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Tucker Carlson’s presidential campaign bandwagon is leaving the station

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  • Tucker Carlson’s rise to the king of cable news aligns with growing chatter he could run for president in 2024.
  • Republican donors in New York last month began talking up the possibility of recruiting Carlson to make a White House run, according to a source familiar with the talks.
  • “He’s taking a moment when the GOP is lacking vision or any sort of moral clarity — and he’s providing it,” conservative activist Jon Schweppe said. “Naturally, his following is growing. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope the president is watching.” 
  • As Carlson spent the past month deriding Black Lives Matter protesters as an effort to overthrow the federal government, his ratings soared. And Republican operatives have taken notice.
  • “Tucker has more impact than anybody, including Hannity,” a Republican familiar with the White House and Carlson said. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Tucker Carlson has unequivocally ditched the bow tie. Not the literal one — he lost that years ago — but the figurative smarmy one slapped on his career by the cable-TV funnyman Jon Stewart.

In the thick of the 2004 race for the White House, Stewart appeared as a guest on Carlson’s CNN’s show, “Crossfire.” The Comedy Central star ripped Carlson and cohost Democrat Paul Begala for their partisan sniping and pleaded with them to “stop hurting America.” He singled out Carlson as being disingenuous, and went after his trademark wardrobe attire to make the point. 

Carlson responded by calling Stewart a “butt boy” for John Kerry.

It was the moment that defined Carlson for a generation, then a 35-year-old shining star among Washington and New York’s conservative intelligentsia. It ultimately set him on a path a decade later when he became the king of cable news during the era of Donald Trump, riding a wave of racial anger and a historic global pandemic to blockbuster ratings.

It’s the new, more serious Carlson, freed of the bow tie and smarm, who has captured the eyes of Manhattan donors, Insider has learned. And now conservatives across the country — ahem — are saying that maybe the Fox News megastar ought to be running for president himself in 2024 once Trump is out of the picture.

They have a point.

Look across the field of openly ambitious politicians and it’s littered with people in search of “moments.” The 2016 campaign amounted to a perpetual stream of them, from Trump’s early-morning phone calls to his favorite TV pundits, to his late-night rallies and constant tweeting. California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris created her own moment in 2017 by grilling then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. More recently, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, someone widely viewed as a likely 2024 GOP candidate, grabbed the ultimate moment on the right when his op-ed calling for military action against rioters and other “miscreants” led to the resignation of The New York Times’ opinion-page editor.

Every “moment” has one thing in common: grabbing the attention of cable news shows. But Carlson doesn’t need to create any moments. He is the moment, live at 8 p.m. day in and day out. 

“What we are seeing now is Tucker at his absolute best,” said Jon Schweppe, a policy director for the conservative group American Principles Project and diehard Carlson fan. “He used to employ the typical prime-time cable-news tactics — mocking left-wing politicians for their gaffes or journalists for their bias. That was entertainment, and he was good at it.

“But something changed with Tucker when the country began to suffer after COVID-19 hit,” Schweppe said. “His show is no longer entertainment. These are sermons. He’s taking a moment when the GOP is lacking vision or any sort of moral clarity — and he’s providing it. Naturally, his following is growing. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope the president is watching.”

Carlson declined several requests for interviews for this story, and a Fox News spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.

Carlson 2024?

Tucker 2024 is itself a media creation. He’s a guy who has made his name in journalism, writing print and saying things on television, the son of the Ronald Reagan-appointed director of the Voice of America and longtime friend of the one and only Roger Stone, the GOP provocateur and felon who probably had more to do with nudging Trump’s political ambitions into reality than anyone else. 

Anyone watching Carlson now can see he’s clearly using his platform speaking to millions of people to seize his conservative Howard Beale “mad as hell” moment. What’s remarkable is that it is happening as the Trump White House he once championed looks to be in its own 2020 death spiral and the nation writhes in an economic free fall spurred by a pandemic. 

Whether Carlson himself has his own White House ambitions, he isn’t saying. Last July he did joke he would be “insane” to run for president, but then posited that, if he did, a possible winning platform for a Republican would be talking about a social issue, like the challenges of raising kids in the current US economic climate.

Predictably, the idea of a pundit president has the pundits pontificating.

Last fall, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo suggested a Carlson presidency was not only possible but would be infinitely more effective than Trump’s tumultuous term. Writing about a hypothetical future that has Carlson as the country’s chief executive, Manjoo envisions a nightmare scenario “where Trump was a chaotic, undisciplined narcissist, the Carlson who wins in 2024 is a canny political strategist who makes good on Trump’s forgotten promise to embrace anti-corporate economic policies.”

