Bill O’Reilly’s world-weary smirk has been replaced by Tucker Carlson’s confused stare in the 8 p.m. slot on Fox News. O’Reilly, the most popular host on US cable news, was sacked because of a sex scandal, but Carlson is in many ways a more fitting presenter for the age of Trump.
O’Reilly helped Fox create its sense of a world full of nefarious liberals, immigrants and feminists out to get Conservative Man. At the start of every show he would welcome viewers into his ‘no spin zone’, a shelter from the ‘ideological nonsense’, ‘irrational thinking and hysterical debates’ outside, away from the ‘dishonest’ media which ignore stories that don’t fit their agenda. He would contrast the hostile world with his own ‘honest’ show, where he appealed to ‘fair-minded people’. O’Reilly has been caught out being less than accurate about quite a lot of things himself, and he never mentioned his own sexual abuse scandals when all other media were discussing them. But that was beside the point: it was the sense of something stable and sheltered from the madness outside that mattered.
To appear stable while keeping up with a president as unstable and as ideologically à la carte as Donald Trump could be difficult, however. After Trump suddenly changed his mind over bombing Syria, O’Reilly had to turn somersaults: as a candidate, O’Reilly argued, Trump felt he couldn’t do anything to stop Assad’s chemical attacks, and so was opposed to bombing him; now that he was president he felt he could do something, and so launched Tomahawks against Syria. The reasoning was hardly convincing, and O’Reilly’s heart didn’t seem in it. It’s one thing holding the Republican or Tea Party line when that line is clear, but when it started to blur, O’Reilly looked lost.
Tucker Carlson does battle with the world that O’Reilly only described. The highlights of Carlson’s shows are interview-duels, verbal WWF wrestling bouts, with the enemy. A split screen lets us see both Carlson and his opponent simultaneously in close-up (Carlson has the US flag billowing behind him). Not all the fights are fair. An anti-fascist activist was described as ‘anti-free speech’ in her strap-line. Guests can be caricature liberals such as professors who advocate ‘white genocide’, or inarticulate student leaders whom Tucker dismisses as over-privileged moaners. But Carlson is addictive viewing because he is prepared to lose.
After a while you get to know Carlson’s routine. For the first few minutes he stares into the camera quizzically, looking a bit like Woody Harrelson’s character in Cheers, confused by a bizarre world. He will try to give the interviewee enough time to say something stupid, and when they do his face breaks into a hysterical laugh, he interrupts and accuses them of being the exact thing they oppose (an anti-fascist is non-democratic; a socialist is elitist), ask them a ridiculous question (‘Can you see into Vladimir Putin’s mind?’) or push their ideas towards absurdity.
Take a recent exchange with a former Democratic Justice Department spokesman who wanted to investigate the links of Trump’s campaign to Russia. Carlson waited for his opponent to mention one point too many in his list of Trump’s pro-Moscow positions: when the Democrat referred to Trump’s opposition to the EU, Carlson flipped him on his back by asking if that meant anyone who opposes multinational institutions is working for Putin.
Carlson’s most skilful opponents don’t give the opportunity to attack. When Senator Lindsay Graham came on to defend the bombing of Syria, Carlson tried to trap him as a regime change advocate in his first question: ‘You are saying we need 7000 troops on the ground … to effect regime change?’ ‘No,’ Graham replied, ‘to defeat Isil.’ Tucker looked confused, after all he’s all for defeating Islamic State. For the next seven minutes Graham gave him the run around. ‘You want a new war?’ Carlson asked. ‘No: the end of an old war.’ By the end Graham had managed to box Carlson into a place where the Fox presenter’s next question would have made him look both pro-IS and pro Iran.
Did I learn anything about Trump’s foreign policy? Not at all. But information is hardly the point. This is a form of sporting event. Carlson and another Fox host, Jesse Watters, go over their favourite clips of Carlson humiliating his guests: it’s like watching highlights of a football game. YouTube is full of clips and compilations of Carlson’s confrontations.
Of all the Fox prime time hosts, Carlson may be the most critical of Trump’s policies: as was clear in the interview with Graham, he was deeply sceptical of the strikes against Syria (it would be conspiratorial to suggest he lost on purpose). But the way he reduces politics to a WWF tustle captures the spirit of the Trump era. It can be hard to nail down Trump’s political beliefs, but he makes sense from the point of TV entertainment: always finding new storylines, always keeping the audience on the edge of their seats with new conflicts. It’s not about policy; it’s about attention and drama.
I ran Carlson’s Twitter feed through a data analytics tool. Between 14 and 17 March, when he interviewed Trump, he received 58 million impressions online, most of them mentions of him rather than shares of his tweets, suggesting he generates more debate than agreement. People like to fight over whether or not they like him. Those who engage with Carlson are much less interested than the average Twitter user in science and technology, activism or health. People who are interested in Tucker are 50 times more likely than the average user to be interested in Sarah Palin, 42 times more likely to be interested in immigration, eight times more likely to be interested in golf and six times more likely to be interested in Real Housewives.