“Amazingly, as of tonight,” new host Tucker Carlson declared in hopes to build anticipation for a Twitter broadcast, “there aren’t many platforms left that allow free speech.” While Fox News took Carlson’s show off the airwaves, he promised to return quickly on the social media platform owned by Elon Musk. Having worked for networks across the political spectrum, from CNN to MSNBC to FOX, Tucker Carlson seems to know what he was talking about. But when he called his own de-platforming as a suppression of his right to speak his thoughts or what he called a constitutional liberty of free speech, he was raising the stakes in ways that were designed to appeal to his viewers to a boiling point. In startlingly globalizing terms, Carlson groused on Twitter that few platforms allowed free speech anymore, and that Twitter stood out as “the last big one remaining in the world,” as if his own rights to free speech had been denied. He called free speech the rarest of commodities, waxing elegiac, and affirming his dedication to protecting speech though he lost the platform of Tucker Carlson Tonight, only recently the highest-rated show on Fox, as if his departure his new venue was indeed his free choice, and the result of a biased media landscape.
The boast was absolutely self-serving, to be sure, both as a dig at Fox News and as flattery for his new platform’s host, Elon Musk, calling the platform with which he had thrown his lot the last remaining safe space in media, and turning his back on television. Although he had hosted a news show for six and a half years since Trump’s election, before a map of the fragmented nation polarized by partisan divides; free speech, he suggested, no longer existed on mainstream media. He was deemed a social liability by Rupert Murdoch, after winning unprecedented ratings as Lachlan Murdoch’s darling, as the Dominion lawsuit unwound and his own indefensible offensiveness was revealed. In a departing dig at Fox News, as well as an encomium to the social media platform he was about to join, he tried to remind his most loyal viewers that “Speech is the fundamental prerequisite for democracy”–as if speech were the same for the Founding Fathers as in an age of de-platforming, claiming a right of redress as an aggrieved media pundit, hailing Twitter as a unique preserve of republican liberty. This much must have come as music to Elon Musk’s ears, who convinced Ron De Santis to declare his own candidacy on the medium–even if that didn’t go so well.
Tucker Carlson may have had few grounds to claim free speech was violated, but there was of course a clear precedent for claiming such rights of free speech. For this formed the grounds by which Fox News lawyers had quite successfully defended him in a recent defamation case brought by Karen McDougal, who Calrson had treated as a punching bag while at Fox News with something like barely concealed glee. Fox News lawyers had successfully argued Carlson was in his rights to speak derivatively of McDougal, the 2020 verdict of a federal judge agreed, as no “reasonable viewer” could be expected take his show literally–he was, it ruled, “not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and instead only engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.'” The successful dismissal of claims of slander was made on the grounds that “Mr. Carlson’s statements were not statements of fact,” and could not be interpreted as defamatory as such. The indefensible on-air statement that McDougal had “approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money,” as if she were an extortionist. (The court ruled Carlson’s words could not be interpreted as slander, or containing “malice” as but, as FOX lawyers argued, “delivering opinion using hyperbole for effect,” in an odd echo of how Donald Trump advocated “truthful hyperbole” to negotiate good deals in his 1987 Art of the Deal.)
Carlson seems to have accepted the verdict as a sort of license of his defensible rights to issue slanderous broadsides by converting political debates or even personal actions into the crisp colors of a partisan divide, a divide that was embodied as it had never before been by the very electoral map he used as a backdrop if not leitmotif for his show since its 2017 premier on Fox. He had staged a nightly news show to gloss the partisan divisions of a polarized landscape as the new status quo, harping on cultural resentments that divided the nation by district and county, as they existed as his show began, as an electoral landscape he would perpetuate and perhaps expand, and reinstate beyond the divisions of 2017 as a permanent map by which to understand the news–and the place of the nation in the world. Keeping open the sharp divides of a seemingly “continuous” red block and fractured blue in place was the grounds for his daily show, and the work of perpetuating the map had become glossed as a form of free speech.
Having left the highest rated show on cable news for huffing it on his own, he invoked his rights to free speech again, as he attacked mainstream television itself. This time, his status as an outspoken commentator was infringed by his former employer, it appeared. He sought to invite his audience to follow him onto the new Twitter platform, as if it was a preserve of free speech. He had discussed the infringement of rights–from the rioters of January 6, whose peaceful invasion of the Capitol he culled from exclusive footage of the thousands of hours Kevin McCarthy granted of “secret” footage that day, to Donald Trump himself–in recent shows, using free speech as a sacred cow. The protection of freedom of speech that Carlson had conspicuously denied Black Lives Matters protesters–who he disparagingly cast as a mob whose violence that threatened the nation–clothed both January 6 protestors and his own show. Never mind that Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-CAL, who had served as a member of the January 6 Committee, felt that Carlson’s broadcasting of the footage “a road map to people who might want to attack the Capitol again.”
In presenting himself as a champion of Free Speech, Carlson claimed the higher ground, as if his constitutional rights had been infringed, in ways that were not only aggrieved. Of course, his rights to speech were quite from curtailed–he was an evangelist of the right whose outspoken claims made him a darling of liberty at the Turning Point USA’s AmericaFest,–
–and he had become an international figure of jet set global conferencing with national leaders outside the United States, at the first meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee outside of the country. Carlson had delivered speeches at the invitation of right wing anti-immigration strongman Viktor Orbán, whose cry to “take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels” led him to summon Tucker Carlson to Hungary as he sought to remake it as a bastion of conservative Christian values long before 2021, quenching the opposition media and openly urging audiences to stand up against the “rule of the liberal media” as a form of “Conservative resistance to the woke revolution.” Of Orbán dressed outrageous ethnic nationalism as a form of libertarianism, he seemed to have ripped a page from Carlson’s rhetoric, taking him on a helicopter tour of his own “border fence” that led a perhaps mystified Carlson to return the favor by calling Hungary “a little country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us,” terrifyingly gestured to the media monopoly that Orbán created in his illiberal democracy that silenced all opposition in the nation.
Carlson suddenly found himself suddenly an international media star, basking in the attention he won overseas from a man who was an icon of conservative demagoguery. Orbán’s extreme hard-line policy of rejecting asylum- seekers was an outlier of liberal democracies indeed–which Carlson eagerly promoted as a model for American immigration system he calls far too lenient and argues was poised to weaken the power of native-born citizens in ways that aped White Supremacists. Was this a watershed in his defense of what he called free speech, or a new height of self-deception? Carlson’s 2021 visit to Budapest followed a range of anti-LGBTQI laws by the Hungarian parliament, issued to help Orbán cling to power in ways that rested on a profound rewriting of the mediascape of the nation: the refusal of legal recognition of transgender people in Hungary, and enshrining birth sex in Hungarian law, ws normalized transgender discrimination that culminated in bans on any application for change in gender recognition by 2023–legal barriers to gender recognition that became widespread in much of the United States (more alter). When Carlson was forced to participate remotely In the 2022 meeting of CPAC in Budapest, he vouched “I wish I was there in Budapest,” adding in terms that now seem irenic that “If I ever get fired and have some time and can leave, I will be there with you.” (Carlson had found virtues in Hungary’s limited free speech–Orbán has clamped down on media coverage of the Ukraine critical of Russia, as if Trump could end the conflict–“Come back, Mr. President, make America great again, and bring us peace!”–that he blamed on the United States as CPAC imitated Hungary in allowing only alt right journalists to cover the event, rather than the Associated Press.)