From the far right, longtime activist Michelle Malkin relishes the concept. “I wish Tucker Carlson were president!” she tweeted last June. Over on Facebook, the “Draft Tucker Carlson for President 2024” page regularly posts highlights from Carlson’s show, including his early warnings from January about the coronavirus.

Even The Washington Post has gotten in on the action. Its early 2024 GOP rankings, published two weeks after Insider did its own version, had Carlson registering in the “also receiving votes” category, like the smattering of college-football hopefuls who haven’t quite cracked the AP preseason top 25 but still merit mentions as national championship contenders.

That chatter, plus Carlson’s regularly televised performances, have piqued the interest of GOP strategists and the party’s moneyed class. His decision to formally cut ties with The Daily Caller, the conservative news outlet he started a decade ago, struck operatives interviewed for this story as another sign he could be positioning himself for a run. A small group of New York donors also began talking at the start of June about running him for president in 2024, according to one source familiar with the discussions.

Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson spent much of June criticizing not just Democrats aligned with Black Lives Matter protesters but also Republicans he could run against in 2024.

Fox News


Grabbing the bully pulpit and attacking potential 2024 rivals

Carlson’s ascension as someone who should at least be in the conversation for the next presidential cycle stems in no small part from what he says on his TV show.

Veteran operatives watching the nascent 2024 Republican field have listened closely as the prime-time Fox host has trained his fire not only on the Democrats most closely aligned with Black Lives Matter protesters but also on the Republicans he could run against in 2024.

When Carlson launched into his month-long campaign against the BLM protesters and rioters, he opened by blasting Republicans for their inaction, including former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who’s widely expected to run in 2024. 

“Someone in America needed to tell the truth to the country. Instead, almost all of our so-called conservative leaders joined the left’s chorus,” Carlson said. “No one jumped in more forcefully, or seemed angrier at America, than former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.”  

After Haley tweeted that George Floyd’s death should be felt as “painful” for every American, Carlson said, “What Nikki Haley does best is moral blackmail.”

On his show earlier this week, Carlson sounded like the ultimate political outsider wooing voters from across the right to abandon the GOP hacks who’ve led them astray.

“Middle-class families have no national spokesman. They have no lobby in Washington. Republicans pretend to be their champion — you know by now they are not,” Carlson said Tuesday night. “Instead of improving the lives of their voters, the party feeds them a steady stream of mindless symbolic victories, partisan junk food to make them feel full even as they waste away.”

Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, the liberal watchdog group that tracks cable news voluminously, said he noticed the shift in Carlson’s monologues a few months ago. There’s more “urgency” in the Fox host’s message, with less of the breathless hyperbole that marks other cable shows.

That got him wondering if Carlson is indeed laying the groundwork for a White House run too.  

“I am more afraid of him than most others because he can make the very worst things palatable,” Carusone said. “Trump would say ‘Black people are being racist to white people,’ whereas Tucker would say ‘We need to adhere to equal justice under the law.'”

Carlson’s big gamble, Carusone said, is betting there will be a white backlash in America against the Black Lives Matter protests. That could reinvigorate a white nationalist populist base for him in 2024 similar to what carried Trump through the wide-open field of Republicans at the start of the 2016 contests. 

Practically speaking, Carlson has to keep threading the needle for at least four more months. Openly running for president now would look terrible and taint his image as a fearless nationalist outsider, Carusone said. But the idea becomes much more acceptable after the 2020 election results are in and the world knows whether Trump and his unique brand of presidential governing is going to be around for four more years. 

Carlson himself has not seriously broached the topic, according to several sources. There are practical reasons for that. Even thinking about it aloud could derail his cable stardom a second time. Fox News has famously spiked talent for working with Trump, not to mention after its paid pundits launched bids for president or even considered bids, including when Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich considered their own 2012 White House runs.

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Tucker Carlson’s 2nd quarter 2020 ratings broke the record for the most-watched show, clocking in at an average of 4.3 million viewers and just edging out Sean Hannity.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images


‘Tucker has more impact than anybody, including Hannity’

“They’re coming for you,” Carlson said to kick off his show at the start of June, opening up a month-long onslaught of coverage on protesters and rioters in response to the police killing of George Floyd.

The country, and his show, were going split screen.

Building off the scary nonstop headlines about the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, cities around the US were seeing newfound energy coalescing around the fight to resolve over two centuries of racial injustice. On Fox, Carlson aired footage of rioters bashing store owners in the head with two-by-four planks. He showed one man being beaten on the street while curled up in a ball trying to protect himself.

Using his powerful platform night after night, Carlson laid the blame for the protests not with the police but with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Haley, and all the Republicans who had yet to stand firm against the chaos.

