’m totally losing track of your position!” when Roth had made his position perfectly clear. In Roth, Carlson was dealing with a social equal, and as a consequence met with someone he could not buffalo as easily as most of the people with whom he stacks his show.

Which is not to say that Carlson doesn’t sometimes pick overinflated gasbags who deserve to be punctured with an accurately thrown dart. When Carlson brought on “activist author” Tariq Nasheed to explain a tweet Nasheed had posted that clearly implied racism on the part of a white police officer, Nasheed failed utterly to back up his claim, instead huffing and puffing about “false narratives” and Carlson’s “suspected white-supremacist views.” The whole thing was tensely amusing, but come on — Nasheed is the author of advice books for women including The Mack Within and The Art of Gold Digging; in plucking Nasheed’s dumb tweet from the entire Twittersphere, I think Carlson’s bookers knew this was shooting one very small fish in a barrel.

There’s no denying the entertainment quotient of Tucker Carlson Tonight; for the moment, it’s novel to see an articulate fellow run verbal rings around some of his sillier guests. But once people get wise to Carlson’s sandbag-the-guest bit, I wonder how many media bigwigs like Kristof will be willing to get punched around. The show may soon be reduced to beating up on guys who’ve posted “Occupy Wall Street 4 Ever” photos on Instagram.

Tucker Carlson Tonight airs weeknights at 7 p.m. on Fox News.