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson visits Prime Minister Orbán in 2021/Office of the Hungarian Prime Minister
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s policies in Hungary against trans people and gender reassignment has made him a hero on the alt right, a weird affirmation from afar of a charge against “global progressive elites” who promote immigration, transgender and LGBTQ+ rights, bundling them as a “virus” in need of being defeated by a “Christian conservative turn” that offered a model for how right-wing culture might defeated and dispatch “woke” agendas in its defense as a bulwark of Christian democracy, conjuring Hungary’s historical role as a buffer-state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Islam. The ban on public depictions of homosexuality in Hungary or any promotion of sex education became a way to for Orbán to emphasize his protection of Christian values: “No Country For Woke Men,” read banners at the CPAC conference he hosted in 2023, proclaiming his nation an “incubator” of “the future of conservative policies” world-wide to energetic applause. (His censorship of the media were elevated as a model for American CPAC leadership who vowed to “go Hungarian,” deciding “who is a journalist and who is not a journalist” for entry to their events, as universities were transferred to being run by Orbán cronies to silence free speech.
To be sure, to cite a recent news maps of the change that has swept across America of Orbán-like doctrine, mental health was thrown to the winds by the broad imposition of restrictions on gender identification, as a slew of “red” states have introduced restrictions on gender-affirming care across the nation, per the Guttmacher Institute, crating a cleft across the nation of the Orbán-esque policy by enacting outright restrictive transgender laws or curtailing care for trans teens in states over the past two years–a new hot-button issues to motivate to intensify political polarization by invasive restrictions on competitive sports, restroom use, and other health care. The adoption by state legislatures of restrictions and protections a new front of divisive polarization of increasingly sharp lines, as a terrifyingly contiguous block of “red state” litmus tests of knee jerk variety now threaten to return critical swing states–Georgia; Florida; Arizona–into a hard conservative fold.
But the national political struggle is perhaps less the point than the harm inflicted upon some thirty thousand kids in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia who may be destined to suffer psychological harm. The laws against transgender identification in America, echoing Carlson’s false charge that transgender people are targeting Christianity–and “the natural enemy” of Christians, arguing that gender-affirming medical treatments are “chemical castration” by 2022 that was protected by the U.S. Constitution, after the White House criticized states’ criminalization of gender-affirming care. Carlson’s statements echoed Orbán, but also pushed the envelop on free speech as medical care for transgender was revealed as a macabre Grand Guignol theater: “Slicing off a child’s sex organs, preventing a 12-year-old from going through puberty, that’s not ghoulish and dangerous and horrifying. No, it’s not. It’s ‘gender affirming health care.’ Indeed, it’s all we’re now calling a best practice.” And after Arkansas banned puberty-blockers in 2021, a potentially life-saving intervention, as endangering children with long-term medical side-effects, encouraging local legislatures to oppose them, giving a platform to anti-trans authors without any medical qualifications or experience, to shape public opinion on gender-affirming medical treatments as reliant on “massive, massive doses” flooding the bodies of young children who become “cash cows” for the medical establishment, but are not seen by doctors–casting trans support as abusive parenting “irreversibly damaging their bodies.” (Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas obligingly took up the charge in a directive declaring gender affirming services provided youth could constitute child abuse as “abusive procedures” in early 2022, echoing bans on gender-affirming surgery in Alabama, Arkansas, and Arizona.)
The map of outright bans on gender-affirming care suggests an echoes of the red state map, to be sure, with the “heartland” of America from the Dakotas to Iowa down to Arkansas and Tennessee and the Deep South constituting a local legislative block against gender reassignment practices, as transgender healthcare coverage by Medicare in America has become a prominent partisan divide, as the call for “protecting” children by preventing transgender treatment have grown in America–
–in ways that stand to place many who identify as transgender at risk, following the bullhorn of Carlson’s openly wrong condemnation of transgender care as a violation of Constitutional Rights.
Yet Tucker Carlson tried his darnedest to cast himself as aggrieved from his Maine studio, defending his ideological ground from an outpost of broadcasting on Twitter. To be sure, Carlson seems to have accepted a legal right to free speech to warn Americans of the dangers of immigration, terrorism, and feminism, in ways that mirrored the redefinition of “free speech” that had bloomed on the internet and among alt right media, and was recently articulated by Fox News lawyers who beat back an earlier charge of defamation brought by Karen McDougal against Tucker Carlson Tonight. The success of Fox News lawyers defending Carlson’s commentary not as truth but as “non-literal commentary,” boosted when federal judges dismissed the defamation suite, accepting the preposterous defense that the 3.2 million viewers his show nightly attracted did not understand them as “statements of fact” or “actual malice,” may have boosted Carlson’s sense of his own free speech. However implausibly, Fox lawyers had successfully argued his words “cannot be understood to have been stating facts, but . . . delivering an opinion using hyperbole for effect” that the District Judge Mary Kay Viscocil had affirmed.
The lawyers’ argument recalled Donald Trump’s defense of using “truthful hyperbole,” with a twist. In deeming Carlson’s speech to be “‘loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language’ that does not give rise to a defamation claim,” the judge agreed a reasonable viewer of Tucker Carlson Tonight “‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes,” as if defamation were not the stock trade in the show. In agreeing to the new nature of hyperbolic speech, District Judge Viscocil effectively defended Carlson as a disseminator of defamation and rumor for the growing rumor mill of the Trump Era. But Carlson’s broadcasts had worked to shape dissensus on a scale that echoed how the Roman poet Virgil called Fama “the swiftest traveller of all the ills on earth, thriving on movement, gathering strength as it goes.” Over six and a half years, Carlson had nightly delivered invective that was perhaps “at the start a small and cowardly thing, it soon puffs itself up, and walking upon the ground, buries its head in the cloud base,” or the air-waves, the “swift-footed creature” of rumor escaped judicial sanction as pure hyperbole, as rooted in “exaggeration” as Donald Trump’s own claims, rather than “stating actual facts.” AlthoughTrump had famously counseled “truthful hyperbole” as a form of “innocent exaggeration” in The Art of the Deal (1987), Fox News seems to have expanded the effective business practice to news broadcasting, defending Carlson’s “hyperbolic language” to be protected as free expression, no matter how incendiary or vindictively dismissive it was.
The admission of hate speech and denigration as a form of “free speech” set a new standard in the weaponization of speech against the electoral map in which partisan battle was energetically waged no holds barred, going full Hungarian, to cite CPAC. If such hyperbole was but the stock-in-trade of Tucker Carlson’s on-air fare, Carlson’s partisan commentary had sped hotfoot through the country, intentionally, crying news not rooted in actuality, or anywhere but partisan reality, but in what we had come to expect on Tucker Carlson Tonight. For Carlson had already explained that immigrants made the United States “poorer and dirtier” (December, 2018), as the protests after George Floyd’s killing were “definitely not about black lives” or justice (2020) Yet FOX lawyers cast the dismissal of defamation charges both a “victory for FOX News Media and or all defenders of the First Amendment”–as if they fit the Free Speech protected by the U.S. Constitution. Such lowered standards of speech enabled Fox TV lawyers to suggest that viewers’ expectations for “truth” from Carlson’s brand of commentary had diminished, and one could not expect him to be prosecuted for going overboard–the argument was not, in fact, about free speech, but the lowering of standards on broadcast news that painted Carlson as not speaking the truth at all.
This quite broad interpretation or inflection in historical arguments about free speech was perhaps born online. It was first prominently set by the distortions by which Campus Reform, affiliated with Breitbart, appropriated Free Speech in 2020, litigating that “free speech” zones at university campuses to protect political proselytization–akin to the zones of political protest that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s for protest activities–but now against the restriction of conservative speech. The redrawn “protections” of campus speech mirrored “red” states or states with sizable “red” constituencies, North Carolina to Georgia to Michigan to Wisconsin to New Hampshire to Virginia–
Introduction of Legislation Protecting Free Speech at Campuses in Reaction to Universities’ Restriction of Political Proselytizaiton
–and had created a striking division by using state legislatures to “open” university campuses to conservative ideologues, a mission that escalated after Donald Trump’s election. The dispatching of talking heads from the alt right–Anne Coulter; Milo Yiannopoulos; Ben Goldberg; and other online trolls–raised the bar on ‘free speech’ and adopted it as a logo for conservative causes, in an attempt to staunch an electoral divide.
