I watch Tucker Carlson’s show every night. I actually watch at least three hours of Fox News programming each evening, but Tucker Carlson Tonight is the network’s primetime anchor: He’s on five days per week, at 8 p.m.—the slot Bill O’Reilly held until the news of his sexual harassment settlements forced him out. I’ve been doing this every night for more than a year, but I still find Carlson’s opening jarring: As soon as I hear it, my shoulders tense, I roll my eyes, and sigh. Sometimes during commercial breaks, I lie on the floor.
Unlike the 2.9 million people who choose to watch Fox News prime time, I do this as part of my job. When friends and family ask me about it, I usually just say, “I work in media” and hope that’s a satisfactory answer. What I actually do is track right-wing media and fringe outlets to hold bad actors accountable for their actions, whether it’s Sean Hannity’s conspiracy theories, Lou Dobbs’ insistence that Trump’s critics should be jailed, or Laura Ingraham’s campaign against immigrant children.
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For a country that still relies on television for its news, this has always been important work. But it’s gotten more important now, since the president is Fox News’ most important and vocal fan. Trump reportedly forgoes daily intelligence briefings in favor of watching Fox and frequently tweets quotes from guests and hosts on the network. My colleague Matt Gertz has documented how the information feedback loop between Trump and Fox News has influenced immigration policy, generated presidential pardons, and launched daily attacks aimed at discrediting Robert Mueller’s probe into connections between the Trump campaign and Russian propaganda.
That would be terrifying enough if Trump was the only one watching, but he’s definitely not alone. Fox News is still the highest-viewed news network in the country, which means the stories it focuses on and the language it uses to report them holds a tremendous amount of sway. And more often than not, that sway is used to shame the poor and scapegoat immigrants.
This is where Tucker Carlson really shines. His bread and butter is pitting white working-class folks against immigrants (or, more accurately, his idea of white working class folks against his idea of immigrants). On the evening of Trump’s first State of the Union, he attacked Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s choice to host an empty chair as his guest to represent a Youngstown businessman who had been deported after 39 years in the U.S. In an interview with Ryan, Carlson dismissed concerns about deportations and suggested that Ryan’s concern for immigrants is at odds with addressing issues facing rural white communities. In another incident, he blamed immigrants for lowering the U.S. birth rate (to support this, Carlson incorrectly claimed that immigration is depressing wages among men, therefore decreasing “the attractiveness of men as potential spouses thus reducing fertility”). He’s also made the argument that DACA distracted congress from addressing unemployment and opioid overdoses, and claimed that Mexico in its entirety is a “dangerous country filled with violent people.”
This fits into Carlson’s larger pattern that portrays white men as more deserving of aid than women, immigrants, and people of color. During Women’s History Month in March, Carlson ran a weekly series on “Men in America.” In the series’ first installment, he claimed the “so-called wage gap” not only doesn’t exist, but in many cases “may invert.” When HBO’s Insecure creator Issa Rae said she was “rooting for everybody black” at the 2017 Emmy awards, Carlson said her comments amounted to “race hostility” and “political indoctrination.” He repeats seemingly every night that diversity is an attack on white Americans and an attempt to “radically and permanently” change America.
This rhetoric is not a huge leap from a mob of white men chanting “you will not replace us” in Charlottesville last summer. In fact, white nationalists are big fans of Tucker Carlson. Richard Spencer described him as a “much better figure” than Bill O’Reilly because Carlson possesses “open-mindedness” towards white supremacist causes. Former grand wizard of the KKK David Duke has called Carlson a “hero” and “an influential voice,” and Carlson and his guests have repeatedly defended and promoted white nationalists on the show.
Honestly, watching this vitriol every day is exhausting. I deliberately unplug when I can, to clear out all of the racist hate that comes out of the television every night at work. It builds up in my brain, and unless I take care to let it go and not take it too personally, I drift towards hopelessness. But as tempting as it is to shut it out entirely, I still think it’s important to see it. Fox News reaches a tremendous audience—Tucker Carlson came in 3rd in cable news ratings in the second quarter of 2018, and Sean Hannity came in first. (Rachel Maddow finished second). The millions of people who tune into Fox News primetime are exposed to a divide and conquer narrative that capitalizes on stereotypes, spins every negative story about Trump, and often fails to even mention the news of the day that the rest of the media is covering.
To be completely clear, this is how Trump garners support for dangerous policies that he wouldn’t be able to pass otherwise. Polling shows 75 percent of Americans say immigration is good for the country, but when family separation started Tucker Carlson fearmongered about “demographic replacement” to stoke racial animus, and then Laura Ingraham downplays horrific policies by describing child detention centers as “essentially summer camps.” And despite the fact that 7 in 10 Americans support Roe v. Wade, Fox News (and Carlson in particular) focus their coverage of reproductive health care on campaigns against it. That level of coordinated cruelty from public figures makes it possible for Americans to set their own beliefs aside. Unless progressives are familiar with the ways the right-wing media machine pushes misinformation and racism, we won’t actually be able to fight back.