Toward a theory of Tucker Carlson
Why cable's king of hate and his allies are so angry about getting what they want
In the wake of Sunday’s white supremacist massacre at a predominantly Black supermarket in Buffalo, Tucker Carlson has become particularly unhinged. It isn’t grief at the loss of life or yet another community being ripped apart by a mass shooting that’s pushing him over the edge. It’s the fact that it is obvious to anyone who even skimmed the shooter’s manifesto, which began circulating online during the murder spree, that the killer was motivated by the same racist conspiracy theory that Carlson promotes almost nightly.
Carlson and his friends have employed a barrage of tactics to distract from this fact. Glenn Greenwald, whose current job seems to be serving as Tucker’s full-time PR flack, stormed out of the gate with a rant in which he called me “demented” for having immediately made the obvious connection. (Greenwald, who has long expressed hostility to immigrants, also included a link to the shooter’s full manifesto.) Carlson himself tried claiming that he’d forgotten what the “Great Replacement Theory” is, then went immediately back to insisting that it is true.
The conversations I’ve been hearing since center on two questions: Do those in the media and political establishment — like Carlson’s colleague Laura Ingraham, and Republican politicians like Elise Stefanik and J.D. Vance — who promote the so-called "Great Replacement Theory” bear some responsibility for the massacre? Or, alternately, does the killer’s ideology — the same one that animated massacres at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Christchurch mosque, and El Paso Walmart, as well as the 2017 white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville — come out of far older streams in America’s racist past, which sometimes find themselves at loggerheads with the GOP and Fox News establishments?
My answer to both of those is a qualified yes (more on that shortly). But I want to take a slightly different tack. Why are Carlson, Ingraham, and the America Firsters feeling so pressed to find a coherent message in the wake of this particular attack? What specifically are they afraid of one on hand, and why aren’t they simply repudiating the killer’s ideology on their other? If you don’t mind, I’m going to dip back into history in search of an answer.
Decades before Tucker Carlson was born, T. Lothrop Stoddard was the most influential proponent of “replacement theory” in America. Armed with a Harvard Ph.D. and a national media platform, he spent the 1920s promoting eugenics and warning of the perils of racial mixing and nonwhite immigration to the Nordic “master race,” all to great acclaim.
In his best-selling book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, Stoddard obsessed over white birth rates and declared, “the negro … has contributed virtually nothing” to society. On immigration, he said: “The Nordic native American has been crowded out with amazing rapidity by these swarming, prolific aliens, and after two short generations he has in many of our urban areas become almost extinct.” (The aliens Stoddard was warning about included Italians, Poles, and Jews.)
President Warren G. Harding praised Stoddard during a speech defending segregation in Alabama in 1921, urging his audience to “take the time to read and ponder” his book.
Not everyone was as impressed with Stoddard as the president. F. Scott Fitzgerald memorably satirized Stoddard in The Great Gatsby. In one scene, the rich, hyper-masculine idiot Tom Buchanan rants about a book he was reading called “‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard” (“The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged,” Tom summarizes) while Nick, Daisy, and Jordan Baker sit around uncomfortably and try to change the subject. In 1929, W.E.B. Du Bois trounced Stoddard in a live debate about segregation. The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper’s headline read, proto-YouTube style: “5,000 Cheer W.E.B. DuBois, Laugh at Lothrop Stoddard.”
But it wasn’t epic owns that consigned Stoddard to the dustbin of intellectual history. It was the fact that, by the late 1930s, Americans could not help but notice that Stoddard’s racial theories and writing were almost identical to the rhetoric coming out of Nazi Germany — rhetoric that was, in real time, resulting in marked oppression and horrific violence.
That wasn’t a coincidence. Stoddard — and his mentor, the arch-eugenicist Madison Grant — had helped inform Nazi theories. The Nazi Party’s chief racial theorist, Alfred Rosenberg, borrowed the word “Untermensch” — the epithet with which the Nazis would justify the mass murder of Jews, the Romani, and Slavs — from Stoddard’s book The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-man. Hitler was a devote of Grant, whose book on racial “replacement,” The Passing of the Great Race, the Nazi führer referred to as his “bible.”
That is not to say that the Nazis got all of their beliefs from Stoddard, Grant, or anyone else in the United States — there was a plenty long and rich tradition of Germanic antisemitism and racial hatred to draw on. But it was clear to everyone, the Nazis and the American public alike, that they were all fellow travelers.
As violence in Germany accelerated and all-out war approached, Stoddard tried to rehabilitate his reputation. After the Nazis invaded Poland, he went on a self-described press junket to Berlin. In Into the Darkness: Nazi Germany Today (1940), he offered praise for the Nazi’s eugenic courts while mildly criticizing the extremeness of their “anti-Semitic doctrines.” (For instance, Stoddard professes to having been repeatedly “stunned at a luncheon or dinner with Nazis, where the Jewish question had not been even mentioned, to have somebody raise his glass and casually give the toast: Sterben Juden! [Death to the Jews].” He does not explain why, despite his alleged horror, he kept accepting the invitations to dine.)
The book was a flop. Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States, and above all the revelation of the Holocaust, proved the death knell for Stoddard’s reputation. He faded from public life and died in 1950, largely ignored and unmourned.
What happened was that Stoddard and Grant’s theories had turned into a reality that even their most sympathetic allies couldn’t stomach: a world-historic genocide and a horrific war. As long as their intellectual framework was used to justify and excuse the status quo — even with the state and police violence inherent to an authoritarian system like Jim Crow, or the racist Johnson-Reed Immigration Act — they could be given national platforms and celebrated by presidents of the United States. But once that same framework became associated with what you might call revisionist violence (to appropriate a term from international relations) — violence that threatens to alter or upend the established order — they found themselves abandoned and discarded by former fans and former patrons alike.