The citing of free speech as an outcome of Tucker Carlson’s defamation trial was nothing less than a feather in the cap of alt right media. Campus Reform had long sought to “expose the liberal bias on America’s campuses”–of which many universities seemed guilty as charged–to protect conservative speech and learning at college education after Trump’s election, following protests after Trump’s election on college campuses. The rallying cry that “The radical left will stop at nothing to intimidate conservative students on college campuses” animated the movements of protecting Second Amendment clubs in Utah, Free Speech Balls in Mississippi, and other conservative activists interested in sponsoring ideological speakers.
Tucker Carlson accused his past employer of ‘de-platforming’ the voice of conservative America, and limiting his broadcasts–even if the notion that he had crossed a line in the broadcasts was less compelling than the sexist private behavior and a bevy of texts that the new defamation suit uncovered red. Carlson invoked the term ‘free speech’ in the context of broadcasting, to make a point quite different from the definition of free speech in 1789–but far more akin to the earlier defamation suit that viewed his show as “loose, figurative or hyberbolic language.” But the When Carlson recast himself as aggrieved by the mainstream media, he hinted his dismissal reacted to the bravery of his vigorous election denialism. But his liability had grown. Carlson’s new texts reviled Donald Trump in a language not seen on air reveal a level of contempt for a man he characterized as a “good at destroying things” and as “a demonic force, a destroyer,” before whom he needed to stay alive: “But he’s not going to destroy us. I’ve been thinking about this every day for four years.”
Yet Carlson had himself destructively sewn discord to destroy the civil fabric of the nation, however, which became the main currency of his own show. Even as he claimed to be within his “rights,” Carlson pushed the envelope to create a racist, invective-filled shows on cable news, espousing replacement theory as a danger to the character of the United States that aped white supremacism. Before the split map of red and blue counties of the 2016 election, he perpetuated the gap between parties as destiny, reprising themes of the Trump campaign and promulgating new resentment. The map before which he delivered the news became a banner of election denialism. Delivering “news” before a blurred electoral map–a map so iconic among Republicans to not demand detail–the backdrop for rosy-faced invective on Tucker Carlson Tonight. This post unpacks the persistence of this map on Fox News as a backdrop for Carlson’s version of truth-telling in opening monologues broadcast nightly from November 14, 2016, to April 21, 2023–as if it were a static screen to which Carlson sought to orient viewers, freezing the 2016 electoral map in time.
Fox News Channel March 2, 2017, in New York/Richard Drew, AP
While the red swath had grown far less monolithic in the early hours of the tally of the 2020 election, in ways that might have seemed to warrant a challenge to Carlson’s logo, the map of 2016 was an icon for the “news” hour, the logo was so iconic that it had not changed,–even as the recent election suggested an opening in the monolithic division of blue and red states, and a more closely divided vote indeed. But as election denialism continued, Carlson had clung to the 2016 map, which occupied a central place in the ideological bent of his viewing audience, who saw that victory as a new road map for partisan identity–even as the states seemed to break in a different manner. Indeed, the early results on the “magic walls” on interactive news screens quickly reconfigured the logo that Tucker Carlson had used as the back screen of his nightly partisan broadcasts.
Magic Wall on NBC News, Election Night 2020
1. Tucker Carlson seemed more florid and a bit unnerved on Twitter, a bit faded after all those broadcast, a bit less animated, before a framed Bill of Rights, with far harsher lighting. He claimed himself ready to confront what he cast as a moment of media crisis in which he was not involved. Bereft of the logo of the nation as it was fragmented by electoral politics in 2016, split in “blue” and “red” counties as if it contained separate nations, the aggrieved news commentator seemed trying to convey an air of normalcy, hunkered down in a house as if sheltering in place.
Safety, and indeed free speech, had been imperiled by the liberal state. Protection of an imperiled democracy offered a rationale for broadcasting that was indeed akin to January 6, as if an insurrection was being live cast direct from Maine, in what seemed Tucker Carlson’s summer house, a site of safety and white purity, far from the current partisan wars, but also command central for waging them. In granting the possibilities January 6 rioters who entered the Capitol were only exercising free speech and rights of assembly, Carlson reprised a tired charge “liberals” imperil our national security–a big reveal of American conservative news media for some time. The emergence of the constellation of “national security” was forged in the post-World War II period, first linking “security studies” to “international political economy” in ways later made explicit by 1947, when The National Security Act coordinated global risks and federal agencies by a National Security Council created “to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies relating to the national security and internal security.” The postwar triangulation solidified the place of America in a global theater that would redefining American liberalism, framing “national security” by military policy as well as foreign policy liberals long found problematic more than purely pragmatic.
When Carlson blamed liberals for intentionally undermining national security on his show every night–by cutting the military budget, welcoming refugees from war-torn nations, or migrants on the southern border as creating a national security threat, it was as undercutting that global order, as much as undermining a national order. And, most recently, he had delivered an exposé of sorts about the Capitol Riots of January 6–
–even if this meant taking the QAnon Shaman who decorated his face with warpaint as a victim of an American media, as much as a victim of his belief in false freedoms.
In exposing global existential threats, Tucker Carlson had created a script of urgency January 6’ers had almost coopted–an d then reframed the trials of the rioters in the January 6 Insurrection as an issue of freedom. If Carlson’s rants on immigration crafted a uniquely survivalist tone taken up by January 6’ers as charges when they entered the Capitol, creating an alternative narrative and reality about the protests, as well as about the convictions of : “in free countries, governments to do not lie about protest as a pretext to gain more power,” white-washing the event as “mostly peaceful chaos” in ways that offered those being tried for besieging the U.S. Capitol some hope. Carlson cunningly suggested federal forces increased the violence by planting disruptive agents in the January 6 crowd, finding evidence of a “false flag” operation in 46,000 hours of “secret footage” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy provided as an exclusive, as one of his first public acts, because, as Carlson put it, “Americans have the right to know” and have not been told the full story.
Tucker Carlson’s “return” was a form of phoenix-like relaunch, born out of the ashes of the the defamation lawsuit against Fox News, arising to strike against the legal verdicts not of the January 6 rioters, but verdicts finding Donald Trump guilty of battery, defamation, abuse, felony and falsifying business records. Quite soon afer he was released from or asked to leave Fox News, it was predictable Carlson would not allow himself to be pushed around. Promising to continue to speak the unvarnished, unrestrained manner that gave voice to the aggrieved, he found a defender in free speech absolutist Elon Musk. Musk had stated ambitions to make the center of news information in the 2024 election, claiming Twitter might create a major platform of the election, and Carlson almost wanted to lend a helping hand. Granted a newly prominent platform by the free speech absolutist to reinvigorate his own failing business, Carlson perpetuated a true deep fake, reclaiming free speech as the terrain of the alt right, appropriating the early modern liberty as an empowering rallying cry against entitled but entrenched media interests.
The most recent gambit of Carlson to sew board discontent not only recast the former president as an aggrieved victim, but showed himself a victim of powerful interests that seek to de-platform his show–at a close remove from the limiting of liberties that now stood in the rifle sites of the new priorities of the state. The historical decline from America’s Four Freedoms were at threat as the switch he made to Twitter only revealed the threats to freedom of expression that were historically enshrined by the passage of the Bill of Rights sought to protect in an early age of print culture. The streaming and broadcasting of defamatory lies on television provided a qualitative and mode of expression more akin to groupthink than expression, cleverly camouflaged in Carlson’s championing of a right to “free speech.” Presenting himself as the aggrieved party, he became a living symbol the violation of civil rights haunting the country from the January 6 rioters to Derek Chauvin to Donald Trump, all white men targeted by the liberal state, at a time when the union–and not only the Capitol building, but the country that the Capitol represented–was under attack.
