“Is that Pedro Gonzalez?” a voice called out. I was standing in an old wooden building that had been converted into a studio by America’s most popular cable news host. Not in Los Angeles or New York, the twin Meccas of media, but in a sleepy Maine town. I turned around and saw the owner approaching from the outside, the sun against his back, shining over him just enough to blind me. But I recognized his voice. It was Tucker Carlson, and he shook my hand with a smile.
Tucker Carlson Tonight—America’s biggest cable news show—ended abruptly in April. The details of what exactly transpired are still murky. All that’s certain is Fox had an ax to grind and finally swung it. Fortunately, the man is not dead, and I believe he’ll ultimately be better off. Still, it seems appropriate to reflect on the end of an important program and an era as Tucker, I hope, turns the page to a new and better chapter.
Tucker was Fox’s greatest talent. It’s not even close. But he is also a good person who helped outsiders like me reach a larger audience. He did that often, and it’s hard to find that combination of talent, bravery, and generosity anywhere else in our time. Tucker used his aircraft-carrier-sized platform to attack the world’s most powerful individuals and institutions while giving voice to the small. That is what made Tucker Carlson Tonight a phenomenon and will make whatever Tucker does next the same.
I had the privilege of joining him for 22 episodes, plus one segment on his hour-long podcast, Tucker Carlson Today, which is where I met him in person for the first time.
He had no reason to give me a platform—he just happened to like what I had to say and offered me one, although I had little to no real media experience, certainly not involving audiences in the millions. Tucker called me out of the blue after a friend who had been on his show gave him my number.
My first media hits on Tucker’s show were rough. Sometimes I’d even apologize if I felt a segment didn’t nail the mark. He kept bringing me back anyway, and I got better with time. He would always offer encouragement.
I had been, in the past, a little insecure about my late and rapid political evolution. I had been pro-choice, pro-death penalty, ambivalent toward immigration, and pro-interventionism. Doing a hard about-face on these issues felt almost unnatural. But Tucker held similar views and had experienced his own change of heart during his career.
In 2018, two years after I had jumped on the Trump Train, James Antle III, the Washington Examiner’s politics editor, profiled Tucker in Chronicles. For some reason, it never occurred to me that he had grown up about half an hour away from where I did in Southern California. His past positions also mirrored my own on abortion, immigration, and foreign policy. “As a kid, I was always pretty aggressively pro-choice. And I was for the death penalty. And I was basically for open borders. And I believed that wars generally against unjust regimes made America stronger and the world better,” he told Antle. “These were all assumptions that I had that I no longer have. In fact, I have the opposite view of every one of those issues because I thought about it.” Ditto. (Except I still support the death penalty.)
This is a large part of what made Tucker such a powerful force on Fox, a network that does not typically reward thinking. He had been on the other side of things, had changed his mind, and is far less rigidly ideological than the average pundit. That’s also why his show drew more Democrats on the younger side than programs on CNN and MSNBC, as evidenced by data from Nielsen, which specializes in audience measurement.
According to Nielsen, in October 2021, among Democrats aged 25-54, 39 percent said they chose Fox News, 31 percent chose MSNBC, and 30 percent chose CNN for programming from 8 p.m. ET to 11 p.m. ET. Nielsen also found that among viewers who identify as political independents, 55 percent of those aged 25-54 watched Fox in primetime, compared to CNN’s 23 percent and MSNBC’s 22 percent.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Tucker’s success on Fox reflected his ability to grasp the political realignment happening in America.
Democrats have neglected their traditional, white, working-class base for a coalition based on grievances largely aimed at whites. But they have also become the party of the rich. A New York Times analysis of 2020 campaign donations found that, compared with Democrats, “Republicans raised a far greater share of their money in ZIP codes where the median household income was less than $100,000, part of the evolving realignment between the two parties.” Moreover, an analysis of Federal Election Commission filings by Forbes showed that in the first two weeks of October 2020, as the presidential race drew to a close, Biden nabbed $2.3 million from at least 23 billionaires to Trump’s $907,000 from 10 billionaires.
The GOP’s blind love for big business makes little sense in light of these changing dynamics. Tucker saw that, and it resulted in some awkward and amusing handoffs with hosts who are behind the curve, such as Sean Hannity.
“I’m not against wealth accumulation,” Tucker said during a segment about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos raking in $13 billion in one day during the pandemic as small businesses were being wrecked. “I’m not against free enterprise but $13 billion in a day suggests something is skewed with the system, no?” During the following hand-off, Hannity took a shot at his fellow Fox News host. “People can make money. They provide goods and services people want, need, and desire. That’s America. It’s called freedom—capitalism—and as long as it’s honest, right? People decide.” Tucker was visibly surprised but didn’t have time to reply.
Later, Tucker clashed with Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the very worst members of the Republican Party, and, wearing a smile, turned the microphone over to Hannity—who had scheduled Graham as a guest. Tucker made it a point to hit Graham for ducking the show, knowing that Graham preferred appearing on Hannity, where he could always expect to be treated with a soft touch. Hannity was forced to play dumb, insisting that he hadn’t heard Tucker’s concluding remarks aimed at his Republican buddy. “Alright, Tucker. Whoops, didn’t hear you,” Hannity said after a pause.
Tucker was an equal opportunity pugilist. Unlike many right-wing pundits, he wasn’t afraid to go after Trump when he deserved it. He blasted the former president for pushing jailbreak legislation—the disastrous First Step Act. He showed the public that the Trump administration had elected to help violent criminals and sex offenders receive early release. He
excoriated the Trump administration for betraying its immigration promises, notably with Trump’s amnesty proposal. “In a remarkable twist, the president held a televised meeting with the very swamp creatures he once denounced,” Tucker said in January 2018. “He told them he trusted them to craft immigration policy without his input. Then he suggested he’d be willing to accept any deal they produced—even a bad one.”
Tucker challenged Trump’s turn toward a more hawkish foreign policy when he bombed Syria in 2017. “This is clearly not something he ran on, and … it’s inconsistent with a lot of things that he’s said over the years,” Tucker said on his show. He registered the same dissent when Trump considered war with Iran, even proposing to deliberately target Persian cultural heritage sites like Pasargadae, which contains the gardens and the tomb of Cyrus the Great. Trump ultimately sheathed the saber thanks largely to Tucker. BuzzFeed News reported that “according to a source with knowledge of the conversations, Trump told people that he had watched Carlson’s show and it had affected his view on the Iran situation.” Citing two White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing, the Associated Press also reported that Trump told “confidants” that “Carlson’s strong advocacy not to escalate the situation in Iran played a role in his decision-making.”
Tucker never backed down from an anti-war stance unpopular with the Fox network. Immediately after the conflict in Ukraine started, Tucker had me on his show to join him in denouncing the war hawks.
Since his ouster, there has been a campaign to smear Tucker, likely with the help of his rivals inside Fox. Most recently, the Times published a text message he sent to a producer. In which he witnessed a political street fight with Antifa and confessed to wanting to see the Antifa member hurt or killed. But he concluded by stating that attacking the outnumbered Antifa member was “dishonorable obviously.” Thoughtfully, he added:
Somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be. The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it. I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?
Antifa militants once besieged Tucker’s home, terrorizing his wife, pounding on his door and chanting, “we know where you sleep at night.” Who could blame Tucker for privately wishing death on these people? Most of us would. Yet he did not. By disclosing this internal struggle with morality, his enemies succeeded only in profoundly humanizing him. Fox is already learning the hard way that Tucker’s voice is too important to silence because he speaks for so many people.