Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Zooming In, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell. Today we have our editors' roundtable. I'm joined by Shikha Dalmia and Akiva Malamet to discuss Tucker Carlson and the state of the American right.
A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yesterday, the day before we were recording this, Tucker Carlson took to Twitter to announce that his post-Fox News firing or dismissal or whatever we want to call it, plans are to launch a new show on Twitter itself, which was, I think, an unexpected move on his part, but a really interesting one in the media landscape. Let's start there. What should we make of this move in terms of how it reflects upon the state of the American right?
Shikha Dalmia: I'll jump in, Aaron. I guess we should back up a little bit and talk about what Tucker Carlson has so far done for the American right ever since he launched his highly successful show on Fox News. I forget which year, but right around the time that Trump came on. Tucker Carlson was made possible by Trump. If Trump hadn't opened the door to this right-wing populism, Tucker Carlson was an establishment conservative, and he would have stayed that way. Trump opened up all kinds of new possibilities for the right in every sphere, including talk shows.
He came on and he was a populist. He was a conservative populist. Very soon, he broke ranks from Trump. Some of the text exchanges that were revealed as part of the Dominion lawsuit actually suggest that he hated Trump and Trump's personal demeanor and his crassness and profanity and what not and couldn't wait for him to leave. He started searching for “Trumpism without Trump.” In essence, a right-wing populism without the strong man that Trump represented. In this, he was highly, highly successful. This was his right-wing populism of white grievances.
To promote those grievances, he did two things. He took on the class warfare of the left and married it with the white identity culture warfare of the right. This was essentially his formula. We'll get into all the various tropes that he used, his anti-establishment streak, but along with a real hatred of the liberal elite, along with a hatred of immigrants, along with the hatred of minorities and gays. He used that white grievance politics to radicalize his base, radicalize the right. The question is, what happens now he moves from Fox, where he had a very successful platform, to Twitter?
The fate of Fox News hosts who've been fired, whether it's Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck, hasn't been very good. Bill O'Reilly has all but faded. Glenn Beck, if you recall, started something called The Blaze. That was a thing for a while, and now they are both persona non grata. Maybe I'm being a little too optimistic, but I think what will happen to Tucker Carlson is the same thing that's going to happen to Trump on Twitter, which is that they are both going to continue to radicalize a certain subsection of the right, but the subset is going to be much smaller than what it was before. It'll be a smaller, more radicalized, but more marginalized group. That's my prediction. What do you guys think?
“What will happen to Tucker Carlson is the same thing that's going to happen to Trump on Twitter, which is that they are both going to continue to radicalize a certain subsection of the right, but the subset is going to be much smaller than what it was before. It'll be a smaller, more radicalized, but more marginalized group.”
Akiva Malamet: I think the Twitter thing is very important because one of the main features of traditional broadcast media is that it's designed to reach a very wide audience and that's how they make their money is by having a very wide audience. Internet monetization is the opposite. It's all about cultivating a smaller niche audience who are very devoted, very loyal, follow your every move, follow your social media.
You're not necessarily trying to reach everyone because you know that you can cultivate a very specific audience. Just from a strict structure of media point of view, it seems to me very likely that his audience is going to shift, is going to become more niche Tucker fans who are more committed to who are less in a broadly conservative or right-wing temperament and more of a fanboy conservative-populist mode. I think it's likely that his messaging will change to reflect that and may become less guarded than even it was on Fox News. That's hard to say.
Part of Tucker's brand, and this has been pointed out by various people, has been about introducing far-right white grievance politics with a veneer of respectability and plausible deniability. He wouldn't say directly that white people are being replaced, but he would say that there's an emphasis on minorities to the exclusion of whites or something or he would talk about it in more polite terms to make it more acceptable to a mass audience.
I think it's an interesting question to see how much his brand depends on that plausible deniability or respectability and how much it actually depends on him really cultivating a certain voice that people want to hear, especially when he doesn't have to speak to as wide an audience when he's really reliant on a smaller subset. Will his brand actually be reliant on being more forthright or will he still need to maintain some respectability? I am inclined to think that the respectability stuff is very much a function of being a cable news host and trying to speak to a wider array of the American public than trying to be part of a more niche right-wing conversation.
Aaron: I agree that the move to Twitter is fascinating in large part because of the audience shift that this will entail and the monetary shift. Tucker was toxic to advertisers while he was at Fox. A constant story was advertisers dropping his show. He's now moving to a platform that arguably has become more toxic to advertisers than his show at Fox ever was. One where there isn't as wide of an audience to draw mainstream advertisers who don't mind it as much. On top of it, all of that seems like it's going to get a lot worse by the time he actually launches this thing.
