Trump and Tucker Carlson were codependent. Their venn diagram was one angry white circle | Fox News

At an 18 February 2017 rally, Donald Trump railed against immigrants and violence. He was unusually focused on Sweden, warning the crowd about recent terrorist attacks in the country: “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?” If a terrorist attack in Sweden seemed unbelievable, it’s because it was. There had been no attack by immigrants the night before Trump spoke. The most recent attacks on Sweden, at the time, were a series of bombings between November 2016 and January 2017 that were allegedly connected to the neo-Nazi group the Nordic Resistance.

People in Sweden shared photographs of their very un-bombed houses. Reporters did their due diligence and wrote stories about how nothing at all had happened in Sweden the previous night. It was a news cycle of nothing. But all that nothing could not persuade the president he was wrong. Trump repeated the story over and over. He was right, he insisted in multiple interviews: Sweden had been bombed by immigrant terrorists and he knew because he’d seen it on Tucker Carlson Tonight.

Trump and Carlson were locked in a folie à deux that made each other’s careers. As Trump demanded a wall between Mexico and the United States, Carlson aired show after show cherry-picking stories to inflate the dangers of immigration. As Trump railed against Muslims, Carlson aired aggrieved segments about Macy’s selling hijabs. Together, they tapped into a nativist anger in America. Trump’s audience was Carlson’s audience. The Venn diagram was one big white angry circle. And Carlson even went further than Trump. While Trump encouraged his supporters to get vaccinated, Carlson likened the vaccine to Nazi experiments.

There are still questions about exactly why Fox fired Carlson on Monday morning. But it’s clear that in his wake, he leaves wreckage. Not just from advising his elderly viewers that they didn’t need the vaccine. Not just from downplaying the insurrection as “mostly peaceful” and “embarrassingly tepid”. Not just for normalizing racist and neo-Nazi ideology or for the way he demonized individuals he disagreed with even if they weren’t public figures. But in the way he redefined truth and helped define the Trump presidency. He certainly wasn’t the first, or even the most eloquent, but Carlson was the loudest John the Baptist leading the way of the Trump era, evangelizing for a politics built on petty grievances and outrage.

And the connection between Trump and Carlson wasn’t accidental. They often texted and conversed. Trump sought Carlson’s advice on his presidential run. And while past presidents have had close relationships with media figures, theirs was more transactional. Carlson’s disinformation informed Trump’s approach to his presidency and Trump capitalized on the anger Carlson incited.

Richard West, professor of communications studies at Emerson College and author of a forthcoming book on the media, told me that Carlson elevated “factitis” to an art. Factitis, as West defines it, is “[an]irrational fear and avoidance of reporting facts”.

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Trump and Carlson knew that one of the most powerful tools at their disposal was scapegoating individuals. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

“He ushered in this perception that whatever you think is OK, whatever you feel can be viewed as real and factual,” West says. “And it has to be because I’m on TV reading a teleprompter. Years ago, we used to call this blogging. Now it’s called TV anchorship on Fox.”

West described the symbiosis of Carlson’s influence, which peaked under the Trump administration, as the “Tucker-Trump transactional threat”. He describes it as a feedback loop, “where one person reports something that’s not a fact. The other says, ‘That’s true.’ And the other one says, ‘Yes, I told you it was true.’ It’s just kind of an odd transactional aversion to truth.”

The journalist Brian Stelter, former host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, described the cratering legacy of Carlson more succinctly. “Tucker Carlson made cable news cruder, uglier, more toxic. And as much as he turned on some fans, he also turned off a lot of people.”

Trump and Carlson knew that one of the most powerful tools at their disposal was scapegoating individuals, often those not used to the media spotlight. The researcher Nina Jankowicz was targeted by Carlson after she was appointed to head the newly formed Disinformation Governance Board of the US Department of Homeland Security. The board was disbanded after it became the target of disinformation, and Jankowicz is still dealing with harassment. She told me in an interview that she could always tell when she’d been mentioned on Carlson’s show, by the fresh new wave of harassment. She doesn’t hold out hope that whoever replaces Carlson will be better: “And even if they replace Tucker with somebody who is more palatable, that legacy is one of lying for profit, lying for sport and lying without regard to the consequence of your lies. And that has really engendered this kind of normalization of political violence in America.”

Jankowicz wasn’t the only woman Carlson targeted; it was regular feature on his show. The reporters Kim Kelly, Taylor Lorenz, and Lauren Duca all experienced Carlson’s ire. Sometimes they lost their jobs as a result, but they always received harassment from his fans, an army of angry viewers, ready to focus their vitriol on any target. The Trump-Carlson legacy is to transform both the right and the left into a nation of shitposters, a republic of dunk tweeters. A place where cruelty and disinformation is a bankable business model.

I interviewed Carlson for a profile in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2018. I asked him if he felt responsible for the words he spoke, and the impact he had. I’d seen loved ones echo Carlson’s language about Black people and immigrants, in ways so nasty it left me devastated.My life and my community were cratered by Carlson’s rhetoric. He was dismissive and accused me of promoting censorship. But since the profile was published, it’s become clear that the lives of his viewers and the people he targeted where just rhetorical strategy to him. There was no care or concern over the damage he caused or the lives he ruined. And until his recent firing, there were very few consequences.

At the time, people I talked to for the story insisted that Carlson didn’t believe what he said because it was just entertainment. And as his texts from the Dominion lawsuit show, he didn’t believe some of what he was claiming every night. But anyone who has read Hamlet knows that you become what you pretend you are. People die; a kingdom was ruined.

Trump is running for re-election now without Carlson’s platform. What that does to his political power remains to be seen.

But there’s no doubt that another of Murdoch’s apostles will take his place on Fox’s nightly lineup, just as Carlson replaced Bill O’Reilly. Maybe his replacement will be even more extreme, more willing to spin conspiracy theories for the Maga right. From O’Reilly to Glenn Beck to Carlson – that has tended to be the direction of travel.

Like John the Baptist, despite having his head severed and delivered to Rupert Murdoch on a platter, Carlson’s gospel of hate will endure. It’s too embedded in the nature of American politics – both its tone and its language – to divest ourselves of it. And it’s too profitable. Carlson’s legacy is very real and we’re living in its ruins.

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