Tucker Carlson and the Age of Bad Feelings
Everyone is looking for a target, and Tucker had plenty to give them.
I guess I should be happy. There’s no prominent commentator in the American media whose stated views are more anathema to my own than Tucker Carlson. He’s a strident opponent of immigration, and endorsed at least one version of the “Great Replacement” theory. He opposes dense housing development, declaring that Democrats want to “eliminate the suburbs”. He pushed antivax disinformation so strongly that his own Fox News coworkers had to step in and complain. He staunchly opposes aid to Ukraine, supporting Russian propaganda narratives so strongly that the Kremlin orders Russian news outlets to use clips from his show. He’s made excuses for the storming of Congress on January 6, using misleading videos. From my point of view, Tucker represents pretty much the worst that mainstream American media has to offer. And as the most-watched cable news host, he had the biggest megaphone of practically anyone.
And now he’s out — fired from Fox News for unknown reasons. Theories abound. Perhaps it was related to a recent defamation lawsuit, in which Fox agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787.5 million after spreading rumors that Dominion rigged the 2020 election. Perhaps it was because of a pending discrimination lawsuit against Tucker’s producers. Perhaps it was because Rupert Murdoch didn’t like Tucker’s religious-sounding language, or because Tucker scared away advertisers. There are other hypotheses as well.
A lot of people are cheering about Tucker’s ouster, and I guess maybe I should be too. Yet I find that I don’t really care at all, because I see Tucker as nothing more than a symptom of the deep unhealed wounds in American society.
As someone who works in the media business and is mildly successful, I can tell you that Tucker Carlson is far better at finding and connecting with an audience than I will ever be. Being a successful media commentator is like being a startup founder — you have to find out what people want to buy from you, and figure out how to deliver it to them. In the startup world, this is called product-market fit. For a media commentator, that product is some combination of information and worldview. You have to figure out not what your audience necessarily wants to hear, but what they would like to hear.
And when I say “would like”, I’m using the term loosely. Negative news — stuff that provokes outrage, fear, etc. — consistently gets more attention than positive news. And in the media world, attention equals money.
If you were a Tucker fan, you didn’t tune in to his nightly broadcasts in order to get warm fuzzy reassurance that all was right with the world. You tuned in to enrage yourself — to hear Tucker tell you who is ruining America, and to get mad at those people, and perhaps to fantasize about ways their nefarious influence might be stopped. His show is like a “monster-of-the-week” plot on an old cartoon show, except that unlike an old cartoon show, the monster doesn’t get defeated at the end. You walk away angrier and more fearful than when you turned on the TV, and then tomorrow you come back for more.
Tucker has an absolute gift for this. I’m not above writing a denunciatory rant or two, and looking at Tucker, I feel like a church-league basketball player watching LeBron James. It’s widely known that anyone that Tucker criticizes on his show gets a torrent of abuse and threats and such the next day, but this isn’t because Tucker says “Please call up this person and tell them they’re subhuman filth”. It’s because he’s just that good at telling people who to get mad at.
But product-market fit is not just about having a well-engineered product; it’s about having a market that wants to buy what you have to sell. And here is where Tucker really excels — not in the words and facial expressions he uses to generate outrage, but in the targets he selects. Just as an an entrepreneur works hard to figure out what products customers would like to buy, Tucker worked hard to figure out what monster-of-the-week Fox News viewers — and potential Fox News viewers — would fear and revile.
It’s no secret that Tucker works very hard at this. Despite claiming that he doesn’t even know what his ratings are, Tucker famously scrutinizes his minute-by-minute ratings in order to tell which topics generate the most engagement:
Three former Fox employees told the [New York] Times Carlson specifically relied on "minute-by-minute" ratings data…Carlson's stories about immigration or warnings of demographic change in the US, like the white nationalist "Great Replacement" theory, were a hit, the outlet reported.
"He is going to double down on the white nationalism because the minute-by-minutes show that the audience eats it up," another former Fox employee who worked with Carlson told the Times.
Carlson’s public persona is famously divorced from his private opinions. Despite praising Trump effusively on the air, Carlson ridiculed him in private, as revealed by private messages released as part of the Dominion lawsuit. But Carlson isn’t on TV to voice his own personal opinions; he’s there to be who people want him to be, and to make money from it.