I know that Twitter has become flooded with people sharing footage of recent mass shootings and mutilated corpses and just reply-guiding those to people's tweets because Twitter's filters are broken. That thing is going to drive away advertisers even more. It seems like his money is going to come less from advertising and more from—Twitter now lets you subscribe to people so you can pay them a monthly fee, and Twitter takes a small cut and they get the rest.
I think Elon Musk gestured at that when he sent out a note saying, "We didn't actually sign a deal with Tucker," which sounds largely like a way to avoid another Dominion lawsuit. "Section 230 is going to protect us because he's not an employee of Twitter. We want to make that very clear," kind of thing. That gets to the demographics because a huge portion of Tucker's audience at Fox was basically aging boomers who watched Fox News all day. Whether they were specifically drawn to Tucker or not, he was what was on at prime time they were watching their TV.
Twitter is a bit more complicated than that, as far as finding the show and watching it. It's not going to just pop up on your cable television. For one, we should pour one out for all the young people who are going to have to try to explain to their parents and grandparents how to find stuff on Twitter. That also seems like those are the people who'd be most likely to pony up some cash to subscribe to him as well. Younger people don't pay for things as much as older people. I think one upshot of this is he's going to have a much harder time getting dollars in exchange for — that doesn't mean he's going to fail.
He still is going to make a bundle of money, but the cash flow is going to drop quite a lot unless he can sign some significant deals. I'm skeptical.
“We should pour one out for all the young people who are going to have to try to explain to their parents and grandparents how to find stuff on Twitter. That also seems like those are the people who'd be most likely to pony up some cash to subscribe to him as well. Younger people don't pay for things as much as older people. I think one upshot of this is he's going to have a much harder time getting dollars.”
— Aaron Ross Powell
Shikha: Yes, that's actually a fascinating point, Aaron. I hadn't really thought about how the baby boomers who were a big part of his audience are no longer going to be able to access him because they don't know Twitter. On the other hand, another big part of his audience were young white men who are disenchanted, who are alienated. They are flirting with edgelord-ish radical extremist ideologies. A lot of the guests that he had on reflected that. These were not figures that actually baby boomers would know about or would appeal to them, but Tucker had them and he actually did not have them on his Fox show. He had them on that other parallel show, that personal show of his (Tucker Carlson Today), which had one-hour, two-hour things with a single guest.
The kinds of people he had on were like Mencius Moldbug, the guy who invented the whole red pill metaphor and very ardently believed that left-wing liberal political orthodoxy ruled the country in a totalitarian way. That audience is actually quite well-represented on Twitter. Those are the kinds of people who frequent Twitter and would likely, I think, be happy to pay whatever small amount he is going to charge them. I think one shift we can definitely expect is that his audience will shift from the old fading Boomers to these new radicalized young white men. That's where it's all going to come from.
The question is, what will it do to the right-wing politics in this country? I think that's going to be interesting to watch. My prediction is, actually, as you said, they may like Tucker, but whether they are going to pony up the fee is an open question. I think they probably might. If it's $1 a month or something, it may not be a big thing for them to do if they like him enough.
Most Substacks charge about $8 a month. This is likely to be a small fee. On the whole, I think his influence is going to wane.
Akiva: I'm inclined to agree with Shikha, I think his influence is going to wane a lot. As I said, I think as soon as you shift to an internet-based model of media production, you automatically are working to appeal to more of a niche, rather than a mass audience because that's just a function of consuming media through the internet. I think the big question then is, can we have — people asked this about Trump when they thought Trump wasn't going to become significant for the next election, although it may still be true, which is “Trumpism without Trump.”
For that, we got (Ron) DeSantis. DeSantis is angling to defend the same kind of populist conservatism or populist nationalism without Trump's particular character flaws and history. I think an interesting question will be whether you get Tuckerism without Tucker. Whether Fox is going to try and replicate what Tucker does, in this case, that actually also creates competition with Tucker in terms of people looking for something that's not available on Fox anymore. Do they consider him the voice of the right and that ideology is the new space that they exist in, or do they consider it too much of a liability?
That's hard to say because it's not 100% clear why they fired him in the first place. There are lots of different things about the Dominion texts that came out and the specific ones, the thing that he said about the people who beat up that Antifa kid. There are different reasons why Tucker may have been fired. A lot of it depends on what the people who are running Fox see as the direction of Fox and then that will have an effect on Tucker's audience as well in terms of Fox competing with Tucker for the same group of people.