The “Great Replacement Theory” that Carlson promotes owes a lot to Stoddard’s Rising Tide, with a few stops along the way. After the Holocaust, both formal eugenics and Stoddardian nativism were pushed to the fringe, left to violent extremist groups like the Ayran Nations.
Driven out of the realm of respectable science, these racist anxieties were instead explored through dystopian novels. Most prominent in American white power circles was The Turner Diaries, a 1978 screed that envisions white guerrillas overthrowing a Jewish-controlled government of the United States and its liberal allies, and eventually slaughtering all nonwhite people on Earth. (As the scholar Kathleen Belew has documented, the apocalpytic violence of The Turner Diaries inspired both the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.)
From France came Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, which imagines the destruction of Western civilization by hordes of faceless immigrants from the “Third World.” In 2012, another French author, Renaud Camus, made the final step by coining “The Great Replacement” (Le Grand Remplacement in French), in which he claimed that France’s rightful population was being forcibly displaced by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.
With the rise of the internet, all of these ideas circulated and recombined on white-supremacist message boards and blogs such as Stormfront, American Renaissance, and VDARE. According to the Buffalo killer’s manifesto, he became a regular reader of The Daily Stormer after being influenced by white nationalist propaganda on Reddit’s since-banned /pol (short for “politically incorrect,” an older synonym for “anti-woke”).
Tucker Carlson draws on the same sources. His writers frequent far-right message boards. For many years his chief writer was Blake Neff, a longtime prolific racist poster on an underground message board, on which he smeared Black people as criminals and bragged about his influence over Carlson’s show. He was forced to resign after his online persona was reported by CNN.
And as the New York Times recently reported, Neff “wasn’t alone,” including among staff at the Daily Caller, the right-wing publication Carlson co-founded. “Almost a dozen Caller employees or regular contributors would be outed for posting racist material elsewhere online, or for their connections to an underground clique of next-generation white nationalists in and around Washington,” the Times said. Additionally, in 2017, Carlson’s Caller tapped Jason Kessler to cover a white-nationalist torch rally in Charlottesville which he had organized with Richard Spencer. (The riot and car attack that killed Heather Heyer would happen a few months later.)
It is no accident, then that terms once only legible to white supremacist posters — such as “legacy Americans” and, of course, “the Great Replacement” itself — have gained a mass audience through Carlson’s show. On Sept. 22, 2021, Tucker told his audience:
“An unrelenting stream of immigration.” Why? Joe Biden said it. To change the racial mix of the country. That’s the reason. To reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the third world … But there’s a reason Biden said it. In political terms, this policy is sometimes called the great replacement — the replacement of legacy Americans, with more obedient people from faraway countries.
And on April 8, 2021, Carlson opined:
I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate — the voters now casting ballots — with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it. That’s true.
Carlson is sometimes accused of speaking in “dog-whistles” or coded messages. That’s true, but statements like “obedient people from the Third World” is about as overtly racist as you can get. It echoes the Buffalo shooter’s references to “illegal immigration of the third world masses” in his manifesto. And it all tracks with Carlson’s long history of personal racism. (In the 2000s, he described Iraqis as “semiliterate primitive monkeys,” and channeled Stoddard and Tom Buchanan in crediting “the white man” for “creating civilization and stuff.”)
Some white nationalists express disappointment with Carlson for not giving a more full-throated endorsement to their full genocidal and antisemitic agenda on his show — substituting, as he often does, the DNC or George Soros as a synecdoche for the Jewish cabal that doctrinaire white nationalists allege is secretly in control of the “more obedient” lesser races.
But as Carlson’s former deputy editor Scott Greer — another Caller employee who was forced to resign after writing for a white nationalist site — reassured a podcast audience, according to the Times: “Tucker is ultimately on our side … He can get millions and millions of boomers to nod along with talking points that would have only been seen on VDare or American Renaissance a few years ago.”
On the Sept. 22 program Carlson included a “prediction” that “legacy Americans” would soon take matters into their own hands:
Sound like the country you grew up in? No. We don’t have to put up with this, we could solve it in a day. The administration could send these people back immediately … Why do American citizens have a duty to follow the law at this point? That’s an honest question. People are going to start asking this question.
In other words, asking whether the Buffalo shooter — or the El Paso, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, or Charlottesville killers — got their ideology directly from Tucker Carlson Tonight is asking the wrong question. The real question is whether Carlson reasonably fears he is going to become associated with a killer who shares his ideology.
Because if he is, then advertisers and cable companies (whose subscribers pay Carlson’s salary through so-called carriage fees), might viscerally begin to understand what he is doing, and what the end goal of the white nationalists whose rhetoric he spouts actually is: Not the mere preservation of an already violent status quo, but the ratcheting up of violence into what Glenn Greenwald’s former Nazi law client called a “racial holy war.”
That would explain why Carlson & Co. are spending much of their time this week furiously distancing themselves from the Buffalo killer, offering only perfunctory condemnations of the act itself. At the same time, it would explain why they aren’t abandoning their association with that ideology in full — at least, not yet. That’s because only time and our response as a country will tell if this latest massacre will be remembered as a crisis that helps discredit “GRT” and the nativist right, or if they can simply keep riding the wave of a new and ever-more violent status quo.
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