When American right wing media star and potential US presidential candidate Tucker Carlson interviewed Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, you might imagine that a flag waving, self-proclaimed patriot from the most powerful liberal democracy in the world might have harsh words for his host. After all, in 11 years of rule, Orban has turned his country into an authoritarian nightmare where the pretence of democracy is undermined by his takeover of any institution that might hold him accountable.
But Carlson had nothing but praise. “You’re truly hated by all the right people,” he told his Hungarian hosts at a dinner party.
The adulation didn’t stop there. Visiting Hungary’s 100-mile razor-wire border with Serbia, Carlson said: “It doesn’t require a GDP the size of the US, it doesn’t require high-tech walls, guns, or surveillance equipment. All it requires is the will to do it.” And he congratulated Orban for not allowing his “nation of 10 million people to be changed forever by people we didn’t invite in and who are coming here illegally”.
What is the star of Fox News doing in Hungary, taking lessons in leadership from Europe’s most autocratic ruler? Well, his slobbering admiration for Orban is no big mystery. They share some things in common: unapologetic bigotry, contempt for democratic institutions, a lack of humility and empathy for other people. And as practised liars, they both performatively deny any of these things are true. If Tucker Carlson were simply another Fox News mouthpiece, his attraction to strongmen would be of marginal importance, but he shares another of Orban’s traits; a lust for power.
He reportedly has presidential ambitions – Carlson has consistently been in the top ten of bookmaker’s favourite to unseat Joe Biden in 2024 – and he likely considers Orban’s path to power a playbook of sorts.
Americans often wrongly confuse what Carlson does with journalism, but it’s not. It’s unadulterated propaganda with a dash of conspiracy.
The distinction is important, because Carlson has the most highly rated cable news show in prime time. His audience is elderly. Only 16% of Carlson’s viewers are in the 24 to 54 demographic, which you could probably glean from the proliferation of pain relief medication adverts running on his evening show.
Carlson’s viewership, 3.2million, is a tiny slice of the American population but political media is disproportionately influential, in part because whatever Carlson says on air is then distributed into different formats – soundbites excerpted on other news shows, quotes in more traditional news outlets, and repeated on talk radio.
And, more significantly, his rhetoric is particularly conducive to endless conversion into the internet memes that eventually end up as faked Facebook posts of woke leftist Brooklyn being recreationally looted and burned by non-white people. (As a resident of woke leftist Brooklyn, the closest thing to rioting I’ve seen was the time the local organic co-op ran out of oat milk).
Carlson is able to further this narrative because he exploits the fears of rural Americans who live in white enclaves and have little exposure to fellow citizens who do not look like them. This creates a sense of persecution, and an inferiority complex vis-a-vis urban populations, which are viewed as either “coastal elites” or, if they’re not white, sources of crime and poverty.
A coastal elite himself, he play-acts a working class guy who fly fishes and wears flannel, allowing him to tell his audience they’re being manipulated by those same elites. This is part of Carlson’s trick: he asserts that the elites are out to get you, and well, he’d know, even if he’s not really one of them any more.
“The elite has turned against its own people, and that’s not healthy,” he pronounced recently in a magazine article. “Simply put, the leadership of the country hates the American people.”
His methodology is both slick and insidious. Last week, he ran a segment on his online-optimised show Tucker Carlson Originals baselessly claiming that Democrats were importing people into the US from the third world to change the demographics of the country and dilute the power of white Christian men in America.
“Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people—more obedient voters from the third world,” he told viewers. “But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.”
This is replacement theory brazenly recast as concern about permissive immigration policy – and it’s every bit as ghastly as neo-Nazis on the streets of Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us!”.
Carlson has some things in common with Trump demographically: inherited wealth and a career propelled in part by nepotism. Carlson’s mother is an heir to the Swanson frozen food fortune, and his father ran the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He is an alumnus of several private (or as you Brits call them, public) boarding schools. His brother Buckley is a Republican political operative.
He reportedly has a salary of $6 million a year and is worth upwards of $30 million but said last week, with a straight face, “I’m not rich.” When he was sued for defamation last year, his own lawyers argued that what he does is essentially entertainment and that no reasonable person would believe anything he says. But if his popularity is any indication, there aren’t very many reasonable people watching.
And Carlson is more Trumpy than Trump in many ways, which bodes ill for America should he successfully run for president. He’s built a constituency of people who believe wokeness is a crime greater than autocracy and has managed to gaslight them into believing that the press, the government, and anyone who’s not white, not male, or not a Christian is out to get them. Recently, he complained Democrats won’t go on his show because they think he’s a white supremacist. In this, at least, he is accurate.
His bigotry is more open than Trump’s in some ways because he can dress it up in language that makes it sound less crass. He’s more articulate than Trump, but not in a way that puts the anti-elitists who despise higher education off. He’s simply able to make the horrific things he’s saying sound reasonable. And he has said some horrific things: he called Iraqis “semi-literate primitive monkeys”. He’s called women “extremely primitive”. He said Afghanistan would never be a civilised country “because the people aren’t civilised”. He’s said all of the predictable things about the Obamas and black people.
Aside from a few dropped advertisers, he’s faced no consequences for any of this. If anything, his popularity has only increased, at least among his hardcore fanbase; racists who like their political avatars insufferable and smug.
If his ultimate vision is realised, America will become more like Hungary: an illiberal anti-majoritarian and authoritarian state dominated by white Christian men.
Orban is a lawyer who’s used his skills to consolidate his power by exploiting loopholes and weaknesses in the law, and everything he does is technically legal.
Carlson is a broadcaster with the same intent; exploiting a large constituency of viewers who are also voters and who view him as someone who really does speak for them.
And what he has to say is appalling.
- Elizabeth Spiers is a writer and former editor-in-chief of the New York Observer and Gawker.