From his perch at FOX News, Tucker Carlson was beating back criticism from liberals and neoconservatives at the same time. The subject was immigration.
“The point of our immigration policy, the point of all of our policies is to help Americans,” he told viewers. “Watching out for our citizens is the only reason we have a government in the first place.”
Just a typical Wednesday on Tucker Carlson Tonight. If we are living through an “America First” moment following Donald Trump’s election as President, Carlson has emerged as one of its leading media voices. He has taken over Bill O’Reilly’s time slot on the country’s top cable news network and, according to Nielsen, held on to his predecessor’s ratings while offering a much smarter and more principled conservative populism. It’s made Carlson, once thought of as a journeyman television commentator, one of FOX’s undisputed stars.
It wasn’t an obvious career path. Carlson, 48, cut his teeth as a reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette but first became known to a national audience as a smart, witty writer for The Weekly Standard. (He’s still on the masthead, at least as of the February 5 issue.) But the tragic results of the Iraq war pushed him in a different direction, at a time when that was still very much discouraged in his Beltway-conservative circles.
“I think it’s a total nightmare and disaster, and I’m ashamed that I went against my own instincts in supporting it,” Carlson said of the war to the New York Observer. “It’s something I’ll never do again.” That was in 2004, when George W. Bush still defined for a lot of people what it meant to be a conservative.
“My change of heart wasn’t primarily ideological,” Carlson, for whom I worked for nearly three years at the Daily Caller, told me in an interview. “It’s not like I was at a dinner party and someone explained a more beguiling worldview and I signed up for it. It was nothing like that. It’s just that I’ve always thought your ideas ought to be right, and the way that we know if they’re right is if they work. So the point isn’t to come up with the most elegant theory of everything—that’s a freshman-year-in-college exercise. The idea is, if you are formulating or commenting on public policy, to try to figure out what serves people.”
Carlson described the evolution of his views as a coming-of-age process.
“[T]he reason my views changed is that I got older and the country changed,” he said. “I noticed that a lot of things that I thought would work didn’t work. There’s deep resistance in Washington to acknowledging that.” He mentioned research challenging the effectiveness of Head Start, a liberal early-intervention education program he said he would have presumed to be beneficial, before moving on to ideas still widely held by movement conservatives.
“I’d always believed you ought to judge ideas by the fruits they bear, and a lot of the ideas that I subscribed to in 1995 that I thought were right turned out to be wrong,” Carlson said. “One of them was that you could make the world better by bumping off dictators. I think there are certainly occasions when that’s true, but it’s not always true. Like most young people, I didn’t understand the law of unintended consequences very well. I just thought that if you add this to that you get a predictable result—but you don’t a lot of the time. You don’t have any idea what is going to happen.”
“I had always thought of myself as a conservative, but I just became more conservative over time in the most straightforward way: I don’t think you ought to radically redesign society without thinking through what the results are going to be,” he added. “I also came to believe that the people in charge didn’t know what they were doing.”
For Carlson, this, too, was about growing up.
“I think everybody as a natural function of age has that realization. You’re 35 or 40 or 45, and you realize, ‘Wait, my parents were making it up as they went along? Most of what they told me was totally ad hoc?’ If my parents, who were the wisest people who ever lived, if they were making it up as they went along, I don’t know, what about the chairman of the Federal Reserve? The chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the President himself or the head of Goldman Sachs—maybe they’re all making it up as they go along. Maybe there is no esoteric knowledge to which they have access and I don’t; maybe they’re just going with their best guess—and maybe they’re totally wrong. And maybe, in fact, some of them are lying.”
“There were two things I always noticed as a kid about adults that always put me off,” Carlson explained. “They seemed kind of wishy-washy. They seemed less morally certain than I wanted them to be, and I realized that as you age you become less morally certain because you understand how flawed you are. You understand that actually good people can do terrible things, and vice versa: Bad people can do good things. It actually is more complicated than you think. I think if you are an awake person, that creates a little humility and maybe causes you to pause before weighing in or believing that one fix is going to solve all of our problems.”
“The second thing I noticed about them was that they were susceptible to conspiracy theories,” he continued. “Young people hate conspiracy theories because they suggest the game is rigged. They suggest all you were taught as a kid, that hard work, perseverance bring success—like maybe that’s not true. So kids really hate conspiracy theories. Older people are susceptible to them.