Aaron: This just seemed to raise a fascinating question about the direction of the broader mainstream of the American right and picking up on something you said at the beginning Shikha, which was his skill — the thing that he brought to the table that set him apart from all the other talking heads on Fox and in conservative media, was his skill in basically mainstreaming ideologies that I would characterize as American fascism. Saying them in a way that made them palatable or made it so that people could feel like they weren't listening to some unhinged Alex Jones guy or the avowed white supremacist on Twitter but that there was the plausible deniability of this stuff.
If he moves out of the mainstream, so he moves off of the most watched cable news show or whatever it is to something that is going to be more obscure, even if it still is large on Twitter, that takes that voice out of that larger chunk of the right-wing discourse. Fox could replace him with someone with equally troubling and repugnant views. It's unlikely that that person is going to have the skill that he had. That was his unique advantage in the same way that people who have tried to be mini-Trumps usually fail because as awful as Trump is, he has this uncanny ability to be engaging to a certain set of people that someone like DeSantis just lacks the personality for. He's irreplaceable.
If that's the case, yes, Tucker might radicalize some more people online, but it's possible to imagine a future where the American right is able to drift in a slightly better direction because you don't have as many voters who aren't already committed to this stuff, tuning in and hearing, even if it's in a sublimated way, white grievance politics and nationalist populism and all of the ultra-nationalism and so on that goes along with it.
Shikha: Right. If you think about what made Tucker so successful on Fox News, I really do believe that certain formulae for success work on certain platforms and not on other platforms. And he used the Fox platform to together a very successful formula. First was, of course, as I mentioned, marrying class warfare with cultural warfare. That was one big thing.
The other thing was that he broke ranks from Fox News in trying to do “Trumpism without Trump” in the sense that Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly and Laura Ingraham and all these other hosts at Fox News are like talking heads for Republicans. They are always on message, they're always on cue. He (Tucker) was actually willing to break ranks with them. Even occasionally, call out Republicans. In that sense, instead of Republicans making Laura Ingraham or Sean Hannity by providing this access to power, he was a kingmaker in the Republican Party. DeSantis went on his show many times to peddle his wares.
JD Vance, he radicalized JD Vance. He radicalized Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz, who condemned the Jan. 6 attack after Tucker called him out, backtracked. That was the second attraction that he had. The third was he was somewhat heterodox, he would invite guests who were not part of the conservative canon like Glenn Greenwald, the renegade leftist, was a frequent guest on his show, which gave him the plausible deniability part that, "I'm not like a right winger, I get people from all sides."
The other thing was that he pretended — this is the one that galls me the most was that he positioned himself as the truth-teller, who was saying things that others wouldn't say and giving the unvarnished truth when he was cynically manipulating public opinion. He knew that the election, the “Big Lie” was a big lie. He continued to peddle it on his show. The cynicism with plausible deniability, all of that was part of him. Some of that's going to get worse on Twitter. Some of that, I don't know, may get a little better on Twitter. I have a feeling he cannot replicate that exact formula anymore.
He will become a marginal figure for Republicans, I think. He will no longer be able to play kingmaker for Republicans because he just won't have the figures and a mass audience to do that as Akiva is saying. That too, I think is going to diminish his potency, if that makes any sense.
“He positioned himself as the truth-teller, who was saying things that others wouldn't say and giving the unvarnished truth when he was cynically manipulating public opinion. He knew that the election, the “Big Lie” was a big lie. He continued to peddle it on his show. The cynicism with plausible deniability, all of that was part of him.”
— Shikha Dalmia
Aaron: What do we make of the people who ought to know better advancing those kinds of, I guess defenses of him that he had — "Oh, he wasn't partisan because he had a lot of people from the left on," but then those people from the "left" were people like Glenn Greenwald or Tulsi Gabbard who might agree with him on a handful on — might be left on some issues, but weren't really like — these weren't the mainstream of the American left. These weren't culturally left people. These were pretty right-wing people in a lot of ways. The truth-telling — it just does seem like there are a lot of people who ought to know better who are if not defending him, at least saying, "We're going to miss him because he was providing something valuable."
Akiva: I think that there are various shades and groups here, but there's a whole denomination of people who — let's call them the “anti-woke crowd.” People who really, really don't like identity politics for a whole range of reasons. Sometimes because they're more traditional lefty Marxists, sometimes they're more like centrist liberals or whatever. Those people on the left who don't like woke-ism or what they perceive woke-ism to be, since I think woke is a fairly nebulous term that is often used more as an epithet than in service of clarity.
