Tucker Carlson's useful idiocy
I listened closely to what Carlson is saying about Putin's war in Ukraine. Here's what I heard.
Last week was somewhat unusual: I had too much going on in the evenings to keep an eye on how Fox News’s primetime lineup was spinning Putin’s war on Ukraine. I felt some withdrawal pangs. One night, driving home, I caught a glimpse of a TV in a condo tuned in to Hannity, with Peter Doocy on the screen. It made me wonder what I was missing.
So, on Friday, I decided to do something a little bit different and really wallow in pure Fox. I dove into Tucker Carlson’s Thursday show after the fact and focused on what he was saying about Ukraine, summarizing my thoughts in a comprehensive Twitter thread that I think turned out pretty well. You can read it starting with the tweet below. (On Saturday I gave Tucker’s Friday show the same treatment. You can read that thread starting here.)
The CliffsNotes version of my findings is that while Tucker isn’t pro-Putin, he’s not exactly anti-Putin either. He’ll say things in passing like “shame on Russia,” but those asides pale in comparison to the amount of time he spends parroting Kremlin talking points: debunked conspiracy theories, attempts to blame Biden, and claims about US attempts to punish Russia being counterproductive.
Meanwhile, he minimizes the suffering of the Ukrainian people. In many segments his viewers are portrayed as the real victims (or “biggest losers”) because, for instance, they’re enduring higher prices at the pump.
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Why does what Carlson says matter in the first place? Because his show is the top-rated one on any cable news network, averaging about 3.2 million daily viewers last year. His voice is one of the most prominent on the right in this country, especially in light of Trump’s banishment from social media. Regular guests like Glenn Greenwald and Tulsi Gabbard are meant to broaden his appeal to people beyond MAGA base voters. In short, the dude has a huge platform, and people are tuning in.
What they’re hearing is a lot of excuse-making for Putin, along with a nihilistic, isolationist view of US foreign policy. And it’s remarkable how flimsy Carlson’s arguments are upon close inspection.
So let’s take a look at some of the tactics Carlson uses while pushing anti-anti-Putinism.
Carlson devoted the first third of his Thursday show to making a case that the US antagonized Russia by “funding a number of secretive bio labs in Ukraine” that are conducting “experiments on highly dangerous pathogens.” In doing so, he was echoing talking points that have their origins in Russian state media.
It was easy to miss if you weren’t listening closely, but during his monologue Carlson conflated Ukrainian labs working with the US government on normal public health research — something that has happened — with the US government funding bioweapons programs in Ukraine — something that did not and does not happen.
Carlson then brought on Greenwald, who speculated that purported US involvement in these Ukrainian labs aimed at being “provocative toward the Russians.”
On Friday, both the New York Times and Washington Post published articles debunking Carlson’s claims. The Times noted that the US funding in question is actually meant to prevent the very thing Carlson is accusing the government of being involved with — producing biological weapons. The Post, meanwhile, situated Carlson’s monologue in the context of classic “Russian disinformation.”
How Carlson handled his (adopted) pet conspiracy theory being debunked was notable: After devoting a significant chunk of his show to it on Thursday, it wasn’t brought up a single time on Friday. A day after Carlson baselessly insinuated Putin may have had good reason to view Ukraine as a threat, he just moved on. Viewers of his who don’t read the Times or Post may have been wondering why Carlson didn’t bring up the biolabs stuff on Friday, but unless they consulted with media sources that people like Carlson and Trump have primed them to distrust, they wouldn’t know it had been exposed as nonsense.
Parroting Putin when he’s not pretending he doesn’t exist
Another tactic of Carlson’s is to conveniently forget that the Ukraine crisis was created by Putin’s senseless and brutal invasion. To hear him tell it, it’s Biden’s fault.
Watching his show, you almost get the sense that the US and our allies decided to slap sanctions on Russia for funsies. The clearest expression of this came on Friday, when Carlson proclaimed that the Biden administration “declared total economic war on a sovereign country” without even noting that crisis was caused by Russia invading a sovereign country.
Along the same lines, on Thursday’s show Carlson accused VP Kamala Harris of “inciting” the invasion. It wasn’t clear how or why.
When Carlson isn’t ignoring Putin, he’s making excuses for him. On Friday’s show, he parroted the very claims Putin made when he announced the attack on Ukraine by questioning whether it’s even a country in the first place.
The contrast between how Carlson talks about a Russian autocrat and how he talks about the US president is striking.
"The Biden administration's response to the invasion of Ukraine is the single most damaging thing any American president has ever done to this country and to the world,” he claimed on Friday.
It’s not exactly news that Carlson has a soft spot for Putin. Recall comments he made just before Trump’s 2019 impeachment for trying to withhold military aid to Ukraine. “Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia?” he asked at the time, “I'm serious. Why shouldn't I root for Russia? Which by the way I am."