The new argument of “legal exceptionalism” deviously undercut justice, if not the trial system, in the false populism of common sense. The dismissal of Tucker Carlson from Fox News may have occurred in the fallout from settlement of the Dominion lawsuit out of court, that revealed him to have sent several quite disparaging texts about Donald Trump amidst the rampant sexist of his newsproom, in a revelation of his off-the-camera behavior. The demand for a greater level of honesty on Twitter might allow was cast as a greater level of purity. In pandering to grievance yet again, he continued the Tucker Carlson narrative of grievance that was hardly new to his show. To be sure, in the light of the remarks made public during the Dominion lawsuit for defamation of the electronic voting systems, he wanted a place to reach the 3.2 million viewers who had nightly tuned into his show. His bracing announcement “We’re back!” quickly topped 100 million views in less than twenty-four hours, winning 21 million watches of a video, even if the number probably magnified individual viewers. This approached the audience of 3.2 million of times past.
Tucker Carlson let his viewers know that after he left the FoxNews network, in the fallout from settlement of the Dominion lawsuit out of court, texts disparaging Donald Trump and revelations of improperly sexist newsroom behavior were less the reason than claiming moral high ground. But Carlson may have been protesting too much: his show had almost intently if not obsessively exploited a politics of grievance to fostered since 2017 the hyper-partisan division of the United States. The recurring topic of the show was stated in the electoral map logo of red expanse and blue readouts that hung in the background of his nightly rants–Carlson’s news commentary fit the slightly blurred map of the electoral division of the nation, now an existential fact and eternal lesson in ways that its content didn’t even demand to be interpreted, glossed or read.
The blurred out map before which he had broadcast since 2017 on Fox News displayed a cleaving of blue and red counties he cheerily perpetuated. His show id his best to preserve if not magnify this map, if not to make it an iconic as a map of the party’s future. The map was a leitmotif of sorts of a struggle that animated all Carlson’s on-air rants: as if patriotism perpetuated the partisan divides, he basked before the warm glow of an electoral divide among blue and red counties that cartographic semantics dictated displayed perhaps less two different nations than two world-views. He didn’t need to explicate this divide that lay at the center of most all nightly broadcasts, but electoral divides placed in question the fate of the nation before the duplicity of Democrats and the national security threats they had enabled–as he invoked narratives of “how nations collapse.” The all but blurred logo had a centrality that didn’t even need to prominently register.
Hardly a “news” map at all, but perhaps a mirror of the country more accurate than the provisional prediction of weather map, or the ephemera generated by the Weather Channel, the 2016 electoral map was more of a flag of secession. Although it is unclear if it was chosen by Carlson or FoxNews, it was a celebration of the America First doctrine of earlier eras, and an illustration of the United States as two different countries, a recognition of two different agendas and two different realities, that informed all of the Tucker Carlson’s clarifications of news stories, and shifted the scale of earlier maps on broadcast news–often global projections or globes–as the electoral division was foregrounded as a prism to read global news in an age of red and blue states.
Unlike other news maps that use global projections, or rotating spherical globes, the electoral map glowed talismically. It shrunk global affairs to a format of clear borders and hard lines, even if it was blurred. The electoral map, in something of a rebuttal to globalization, prompted Carlson to become an international voice, somewhat paradoxically, to the nationalist strongmen who broadcast ethnic intolerance and firm boundary lines, a nationalism of pseudo-liberties from gun ownership to blissful isolation, often behind physical walls to dissuade all immigrants from entering. Tucker gained international renown for praising Putin, winning kudos and lauds from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, being hosted by Hungary’s anti-gypsy and anti-migrant strongman Viktor Orbán, and leading Russian media to find it “essential” to feature clips of his nominally nationalist show. “Russia is only defending its interests and security,” more than acting as an aggressor, Carlson argued, using inverted logic to remap the patriotic American viewer’s relation to the world.
The focus on the electoral map of the 2016, transformed the iconic map former President Trump long celebrated as evidence of a “massive” landslide victory, was an icon of the false populism of the Trump Presidency. Not a measure of the actual turn-out or number of votes, the map was the revelation or “big reveal” that confirmed a tightly contested race to be a landslide, and froze as transformative a victory that never really occurred. What better to display as the icon of Tucker Carlson Tonight as a rallying cry for the FoxNews audience, an ecstatic moment of false populist communion by which the red states were united as one, linking the future of the party and the figure of Donald Trump, and presenting the United States as wracked by competing visions that Tucker Carlson would do his darnedest to explicate and clarify in order to orient his viewers to the complexities of the world.
Carlson’s quick turn from Fox News to a new broadcasting terrain occurred, may have noted, after the Dominion settlement, but also as Donald Trump rejected outright the verdicts of two federal juries on the basis of their compromised geographic location, especially after the “fraudulent” conviction of Donald Trump for having approached women at the elegant if not austere entrance to Bergdorf Goodman, just around the corner from Trump Tower, already open at the very site where Trump had fantasized building since his own childhood, at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, where he was argued to have approached a newspaper columnist, flattered by his attention, with the odd request to try on potential gifts in the dressing room at the store’s lingerie section. Was Trump a sleazy stalker caught in his poaching ground, a stone’s throw from Trump Tower, cornering women at Bergdorf Goodman’s entrance capturing the reflection of its opulence?
Such an image would have indeed reduced Donald Trump to the dimension of New York, rather than cast him as a defender of national liberties, a dishonorable man trying who gave flattering attention to a popular columnist able to capture her attention outside the opulence of a former Gilded Age residence of a marble facade.
Carlson’s turn to protect free speech may have recuperated a far less stained sense of virtue on a platform free from monitoring disinformation, hate speech, or verbal abuse. Carlson had long clothed such hate speech in the guise of perpetuating the expanse of red states against the crowded redoubts of democrats on the 2016 electoral map. But now hate speech and free expression was being almost openly embraced. As Bergdorf Goodman’s lingerie department gained a place in America’s cultural memory, the video screen map of a blurred electoral map from Carlson’s show was destined for the dustheap of history, in favor of a terrifying platform of free speech absolutism.
The riff in the video was not an uncommon one for Tucker Carlson’s show, which was haunted almost preternaturally by the electoral map of Donald Trump’s victory. This flatscreen blurred image was familiarized to viewers as a new map of the nation–coinciding with the kick-off Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign and the verdicts of federal juries in New York and Washington, DC for criminal charges. Carlson had long championed a brand of defending constitutional rights, from the alleged right to possess a gun of second amendment free speech, to how a self-righteous “cancel culture” threatened to undermine free speech, COVID policies assault freedoms of assembly, or amending the constitution might orient the nation around states’ rights, protecting it from federal agencies and officials. Carlson had sustained that the January 6 rioters were only illustrating their rights to a freedom of assembly. He now argued free speech survived only on a new medium, off the television media where he began his show. Free speech existed only on Twitter, he argued, carving out a new niche by streaming from a wood-paneled room in his Maine home, as if evoking nothing less than a new frontier, demanding a new platform and a new road map for the nation.
Tucker Carlson’s New Twitter Video
And this in a nation that once recognized “Speech is the fundamental prerequisite for democracy.” “Free speech is the main right you have,” Carlson told his audience with a sense of deep grievance, “without it, you have no others.” He was convincing viewers that their fortunes still aligned with his own pivot from broadcast television, to the open marketplace of the twittersphere, whose new owner had predicted it would guarantee his free speech–and continue the “show” as his audience was accustomed. If he had grown in stature under the Presidency of Donald Trump, doing his best to divide the nation along the fissures of the 2016 electoral map that he sought to magnify, by chipping at its edges and growing red states through the activating political hot-button issues from immigration woes to the deceits of voter fraud to the hoaxes of global warming and climate change, growing the cleft of the country, did Carlson have cold feet late in the game? Or was he only saving his brand?
The pundit reappeared on Twitter far from the electric scrim of a 2016 electoral map that boasted the great continuous expanse of red states in the American heartland, a map that had finally reached its due-by date for many, three years into Joe Biden’s administration, but to rev up Trump 2024, in a wood-paneled room of crisp renovation, removed form the studio or video screen, before a replica of the U.S. Constitution, to promote his defense of Free Speech to the world from an improvised studio that seemed to be located in his country house up in Maine as his soundstage. Before a small map of blue and red counties, beneath an ornamental decorative globe perched two his left, Tucker was reborn as a new, warier talking head, ready to defend free speech, as he wanted it to be understood, with the blessing of that self-made free speech absolutist, Elon Musk. Musk, a declared Free Speech absolutist, in what is either a mixed metaphor or very misplaced modifier, retired from restructuring the social media site.
