Most of the time, it does not qualify as newsworthy to see a man in your social media feed staring into a camera, asking “What exactly happened on 9/11?” and demanding to know why the media isn’t digging for the truth about J.F.K.’s assassination. Usually, it’s just a sign that you should not have accepted so many friend requests from high school classmates you barely remember.
But when that man was recently paid millions of dollars by Fox News to say much the same things on one of the most popular shows on cable TV, attention is paid. In Tuesday’s debut episode of “Tucker on Twitter,” the new home-brew show from Tucker Carlson, the ousted prime-time star’s brand of resentment, insinuation and dog-whistly mocking finally gets the guy-ranting-from-his-den visuals that suit it.
There’s a touch of echo in the audio; there are wall hangings, wood paneling, a bit of woodsy green through a window. Carlson holds his own Teleprompter controller and wears a suit with a pocket square. The overall look is talk-show “Green Acres,” or Ron Swanson if he shaved and went to prep school.
As a production, “Tucker on Twitter” looks less like a newscast than one of the improvised lockdown shows that late-night talk hosts recorded from home in the early Covid days of 2020. But in this case, Carlson’s quarantine is self-inflicted.
Fox abruptly let him go in April, after the investigation in its now-settled litigation with the voting software company Dominion turned up a racist text message and misogynistic slurs from him, as well as statements disparaging Fox executives. It’s not clear whether streaming on Twitter violates Carlson’s contract with Fox, which lasts until early 2025.
But commentators gotta commentate, and the time off in the woods has not mellowed Carlson. He gives the barest intro —“Hey, it’s Tucker Carlson!”— before giving a rundown of the dam explosion in Ukraine that would go down in the Kremlin like the smoothest vodka. “Any fair person would conclude that the Ukrainians probably blew it up,” he says, given that the dam, located in a region taken by Russia in an invasion, was “effectively Russian.”
Carlson also called Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish president of Ukraine, “a persecutor of Christians” and described him as “shifty, dead-eyed” and “sweaty and ratlike.” For years, Carlson laundered far-right fringe rhetoric and bigotry on Fox, and there is no sign that, in the anything-goes regime of Elon Musk’s Twitter, the laundry is shutting down.
Carlson’s rhetoric has not diminished, but his production has. In the 10-minute first episode, there are no guests, no produced segments, a handful of news-footage clips. It’s pure monologue, from the opening Ukraine comment to the offhand swipes at diversity and transgender women to a closing bit on a whistle-blower who contends that the U.S. government possesses material from extraterrestrial aircraft.
It’s a Tucker Carlson show, in other words. A big question is whether Carlson can be what he once was without the Fox News platform and production resources.
Fox has ideology, of course (which has cycled through different flavors of conservatism over the decades), but it also has an aesthetic. Its shows are produced to be glossy and urgent, to convey a sense of slick confidence. Fox News is designed to look like it is broadcasting from the top of the world; “Tucker on Twitter” looks not unlike something livestreamed after the apocalypse.
Others — Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck — have failed to reclaim their peak influence after losing their Fox perches. Carlson could be different; Fox News has yet to recover in the prime-time ratings from his sudden departure.
But Carlson, for all his anti-elite posturing, is wholly a creature of legacy TV, having hosted shows on Fox, CNN and MSNBC. He is a houseplant grown under corporate studio lights, even when they were installed in his rural Maine town for him to broadcast remotely to Fox.
On the other hand, it’s possible that the pivot to low-fi Twitter is more of a match for the current incarnation of Carlson. Whether he is holding forth on Russia or immigrants or the Jan. 6 riot, he has one persistent meta-theme: The elites are controlling your information and telling you what you’re allowed to say. “Go ahead and talk about something that really matters and see what happens,” he says at one point, seeming to allude to his firing by Fox while casting himself as a free-speech martyr. “If you keep it up, they’ll make you be quiet. Trust us.”
Within this rhetorical framework, it is not necessary to prove that aliens have been discovered on Earth or that Ukrainians blew up a Ukrainian dam. It is enough for Carlson to say They don’t want you to believe it, and the viewer can accept the idea for the sake of sticking it to them. They say you’re wrong, you’re crazy, you’re a racist. Well, what do they know?
It is a premise made for social media, as many a red-pilled YouTuber and Facebook proselytizer has found. The premise of his appeal — that he is the one teller of truth, and you the one critical thinker, in a world of shepherds and sheep — dovetails with the idea of booting up your computer to seek out a man giving speeches from his den.
It also dovetails with the interests of Twitter’s owner, Musk, who styles himself as a heterodox freethinker — whose heterodoxy happens to be expressed through reinstating right-wing trolls and hosting the Republican presidential campaign announcement of Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor.
But since 2017, Carlson has made himself likely the most influential broadcaster in conservative politics by posturing as an outsider on the inside. However well he can monetize a Twitter audience, it’s another matter to retain as much political-cultural power as an outsider on the outside. Nor do we know if this is a real transformation or just a stopgap until Carlson is contractually free to go back on TV.
Until then, the truth is out there, and so is Tucker Carlson — whether or not they are necessarily in the same place.
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