I think a lot of people became Tucker fans because they were upset. It's kind of a "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," thing where Tucker's calling out this stuff that they don't like about identity politics and this stuff they don't like about the various ways people in the "woke camp" will call out what they see as oppression. Tucker was opposed to that because Tucker's whole platform is about white grievance politics. By necessity, he’s anti the woke platform. They've become allies of Tucker even though what Tucker is calling for is far beyond just worries you might have about excesses of the left. He's mainstreaming as Shikha said, white grievance politics.
He's mainstreaming fascist talking points and is fundamentally concerned about the loss of status for certain traditional groups, white Christian, straight, cisgender men. I think that plays a big part in Tucker's popularity. You don't just see it with Tucker by the way. I think you see that a lot with the whole “intellectual dark web” type people who grouped around saying, "We're not right-wing, we're just concerned about wokeness," but inevitably you see the creep toward an embrace of right-wing talking points so much that someone like James Lindsay who is going on and on about critical theory and post-modernism is now talking about things like “Cultural Marxism” and “white genocide” and so on.
Again, one group is just people who really don't like woke-ism. Another group are, who in the process of disliking the left, have themselves become right wing. You saw that with Lindsay, you saw that with Dave Rubin very prominently who started out being this kind of, "Well, I don't like some of the way the left talks." He was talking to a lot of classical liberals for a while. Then eventually he came out and said, "I'm voting for Trump and I'm supporting all of this right-wing, this populist white grievance politics” stuff.
Shikha Dalmia: Right. I think that's a good taxonomy of the people who like Tucker. I would add a third group to that, which is actual lefties. American Prospect did this. I haven't read the piece because it was apparently a pretty bad piece and the magazine had to retract it.* But one of the things that Tucker did do was produce a certain political realignment, or he helped — Issues that were traditionally associated with the right and those associated with the left, he jumbled them up and he mixed them up. That drew in a whole bunch of people who were actual lefties.
Some of the tropes that he used drew them in. He was anti-war, he's against the military-industrial complex, and he's against big corporations. He turned against Big Pharma. I think he had Robert F. Kennedy on his show or maybe he got fired before he could do it. I'm sure he would have had him on his show. These were lefties who have been using this vocabulary back in the 60’s, heard it reinvented by Tucker, and thought, "This is something interesting. This is something new." You have that subset I think also who got attracted to him and slowly sucked into his right-wing politics.
Akiva Malamet: Yeah, I think that last group is actually quite important because what's notable about Tucker, the move Tucker makes is that he uses the same framing of oppressor and oppressed that you see on parts of the left, he just makes the groups different. Instead of whites oppressing blacks which would be on the left, it's blacks oppressing whites, or minorities oppressing whites.
“The move Tucker makes is that he uses the same framing of oppressor and oppressed that you see on parts of the left, he just makes the groups different. Instead of whites oppressing blacks which would be on the left, it's blacks oppressing whites, or minorities oppressing whites.”
— Akiva Malamet
In a way, this is also why I'm wary of excessive — this is a larger conversation about how we think about the political narratives we tell about simple narratives of the oppressor and the oppressed or the elites and the people or whatever because it so easily lends itself into a Mad Libs fill-in-the-blank narrative of pick the people that you don't like and the people that you ally with, and it becomes this, "We need to mount this titanic struggle to defeat whoever's in power on behalf of the people who are being oppressed." Which is not to say we shouldn't care about oppression, of course, but it easily lends itself to Tuckerification just with different groups.
To some extent, that's what I worry about, especially political discourse where you basically have two competing narratives that are basically the same in structure but different in the group emphasis. You need a discourse that transcends this simple narrative of like, "Well, the real oppressors are the capitalists versus the liberal elites that Tucker wants to talk about or something," which also creates. It actually reifies Tucker's discourse if you're just switching the groups out.
Aaron: You're right that a lot of his appeal is building this narrative for people who have felt disaffected in various ways by what they imagine to be the mainstream of American politics. A lot of it is, "You've been wronged by elites, by the people who control the commanding heights of culture, often by foreigners who are taking your jobs or taking your culture."
There's this odd simultaneous, "These enemies who are invading or degrading us simultaneously strong enough to be a grave threat we have to fight back against, but also are all weak and effete themselves," which is where you get this cult of masculinity that he has played into of "We are the manly man standing up against this weak enemy that is also at the same time so powerful that it's a threat to our way of life," which is a confused perspective but is common in these political ideologies.