The deep red region from which Carlson had long broadcast from 2020, near Bryant ME, was a good demographic from which to describe his relation to the world, or to orient viewers to the world. Carlson may have decided to using the electoral map as a heuristic for presenting global and national affairs. Each rant revealed, in its own way, the deep-set divisions in the nation in ways his audience ate up. It more than suited his viewers to broadcast from a retooled old garage outside Woodstock, Maine, down the road from his vacation home, in the former stable of the old Grange Hall, that icon of American populism. Carlson may well have chosen a site of historic populist movement to cultivated a sense of false populism. It put him close to Bryant Pond, “my favorite place in the world.” The open admission of his broadcasting from the country house itself–never shown on the soundstage, but known to those die-hard fans as his preferred site. The population of his favorite place was just shy of 1,400, 98% white, and distinguished by shockingly low unemployment– a rather atypical place in the nation from which to shape a sense of a nation indeed–but one that left him quite upbeat, and acknowledged the partisan perspective to which he rallied his viewing audience to become an information standard-bearer of sorts in the Trump years.
Carlson migrated to the new platform of Twitter not purely as a retrenchment or defensive move. It was a staking out of a new space of free speech, above all. He seemed to stake his place amidst the constitution’s framers whose Bill of Rights hung on the wall beside his talking head. Did the framers have globes as ornaments in their own studies? It seemed more apt than a backlit screen as he asked Americans if they could be comfortable in a mediasphere (and world) where his show was not front and center, describing the partisan divide that led to Trump’s election in 2016–the very electoral map that was long festishized by the former President while he remained in office.
Tucker Carlson hinted in apocalyptic tones at the impending end of democracy. To be sure, such a hint of impending national apocolypse and loss of liberties was nothing new on Carlson’s show. But Carlson’s earnest insistence belied the fact that he had been doing his best since 2017 to divide the hyper-partisan division of the United States as best he could. The cleaving of the nation into blue and red regions foregrounded a two-color map on the video monitor based on the 2016 Presidential election as the logo of his nightly hour of punditry. With a deep sense of grievance, he took it as his personal mission to help viewers navigate the two different realities it expressed. The two-color map was a heuristic illustration of the lack of impartiality in the news, and the war zone into which Tucker Carlson brought his viewers. For seven years, he had been doing his best to orient audiences to the heightened stakes of living in a divided country, lest any forget the Republican majority the 2016 electoral map revealed a paradigm redefined an aggrieved nation, to prevent liberal media elites from forgetting they were inhabiting a landscape that had decisively changed. He had, in other words, long opened the airwaves for an openly partisan agenda.
Just before his video tweet seemed to say farewell to broadcast news, questions about Carlson’s behavior and his own personal opinions grew. In claiming desire for a new social media platform, Carlson grasped the ethical upper hand. He wrapped himself in the Four Freedoms of the Bill of Rights, as if wrapping himself in a flag as he entered the Capitol building. Carlson’s tweets and personal texts had exposed an image of far less probity and self-serving judgement than conveyed on air. In stating his need for preserving his personal freedom of expression, Carlson continued in strikingly survivalist language, creating a space where he might be continued to be cast as aggrieved, affirming that social media service Twitter was the last true heir of a tradition of liberties, and that it was time to leave television as a medium to preserve free speech.
Carlson the traced a rather fictitious lineage of the primacy of free speech from when ‘it was enshrined in the first of our constitutional amendments” that was passed at the first meeting of Congress in 1789–perhaps forgetting that the amendments James Madison proposed, known as the “Bill of Rights,” addressed Congress’ ability to legislate prohibition of the free exercise of religion, or freedom of the press, assembly, and the petitioning of government for redress–not the de-platforming of a media pundit. What he had cast as an “inviolable bulwark” of democracy, in other words, was a fundamental freedom of speech to be protected violated from government and Congress, rather than by a television network, and not by a news conglomerate, or achieved, however nefariously, by what he rather ominously called “de-platforming.” Of course, de-platforming was a means of preventing public expression by removing platforms of information sharing, due to its offensiveness, that only became common in 2017, as Tucker Carlson Tonight gained its 8:00 p.m. foothold in the Fox News ecosystem. And that might as well have been the starting point of the Tucker Carlson we know today. The electoral map of the 2016 Presidential election’s results appeared as a blurred video screen, as if the electoral map over which analysts had pored after the election to understand or find keys for Trump’s surprise victory, was recycled as a backdrop that haunted Carlson’s rants.
The blurred electoral map had haunted our nation in the Trump era, but which has dissolved from the far less clean-cut soundstage of natural lighting in Carlson’s recent twitter video premier. Was that map however not a mirror reflecting the new national status quo in which Carlson launched verbal grenades of increasing intensity to blow things up,–emulating the style Trump himself adopted as a political rationale? The justification that Trump gave to his presidency was echoed nightly in the blurred map that was a mirror of the Trump Presidency, and a mirror, perhaps, to no one more than Trump himself; the President delighted in the show and in the fetishized electoral map he had hung in the West Wing, and indeed distributed on the Resolute Desk to distribute to visitors, in case they needed a graphic memory aide of his claims to having won a landslide, albeit an electoral one. And even though he lost the popular vote, the map provided confirmation of who was on top, and who had won, “by the rules” of American politics. Tucker was indeed content, if not smug, and wanted his viewers to take stock of how they were too, or should be with the nightly fix he offered.
Free Speech in Carlson’s world was allowed despite the utter absence of political consensus. That consensus was not the goal was hauntingly embodied and reassuringly naturalized in the logo of Tucker Carlson Tonight. The power of the scrim of the 2016 electoral map–a news map that for Carlson’s viewers became the status quo–blurred the clear-cut lines of a two-color blue and red map to suggest not different countries, but ways of viewing a world to which he would be the guide, if not a schism that he would grow. For Carlson, speech, and indeed the understanding of the news, had to be understood–and grasped–by the red and blue political divide that divided the country from the 2016 election, which became the logo and the crucial backdrop in which all events of American politics needed, Carlson urged, to be understood. Trump knew the same. The framed map with a legend that he hung in the Oval Office deserved more conspicuous placement than the image of Trump and Pence beneath the American flag: it was a reminder of his presence in the Oval Office, how he had gotten there, and who sent him there. It was the mirror of his political identity–
–and included on the table in meetings with his officials in the Oval Office, in paper form.
Trump Behind Resolute Desk, with copies of 2016 Electoral Map
Of course, as a news map it was a map that focussed not on the world–or on western tools of mapping–but a video screen akin to that which had recently replaced the old Cronkite map at CBS, since the very same year of 2016 relegated to an empty soundstage of a broadcasting museum. It stood as a memory of an earlier news ecosystem, and an earlier transparent relation to a political geography Americans didn’t need to explore, and were privileged or entitled to remain above, a panorama of a homolosine global projection that echoed modern geography books circa 1926–a comforting globalism that retained the accurate sizes of all global countries and continents. Was not the use of an electoral map a rebuttal of such a promise of accurate global coverage, or a rebuff of globalism and globalization, no longer shown as a smooth playing field, by returning to acknowledging a reprioritization of national interests and American valued?
The “map that sat behind Cronkite” as he delivered his global news with objectivity was replaced by the torturously divide map that would view the world from the reduced optic of the United States. Hardly provincial, it was a map of how America decided to redefine its relation to the world, and to see the world by the fissures of blue and red that were the achievement of a long electoral strategy, by gerrymandering of redistricting, and the adoption of political platforms that motivated more Republican votes, in place of the map that had provided a changing image of assurance of global purview of the nightly news, the sole prominent map we saw that contextualized America’s engagement in global wars–from Korea to Cuba to Latin America to Vietnam–with an image of global pacifism and an American peace worthy of Ancient Rome.
