Without Tucker Carlson, Far Right Loses a Foothold in the Mainstream
When Joe Kent ran for Congress last year, he was a political neophyte challenging a six-term incumbent congresswoman for the Republican nomination. But he also had one of the most valuable boosters in Republican politics: the now-former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Mr. Carlson made Mr. Kent a regular on his prime-time show, which in turn helped make Mr. Kent’s campaign.
“I was up against a Republican who was backed by the full weight of the Republican establishment,” said Mr. Kent, who lost in the general election. “Being able to get on Tucker for free and have him say, ‘I hope you win, I agree with what you’re saying,’ was really important.”
Mr. Kent’s experience reflects what made Mr. Carlson a singular figure in Fox News’s stable of anchors until the network abruptly took “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and its host off its channel last month. Supporters and detractors alike say Mr. Carlson’s political power was rooted in his ability to place people and ideas from the vanguard of right-wing politics in front of the largest conventional conservative audience in media.
“He really provided a populist nationalist platform in legacy national media in prime time,” said Stephen K. Bannon, a former Trump adviser and editor in chief of Breitbart, a right-wing website. “He’s the only one.”
Whether he can play a similar role as a conduit between the far right and the mainstream without Fox is perhaps the biggest question raised by Mr. Carlson’s hints about his next move.
Last week, he said he would be starting a new show on Twitter, apparently walking away from a $25 million Fox contract to do so. But the particulars of his plans — the platform’s mercurial owner, Elon Musk, tweeted last week that “we have not signed a deal of any kind whatsoever” with Mr. Carlson — remain largely vague, and Mr. Carlson did not respond to a request for comment.
Fox, which is in negotiations with Mr. Carlson over his departure and could seek to block his move to another platform, has not commented.
“No matter what, it’s a paradigm shift,” said Jason Damata, the chief executive of Fabric Media, a media and advertising consultancy.
The exact scale of the shift will depend on whether Mr. Carlson can break from the precedent set by earlier Fox stars. The anchors of Fox’s prime-time block have long been among the largest-looming figures in conservative media. But their departures have had little impact on the habits of the networks’ viewers. Past stars like Glenn Beck, Megyn Kelly and Bill O’Reilly have typically moved on to lucrative but lower-profile next acts.
Mr. Beck, arguably Mr. Carlson’s closest analogue among his predecessors, attained enormous influence in the Tea Party movement after jumping from CNN Headline News to Fox News in 2008. After parting ways with the network in 2011, he began his own subscription-based streaming network, effectively trading a Fox-size audience for tens of millions more in annual revenues from a comparatively small viewership of loyal fans and mostly receding from political prominence.
Mr. Carlson’s impact, like Mr. Beck’s, has been closely tied to the particular nature of the Fox platform.
“Fox is on cable, it’s a channel they set to by default on a lot of military bases, doctor’s offices, gyms — that’s where Tucker picked up so many viewers,” said Nandini Jammi, the co-founder of Check My Ads, a brand safety consultancy, and previously the co-founder of Sleeping Giants, an organization that led campaigns pressuring companies to pull advertising from Fox News.
“Are those viewers going to go through a conversion process of giving Tucker their email addresses, actively seeking out his content, and sustaining him?” Ms. Jammi continued. “That’s a very difficult business to build.”
Ms. Jammi was skeptical of Mr. Carlson’s ability to maintain the same footprint on the shakier ground of Twitter, a platform with a user base vastly larger than Mr. Carlson’s Fox audience but a far more difficult place to build a durable, committed following.
It was access to the Fox audience that made Mr. Carlson’s show a coveted booking for right-wing activists, politicians and social media personalities, including many with large social media presences.
“We reach more of a hard-core activist base,” Mr. Bannon said of his “War Room” podcast. “He reached a different audience — if you leave the 75-year-olds aside, a lot of people who are businessmen and entrepreneurs, people who are nominal Republicans but are not hard-core and, I would say, are relatively low-information.”
To his detractors, this made Mr. Carlson a uniquely concerning figure, who acclimated conventional Republican audiences to far-right ideas. His shows — “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and its long-form sibling, “Tucker Carlson Today,” on the Fox Nation streaming network — played a significant role in mainstreaming the idea of the “great replacement,” a racist, anti-immigrant conspiracy theory prominent among white nationalists.
In a 2021 “Tucker Carlson Today” episode, Mr. Carlson spent more than an hour interviewing the far-right blogger Curtis Yarvin, who expounded on America’s need for a monarch figure who could break the power of the country’s elites and institute a benevolent autocracy.
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Mr. Carlson told Mr. Yarvin. “I think you’re pretty far out in a way that’s worth thinking about.”
And some Republicans bemoaned Mr. Carlson’s elevation of politicians like Mr. Kent. Mr. Carlson brought Mr. Kent on his online show, “Tucker Carlson Today,” for an hourlong interview just four months after he declared his candidacy against Jaime Herrera Beutler in southwestern Washington State in early 2021.
The two stayed in touch, and Mr. Kent became a regular on Mr. Carlson’s prime-time show throughout the primary, in which he eventually secured Donald J. Trump’s endorsement and toppled Ms. Herrera Beutler, one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Mr. Trump after Jan. 6.
In the general election, however, Mr. Kent was dogged by reports of associations with prominent white nationalists and Proud Boys and lost a solidly Republican seat.
Mr. Carlson had once included Mr. Kent on a segment championing a slate of “surging outsiders” in races across the country. The list also included Blake Masters and Kari Lake in Arizona, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and J.D. Vance in Ohio.
All of them but Mr. Vance lost their races in November.