The Preppie in Decline
The Fall and Fall of Tucker Carlson
“One of the things you realize as you age is that you really are pretty loathsome. My father, who is a genuinely wise man…always told us, ‘Boys, the root of all wisdom is knowing what an asshole you are.” — Tucker Carlson
As I’m sure you are all aware by this point, the Fox News Channel announced yesterday that they were parting ways with Tucker Carlson, the host of what was once their highest rated program. Since his show was slated to air Monday night and he signed off on Friday telling his viewers “See you Monday,” it appears that he was fired. I will not speculate here either on the reason why or on a possible Carlson presidential run—all these things will be revealed in due time, but I do want to reflect a little bit about the Tucker phenomenon.
A while back, when I was doing a story about conservative intellectuals and media, I got a quote that I had to cut for length. It was from R. Derek Black, a who grew up in and then left in the White Nationalist movement. His father, Don Black, was a Klan wizard and the founder of the website Stormfront. Here’s what he told me: “From the perspective of my family, he’s making the same points they’ve been trying to make their entire lives, but much better; he’s found a wider audience, and the ideal method of expression for many of the same ideas. My father’s a little baffled still that it’s Tucker Carlson, someone who he always never liked because he saw him as a shill for the Bush administration and the Iraq war, that’s bringing white nationalist ideas to the Fox audience.”
If you don’t want to take it from him, take it from the other Nazis and White Nationalists that applauded Tucker’s rants. Or the fact that the show employed a groyper as a lead writer. Daniel Bessner recently wrote, “There are…no fascist TV commentators.” Well, for the Nazis, Tucker was apparently close enough.
In her classic 1941 Harper’s piece “Who Goes Nazi?” Dorothy Thompson wrote, “the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success—they would all go Nazi in a crisis.” Carlson might fit more than one of these profiles, but one could add another to Parker’s list: the preppie in decline. Born and bred to believe that he was part of America’s natural ruling elite, Carlson encountered successive frustrations and failure and turned to a nationalism that hates the country as it actually exists.
Carlson’s step-mother is an heiress and his father a diplomat and executive, although his resumé—including stints as head of Voice of America and ambassador to the Seychelles—is strongly redolent of the Central Intelligence Agency. Carlson’s own attempt to join the Agency was rebuffed. “You should consider journalism,” his father told him. “They’ll take anybody.” Indeed.
So began the twisting path of his career from The Weekly Standard to Crossfire to Dancing with the Stars to his own website The Daily Caller and finally to his show on Fox. He was always a bit of a spectacle; he understood you had to play a part: the bowtie cast him as the archetypal preppie conservative. Until the dawn of the Trump era, his publicly stated views were fairly conventional and well-within the conservative mainstream. Then came his transformation the bow-tied prep into the fire-breathing populist, “the Father Coughlin of the 21st century” as his former Weekly Standard colleague Andy Ferguson once called him to me.
Like Coughlin, Carlson professed increasingly extreme views, getting into truly insane conspiracy territory recently, and he also believed himself to be bigger than the institution he belonged to. That may have had as much to do with what he said or did with being pushed off the air. But Father Coughlin seemed to actually believe what he professed would further the cause of social justice. If Brother Carlson’s cynicism and careerism wasn’t obvious before, it’s been proved beyond a doubt in the revelation of his texts. He didn’t really believe much of what he said on the air.
But for Carlson, cynicism and irresponsibility is a kind of personal ideology: after a long career of frustration and disappointment, they were an assertion of freedom and success for him. What he hated most was being brought to account in any way. What he enjoyed most was being outrageous, cruel, and petulant and self-righteously defying his enemies. It’s a prep school boy’s rebellion. I believe this air of defiance attracted his viewers as much as the actual content of the show. The snottiness was the point. Denied the opportunity to be a real WASP of the old school, he was at least still a white man. And he would be damned if they were gonna take that away from him.