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The Tucker Files
What Tucker believes in the privacy of his own home doesn't really matter
Last night, at Mar-a-Lago, the right’s most popular media personality, Tucker Carlson, sat down with Donald Trump, the right’s most beloved political icon.
The fact that this interview happened at all is a testament to Tucker’s remarkable sway with the conservative electorate.
I say that because one of Trump’s defining characteristics is rewarding those who say nice things about him and punishing those who criticize him. But here was Tucker, at the former president’s base of operations, sitting a few feet from the man he absolutely torched as a “demonic force.”
How did we get here?
If you remember the Tucker Carlson of old, as I do, you remember an insipid, bow-tie-wearing Republican lightweight with the sensibilities of a glee club chaperone.
That’s what he was, for example, when then-Daily Show host Jon Stewart went on Crossfire, the CNN show Tucker co-hosted, and basically depantsed him in front of his own audience. But Tucker changed, and grew in power over time.
When 2016 forced conservatives to either acquiesce to the Trump hijacking or get off the train altogether, Tucker leaned all the way in.
Today, Tucker is a conspiratorial firebreather whose nightly program functions as the premier agenda-setting vehicle for right-wing narrative-formation.
Look at how someone as ordinarily rhetorically hard-nosed as Ted Cruz was made to grovel at Tucker’s feet in order to rehabilitate his image after triggering his base by referring to January 6 as a “violent terrorist attack.” Cruz was bullied for several minutes on air as punishment for telling the truth, and Tucker seemed to relish his role as the right’s preeminent gatekeeper.
What the Lawsuit Against Fox Revealed
Dominion Voting Systems’s righteous defamation lawsuit against Fox News has pulled back the curtain on a lot of internal Fox misbehavior. As part of the process, we got a bunch of Tucker’s texts. And what came out was … interesting.
Apparently, Tucker has far more contempt for Donald Trump than I think anyone expected him to have.
Well, privately-held contempt. But contempt nonetheless—from arguably Trump’s most influential propagandist throughout the entirety of the MAGA era.
This revelation says less about us than about him, however.
It’s not our fault we interpreted the undying commitment to MAGA apologia that nightly emanates from his program as a reflection of what he really believes. We couldn’t have known that the sheer intensity of his public sycophancy for Trump was just a performance. There have been zero indicators in the past few years that Tucker was a closet Trump hater.
But, fair play, he really does seem to hate Trump.
Not, you know, enough to tell the truth to his audience. But, c’mon, that’s Herculean in its impossibility for an audience-obsessed misinformation merchant like Tucker.
Still, he hates Trump and at least privately hopes someone else will come to the fore and displace him among the Republican faithful.
Here are some things Tucker has said in private about Trump:
“I hate him passionately.”
“What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”
“We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There really isn’t an upside to Trump.”
“Hard to believe [Trump will skip Biden’s inauguration]. So destructive. It’s disgusting. I’m trying to look away.”
“We are very very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights, I truly can’t wait.”
“Trump has two weeks left. Once he’s out, he becomes incalculably less powerful, even in the minds of his supporters. He’s a demonic force, a destroyer. But he’s not going to destroy us. I’ve been thinking about this every day for four years.”
“Trump insisting on the election being stolen and convincing 25 percent of Americans was a huge disservice to the country. Pretty much a crime. Inevitable it blew up Jan. 6th. Best we don’t mention his name unless essential and certainly don’t support him. We have to respect people of principle and if it comes to the Senate, don’t take sides. I know he is being over-demonized, but he brought it on himself.”
I share a lot of these sentiments. They are commendably and appropriately harsh.
In fact, it’s quite possible Tucker’s personal feelings about Trump go far harder than those of most Trump critics. Calling him a “demonic force” and admitting to “passionately” hating him—there is serious bite behind these words.
The problem, as I’ve been arguing, is that Tucker’s been singing an entirely different tune in public.
Predictably, after the texts came out, Tucker made sure to walk back his words:
I spent four years defending his policies. … And I’m pretty straight-forward, I love Trump. Like, as a person, I think Trump is funny and insightful.
But neither his private texts nor this public disavowal really matter all that much. What matters is what he does day in and day out in his primary arena of influence. And there, in that space, Tucker’s been about as pro-Trump as it is possible to be.
I want to dwell on this private/public discrepancy, because I think it clarifies something important about political discourse.
For years now, I’ve been beating the drum that a commentator’s public output—their articles, tweets, podcast appearances, etc.—is the only relevant metric for determining where they land on the political spectrum.
It’s not a novel insight; every single tradition has some version of this underlying point. Socialists, for example, talk about praxis being preeminently important; Christians talk about faith without works being dead, and that whatever you may confess, if your actions don’t line up with it, you are a hypocrite; conservatives lionize Trump’s “He fights!”-ness precisely because they feel he gets results, irrespective of whatever private reservations he may have about social conservative values.
When it comes to people who comment on politics for a living, or really just anyone who enjoys even a modicum of influence in the discourse, private beliefs don’t really matter.
I mean, they do when a person’s private beliefs are the same as their public positions. I expect this is how it is for most of us. I’m certainly not engaged in some sort of bad-faith performance when I tweet what I tweet, or write what I write. When your beliefs drive your actions, the beliefs matter, because they’re causally influential.
