Tucker Carlson, the far-right TV host whose embracement of racist conspiracy theories came to signify a shift further towards the right wing at Fox News, leaves behind a legacy of mainstreaming extremism after exiting the channel, and speculation is turning to any next step in an incendiary career.
The departure of Carlson, Fox News’ most-watched and highest-profile host, came as a shock. It is the second seismic moment at the news channel in a matter of days, after Fox News agreed to pay a giant $787.5m settlement to Dominion Voting Systems last week after airing election conspiracy theories.
Fox News announced the split in a terse statement on Monday, stating that the channel and Carlson had “agreed to part ways”. But the pithiness of the statement barely hinted at the dubious repercussions of Carlson’s seven-year tenure as a regular host: a spell where he seemed to grow into a force that Fox News wouldn’t, or couldn’t, control.
“Tucker Carlson basically leaves a superhighway to the rightwing fever swamps,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, an organization that monitors rightwing media.
“Tucker took things from what otherwise would have been considered the fringes: Infowars [a far-right conspiracy theory website], these white nationalist communities online, he took that content and laundered it into the Fox News ecosystem, and basically built up an appetite for this amongst the Fox News audience.
“And once they sort of got a taste for blood, that’s all they wanted. That’s going to be a challenge for Fox moving forward, but what’s his legacy? His legacy is bloodthirstiness and bigotry.”
Carlson’s eponymous show, which aired at 8pm ET, averaged more than 3 million viewers per night, and was generally the most watched cable news program.
The 53-year-old might have been an unlikely hero to Fox News’ coastal-elite loathing audience. A multimillionaire who was privately educated in California, Switzerland, and the waspy environs of New England, Carlson hosted most of his shows from a specially built studio in Maine, where he spends much of the year (he also has a home in Florida).
Yet night after night, millions tuned in to watch Carlson’s furious, reddening face, under a neatly parted, country club hairstyle, as he fed viewers a daily dose of fury and victimhood and painted a dystopian picture of America.
Among Carlson’s most passionately pursued topics was the idea – contrary to all able evidence – that white people were being persecuted in the US.
Across his tenure at Fox News, Carlson pushed the concept of the great replacement theory – which states that a range of liberals, Democrats and Jewish people are working to replace white voters in western countries with people of color, in an effort to achieve political aims – in more than 400 of his shows, a New York Times analysis found.
“No singular voice in rightwing media has done more to elevate this racist conspiracy theory than Tucker,” Joy Reid, a MSNBC host, claimed in 2022, and his peddling of the claim brought multiple calls for him to be fired across the years, all of which Fox News ignored.
“Carlson positioned himself as the voice of the Maga base of the party and really leaned into the kinds of conspiracy theories, the white nationalist ideas that he thought would appeal to that base,” said Nicole Hemmer, a political historian at Vanderbilt University and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.
“He really was able to give a voice to this kind of grievance that Donald Trump was so good at tapping into. It was Tucker Carlson who was out there saying: ‘They’re coming for you, white people.’”
Fox News gave no indication as to the reason for splitting with Carlson, but on Monday the Los Angeles Times reported that Rupert Murdoch, the omnipotent chairman of Fox Corporation – the parent company of Fox News – had forced Carlson out of the news channel in relation to a looming discrimination lawsuit.
Another thing that may not have helped were the embarrassing disclosures of Carlson’s text messages and emails, published as part of the Dominion lawsuit. Those messages revealed that privately Carlson held very different views from those he espoused on air, including about Donald Trump.
“I hate him passionately,” Carlson said of the former president, describing Trump’s behavior in the weeks following the 2020 election as “disgusting”.
In another text, Carlson said of “the last four years” under Trump: “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”
It is difficult to say what comes next for Carlson. Newsmax and One America News Network, two other rightwing cable news channels, could be possible homes, but they have a much smaller audience, and would probably be unable to match Fox News’ salary.
“I don’t think he goes to a competing cable network,” Carusone said.
“He’s too sensitive to ratings and that would be an embarrassment – they could never match the ratings, they could never give him the reach.”
One thing that is likely, however, is that Carlson “attacks Fox”, Carusone said.
“He wasn’t shy about attacking his colleagues and management when he was at a company – he’s certainly not going to be shy about attacking them now,” Carusone said.
The idea of an aggressive response is “tightly tied into his brand”, Carusone said “And he’s also just a venomous, spiteful guy, so the reflex will be to take a shot.”
Carlson’s unexpected departure meant he had no opportunity to say goodbye to his viewers. On Friday, in what turned out to be his last show, he had once more voiced that issue which is so close to his heart: the great replacement theory.
“The defining strategic insight of the modern Democratic party is they don’t really need to convince anyone of anything,” Carlson said in his monologue on Friday’s show.
“What matters is demographics. To import enough people from elsewhere, people who are financially dependent on you in order to live.”
Perhaps Carlson can take some comfort in knowing that his persona on Fox died as he lived: sitting in a TV studio, looking upset, and pushing a racist conspiracy theory to an increasingly rabid rightwing audience.
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