Eighty years ago, when a dictator rose to power in Europe and invaded his neighbors, he found an ally in the United States. The dictator was Adolf Hitler, and his ally was Charles Coughlin, a popular radio host. Coughlin belittled democracy, defended the Nazis, and opposed America’s entry into the war, arguing that the movement to enlist the United States was a conspiracy on behalf of a sinister minority: Jews.
Today, a new demagogue has taken up Coughlin’s mantle: Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Like Coughlin, Carlson has spewed venom for years. And, like Coughlin, he has gradually made his treachery, nihilism, and bigotry unmistakable. If anyone still thought there was an innocent explanation for his behavior, Carlson’s latest monologue, delivered on Tuesday night, rendered such generosity indefensible.
To begin with, Carlson mocked the idea that rolling tanks into another country was wrong. In the view of liberals, he joked, “Invading America is called ‘equity’”—apparently he was referring to illegal immigration—but “invading Ukraine is a war crime.” He delivered this line with scornful incredulity, ignoring the fact that Russia’s invasions of Ukraine—this is the second one in eight years—are indeed acts of war and violations of international law.
Carlson downplayed the putative moral differences between Russia, Ukraine, Canada, and the United States. He asked why Americans should side with Ukraine against Russia, since Ukraine was “not a democracy.” (Actually, on the Freedom House democracy scale, Ukraine gets a rating of 39 out of 100. Russia gets less than seven.) Carlson also ridiculed the notion that “dastardly old Vladimir Putin” is “much worse than Justin Trudeau,” the prime minister of Canada, who—according to Carlson’s absurd lie—has imposed “martial law” and reduced Canada to a “failed democrac[y].” Turning to his own country, Carlson denounced America’s current leaders, saying they “don’t care at all” about our country’s stated principles.
In his monologue and in a follow-up interview with former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Carlson promoted the slander—often featured in Russian state propaganda—that when American politicians talk about defending freedom or democracy, they’re really just serving their own commercial interests. He offered two explanations for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine: corrupt financial ties between Ukraine and President Joe Biden and a secret plot to drive up energy prices. “Maybe expensive energy would be good for the many renewable deals their friends and donors are invested in,” he speculated—the “they” referring to Biden and other Democrats. In the interview with Gabbard, Carlson nodded along—“Right,” he interjected—as Gabbard accused the American “power elite” of betraying both “the American people” and “the Russian people.”
Western governments hope to deter Putin’s aggression by threatening him with economic and—if he invades NATO countries—military consequences. Carlson is doing the opposite: He’s trying to deter American economic or military intervention by warning Americans that Russia would punish them. Putin “will respond” if America gets in his way, said Gabbard, “and it’s likely he’ll retaliate using cyber-attacks on our financial systems, our communication systems, on our basic infrastructure.” As she outlined these perils, Carlson chimed in: “Exactly.”
On Tuesday afternoon, to prepare Americans for the confrontation with Putin, Biden cautioned the public that “defending freedom will have costs for us” and he asked the country to brace for some economic pain, including higher gas prices. Hours later, on his show, Carlson directly undercut that message. He urged Americans to turn against their government, on the grounds that higher costs for them, in exchange for a pointless stand against Putin, is a “terrible deal for you.”
Carlson doesn’t just oppose military intervention or aid to stop the Russian invasion. (No one is proposing U.S. troop deployments inside Ukraine anyway.) He also opposes the most plausible nonviolent alternative: economic sanctions. In his monologue, delivered hours after Germany halted approval of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, he asked “why you would ever want to shut down any energy pipeline anywhere, ever,” since this would raise costs for Americans. He also condemned the Biden administration for “picking a fight with Europe’s biggest gas supplier” (that would be Russia). Later, when Gabbard complained that sanctions against Russia would just “increase suffering and hardship for the American people,” Carlson agreed.
Carlson isn’t just anti-American. He’s also anti-British. On Tuesday, after insulting Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris—“a senile man and an imbecile,” he called them—he added that the villains in the Ukraine confrontation weren’t “just our country.” He congratulated Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for asking a prank question that, in Carlson’s view, made a fool of Elizabeth Truss, the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary. So perhaps Carlson isn’t anti-American or anti-British so much as pro-Russian.
Of course, Carlson also likes to target immigrants, and in his remarks on Tuesday, he impugned the patriotism of Alexander Vindman, a Ukrainian-American who came to the United States at age four, joined the military, and earned a Purple Heart in Iraq. Vindman “believes you have a moral obligation to defend his homeland,” Carlson told viewers, deriding Vindman’s objections to the invasion of Ukraine. In case anyone missed the dual-loyalty smear, Carlson added: “Your job is to take up arms in defense of Alexander Vindman’s home country, or else you’re evil.”
As Carlson defended Putin, he referred repeatedly to race. Americans shouldn’t “hate Putin,” he argued, since Putin hadn’t committed the offense that would have most clearly warranted such hatred. “Has Putin ever called me a racist?” he asked, describing the questions he wants viewers to ask themselves. “Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? . . . Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?”
No, Carlson answered: “Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that.” Instead, he told his audience, “You should be mad at the people who are making your life worse, who are preventing you from saying what you think is true, who are calling you a racist” and “are allowing your country to become polluted and overrun and filled with drugs and the homeless.”
“Polluted” is an interesting word choice, particularly in conjunction with “overrun.” I doubt he was referring to America’s physical environment.
Pivoting to the vice president, Carlson exclaimed, “Harris has no idea what a barrel of oil costs. . . . What she knows about is diversity, and that’s pretty much it.”
Like many people who once knew Carlson, I used to like him. It’s hard to admit what he has become. And I’m very reluctant to accuse people of the worst acts or motives: racial animus, betraying the United States and its values, serving the interests of a hostile foreign power.
Give me any other explanation for their behavior, and I’ll take it. But for Carlson, there’s no longer any other explanation. This is what he is.