But whenever a mismatch does exist between a commentator’s private and public views, the private beliefs become entirely immaterial. The only thing that matters is one’s public efforts, the stuff you say from your discourse perch, and Tucker is one of the best examples we have of that.
You Are Whose Interests You Serve
Years ago, I made a similar point on Twitter, in reaction to a number of tweets I saw from right-wing media critic Stephen Miller.
Miller was responding to Bulwark writer Mona Charen’s description of him as a Trump supporter. I waded in to say that the utterance “I’m not a Trump supporter” is something a person like Miller says when he wants to continue serving the Trump movement’s interests with literally every tweet he composes … without incurring the guilt-inducing opprobrium of actually being pegged a Trump supporter.
Miller defended himself by saying he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 and wouldn’t vote for him in 2020. But how does what Miller does in a private booth on Election Day alleviate the unending stream of anti-anti-Trump messaging that is his Twitter account?
When someone like Miller essentially says, “Wait, how can I be a Trump supporter when he’s not even my preferred candidate?”, they are equivocating over the term “support.” There are two possible uses in play here: being a Trump supporter can mean (1) voting for him, or (2) serving his interests. The first, in this context, is obfuscatory—who you pulled the lever for on Election Day doesn’t necessarily have any impact on your discourse output. It’s the second meaning of “Trump support” that matters here. Whose interests is a commentator’s content is exclusively, or near-exclusively, serving? That’s the relevant question.
When we use discourse labels like “Trump supporter” or “right-winger” or “liberal” (or whatever other label) for prominent individuals in the takes ecosystem, that label is not indexed to that person’s electoral preference. Rather, it’s indexed to their words and actions in the discourse. That’s the only relevant metric.
I then offered a simple thought experiment to sharpen the point: If God were to switch out the Stephen Miller we know for a Stephen Miller who is exactly the same but is also a Trump supporter, how would he behave any differently than he does now?
If your answer is: “Well, the replacement Miller votes for Trump whereas the one in our world doesn’t” … that response doesn’t fly since, from our perspective, there would be no identifiable difference. When you devote nearly 100 percent of your public output to beating back Trump’s critics, you should forfeit your ability to reputationally deflect the negative effects of running interference for the MAGA movement.
Now, Tucker is fake in a way Miller isn’t—but there’s an error there either way, an error present in both cases. It’s just that Tucker’s error is deceiving people into thinking he likes Trump, and Miller’s error is deceiving himself about what his daily output amounts to.
Although I give Miller more credit today than I did when I wrote those tweets long ago, it’s hard to deny that they’re both serving Trump’s interests. That’s just what it means to devote all of your energies to criticizing right-wing moderates, centrists, and everyone left of center at a time when the beneficiary of all these criticisms is Trump.
It’s usually fine to allow people to define themselves, to situate themselves within the arena of political commentary, but not when it’s obvious that they have a reputational interest in obscuring their real position. In other words, we shouldn’t automatically rubberstamp a commentator’s self-conception, because there’s a clear disincentive for them to label themselves accurately if doing so carries with it a socially discrediting element.
Miller gets more credit than Tucker does. Both of their audiences are overwhelmingly pro-MAGA, but Tucker wants to retain his audience, so he fakes liking Trump, while Miller also wants to retain his followers, but instead of fake-liking Trump, he simply relegates Trump Criticism to a very insignificant portion of his total output. If 49 out of 50 tweets are about how Democrats are the worst, Miller’s audience won’t have occasion to notice his wrongthink.
As I said, that’s a more commendable approach than Tucker’s, who with every waking breath props up a political figure he doesn’t merely harbor private reservations about, but actively hates and believes is terrible for America. At least Miller has the decency to not explicitly praise Trump.
But the overarching point is that, ultimately, what a political commentator spends their energies on—especially if they have a following on social media—should not be seen as epiphenomenal to our public appraisal of where they’ve landed on the political spectrum.
Tucker’s Private Anguish
So what do we do with the revelations that Tucker hates Trump?
This is unsatisfying, in a way, but nothing.
Because the texts don’t really mean anything—which is manifest in the fact that last night’s interview happened in the first place.
The texts did nothing to disincline Tucker from granting the president an hour of softball sycophancy so that he can keep lying to the American electorate.
The texts did nothing to mitigate the millions in pro-Trump promotional content Tucker has donated to Trump’s cause for over half a decade.
The texts did nothing to counteract the torrent of MAGA messaging Tucker has freely given to Trump over the years.
This is important because, one blessed day, when Trump finally departs the political scene, and when the wreckage from the Republican Party giving its reigns to a fraudulent, Reality TV Philistine is laid bare, Tucker will try to retroactively style himself as someone who supported the will of the people, but who had reservations about Trump all along.
He must not be allowed to innoculate himself against the reckoning that will come when Trump’s singular destructiveness is more widely recognized.
Aside from Trump himself, Tucker has been the most effective signal-booster for Trump’s American carnage. What he says in the privacy of his own home, and what he believes in the privacy of his own heart, means absolutely nothing now. It never really did.