This opportunistic insincerity is readily apparent to anyone who watched Carlson back in his days on the old Crossfire show on CNN, back when he sported a bowtie. His sneering, peremptory attitude was the same, but his ideas and opinions were all just very standard early 2000s conservative stuff — none of the anti-immigrant “replacement” stuff, no rants against vaccines. Tucker’s rhetoric changed when he found narratives that resonated with a bigger audience. (Compare this with, say, Lou Dobbs, whose nativist ideas have been pretty much the same for 20 years).
And Tucker found that he could get more viewers if he broadened his set of targets. Besides Ukraine, he attacked tech companies, pharmaceutical companies, and hedge fund managers. This strategy took advantage of the fact that lots of Americans hold a mix of conservative cultural views and progressive economic views. But it was not done out of any sort of progressivism — only a very few extremely credulous lefties were fooled. Instead, Tucker — like Trump in his 2016 campaign — simply realized that if he attacked a bunch of different targets instead of always focusing on the same old villains, he could generate outrage among a wider set of viewers. It was “populist” only in the sense that it was done for the sake of popularity. Tucker is like an algorithm, doing a brute-force grid search over the space of things that it’s possible to get people mad about, optimizing for attention and money.
Watching Tucker, I often find myself thinking of his predecessor, Bill O’Reilly. It’s a little embarrassing to confess, but I used to enjoy The O’Reilly Factor — not because I liked what Bill had to say, but because he humanized the conservative movement. He was a little bit like the right-wing uncle I never had — he makes you mad as hell at Thanksgiving dinner, but he tells you what he really thinks, and you can understand why he thinks it. When O’Reilly brought people onto his show that he disagreed with, you could tell he was really trying to reason with them, not just optimize for minute-by-minute ratings. I can’t watch Tucker like I could watch O’Reilly. Watching Tucker is more like talking to ChatGPT; you just know there’s nothing behind the words.
In fact, though, I think the closest analog to Tucker might be Twitter. Not any Twitter user, but the social network itself, which functions as a giant outrage machine. Every day, Twitter has a new “current thing” — a new set of things and people to get mad about. And the users love it. Tucker’s show is just a more curated version of that experience.
There was one person, I think, who saw all this very clearly, and that was Jon Stewart. In a now-legendary appearance on Crossfire back in 2004, Stewart lambasted both Tucker and his liberal co-host Paul Begala for “hurting America” by replacing real debate with dishonesty, theater, and partisan hackery. Here’s a clip of that encounter (start at 2:47):
This interview famously prompted CNN to cancel Crossfire. Stewart’s allegations rang true — he saw opportunistic partisan outrage-farming for the empty, socially corrosive exercise it is, and for a very brief moment, everyone else did too.
But that moment didn’t last; in fact, the political outrage industry came back much stronger than ever before. In 2004, America’s Age of Bad Feelings was just revving up, kicked off by partisan bickering, the 2000 election dispute, and the Iraq War. By the late 2010s and the coming of Trump, the era of social strife was in full swing. Everyone was looking a target; everyone entertained the fantasy that if they could just identify the right group of villains in American society, they could concentrate their efforts on disempowering and destroying that group, and then all would be right with the world. All they needed was someone to tell them who was The Real Problem In This Country.
It was a social environment perfectly built for outrage entrepreneurs, who flourished on all sides of the political spectrum. Tucker was simply one of the most successful such entrepreneurs. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
So this is why I can’t get too enthusiastic over Tucker’s firing. Yes, I think it’s probably good for the country; Fox News has a real, measurable effect on people’s opinions, and maybe now the ideas people get from the network will be a little less corrosive to the republic. But all the hatreds and suspicions that Tucker discovered and exploited are still out there in America, waiting to be exploited by someone else. Too many of us are still looking for a group of enemies among our own countrymen — still ensnared by the dark fantasy that if we just eliminate that Bad Group, our national problems will get better. One product is gone, but the market remains.
Good piece. I particularly like "Tucker is like an algorithm, doing a brute-force grid search over the space of things that it’s possible to get people mad about, optimizing for attention and money." Yeah, he is a one-man Twitter.
The whole thing reminds me of Father Coughlin from the 1930s. At one point one-third of America listened to his weekly radio programs, which espoused antisemitism and support for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
Eventually he was forced off the air in October 1939 but it wasn't like American antisemitism disappeared because he was gone.