If networks went with more flat-screen varieties in place of that older material culture of maps, Carlson’s studio at Fox News figured a powerful visual mantra of the nation, divided we stand, with more emotion, liveliness, and dynamic power than the flat screens behind dour newscasters at CBS.
The electoral map haunted the newsroom and the remade halls of government, acknowledging the new state of affairs in the Trump Era. The circularity between the White House and the newsroom distinguished the inclusion of the electoral map haunting the news form a background monitor. The fetishized electoral map as a logo for his show saw dichotomous division of the nation as an optic to frame and understand America, or frame America’s relation to the rest of the world. Tucker Carlson by no means limited his show to national news; his show asserted an America First coverage new to the news industry, reprising a red state-blue state division realized by Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and presented nightly as a new eternal present.
The partisan divide incarnated in the electoral map as a way to understand and gloss national news in ways other news shows might not fully expose, and it revealed the hidden motivations which few elected officials would tell you. This became a form of parasitic news, festering divisions and appealing to audience’s darkest instincts.
The image of national news was based on carving out a new media market that the Trump victory had created, but one that offered no grounds for what Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the eve of the Civil War, called “commonality,” hoping to define democracy by a transcendent sense of civic purpose in sermons that had invited American audiences to subsume their individuality to a higher good.
Rather than elevate lofty ideals at a remove from personal interests as Emerson had hoped, seeking a ground of ethics that seems to have motivated his student Thoreau to retreat to Walden to find a place not marred by the disgrace of enslavement, Carlson made a hash of commonality by wiping it from the map. Rather than using the old map any more, as if in recognition of its dated nature, one might hope, but one suspects only because it lost shine as a commanding rhetoric of presumption, the Fundamental Freedoms were the premise of the first, rather low-information video; the Bill of Rights took the place of that old logo, conspicuously absent from the tony country home that seemed to double as a site for at home confidential broadcast on social media, outside of the Fox cocoon that had presumably copyrighted the logo of his old show. His notion of “freedoms” were of course basically rooted in self-interest, and he was defending his own right to free speech. But the Freedom of Speech that Carlson made hay of had of course long foregrounded in his old show, but now became the commanding logic that made him turn to a libertarian social media, doing an old favor for Elon Musk, one might add, by adding his brand to help rebrand the social media giant.
If his listeners might have thought the Second Amendment fundamental to current political debate in the nation, Carlson reminded them of why the First Amendment was, well, first. For all the patriotic bluster, few of his audience of followers would have easily forgotten the tacit message that claiming a right “peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good” was freshly in the news on his old show. The First Amendment was entangled by Tucker Carlson in the footage of privileged reporting he used to qualify the January 6 riots as other than an insurrection–not a matter of sedition, at all, but rather a respectful reverence for the values of the nation. Carlson’s full-throated defense of participants in the January 6 riot as patriots who acted out of loved of their nation, and revered the building they seem to have arrived to destroy as they illegally entered the Capitol building, often with fake identification. Tucker Carlson’s exclusive use of over 40,000 hours of internal video footage that Kevin McCarthy had given him exclusively he edited to white-wash the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as a Free Speech event. The footage only showed, he argued, men exercising their rights to freedom of assembly that illustrated their reverence for America, even if it was a past, long-gone white America, at home with a confederate flag.
The revelation and protection of these forms of free speech and assembly were part of a politics of grievance about which we can only expect to hear more in future months. Tucker was always a partisan propagandist posing as a newsman, but fled to Twitter in hopes the libertarian owner of the social media network to defend free speech. Arguing mainstream media regularly broadcast lies–“facts are being withheld”–he mapped Twitter as an island of free speech in tune with American ideals in a sea of disinformation. This was framed as a watershed of sorts, if not a ‘tipping point’ in his openly partisan ideology. But Tucker Carlson Tonight long enjoyed a slippery if not tortured relation to free speech. The openly partisan nature of it rants barely concealed by the smug tone by which he disparaged and unmasked the devious deceptions of the Democrats staked openly partisan tones–Democrats promoting scheme of intentional creation of “non-citizen voters” first by using anti-immigrant dog whistles echoing Great Replacement Theory of extremists who argue immigration of non-white races would “replace” white Americans, if his FOX News CEO would defend back in March, 2021 as not endorsing or echoing a Christian white supremacist agenda echoing ethno-nationalist talking points. Carlson coopted the alt right fringe meme to manufacture the threat of intentional undermining of white American’s voters as a left-wing plan to flip red states blue by multiplying the voting power of a foreign-born electorate to dilute the electorate, or the unique “American Privilege” of being allowed to cast one’s vote.
The existential stakes that Tucker Carlson now evoked were not about the nation, but the way all Americans were consuming they’re politically informed. He argued that broadcast television was no less than an assault on the Four Freedoms enshrined in the nation’s history–even the Bill of Rights was presented as a basis to restrain government overreach. The qualification of whether free speech indeed included “scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States” was confronted by the founders only a decade dafter the Bill of Rights were adopted to address writings of defamatory intent and disregard for truth akin to those Carlson had voiced on Fox News. Although soon shelved, punishment of speech made with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false, or knowledge of its falsity–or “actual malice”–central to twentieth-century jurisprudence while Carlson was growing up.
Carlson however feared the erosion of freedoms by insinuating the threat of free speech for over six years on his how. His affirmations that “amazingly, as of tonight, there are not that many platforms left that allow free speech” more than an alleged exposé, white-wash history with maliciousness or without regard for their falsity. Tucker prompted fears among his viewers that “Native-born Americans are now being systematically disenfranchised,” two years ago, demanding a national conversation on what he labeled as non-controversial. Twitter’s new owner offered an absolutist interpretation of Free Speech under Elon Musks’ rule–refusing to monitor or constrain hate speech, disinformation, or verbal abuse–making the platform ideal for Carlson’s long-standing positioning of himself in a fragmented or fractured partisan landscape. On Twitter, Musk promised, all holds, protections or monitors of disinformation or abuse would be removed–fostering or sanctioning a new idea of free speech which Tucker Carlson seemed to embrace in his new show.
Carlson leveled with viewers about how bad this were. An air of probity of telling it as it is hid a sense of awe for Donald Trump–even while he dismissed Trump a “destroyer” quite derogatorily in texts who could “destroy us if we play it wrong.” Even as Carlson stoked fears of election fraud, and “unanswered questions” that are “lingering” and asking how “senile Joe Biden” ever got so many votes, magnifying election fraud claims to foment popular outrage, even as he mocked Trump for the extent of his lies. Asdisparagement of Trump’s allies and surrogates as election challenges continued, Carlson gave credence to “disturbing worries” and the claims of “fraud” Fox News boosted as being perpetrated on the American public were sustained, lest Fox’s ratings continue to decline or suddenly plummet. The awe of Trump’s power revealed in his texts and off the record remarks reveal how well hidden in plain sight was the symbiosis of mutual hand-washing the two long enjoyed. Carlson seems to have tethered his boat to Trump’s fortune, even as Carlson decided to join other Fox News announcers to recognize Biden’s victory. But has Carlson decided to move to Twitter to position himself as an active player in Trump’s 2024 candidacy?
2. Carlson was well aware of what Freedom of Speech entailed, broadcasting on several platforms in the last decade. He presented de-platforming in a lens of grievance, refusing to be “silenced” even after his departure from Fox News, where he had commanded a huge following that he refused to be silenced, per his own legal team: “anyone is going to silence Tucker and prevent him from speaking to his audience is beyond preposterous,” even if he remained contracted to Fox through January, 2025–the four year anniversary of January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as legislators were readying to tabulate electors of an election Trump continues to contest. Their ability to do so was not, he suggested, ever threatened by the mob that did invade the Capitol Building, breaking its doors in disrespect and scaling its walls to plant flags proclaiming the never-ending campaign of Trump 2020, preserved on banners, hats, and signage. Their insistence that the election was not over did not easily square with reverence for democracy, but Carlson suggested was perhaps to be included in their freedom of assembly to which all Americans were entitled by law.