A Gish Gallop of conspiracy theories
The Gish Gallop is a “debate technique when you cite so much ‘evidence’ that is misleading or wrong that your opponent can’t correct all of it and still make any of his or her own points,” as Vox once described it. Trump is a master of this technique, and so is Carlson. Carlson’s Friday monologue was a good example of how he deploys it with conspiracy theories.
After suggesting without a hint of irony that US sanctions against Russia are a sign of the decline of the rule of law in this country, Carlson ominously told his viewers they could be next.
"How long until our leaders do something similar to their domestic enemies here in the United States?” Carlson said. “How long before they accuse you of collusion or disloyalty or some other hard to define crime, declare you an enemy of the state, and then confiscate your bank account?"
Russia, of course, is being punished for brutally and senselessly invading a neighboring country — “collusion” has nothing to do with it. But before viewers could even start to process the absurdity of the idea that they might hit with US government sanctions, Carlson was on to a new big tech conspiracy theory.
"Each new crisis is carefully stage managed from Silicon Valley at the direction of the White House,” Carson claimed, suggesting that companies like Twitter and Facebook have a vested interest in ginning up anti-Russia hysteria.
Both of these clips and the one I discussed above where Putin ignored Russia’s culpability happened in the first three minutes of Friday’s show. It’s disorienting and confusing, which is the opposite of what good journalism strives for — but even Fox News acknowledges that whatever Carlson is up to, it isn’t journalism.
Erasing the suffering of the Ukrainian people
Carlson engages with all sorts of conspiratorial nonsense. Notably, however, he largely ignores the suffering of the Ukrainian people when he’s not downplaying it.
"It's not the only suffering in the world,” Carlson claimed on Thursday.
As he does when he halfheartedly condemns Russia, Carlson pays lip service to the plight of the Ukrainian people and the bravery they’re demonstrating. But he does so in the context of segments about how US elected officials should be more focused on issues like border security and drug overdoses. And while Biden has been very clear that American troops will not fight Russians in Ukraine, Carlson enjoys grappling with strawmen by bringing up comments from fringe characters who are calling for direct military confrontation. In Carlson’s world, everything is a head-fake. Biden has promised not to put Americans in Ukraine — OR HAS HE?
Across both Thursday and Friday, Carlson’s show featured on-the-ground updates about the progress of the fighting from Fox News reporters in Ukraine. But these news hits focused on the military situation, not the humanitarian plight of Putin’s victims. That editorial choice aside, the mere presence of factual reporting on Carlson’s show makes for a jarring contrast with the world of right-wing make believe he spends most of his airtime creating.
During the Cold War era, the term “useful idiot” was used to describe “Westerners who had been successfully manipulated by Soviet propaganda,” as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it in 2018. It applies uncannily well to Carlson’s efforts to run interference for a Russian strongman fixated on trying to reuniting fragments of the Russian Empire by any means necessary.
It’s little wonder, then, that Carlson’s commentary has become a staple of Russian state TV programming that’s desperately trying to sell Putin’s war effort.
So while social media and tech companies may be cracking down on Russian disinformation and Kremlin-funded media, Putin can rest easy at night knowing there’s still at least one prominent voice in the US spreading his propaganda. He just so happens to be the most-watched host in the whole country.
Thoughts on Trump’s South Carolina rally
Trump, like Carlson, is unable to speak with moral clarity about Putin’s war on Ukraine. At his rally Saturday night in Florence, South Carolina, Trump claimed Putin wouldn’t have invaded “if he respected our president” before he pivoted to to “the bloody and horrific war raging just across our border.”
Trump, of course, often did Putin’s bidding when he was in office, once withholding military aid from Zelensky’s government in a straightforward extortion scheme that culminated in his first impeachment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, on Saturday he shamelessly tried to take credit for supplying military aid to Ukraine anyway.
A couple other moments are worth mentioning from Trump’s speech, which was the shortest one he’s delivered at a rally in quite some time. (It was relatively cold in South Carolina, and he repeatedly complained about it.)
One of them came when Trump urged his followers to “lay down their very lives” in the fight against critical race theory, of all things.
And finally, Trump proposed a drastic expansion of presidential power, vowing to “pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fireable by the president of the United States. The deep state must and will be brought to heel.”
Comments like that and others Trump made in Florence give away the game — he’s clearly running for president, even if he won’t come out and say as much.
Walter Shaub, a senior ethics fellow at the Project for Government Oversight and the head of the Office of Government Ethics under President Barack Obama and briefly under Trump, tweeted in response to one of my clips from Trump’s rally that by “pretending he’s not running,” Trump is hoping “to avoid having to file a financial disclosure report that all candidates must file. And who’s going to force him to admit he’s running? Our campaign laws are broken.”
It’s one of many ways in which Trump has taught us that rules don’t amount to much if nobody is willing to enforce them.