He continued banging this drum for days, but one comment captured the attention of progressive activists above all others.

On his June 8 show, Carlson said: “This may be a lot of things, this moment we’re living through, but it is definitely not about black lives. And remember that when they come for you. And, at this rate, they will.”

Carlson never precisely defined who the “mob” was, but left-leaning observers said they heard a clear dog whistle: wild Black rioters intent on tearing down American society. Judd Legum, a former Democratic opposition research director turned journalist, and the anonymous online collective Sleeping Giants led an advertiser boycott of Carlson’s show. Disney, Papa John’s, T-Mobile, and others quickly dropped their sponsorship.

“Over the last several days, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has used his platform to repeatedly attack and denigrate the Black Lives Matter movement,” Legum wrote in his newsletter, Popular Information. He also flagged Carlson’s history of downplaying the threat of white supremacy in the country: “None of this is out of character for Carlson. He has a long history of using white nationalist rhetoric.”

Punching back in characteristic Fox News fashion, the conservative network issued a statement saying activists and advertisers had misinterpreted Carlson’s comments as racially charged. 

Carlson, his corporate employer said, was not a racist.

“Tucker’s warning about ‘when they come for you’ was clearly referring to Democratic leaders and politicians,” a Fox News spokesperson in a statement said.

Something interesting was also happening during this same period. Carlson soared in the ratings. Earlier this week, Fox triumphantly announced their second-quarter ratings, and Carlson broke the record for the most-watched show, clocking in at an average of 4.3 million viewers, just edging out the prior ratings king, Sean Hannity.

Ever since securing the coveted prime-time slot Bill O’Reilly once held, Carlson had served as a prominent lead-in for the highest-rated show on television hosted by Sean Hannity. Now some say the order of their programs might be worth flipping.

“Tucker has more impact than anybody, including Hannity,” one Republican familiar with the White House and Carlson said.

John Stewart Election Night 2004

Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, pleaded with Tucker Carlson and his CNN ‘Crossfire’ co-host Paul Begala in mid-October 2004 to “stop hurting America” with their partisan bickering.

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images


Jon Stewart’s slap down

For years, Carlson worked as a creation of the elite on the right. He came up under the guidance of Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard, before securing a prime spot at Tina Brown’s much-touted operation, Talk magazine, in 1999. 

There, he lit up Washington with his interview of George W. Bush, featuring the Bush family scion back when he was the governor of Texas mocking a death-row inmate pleading to him for her life. (Bush’s advisers vehemently denied Carlson’s accounts.)

Carlson parlayed his reporting and writing success into on-air slots at CNN, just as cable was rising as the dominant medium in politics. And in 2001, alongside former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala, he took over “Crossfire,” the bombastic talk show that featured polar-opposite partisans fighting over policy and politics.

By Trump-era standards, the partisan bickering of “Crossfire” now seems tame, bordering on civil even. But in the moment, as cable news was growing into a dominant force in American politics before the venomous battlegrounds of Twitter and Facebook emerged, their showdowns were stunning.

Enter Stewart, who was then just a couple of years into his own rising stardom as the host of “The Daily Show,” the satirical late-night program that made its mark by pointing out the absurdities of the George W. Bush administration. Stewart made a guest appearance on “Crossfire” in mid-October 2004, just as John Kerry and Bush were in the home stretch of their presidential campaign. What Stewart had to say surprised everyone watching, the hosts included, with his blatant appeal for the show to tone down its toxicity. 

“I have privately amongst my friends, and also in occasional newspapers and in television shows, mentioned this show as being bad,” Stewart said, to the laughter of the studio audience. “And I felt that wasn’t fair, and I felt I should come here and tell you it’s not so much that it’s bad as it’s hurting America.”

Then Stewart slapped the bowtie on Carlson for the next 16 years.

“This is theater, this is — how old are you?” Stewart asked Carlson.

Carlson said “35.”

Stewart hit back: “And you wear a bowtie?”

A year later CNN took “Crossfire” off the air.

‘Whatever you think of his politics, it isn’t a put-on’

In 2010, Carlson created The Daily Caller to compete with liberal news aggregator Huffington Post. He had startup money from Republican mega-donor Foster Friess and a mission to scour his conservative colleagues for leaning too hard on disinformation and inaccurate reports to make their arguments. He said they needed facts and muckraking at their back. 

Carlson went on to build a generation of conservative journalists who would move from his operation out into the wider media ecosphere and, in some cases, migrating with him to his Fox News production team. He also sharpened the nationalist populist message he’d been increasingly moving toward.

