Column: Tucker Carlson, not just Trump, damaged conservatism

Tucker Carlson, host of "Tucker Carlson Tonight," poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio, in New York, Thursday, March 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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Tucker Carlson has left the building.

Carlson parted company with Fox News on Monday — reportedly fired — but he hasn’t been in the building most other days over the last couple of years. That’s because he rarely went into the Washington or New York bureaus. He had his own private studios in Maine and Florida, lavish bunkers from which he broadcast his infectious bunker mentality.

But he wasn’t physically in his bubble on Friday. He was in Washington to give the keynote address at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary gala. Tucker was a fitting choice. His first job in Washington was at Heritage, back when both he and it were stalwartly Reaganite. Heritage, which has long boasted of its influence in Washington (it was literally founded to do just that) now fancies itself as little more than a Tucker franchise, a conduit for Carlson’s cable-ready populist rage.

Heritage’s shift from Reaganism has been described by many as a turn to Trumpism, and it is that, of course. But it was also a turn to Tuckerism.

Indeed, most right-wing institutions that depend on a large customer or donor base have embraced a strategy of monetizing the constant stoking of crisis and paranoia as the new True Faith. Small donors are the lifeblood of the smash-mouth populism. When the facts don’t lend themselves sufficiently to catastrophization, fresh ones are invented.

And Tucker was the high priest of that faith.

I quit Fox after more than a decade as a contributor when Carlson released a “documentary” for Fox Nation, a streaming service for Fox addicts who can no longer get sufficiently high off the basic cable junk. His “Patriot Purge,” a farrago of deceptions, fear-mongering and “just asking questions” conspiracy theories, was put together to leave the viewer with the distinct impression that the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was some kind of false flag or deep state operation. It was the last straw for me.

The night before Fox announced Tucker was out, “60 Minutes” aired a segment debunking “Patriot Purge's” central claim that Ray Epps, a Trump supporter at the Jan. 6 rally, was an FBI asset deployed with a MAGA hat to goad the protesters into storming the Capitol so that the deep state could purge our finest patriots before going after the rest of them — i.e., you, dear viewer.

According to this newspaper, that “60 Minutes” segment was a concern for Rupert Murdoch too. Apparently, the $787-million settlement in the Dominion lawsuit wasn’t a factor (which explains why worse offenders on that score remain at Fox). But the two things are not unrelated.

Much has been written about the damage Donald Trump has done to the right, less has been written about how the right had become so damaged as to be ripe for him to take over. An important part of that story is how the right became seduced by Saul Alinsky, the leftist radical, whose politics and tactics were once condemned by conservatives, me included. But many of my fellow conservatives became convinced the left “always wins” and they do so by using “Alinskyite tactics.” Over time, the condemnations turned to admiration, then envy, and, finally, emulation.

Some of Alinsky’s rules for radicals include: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it,” and “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also, it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.” This got translated into “Own the libs.”

This was the soundtrack of Trump’s presidency, for which “Tucker Carlson Tonight” served as a kind of liner notes. Trump’s move was to claim his weaknesses were strengths — his phone calls to the Ukrainian president and to Georgia election officials were “perfect,” passing a basic test for cognitive impairment proved he was genius, etc.

But it was Carlson who took Trump’s biggest political sin — his complicity in Jan. 6 — and spun that into a tale of right-wing virtue and left-wing villainy. That was the point of “Patriot Purge,” — to go beyond merely and meekly “respecting the audience” to outright pandering by declaring that Trump’s most deplorable supporters were actually the right's most righteous victims.

Carlson turned tactics — ridicule, nastiness, flipping the script — into an ideology unto itself. His departure from Fox will not make the network more acceptable to its haters and harshest critics. But Fox without Tucker means the worst elements on the right have lost a megaphone.


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.