“I’m not endorsing conspiracy theories; I try to resist them because I think they are often an attempt to make sense of a confusing world in the most simple way possible. But I also kind of wonder if older people believe in conspiracy theories because they’ve been around and they know they exist. And not just conspiracies where people meet off-site to subvert the system, but conspiracies of like-mindedness, of similar temperament, of instinct,” Carlson said. “Maybe if all the people in charge are from pretty much the same world and have the same preconceptions, maybe they, maybe unknowingly, act together to produce a certain result.”
After entertaining these views, Carlson said he went up to his “mental attic” to take a second look at all the mementos he had kept in intellectual storage. “I became a conservative in 1984, the height of the Cold War. So when I became a conservative, I had a whole kind of price menu of beliefs,” he said. “You’re for SDI, and you’re against abortion, and you’re for this and against that, and you sign up for the whole combo platter. And that’s fine—it’s just that, at some point, you should go and reassess. Most people get their politics in college, and they don’t ever go back to it and ask, ‘Did the things I thought were going to happen actually happen?’”
Carlson said his job as a political commentator has forced him to “constantly think through what I believe.”
“As a kid, I was always pretty aggressively pro-choice. And I was for the death penalty. And I was basically for open borders. And I believed that wars generally against unjust regimes made America stronger and the world better,” he told me. “These were all assumptions that I had that I no longer have. In fact, I have the opposite view of every one of those issues because I thought about it.
“It turns out abortion doesn’t liberate people. And maybe people are squeamish about it because it is killing, and you shouldn’t kill people except in self-defense, and that’s exactly why I’m against the death penalty, too,” Carlson added. “If wars are so great, then name a country that has become more peaceful and stable and prosperous after waging a lot of them. Did they do anything good for the British Empire? No, it collapsed because of it. The most benign empire in human history couldn’t withstand the strain of two world wars. [War] destroyed it.”
Foreign policy isn’t the only area where Carlson did some rethinking.
“On immigration, I grew up in California, which has more immigrants than any other state,” he said. “Has it gotten richer and more impressive? No, it’s become less prosperous and more dysfunctional. It was the richest state in the country when I grew up. It now has more poverty than any other state. That’s not all the product of immigration, but is mostly the product of it, I think. They had the best schools in the country; now it has some of the worst. It had a thriving middle class; now they’re all in Oregon.
“What happened? Third World immigration does not make you richer. It turns out that importing millions of poor people is not the key to prosperity. I [now] wonder, ‘Why didn’t I ever think that?’ I wasn’t as independent a thinker as I thought I was. I really thought I was an independent thinker. I thought I was giving the middle finger to the man, but in reality I was obeying the man in a lot of ways.”
The immigration segments of Carlson’s shows have attracted some of the most attention. MSNBC’s Joy Reid blasted him as a “white nationalist” after one such episode, a label Carlson rejects as absurd. Bill Kristol, for whom Carlson long worked, said his former employee’s immigration views are “close to racism.” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, a frequent Carlson sparring partner, described him as the “guy who’ll play up any crime by undocumented immigrants, the guy who’ll play up any culture clash involving immigrant communities on American soil, and the guy who bashes leaders who exhibit reasonableness in negotiating immigration reform.”
“The country is a little less free than I imagined,” Carlson said. “There is a lot of pressure in every society to conform to the majority, always. There’s not a huge benefit in not [doing so]. Sometimes it’s just better to nod and repeat whatever banalities are required of you, whether it is ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day,’ or ‘don’t swim for an hour after eating,’ or ‘diversity is our strength,’ or whatever it is we are pretending is true that isn’t really.”
Carlson said that champions of uninterrupted mass immigration should have to answer certain questions.
“If ‘diversity is our strength’—which, by the way, I would like to believe; it’s the operating principle of America; it is the idea upon which our entire society is built . . . I want it to be true, but where is the evidence?” he asked. “Are you really telling me the less we have in common, the stronger we are? Is that true in marriage? Is that true in a family? If I have nothing in common with my kids, am I closer to them? Really, is that what you’re saying?”
“Show me how that’s true. If you’re going to base your decisions on that, if you’re going to organize our society around it, if you are going to make it into a civic religion—and you have—isn’t it incumbent upon you to show me how it’s true? Show me how it has been true. And of course the answer is, ‘Shut up. How dare you!’”
For Carlson, the issue is not race.