At the same time, we've talked about how he's now going to be building this narrative on a less pervasive platform, one that will have a smaller audience and is likely to lead to him speaking without the guardrails that he had to some extent at Fox. The mask of this is going to come off, and the white nationalism and so on is likely to be more explicit, less dog-whistley. Does that narrative that he's building, as weird as it sounds, present a significant threat when it's no longer on a mainstream platform, and no longer presented in this way where you can wink, wink, nudge, nudge plausible deniability?
Shikha: Yes, good question Aaron. I really like how Akiva framed what Tucker had done, which is to take standard social justice causes of oppressor vs oppressed, and then just put different content in them. There is that, but he also affirmatively does believe in a certain white superiority. The text that eventually may have proven his undoing about the Antifa kid that Akiva was referring to, where he says something like these white men were beating the Antifa kid and at one level he wanted them to beat him up more, but on the other hand, “white men don't fight like that”. Now the level of delusion that is required to make a statement like that in a country that has had slavery, that has had Jim Crow, that has had lynching, that had the Tulsa race massacre in 1922, and then it whitewashed, no pun intended, that entire history to make white people look like the good guys and all of this, that's pretty breathtaking. I think he believes that. He actually believes that. I think with these guardrails down, this self-righteous understanding of "white supremacy whites are better," is going to come out. I think the trick for him is going to be able to keep doing that without actually sounding like a white supremacist.
Which means that making white people actually sound like the victims and marry it with a righteous narrative about their goodness as opposed to the badness of these other groups, which will always be there. That can't be the totality of his message. He has to somehow continue to build that white people are good people. They're moral people, they like clean roads. They don't like littering like these dirty Third World immigrants.
He's going to have to pull that trick. To the extent that he is less successful, it does give opponents of Tucker Carlson, or not Tucker Carlson, but (opponents of) this insidious, reactionary right-wing narrative also an opportunity. There's going to be a re-sorting, I think in American politics, partly because of what he's done and he's continuing to do, and other people who are going to take his place. They are going to draw the people who are naturally attracted to these reactionary ideas into one place.
Which means that the rest of us can actually work on drawing the people who are not attracted to these ideas from across the political spectrum into some kind of a healthier, pluralistic, tolerant, liberal, civil society polity, which is what The UnPopulist is all about. I think there is a sorting happening that he is emblematic of, and there is going to be a sorting on this other side. There is going to be a battle of ideas. There's going to be political battles and what have you, but him taking away the dredges with him might help us clear up the rest of the body politic for healthier purposes. I don't know, at least that's my optimistic take.
Akiva: I think a lot of that is right. I think it only works though if a viable social narrative is created. If we offer a viable social narrative. I mentioned before that Tucker's modus operandi is basically taking left-wing social justice frameworks and swapping in right-wing grievances. I think what's at the core of that whole idea is the notion that the world is a zero-sum game. That it's us or them. We win, you lose or you win, we lose. It's very much white or black, it's either the traditional gender roles or it's the more expansive gender roles or whatever.
I think something at the heart of liberalism in a very broad sense is this idea of cooperation and that there are advantages, and “gains from trade”, the economists like to say. Then in general, there is a lot of possibilities for people who are quite different from each other to benefit from cooperating and interacting with each other, and really, the way to diffuse the Tucker narrative is to show that to people and not, as some people on the left have done, to say "Tucker is right, except the real problem is the capitalists or whatever."
Especially because sometimes those narratives actually blend together.
Famously Bernie Sanders said that open borders is a Koch brothers proposal, which could have been said by Tucker. It's very much the same idea, that "The elites are trying to control you, they're trying to create a conflict. Conflict's inherent in human life, and someone has to win." I think the liberal message is that we can all win if we learn how to cooperate with each other. I think that undertone to media that's alternative to Tucker is very important.
“Bernie Sanders said that open borders is a Koch brothers proposal, which could have been said by Tucker. It's very much the same idea, that ‘The elites are trying to control you, they're trying to create a conflict. Conflict's inherent in human life, and someone has to win.’ I think the liberal message is that we can all win if we learn how to cooperate with each other.”
— Akiva Malamet
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Zooming In at The UnPopulist. If you enjoy this show, please take a moment to review us in Apple Podcasts and also check out Re-Imagining Liberty, our sister podcast at The UnPopulist, where I explore the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. Zooming In is produced by Landry Ayres and is a project of The UnPopulist.