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Opinion | Tucker Carlson Was Both More and Less Important Than You Think

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A bank of staticky vintage television sets featuring a vertically split face that is half Tucker Carlson, half Donald Trump.

Credit…Illustration by Ricardo Tomás for The New York Times; images by James Devaney, Chip Somodevilla, and Archive Holdings Inc./Getty Images

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To understand the importance and unimportance of Tucker Carlson, it’s necessary to rewind the clock all the way back to the period just after Donald Trump won the 2016 election. It’s easy to forget now that Trumpism is so well known and understood, but many conservatives didn’t quite know what the Trump years would bring. We knew who Donald Trump was, but we didn’t know what Trumpism would be.

With all due apologies to the Book of Genesis, Trumpism was “without form and void.” We knew Trump was more populist, more dishonest and more cruel than the typical Republican. But we did not know whether the G.O.P. would become more like the man or if the man would become more like the G.O.P.

Carlson was a key in answering the question; he helped drive the G.O.P. to be just as cruel, just as dishonest and sometimes even more populist than Donald Trump himself.

Initially, there were good reasons for confusion about Trump and the G.O.P. During the campaign, he was all over the map ideologically. He repeatedly stated his support for universal health care, before decisively backtracking. In a 2016 Republican debate he declared that Planned Parenthood does “wonderful things having to do with women’s health,” a position that was anathema to an anti-abortion party. His foreign policy statements were often both irrational and fantastical. At one point, for example, he articulated an anti-ISIS strategy that was little more than “bomb the [expletive]” out of the terrorist group and then send in Exxon to rebuild. No, really.

And if personnel is policy, then it was difficult to define his early administration as well. He began with populist stalwarts like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Michael Flynn in key administration positions, but he also brought in establishment figures such as Reince Priebus, James Mattis, Elaine Chao and Rex Tillerson.

Moreover, many of his early moves were straight out of the standard Republican playbook. The only truly significant piece of legislation he signed in his entire presidency was the Paul Ryan-designed tax cut in late 2017. That year he also nominated for the Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch, a respected jurist who would have been on the short list for any Republican president.

When Trump was elected, friends and colleagues told me that his populism could be moderated and his cruelty and dishonesty were aberrations. A plurality in G.O.P. primaries had foisted him on the party, and Republicans consolidated during the general election not because of love for him but because of opposition to Hillary Clinton. Trump could be contained. He could be channeled. His political appointees would keep him sane.

It was not to be, and not just because of the sheer force of Trump’s personality. Carlson played an important role. Before Trump, Carlson was a longtime fixture on cable news. He’d been around both conservative and mainstream media for a very long time, and hardly anyone considered him a populist, much less a Trumpist.

He was known, however, as an opportunist. And for enterprising and dishonest members of the infotainment right, the Trump era was a cornucopia of opportunity. Trump’s ideological incoherence wasn’t a problem. It was a vacuum that could be filled with ideas that identified and fed his resentments.

In fact, Trumpism was never truly about ideas. It was a vague amalgam of Trump’s ethics, attitudes and grievances — and Carlson imitated them, adopted them and broadcast them to his millions of viewers. Carlson put the lie to the idea that Trump’s cruelty was an aberration, that it was somehow alien to the Republican character, to be tolerated only because the greater good of defeating Clinton had demanded it. In Trump’s cruelty, there was again, opportunity. There were millions who would thrill to his most crude and personal attacks.

On Tucker’s program truth was optional, insults were mandatory, and racism was all but explicit. The narrative was consistent: “They” were after “you.” “They” were lying to “you.” And “they” were terrible, horrible people.

I have firsthand experience with Tucker’s tactics. To take just one example, in a 2021 broadcast he took aim at me for supporting the Biden administration’s decision to launch retaliatory airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia that had attacked and killed a Filipino contractor and wounded five Americans. He contrasted my support for Biden’s attack on Iranian militias with my opposition to Trump-ordered strikes on Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Carlson conflated an attack on a nation that had not attacked the U.S. with an attack on militias that had, and he included this personal attack: “War makes David French feel powerful and alive, one of the few things that does. But only when the right people wage it.” I share that anecdote not because it’s particularly egregious but rather because it’s typical of both Trump and Tucker: invent a partisan grievance, mislead the audience and cap off the conversation with a direct insult.

But Tucker’s influence went beyond substance and style. He gave a platform to a number of the Trump right’s most notorious and most fringe voices. If Trump could create a constellation of right-wing stars, so could Carlson. He helped mold the G.O.P. in his race-obsessed, conspiracy-addled image, helped perpetuate a culture of cruel and punitive Republican communication and helped build an infrastructure of new-right voices who copy his substance and style.

If all that is true, then what could possibly be unimportant about Carlson? The fact is that at the end of the day, he was not bigger than Fox. The secret of Tucker’s fame is that it was always rooted far more in his Fox News time slot than in his (or his ideas’) inherent appeal. His influence, while profound, was contingent and ephemeral, dependent on his access to an audience he did not create and that is not loyal primarily to him.

Let’s place his fame in perspective. He was the top-rated host at Fox, but he didn’t host the top-rated show. In 2022 that honor belonged to “The Five.” The Fox hosts Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld could both claim more total nightly viewers than Carlson between “The Five” and their own shows.

And while Carlson’s ratings were impressive, they were comparable to those of his predecessor Bill O’Reilly. Which raises the question: To what extent was Tucker popular and influential because of his distinct voice, and to what extent was it because he occupied the most coveted time slot on the most popular cable news channel in the United States?

We shall soon see, but I strongly suspect we know the answer. Tucker Carlson isn’t a cultural and political juggernaut. Fox News is. I’ve written before about the network’s singular place in the culture of red America. Without the power of Fox, Carlson’s ability to influence the right will likely be permanently diminished. Indeed, if the experiences of the former Fox superstars Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck teach us anything, it’s how fast influence can fade once one is separated from Fox News.