“I’m not a hater in any way. I’m not opposed to diversity; I’m totally for it. Why wouldn’t I be? I live in a rich ZIP code; there is no downside to any of this for me,” he said. “But it’s not like I’m against diversity on principle. I’m actually for it on principle. I just want to make sure, and I think it’s fair to ask, if the people who are running everything—our government, our economy, our culture, the people in charge of all of that—are basing their decisions on a single slogan, is the slogan true?”
“Countries don’t hang together just because,” added Carlson. “There has to be something everybody has in common. It doesn’t have to be race. I just want to be totally clear. You don’t have to have a racially homogenous country to have a stable country.”
“Rome was not racially homogenous, and the empire was actually pretty stable for hundreds of years . . . but they had beliefs in common, and they inculcated those beliefs into their citizenry,” Carlson continued. “They really spent a lot of time reinforcing—as a culture, as a civilization—what they believed. And we don’t do that at all. We just hope it is all going to work out. That’s a faith-based way to run a country—and not just a country, but the most important country in the last 500 years.”
To Carlson, the country’s political elites are not thinking about immigration in these terms—if they are thinking at all.
“A lot of people I know are emotionally attached to, passionately for, low-skilled immigration, because their experience of it is with their household help,” he said. “By the way, I’m not against household help, and I’ve had a lot of it. Some of the people are wonderful, and I’m glad they’re in this country. I just think if you can afford to have a housekeeper, you are by definition in the small group of Americans who is making the decisions, and therefore you have an obligation to think through the consequences of your decisions and how they might affect everyone else’s situation.
“The question is not just, ‘Is my housekeeper a good person?’ The answer is almost always yes. The question is, ‘Will my housekeeper be a good citizen? And do I want her to vote? And do I want to put the future of my country that I love into her hands?’” Carlson asked. “If you say that out loud, [the reaction is] ‘Oh you’re a bad person.’ At some point you say, ‘I don’t care. I have four children, and what I really care about is not having their country collapse.’”
Carlson argues that there are two major problems with our current immigration policy. One is that it is contributing to economic and class divisions in the country, the driver of income inequality that is most obviously and easily within the government’s power to stop. The second is that it does not reflect the will of the voters.
“If you want to make these kinds of decisions without regard to what the public thinks about these issues, democracy is not the kind of system for you,” he said. “The macro point and really the cause of all the drama in our society: Power and wealth are concentrated in a shrinking number of hands. The country is becoming less middle-class, more socially and economically stratified.”
“You reach a point where you have nine families in control of all the wealth, and then you elect Hugo Chávez,” Carlson said. “And then he dies and you elect Nicolás Ma duro, because you haven’t made the point clearly enough. And then you have no toilet paper in your capital city.”
Is President Trump our Chávez, or does he represent a turning point back toward normalcy?
“We’re too close to Trump to know if he’s the thing that comes before Hugo Chávez, or if he is in fact the pressure-relief valve that bleeds off some of the psi and lowers the temperature,” Carlson replied. “It’s hard to see him as that, because he’s almost intentionally polarizing, which is a very bad instinct, in my opinion. The worst thing about Trump is that he instinctively divides. And I am not giving a pass to his enemies, who have gone completely insane. But if you’re a responsible leader, you don’t want your enemies to be insane.
“Think about it, who would you rather fight? Saddam Hussein, who is obviously a bad person, but he has predictable goals and desires, or ISIS, who are totally nihilistic and nuts and will die trying to kill you?” Carlson asked. He then answered his own question: “Obviously, you want a rational opponent. You don’t want to fight a suicide bomber. [Trump] is turning [his opponents] into suicide bombers, and that’s partly his fault.”
In Carlson’s view, neither party has much incentive to deal with the challenges posed by income inequality.
“Democrats don’t want to harp on income inequality. They are now the party of the rich, because it ramped up under Barack Obama for eight years,” he said. “And Republicans don’t want to talk about it because income inequality sounds like something a French intellectual thought up in order to discredit capitalism.”
“But it doesn’t make it any less real or less ominous,” Carlson added. “You can’t have a democracy except in middle-class countries, period.”
Democracy is at the heart of the political polarization and radicalization we see now, Carlson believes. He credits one of his Weekly Standard colleagues, Christopher Caldwell—“the smartest person I’ve ever met, because he is not always in his phone, but he goes on long walks with his dog so he can think”—with this insight.