As Trump took to a Town Hall where he continued to contest the validity of the 2020 Election, announcing it was not yet resolved, and leaving listeners in suspense as to if he’d accept the results of 2024, Carlson–as if to test the thresholds of Free Speech–reminded viewers of his own earnest questioning of the results of the election and the validity of the current President, by telling viewers of his massively popular Twitter video–1.7 million in an hour! 100 million views in twenty-four hours!–as the algorithm did its magic. Carlson reminded viewers of the centrality of the old 2016 electoral map that he used as his backdrop and logo on Tucker Carlson Tonight, a video screen whose tacit implication divided America into blue and red states. This was a division against which all news–migration; the George Floyd Riots and Black Lives Matter protests; the Ukraine War; even Climate Change–should be viewed and bundled. His spectators would connect the dots. Free Speech was less a matter of importance, as it happens, than pushing the envelope of free speech; free speech was argued to protect Tucker Carlson’s popularity of glossing the nation’s good as he saw it. Carlson sanitized the January 6 insurrection as non-violent protestors who “revere the Capitol,” only “peaceful, orderly, and meek” rather than violent insurrectionists.
In branding himself as a defender of “free speech,” who just moved to a new platform to be able to position himself to defend that right, he seemed to echo the defense he gave for January 6 rioters who entered the Capitol building in tactical gear as revering the American government. (They were focussed on a model of American government, if one of Making America Great Again.). “For our democracy to work,” Senator Patty Murray had bemoaned Carlson’s use of the footage, argued from the Senate floor in response to Carlson’s selective use of video of rioters he claimed were nonviolent in intent. , in concert with Republican strategists, ” . . . the Free Press that we rightly cherish and protect needs honest brokers,” specifying that even if they are not always neutral, owe it to their public to “try to tell the truth”–rather than to present distorted partisan takes on national news by erasing the violence and insurrectionist intent of the rioters who entered the Capitol. As she railed at the dangers of airing “fraud in prime time” she attacked Tucker Carlson personally as “determined to make sure Fox ‘News’ is not ‘News’ at all.” The decision to broadcast the events duplicitously was not about freedom, but a desire to distort by pushing disinformation for an openly political agenda, as even Mitch McConnell recognized the intent to perpetuate false narratives about the insurrection was an intentional distortion, even though he had difficulty doing so, beyond agreeing with the condemnation of the Capitol Police.
When Carlson delivered the big reveal two years later that “the news you consume is a lie,” he didn’t have to explicitly reference January 6. since the exclusive footage he had gained of the rioters in the U.S. Capitol were featured in recent weeks, and as false election claims were long kept front and center on his show. Despite that his dismissal was the fall-out of the recent settlement between Dominion and Fox News –“he wasn’t fired,” I overheard a man on the street remind his friend, “he was invited to leave“–the recycling of talking points of right-wing news media outlets from Gateway Pundit to Breitbart to One America News had long helped Carlson hone a far-right propaganda machine to pander to Lachlan Murdoch and increase the share of the viewing public through an unabashed nationalism that was more emancipatory in its claims that populist. The new notion of “free speech” that Carlson trumpeted, in other words, would have extended to the freedom of assembly that the QAnon Shaman with DIY warpaint and MAGA-wearing arms-bearing crowd, many espousing White Christian Nationalist agendas echoed in the Nordic headgear of the shirtless shaman.
Reminding anyone who listened that Twitter was “the last big one remaining in the world,” in a rather globalizing statement that seemed to stake claims to his personal freedom. In ways, Carlson echoed a similar rhetoric of emergency in announcing his plans to create a new news network, more meaningful than Fox News. While short on any substance, it was a teaser of sorts that served to ask his loyal audience of viewers, as well as his former employers, as Forbes suggested, whether Tucker Carlson now even needed television as a medium–creating a burst of attention that shook the medium far beyond his own 6.7 million Twitter followers, by a new multiplier, mentioned 87 thousand times in the twelve hours between Thursday, April 27 at midnight and noon April 28, surpassing the 3.2 million who watched his television news show. His followers seemed able to steer the algorithm on their own, and he hoped the algorithm would allow him to go it alone.
For Tucker Carlson Tonight used its logo of the 2016 electoral map to stage its open attack on “liberal media elites.” He embraced immigration as foisted upon the nation by elites, taking regular on-air phone calls on air from Trump that gave his 8 o’clock pm time-slot the air of an alternate cabinet for this most impassioned viewers to follow. The former President must have been honored and flattered from the get-go at the conspicuous place of the very electoral map he had taken to distribute as confirmation of his mandate. To be sure, the spooling of global resentments that Carlson mediated from right wing and alt right websites suggested a pooling of global resentments, into an optic of racial grievances before Carlson advised Trump to call out the army to put down riots across America after the death of George Floyd. Carlson was regularly ripping stories from alt right sites right and left, from in 2018 calling the violence in South Africa an attempt of its government to steal white land-owners’ land and denying white supremacy as an issue on the anti-immigration feelings along the US-Mexico border–losing many advertisers, but attracting amazing numbers of viewers and bringing more money to Fox News as a station. He was not teaching his audience to decide for themselves, but funneling opinion into their minds. And by January 2023, Carlson launched into a criticism of legislation asking to criminalize White Supremacy in Texas by asking viewers to mourn the twenty-ninth anniversary of the end of Apartheid in South Africa, with a graphic inviting viewers to prepare for the chaos to be ceded by such legislation, labeled as imposing a woke policy of “criticize me and you’re jailed” that would incur Texans’ civil liberties.
3. Each night, Tucker Carlson oriented his audience to a landscape as if it was indeed rigged, whose politicians were out of touch with American interests, as was the media. By dressing himself in the garb of Free Speech in his tweeted video clip, Carlson, as the shirtless shaman carried in an American Flag, assured his viewers that he spoke with full understanding of the new paradigm of political discourse that the electoral map marked–barely concealing he had been, until recently, denied the hyper-partisan division of the United States as best he could–until the political terrain of the nation cleaved into what were separate blue and red counties and world views. The map revealed a nation were, to use a word that Emeson invested with particular power as a basis of civic democracy, lacked all commonality, and where commonalities were in a sense foregone.
Carlson of course worked to perpetuate and naturalize a political topography he glossed nightly. He perpetuated conflicting public opinions–tagged as the “Liberal Media”–with cheerful smugness, often importing the most extremist views into national discourse with the air of a big reveal of what was truly, really at stake. He cast the demand to quench public protests of police violence after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police using a choke hold to the notion of diminishing the votes of white Americans, questioning whether it was a murder, or just a fentanyl overdose; he questioned whether Floyd had not already absented himself from a civil contract, as a repeat offender, who was perhaps terrified of police with good reason as a member of a criminal class, and denied or dampened the centrality of racism in America with incredulity. As he repeatedly argued that our politicians were afraid to impose order on a terrifying spread of wanton mob violence, the National Guard became activated in many states, Carlson’s bulletins provided a sense of continuity but also a siloization of news, questioning the safety of the nation all in the name of Free Speech.
This was a point of inflection, to be sure, around the George Floyd Riots, when Carson questioned the reluctance of the nation’s governors to use force against rioters who were at risk of destroying the nation, and which the elected leaders were increasingly disguising as part of “America’s long tradition of vigorous political discourse,” rather than as a crisis for the nation that seemed to be a critical point risking to obscure the protection of individual liberties–not for blacks, but for whites, and indeed white police-men. Letting us know that the charges against Derek Chauvin were hardly an open and shut case, promising “Everything the Media Didn’t Tell You About the Death of George Floyd,” Tucker Carson explained that Chauvin was only “accused of murdering George Floyd”–not convicted–“we were told when Chauvin murdered George Floyd, he was doing to one man what our country has done to all African-Americans”–but Floyd, contrary to the protests that questioned the racial bias of policing, wasn’t “murdered because he was black–[even if] that’s what they told us,” even though “Americans have been told that George Floyd’s death was a racial murder,” and the fact of his death “has been used to reshape how we live in this country.”
