‘Tucker Carlson is the new Donald Trump.’ So said CNN’s Brian Stelter on his Sunday program, Reliable Sources.
Stelter was apparently handed his own TV show based on the principle that at least one CNN host ought to resemble the network’s target audience. Nevertheless, he is correct. Progressivism needs Tucker to be Trump, and so for the moment, he is.
To work in cable in the age of Donald Trump was to live life on easy mode. For years, channels tried desperately to hook viewers with endless updates on missing white women, murdered white women or murdering white women. Suddenly, with Trump, none of that was needed. Every day brought a fresh outrage, a new ridiculous statement or tweet or national policy. The news cycle shrank from a week to a day to mere hours in some cases.
Print journalism wasn’t spared. The New York Times abandoned its post of affected neutrality, discovering that it could dramatically expand its subscriber base and keep winning Pulitzers as a full-time resistance paper. Other publications followed.
But what can the #Resistance do without someone to resist? For five years, progressives shrieked for a Donald Trump Twitter ban. Now, the president is gone, out of office and apparently uninterested in appearing on any media platform he doesn’t own. While his press releases read exactly like tweets, they are few and far between.
Like Tom without Jerry, Scratchy without Itchy, or Stacey Abrams without the McDonald’s Supersize option, progressivism is lost without the Bad Orange Man to transfix their viewers and themselves. CNN and MSNBC ratings have tanked in recent months.
Progressivism clearly needs a bogeyman — and Tucker Carlson is quickly filling the 45th president’s void. HBO’s John Oliver dedicated 24 minutes to trashing Carlson as a white supremacist on Sunday night. In the past, Tucker’s takes on Taylor Lorenz or maternity flight suits would have garnered a few articles on Jezebel and throwaway cable segments. Now, he earns rebukes from The New York Times’s editorial board and the Department of Defense. Just like with Trump, the outrage is mutually beneficial for the participants. Carlson’s critics enjoy higher readership, higher ratings, and higher profits from the perpetual outrage, while Carlson gets a higher profile and the honor of being the post-Trump right’s de facto ideological leader.
But the choice of Carlson doesn’t just show the neediness of the left. It also shows the decrepit state of American conservatism. Most of Fox News’s public enemies can make policy, or at least propose legislation: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi, Andrew Cuomo, Bill de Blasio. For its own champion, the new right is stuck with a television host, one who (despite rampant speculation) has expressed no interest in seeking elected office.
For a brief moment, Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz seemed like they might be focal points for the left’s hatred, yet two months after the Capitol riot both have receded. Fascination with Marjorie Taylor Greene flared up for a few weeks, then died down just as quickly. Only Carlson endures, week in and week out.
He endures because, from his position of political powerlessness, Carlson often seems the only major voice for battles that ought to be the work of an entire political party. After nine months of racial reckonings, it would be nice for some Republicans to point out the shortcomings of the Derek Chauvin murder case and defend Chauvin’s right to a fair trial. Instead, GOP senators have released paeans to Floyd’s abbreviated life, and only Carlson is doing the hard work of pointing out that Floyd may have died of a drug overdose rather than suffocation. The nominally pro-military GOP might be expected to protest the bizarre feminization and politicization of the armed forces, but instead, Carlson is in the rhetorical lead.
But five years of Donald Trump should have Republicans asking: just how good is a party whose only compelling leaders are charismatic media personalities?