As the Republican Party continues to convulse following its loss of the presidency and the violent pro-Trump siege of the Capitol, one voice is beginning to drown out all others: Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
The the top Republicans in Congress, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, are trying to stop a GOP civil war by oscillating between measured criticism of Trump’s behavior on January 6th and embracing the former president, his base and his fundraising cachet.
But Carlson is going on the offensive, crafting the message that Trump’s base is most open to hearing: that there was “no armed insurrection” and that white supremacy is not an issue in the Republican Party.
Carlson, who wields a big megaphone thanks to one of the highest rated cable news shows, is also a lead player in the resurgent culture wars now dominating right-wing American politics. Shying away from substantive policy debate, Carlson instead goes big on populist outrage, warning, improbably, that "Biden is changing this country faster than any president ever has." The targets of his vitriol are diverse: from Big Tech ‘censorship’ to attacking a New York Times journalist, and even denigrating pregnant women in the military.
Carlson regularly ties his culture war commentary back to querying the relevance, if not existence, of white supremacy. The ‘connections’ are sometimes dizzying.
After he opined that pregnant women "going to fight our wars" make "a mockery of the U.S. military," the Pentagon took the unusual step of pushing back publicly, clearly concerned about an uninformed and unwarranted attack on serving U.S. troops.
Carlson wanted the final word. He refocused his attack, accusing Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who has been acting to purge extremists from the military, of skewing the threat assessment to the U.S. based on "wokeness" rather than "winning the next war."
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And what is this Defense Department "wokeness"? Apparently it means taking domestic extremism too seriously, or giving any credit to the "domestic extremist" category at all. He railed against the troops still protecting the Capitol against "extremists" (his quote marks), and then declared that the Biden administration was just tagging as extremist "people who voted for the losing candidate in the last election."
He accused Secretary Austin of "hyperventilating about white supremacy" while ignoring the big threat: China.
Just five days after Carlson’s Fox News op-ed, a report from the Department for Homeland Security assessed that the most lethal domestic violent extremist threat to America is posed by racially or ethnically motivated extremists, and militias. In other words, white supremacists.
Carlson’s constant need to stir provocation causes some strangely convoluted thinking. On the one hand, he declares concern for America’s fighting spirit and its ability to wage war around the world. On the other, he has embarked on a crusade against Congresswoman Liz Cheney for being "a genuine old-fashioned neo-con" who wants an "expanded [U.S.] military presence around the world [and] more wars in the Middle East."
Carlson is, of course, a devotee of the ‘America First’ isolationism and was an influential voice in the Trump White House against military action against Iran. But what differentiates him from other right-wing opponents of America’s so-called ‘forever wars’ is how he serially yokes that view to a denial of white supremacism.
Carlson’s hostility to Cheney is clearly embedded in her decision to vote for Trump’s impeachment. But it is her public statements against bigotry in the GOP that really fires him up – not least when she said in February, on Fox News no less, that "We [Republicans] are not the party of QAnon or antisemitism or Holocaust deniers, or white supremacy or conspiracy theories. It's not who we are."
He opined on his show that Democrats, whom he compared to both Joseph Stalin and Ayatollah Khomeini, "are fixated on forcing you to agree that yes, January 6 was a racist event," and thus Cheney, who "knows what to say to get what she wants and what she wants" made denounced white supremacy and antisemitism in order to bomb the Middle East: In Carlson’s words, Cheney "decided to obey."
Carlson’s attack on Cheney for her calling on the GOP to dissociate itself from racism is part of his larger campaign that argues white supremacy in the U.S. is a "hoax" and that the left, liberals and the Biden administration only use the label "white supremacist" to attack and silence conservatives.
Biden, Carlson announced on his first show after the inauguration, "has now declared war [on white supremacy], and we have a right to know, specifically and precisely, who exactly he has declared war on." He went on: "Innocent people could be hurt in this war. They usually are."
Then he defaulted to faux-naivety, using language that intentionally marries the image of Biden as literal and symbolic warmonger: "The question is, what does it mean to wage war on white supremacists? Can somebody tell us in very clear language what a white supremacist is?"
Carlson’s hardly alone in hearing a general denunciation of white supremacy and immediately assuming it’s talking about him or his voters. Senator Rand Paul, who is also vying to be the GOP’s ideological banner-waver and Trump’s heir apparent, also declared Biden’s inauguration speech was "thinly-veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists."
Paul and Carlson are backed by a large faction of Congressional Republicans, who are quick to attack fellow Republicans who step out of line. It’s a far cry from the days of Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and George W. Bush, all of whom vehemently denounced white supremacy and racism within the ranks of the GOP and, in a sign of how much has changed, were certainly not taken in bad faith or anathematized.
Attacking immigration is a natural partner for Carlson’s xenophobic rhetoric. The GOP has pivoted far to the right since the days of Reagan and Bush: New Reuters/Ipsos polling shows 77 percent want more barriers along the southern border and 56 percent oppose a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Carlson, accurately gauging his audience but also pushing the camp further rightwards, now warns that immigrants threaten "to change this country forever" and that America is becoming a "crowded, ugly and unhappy" country. That language has strong echoes of tentieth-century nationalist thought.
The GOP-Carlson Cheney pile-on is deliberate and selective. Righteous indignation is easy to stir, but dealing with your own in-house dirt is far harder.
The conservative media gives full vent to their fury at Cheney - the Federalist’s Dave Marcus claimed she "called tens of millions of Trump voters white supremacists" – but they lose their tongues when faced with their own representatives actually working with bona fide white supremacists. That would both undermine the outrage narrative against Biden slurring them, and force an acknowledgement that white nationalists are acceptable in the GOP.
The conservative camp has little to say when Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar headlining the America First Political Action Conference hosted by literal white nationalist and virulent Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes.
They were silent on Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who managed the double header of denying Jan 6th was that significant and that white insurrectionists are, by definition, not threatening (because they "love this country," "respect law enforcement" and would "never break the law") but Black protestors in the same situation would have been both a significant event and threat (because they don’t).
The Congressional GOP gave a standing ovation to Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon and antisemitic conspiracy theorist booster.
It’s just over two years since former Iowa Congressman Steve King was stripped of his committee assignments by the GOP House leadership for white nationalist comments. But that kind of act, and the unanimity behind it, may be unthinkable now. And Tucker Carlson has a central part in that.
His drumbeat denial of white supremacy, his amplification of white nationalist talking points and his attack on anyone fighting for some kind of ideological hygiene in the conservative movement has made space for the likes of Gosar, Greene and Johnson to get a free pass.
For the Biden administration, their efforts to contend with the very real threat of white nationalism and domestic militias plotting anti-government violence will be met with limited cooperation on the side of the GOP, if the ‘Biden equates Republicans with white nationalists’ narrative holds.
At the same time, conservative media is busy rewriting the events of January 6th, minimizing its import, whitewashing the Trump camp’s role and enabling the right to forget, move on and start attacking Democrats.
But there is a possible silver lining for Biden to an increasingly uncooperative and angry Republican base. A culture war that isolates the more extreme pals-with-Fuentes-and-attacking-servicewomen wing of the GOP from the rest of the country could allow Biden to break through the polarization gripping the U.S. and start building even fragile bridges with the surviving moderate elements of the GOP.