“The mistake people make is thinking that he’s an opportunist who suddenly changed what he believes because of Trump — or that he sold out to Fox. Some people fit that mold, but not Tucker,” said Matt Lewis, a columnist for The Daily Beast and one of the veteran conservative activists Carlson hired in 2010 to write for The Daily Caller.

“The truth is that he has been increasingly populist for at least a decade, and probably longer. Whatever you think of his politics, it isn’t a put-on,” Lewis added.

That strident nationalist tone also sounded a lot like a veteran Republican operative who was running Trump for president: Roger Stone. Stone and Carlson have been close for more than a decade, according to former Carlson colleagues.

After he started The Daily Caller, Carlson enlisted Stone to write occasionally under the title “Daily Caller Men’s Fashion Editor,” a playful dig at the New York gossip class and homage to Stone’s fashion sense. Stone in turn counseled Carlson in a 2015 profile that he should have never lost the bow tie.

“I don’t know if some image consultant at Fox told him to do that,”  Stone told The New York Times. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s the guy with the bow tie.’ It was like a trademark. I wouldn’t have given the bow tie up.'”

The Stone-Carlson relationship grew more serious during the Trump era as congressional and federal investigators examined the longtime political adviser to the president over his public boasts that he’d spoken with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about the stolen emails surfacing during the 2016 campaign to damage Hillary Clinton.

Before his arrest, in early 2019, Carlson gave Stone valuable airtime to make his case. Then after a Washington, DC, jury convicted Stone, in November, of lying to Congress and witness tampering, Carlson directly asked Trump to pardon Stone.

All of Carlson’s Stone coverage hasn’t gone without notice. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple accused Carlson in February of being a “shill” for the longtime GOP operative, and wrote that Carlson was effectively running a campaign to get Stone’s conviction thrown out.

tucker carlson

After sparring on-air with John Stewart, Tucker Carlson stopped wearing the bow tie that he had made into a personal fashion statement.

Richard Ellis/Getty Images


The COVID warrior

In January, as the Trump impeachment trial subsumed Congress and much of America, Carlson spotted a brewing storm. He turned his focus to the novel coronavirus ravaging China, a threat that seemed imminent to touching down in the US.

“Why am I watching impeachment coverage all day?” Carlson asked Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton in January during a segment on China’s failed attempt to control the coronavirus. “I’m totally opposed to alarmism — there’s already enough of that. But we should identify the real risks and focus on them. And this is a real risk.”

In March, Carlson visited Trump’s private club, Mar-a-Lago, with a personal plea that the president take the public-health threat seriously. He delivered that message a couple of days before the country largely shut down.

“When you live in a country where everything is political and people are seeing, you know, every development through an ideological lens, either as a way to gain advantage or as a threat to their current advantage, it’s very hard to tell a straightforward story,” Carlson later said of his thinking in a Vanity Fair interview.

Through the start of the pandemic, while other Fox News hosts played down the severity of the crisis, Carlson stayed on it. Academics noticed. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in June found that Carlson’s viewers took protective measures against the virus much earlier than Hannity’s because they were exposed to less misinformation.

But as the debate turned from protecting lives and stopping the spread of the virus to salvaging the economy, Carlson turned, too. He attacked top federal health official Dr. Anthony Fauci as the “chief buffoon of the professional class” and argued that, since Fauci had missed the severity of the pandemic months earlier, he could not be trusted when he said the country should remain shut down longer.

“Fauci says that children should stay home or countless people will die — that’s the message,” Carlson said in May. “So I’m going to ask a very simple question: How does he know this exactly? Is Tony Fauci right about the science?”

It was time to reopen the country cautiously, Carlson said. He referenced Georgia, which had reopened at the start of May, and maintained that hospitalizations were “lower than ever” despite “much hysteria and finger-wagging from the press.”

Around this time, faithful Carlson viewers noticed his show changing, too. He shifted from throwing predictable darts at the left and at the press, and began sharpening his opening monologues. As the Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation, the new Carlson emerged as the leader of an angry white middle class.

His searing monologues, à la the outraged fictional news anchor Howard Beale from the 1976 film “Network,” warned that America was already in the middle of a race war and his supporters were not racists. Carlson said Black Lives Matter was not about ending police brutality but about a Soviet-style revolutionary takeover of the country. He said the protesters had merged with the “deep state” and were prepared to depose the president.

As Carlson led the far-right opposition to the protests, the president himself followed suit, moving from avoiding comment on the protests and sheltering in the White House to teargassing protesters and threatening to throw them in jail for defacing monuments.

Trump was following Carlson’s lead, Republicans said. And as Trump followed Carlson’s lead, the chatter among some in the GOP and his conservative-media brethren started wondering if maybe Carlson ought not be the one in the Oval Office.

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