“There are massive consequences to sending people the message that the democracy is fake,” he said. “They can’t handle that. People can handle living in an autocratic system—they always have. ‘I’m the lord, you’re the serf, God made it this way, maybe in the next life it will be better for you.’ And they can also accept democracy—you’re in charge, if you don’t like it, don’t burn the Bastille, just vote.”
“The one thing they can’t accept is a grotesque hybrid of the two where we claim it’s democratic but it’s actually not. A fake democracy. That drives them insane.”
That’s why he thinks the political class’s refusal to be at all introspective about Trump’s election is so dangerous.
“Washington’s explanation of Trump is that people didn’t really vote for Trump, Putin engineered it,” he said. “Or, ‘of course they voted for Trump; he’s disgusting, and so are they. Disgusting candidate wins disgusting voters.’”
The situation has even made Carlson entertain second thoughts about another polarizing president.
“The biggest change is in how I view Bill Clinton, who I think is a loathsome person,” he said. “What I didn’t understand at that time is that Bill Clinton was doing what a politician is supposed to do in a democracy, and that is listen to voters. So in 1992, I covered the campaign, and I and every other conservative in town believed that if voters only understood who Bill Clinton was as a person, they wouldn’t vote for him. And now I know, having watched Trump, that voters knew exactly who Bill Clinton was from day one—they knew he was a philanderer, they knew he was dishonest, he was disingenuous, they knew he was all of that, and they voted for him anyway. Why? Because the things he ran on were matters of concern to them: the economy, crime, immigration, these were middle-class concerns.”
The same is true of the voters’ understanding of Trump, which is why he has successfully weathered so many controversies that arise from his personal character flaws.
“I distinctly remember going on television in the 1990’s and criticizing Bill Clinton’s small-bore policies that were poll-tested before rolling them out,” Carlson said. “I remember saying, ‘That’s not leadership.’ Really? This is a democracy. You have to represent the views of your voters. That’s the whole freakin’ point. If you’re not doing that, something is wrong. It doesn’t mean you can’t translate some of those desires into workable public policy or moderate them. You should; it’s a republic. But fundamentally, your legitimacy comes from the desire of the majority. Period. That’s the only place your legitimacy comes from.”
This kind of talk about “legitimacy” drives Carlson’s former colleagues crazy. But he doesn’t apologize.
“The question about government always is, ‘Where does it get the power to do what it does? Where does its legitimacy come from?’” he said. “People who run the system in Washington have completely lost track of that. We need to pay attention, and we’re not, and there are massive consequences to that.”
“It’s not a small thing when you overturn the will of voters. It’s a big thing,” Carlson contended. “You shouldn’t do that if you can help it. There are cases when you have to, I get it. But you should pause before you do it. It’s like the death of somebody. You should acknowledge it. If you don’t, you engender resentment and radicalization in your population, and that’s what we’re seeing.”
Carlson expressed admiration for writers willing to question their own side. He mentioned Vanity Fair’s T.A. Frank (“a really, really smart guy”) and TYT Network’s Michael Tracey (“someone else on the left who has an instinctive nose for bullshit and hypocrisy”).
“I would trust Tulsi Gabbard [Democratic U.S. representative from Hawaii] over Max Boot any day,” said Carlson. “On Syria, I would certainly trust Max Blumenthal, whom I disagree with on a lot of things, over Nikki Haley any day.”
Mostly, Carlson would like to see more people thinking about the issues.
“I live in Northwest D.C.; you would think I would be surrounded by people deeply contemplating the future of the country,” Carlson said. “No! I am surrounded by people who are deeply contemplating putting a service kitchen in their summer house.”
“I’m just a talk-show host,” he sighed. “What do I know?”
A successful talk-show host, though Carlson is modest when asked about his solid ratings. “Oh, mostly [from] being on FOX,” he reasoned. “I have worked at all the networks, so I know you can have an amazing show, and it doesn’t matter if nobody watches the network that carries it. Obviously, I think I am brilliant and handsome, but the real reason the show works is it’s the eight o’clock show at FOX.”
But there is also the matter of timing. Carlson cohosted CNN’s Crossfire after that show had run its course. He was on MSNBC on the cusp of their transformation into an overtly liberal network. Carlson is in sync with a set of political ideas and policies that are in vogue with Middle Americans right now—and which lack articulate conservative defenders. Carlson, in a manner of speaking, is doing a job most American pundits won’t do.
“There are two people in Washington who are loved by everyone who knows them personally and hated by everyone else,” a veteran journalist told me. “Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson.”