The main element of Politico’s morning newsletter asked if a certain public figure was “losing their mind.” His diatribes made him seem more and more “unbalanced”. Then again, they could be theatrical, a way of “making you guess if he’s just putting on you.”
These words, or their rough equivalents, have been used scores if not hundreds of times to describe Donald Trump.
But they were written last Tuesday on… Tucker Carlson. And they settled the matter: he is the new Trump. Not Ron DeSantis. Not Josh Hawley. Not Rick Scott. Certainly not Ted Cruz.
These other men are simply vying for Trump’s political role, with an occasional detour to Cancun.
Carlson is also seizing on Trump’s theatrical mantle.
Moving to fill the empty space created by Trump’s expulsion from the White House, his ban from social media, and his petulant near-hibernation, Carlson unleashes the libs like Trump unleashes the libs. He animates the experts as Trump animates the experts.
Case in point: Carlson’s jeremiad endlessly denounced and exhaustively analyzed against masks on his Fox News show Monday night.
“Your response when you see kids wearing masks while they play shouldn’t be any different from your response when you see someone beating a child at Walmart,” Carlson said. “Call the police immediately. Contact child protection services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you are looking at is abuse. It is child abuse. “
What crazy hyperbole. What a ridiculous histrionic. And what timing. Carlson shares Trump’s knack for this – for figuring out precisely when, for maximum effect, to pour salt into a civic injury.
Its free bunk for children played on the weariness of more than a year of vigilance against coronaviruses. It came just as Americans were debating whether it was necessary to wear masks when vaccinated or outside. It was fueled by arguments about how much caution is still needed and what is just muscle memory or signaling virtue.
And it was usefully succinct and well packaged so that other commentators could participate. Carlson understands what Trump always has and what any seasoned provocateur does: You don’t just stir up your detractors. You give them Equipment. That way, whatever you say has a long half-life and a long-lasting shelf life.
Several shows on MSNBC covered Carlson’s rant. Several shows on CNN as well. “The View” has entered. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel did it. When you’re the subject of late-night comedian monologues, you really have.
Just two and a half weeks earlier, another of Carlson’s soliloquies – in which he peddled far-right paranoia about a Democratic Party plan to supplant dark-skinned invaders in developing America. White Christians – has become his own story, making him more of a player in our national drama than a columnist of it.
It was not his first immigration complaint, and he had tried the “grand replacement theory” before. But this time it was more succinct, more orderly, more sharp. “Every time they import a new voter, I am deprived of my rights as the current voter,” he fumed. “I have less political power because they import a whole new electorate.”
He made voters like Mazdas and America sound like a lot of cars.
Like Trump, he decided that going viral was his own reward. And he is amply rewarded, as illustrated in this same column. I prefer to ignore it, but I face the same irreconcilable considerations as everyone else who does not ignore it.
Paying attention to him is playing in his hands, but to do the opposite is to play ostrich. In April, its 8 p.m. Eastern show drew an average nightly audience of around three million viewers. It made him the most watched of all cable TV hosts – ahead of Sean Hannity, ahead of Rachel Maddow – and it meant he both captured and colored what many Americans thought of current events. His explosions, as ugly as they are, are relevant.
Do you remember someone making their way through the sand traps near Mar-a-Loco?
The amount of real estate Carlson occupies in the political bulletins I endorse seems to have increased in proportion to the amount Trump lost. (This is my own replacement theory.) And it proves that we need not only bad guys but also some kinds villains: those whose unwavering smugness, unfettered cruelty, and open-ended sense of superiority enable us to strike back bluntly and work our own rage. Carlson, again like Trump, is cathartic.
Trump’s dominance has been so deep from early 2016 to early 2021 that there is now a sort of obsession with naming his successor, although it is not at all clear that he is ready to succeed. . All the men I mentioned earlier covet this crown. But not everyone fully understands that Trump’s job was not politics. It was the performance.
Carlson understands this. If making arguments was his sole or primary objective, it would not allow so much confusion as to the flavor of his invective. But the debates over whether he really scores points or presses buttons poorly might just be a boon to the ratings. Keeping people in the imagination is keeping people in tune.
I’m not saying he’s a Trump doppelganger. It is neither orange enough nor ostentatious enough. He can be as adept verbally as Trump is incontinent oratorical, as full of information as Trump is sterile. Carlson reminds you of a swollen preschool debate team captain at his desk. Trump reminds you of a bloated reality TV ham – what he was before he climbed that downward escalator, a harbinger of the country’s trajectory beneath him.
But both go through the contradictions of being both populist and plutocratic. Both pretend to be bad boys while living like good old boys. Both view bullying as bravery.
“Part of the appeal of the Carlson show is its tendency to generate knockouts rather than split decisions,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in an excellent Carlson profile on The New Yorker in 2017. “Her unofficial Reddit page features photos of guests deemed to have played in particular. poorly; on every face is written “wasted”. “
This “wasted” reminds me of Trump’s “loser”. It is the vocabulary of mockery, a sport in which Carlson is a champion. But it’s stranger when played by him than when played by Trump, who never claimed to be thoughtful. Carlson has been thoughtful, back when he was writing long articles for ambitious magazines.
Then came the television, then the high decibel duels on TV, then Trump, Carlson’s Pilotfish Shark. Carlson, who flattered him, got the time slot on Fox News that had belonged to Megyn Kelly, who was feuding with Trump.
And now? The pilot fish have developed their own powerful jaws, and the ocean is just a little safer.