Night after night, the host of the most watched show in prime-time cable news uses a simple narrative to instill fear in his viewers: “They” want to control and then destroy “you.”
A New York Times analysis of 1,150 episodes reveals how Tucker Carlson pushes extremist ideas and conspiracy theories into millions of households, five nights a week. He’s done so since the beginning, but the show has gotten darker. Carlson, 52, has one of the largest megaphones in all of cable television. When President Donald Trump left office, Carlson filled the void on the right. Here’s how the show works.
When you enter Carlson’s world each night, you are among his 3 million-plus viewers — and part of a Fox News audience that is 92% white and overwhelmingly older, according to Nielsen data. They are the “ruling class.” They threaten everything you believe in.
They include Democratic and Republican officials, members of the media, Big Tech executives, academics, sports and Hollywood stars, and others.
Carlson tells you over and over: They don’t care about you and will do whatever they can to maintain power.
He frames nearly every topic on his show as a “ruling class” plot, from gun control to marijuana legalization to COVID-19 restrictions.
Even the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Carlson, is part of the plot. Why should you hate President Vladimir Putin when they cause everything Carlson says is wrong with society? The real enemies, Carlson implies with rhetorical questions, are his usual targets — China and the U.S. “ruling class.” Putin, whose military has bombed Ukrainian civilians and committed atrocities, is not a foe.
It is worth noting that a U.S. district judge, in a 2020 ruling dismissing slander accusations against Carlson, said Fox News’ lawyers argued persuasively that “any reasonable viewer ‘arrive(s) with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes.” Carlson begins some segments with a grain of truth or an accurately quoted study, but then often distorts a concept to fit his narrative.
Carlson continually hammers at the idea that they care more about everything else — identity politics, Afghan refugees, preventing a border wall, Roger Stone’s prison sentence — than you. Repetition and “they-you” framing are tools commonly used by populist or authoritarian leaders to create emotional connections with their followers.
Of 1,150 “Tucker Carlson Tonight” episodes that the Times analyzed, from November 2016 through 2021, Carlson invoked the “ruling class” in more than 800 shows.
The “ruling class,” he says, wants you to just “shut up and obey.”
Not only do they want to control you, Carlson warns, they want to destroy you and your way of life. They have various ways of doing this, he asserts, including importing immigrants from the “Third World” to replace you with more “obedient voters.”
This premise is the crux of an unfounded racist conspiracy theory that falling birthrates and immigration are leading to the replacement of white people.
The theory echoes long-held beliefs of American white nationalists that a Jewish elite is orchestrating this replacement. (“Jews will not replace us,” was the chant of white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.) Versions of “replacement theory” have been cited by perpetrators of mass shootings, like those who targeted a Pittsburgh synagogue and Hispanic shoppers in El Paso, Texas.
After Carlson promoted replacement theory on a show in April 2021, the Anti-Defamation League called for his firing.
The Times found that it was far from the first time Carlson had done so. He has amplified the idea of demographic replacement in more than 400 episodes.
Some of these segments begin with traditional conservative talking points about liberals being too weak on border security. But then Carlson continues on to say “by the way, this is a conspiracy by Democratic and some Republican elites to replace you,” said Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Columbia University specializing in media, conservatism and the far right.
Carlson also posits that feminism and gender nonconformity threaten masculinity and contribute to falling birthrates. “You see that creation of the white male victim in Tucker Carlson’s show,” Hemmer said. “It’s absolutely core to extremist circles.”
Carlson highlighted shifting gender roles and falling birthrates in more than 200 episodes.
He also asserts that the ruling class’ “obsession with race” and “equality” creates a world that favors the rights of people of color and discriminates against you, the viewer.
He spoke of discrimination against white people and minimized racism against people of color in at least 606 episodes.
Carlson uses white victimhood to play down the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. He puts quotes around “insurrection,” baselessly casting the riot as a “false-flag” operation instigated by federal officials to persecute conservatives. He asserts that they are punishing the mostly white crowd at the Capitol more harshly than the Black Lives Matter protesters who marched in the summer of 2020. Those rallies were largely peaceful.
White nationalists celebrate Carlson’s message and success. “Does he actually believe in white nationalism?” asked R. Derek Black, a former white nationalist who has disavowed the movement. It doesn’t really matter, he said, because Carlson is using the same rhetoric. Having the most popular cable news host “directly pulling” from their talking points “makes them feel like, ‘Wow, we must be right,’” Black said.
David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (and Black’s godfather), said on Twitter in 2020 that Trump should choose Carlson as his running mate. Nick Fuentes, another white nationalist, cheered Carlson’s promotion of replacement theory.
Andrew Anglin, founder of the white nationalist website The Daily Stormer, has called Carlson “literally our greatest ally.” Carlson’s “replacement” message — and Carlson himself — has been used to promote a White Lives Matter rally.
Carlson also uses rhetoric similar to that of men’s rights activists, nativists and others on the fringes of the right. “He is a linchpin, a central node, of these different discourses, a place where they can all converge,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric and a professor at Texas A&M University. “And he repackages them in a way that makes his audience more likely to accept them.”
Since Trump left office, Carlson has become the ideological enforcer of conservative populism. He has used his megaphone to weaponize cultural issues, like critical race theory and transgender rights, that drive the conversation in school boards and state capitals. And he sometimes uses his perch to punish Republicans who contradict his narrative. After Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol a “violent terrorist attack,” he appeared on Carlson’s show to apologize.
Carlson has said he thinks about the show in installments — giving his audience one chapter tonight, one tomorrow. Many of his chapters end up in the same place: with warnings that the country — and sometimes civilization itself — is falling apart because of policies enacted by the “ruling class.” He has warned of such dire outcomes in nearly 600 episodes.
Over time, the show has evolved to become more potent and direct, an echo chamber of Carlson’s narrative. Where Carlson once regularly interviewed guests who disagreed with him, he has increasingly devoted less airtime to opposing views and more to talking directly to you — through his ever-growing monologues.
Earlier episodes almost always included at least one or two guests who disagreed with Carlson on issues like immigration and global warming.
Now, nearly all guests amplify Carlson’s narrative.
Fox News did not change the guest format simply because liberals refused to come on the show, as Carlson has complained. Scrutinizing ratings data, the network learned that its audience didn’t actually want to hear from the other side. “From my discussions with Fox News bookers, my takeaway is that they’ve made the judgment that they just don’t do debate segments anymore,” said Richard Goodstein, a Democratic lobbyist and campaign adviser who appeared more than 90 times on Carlson’s show until the summer of 2020.
Carlson now spends more and more of the show on his opening monologues, talking directly to his viewers through the camera.
By 2020, monologues typically ran longer than 10 minutes, compared with earlier years when they were shorter or nonexistent. It’s not unusual now for Carlson to talk into the camera at the start of the show for upward of 15 to 20 minutes.
He used two of his longest monologues to rail against Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020.
Over the years, the show has dedicated more segments to the most divisive issues. Carlson devoted five times as many hours to such topics in 2021 as he did in 2017, the first full year of the show, according to the Times’ analysis.
In a statement, Justin Wells, the show’s senior executive producer, stood up for Carlson’s choice of topics and language: “Tucker Carlson programming embraces diversity of thought and presents various points of view in an industry where contrarian thought and the search for truth are often ignored. Stories in ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’ broadcasts and ‘Tucker Carlson Originals’ documentaries undergo a rigorous editorial process. We’re also proud of our ongoing original reporting at a time when most in the media amplify only one point of view.”
If it’s a weeknight, Carlson will be on. Over the course of an hour, he will look you in the eye and tell you that they want to control and then destroy you.