The issues of a feeling of systemic racism at stake in Floyd’s murder in a chokehold at the hands of police was transformed into a discourse about the nation with which Tucker Carlson had no truck. The allegations of murder have been used underhandedly, to change the nation by promoting an agenda of “racial equity,” Carson clarified for his viewers, by shifting blame for Floyd’s death to the entire nation–while “nothing Black Lives Matter [protest] has done in Minneapolis has improved the lives of the [black] people who lived there.” The civil protest concealed an underhanded plot. Was the nation any better off for the protests?, Carlson asked his viewers. As the National Guard was activated across America to be on the ready in response to growing unrest: rather than invoke freedom of assembly in response to the violent death of an unarmed man, it became a background to understand that Derek Chauvin would not be able to receive a fair trial, arguing that the cries for justice across America created a scenario where the white police man was not allowed a free trial, as if Chauvin was being denied justice by protestors shouting “We need justice, people, justice by any means necessary,” as if they composed an “unruly mob” denying Derek Chauvin civil rights in what he deceptively cast not as a demand for stopping unnecessary violence against blacks. By going so far as to compare the protests to “mob justice a hundred years ago in the American South” or “mob justice in Minneapolis today,” Carlson deeply distorted the issue of questions of a miscarriage of justice; sFloyd had intoxicated himself with fentanyl and methamphetamines, suffering from hypertension, rather than police violence, even if a rage of protests had erupted nation-wide in response to the wanton miscarriage of justice in taking license to administer undue violence.
Protests after George Floyd’s death from Police Chokehold against Activation of National Guard/June 3, 2020
Tucker Carlson nightly broadcast in those months about the spread of “mob” violence opposed to the following of the rule of law, to undermine the Black Live Matter movement whose claims had motivated the unrest. Rather than see the protests as expressing valid civil goals or rights, mobs were what, Carlson argued, we never thought of as American, and posed the threat of a terrifying violation of due process that infringed on rights and due process. Carlson was once again glossing national news in ways that were premised on revealing a deeper injustice against “America,” more important than any calls for racial justice, foregrounding Floyd’s overdose by mid-March, 2021, not the throat-hold that Minneapolis police administered. After calls for racial justice that erupted after the tragedy of Floyd’s death, Carlson dripped with irony, as “The people burning down our country are “protesters”. They’re engaged in a legitimate “protest.” He cheered that at a year’s distance had led many fewer Americans to believe Floyd murdered by police brutality, bemoaning how in June, 2020, leaders had “dithered” and lied before mob violence–hardly as calls for racial justice.
It was a moment of emergency that might seem right for a show of strength, not guaranteed by the freedom of association or an expression of social justice movements’ power. The outrage of so many was marked by a loss of rights, and disrespect for individual ownership or police officers: “This is how nations collapse,” Carlson ominously intoned, predicting growing violence: “When no one in authority keeps the order, and . . . American citizens are forced to defend themselves.” In so doing, their free speech was curtailed. Recast as mob violence, he bewalied a “profound national emergency.” Carlson urged armed readiness from Americans to which many states responded by activating the National Guard. Many states’ governors responded; Carlson demeaned the riots as only spun to make Americans feel “guilt”–which Americans do not merit or deserve, but came from the parroting of how people targeted America who had hated it–and not as a form of free speech at all. In amazingly prescient ways, the words of Louis Farrakhan on a Phil Donahue show to chastise whites who feared racial violence in 1990 resonate. Minister Farrakhan was indignant: “Isn’t it sad that we, who have been the victims of so much violence–now, whites fear violence from us? We do not have a history of killing white people. White people have a history of killing us.” The footage of Floyd’s death at the hand of police sparked the maturation of Black Lives Matter across the nation, as Carlson saw them as endangering law and order, in ways that the Republican National Convention would parrot.
4. That deep division of race, of immigration, of economic poverty were not present in the sanitized map of a partisan divide. It was a flat image of America, in many ways that befit the flattening of the globalized markets of the world, and rejected them, focussing on the divisions of parties in America, and the constriction of the left wing or self-identifying left to the nation’s coasts as if to its margins, irrespective of actual population distribution in the nation. In fetishizing the red-blue electoral divide as a basis for “news,” using the flat cartographic icon of a red-blue cleaving of the country, the 2016 Presidential election of a terrifyingly undynamic spatial selectiveness, but a new model for viewing the world. It became a way to magnify that divide that has been insufficiently appreciated the heat or the visceral intensity of our polarization. We no longer needed global news or viewed the world as a crystalline orb foregrounding the United States’ place of prominence.
To be sure, the electoral map on Carlson’s show erased the architecture of that partisan split was achieved by a long history of partisan gerrymandering–even if it was blurred. Redistricting created maps of increasingly sharp chromatic edges in ways waged with a vengeance by the Republican National Committee’s Redistricting Office since about 2014-15. New software tools of map-drawing were evangelized by the political consultant Thomas Hofeller’s redesigning of partisan political district maps by GIS software across the nation’s state houses, preaching the tools he had advocated as able to redraw voting districts designed to deliver Republican majorities from the right voters. But even more, it purified the nation, removed from its past and from the deep dissensus that roiled the nation, which Carlson reflected on and cast in purely partisan terms. And it recast the electoral map as a distillation of a Trump way of winning, a break from political practices of the past.
If redistricting had in fact changed ideas of political representation, it delivered partisan majorities on the cheap. But more: in contrast to the global purview generations of network news broadcast promised before global projections that affirmed the coverage and objectivity Peter Jennings had assured viewers of “World News Tonight” in by spherical projections to celebrate the global coverage and objectivity of the news, or indeed the objectivity of maps as Walter Cronkite had used a static Mercator projection to assure Americans audiences of the worldliness of broadcast TV.
The world map that had been an icon or fetish of the objectivity of the newscaster disappeared or atrophied for the new America First era of President Donald Trump: the replacement of the image of a world map with backdrop of an electoral map signified a shift in narrative from a digest of global events to covering alternative narratives of truth. The iconic global world maps of CBS Evening News had already been reduced, as it happened, to a simple video wall-map the year Trump ran for President. If the world map had been an icon and signifier of objectivity of the newscaster, perhaps its disappearance reflected the outdated nature of a formal map as an icon of global news. The objectivity of the newscaster had withered in the new America First era of Donald Trump. It was, to be sure, however, also an era when few consulted paper-based maps at all as icons of “news”–a call to objectivity, perhaps, but also the commonality and consensus that the televised news created–leaving the materiality of the maps a relic of the distant past. Carlson attracted audiences increasingly purblind to an era of global news, removed from all illusions of objectivity.
–the nightly news, now, was a matter of knowing the correct account of a complex political narrative of the nation, in which you were never really informed by a system that was, after all, rigged from the start, and motivated by pure political interest.
5. The schismatic landscape of America’s 2016 electoral map suggested an expansive victory, as the red covered many less densely inhabited lands, without noting the fewer voters who lived in them. But it also oriented viewers to the problem that political events were not able to be interpreted by a consensus view, or as a matter of common agreement. The positions of all political statements or events needed to be glossed, interpreted, and contextualized by a political rift that the last presidential election had made a paradigm for political discussion. The electoral map logo marked the problem of a lack of national consensus to which Carlson’s program would be oriented; the impossibility of arriving at any consensus that became the starting point of his show.
Tucker Carlson Tonight promised, rather, to unmask the true stories of grievance and the distortion of justice, in which Carlson promoted himself less as a reporter or simple newsman, but as an explicator for those in the know: rather than aiming to distill a global synthesis of objective events, Carlson questioned the objectivity of the liberal media. he promoted a suppressed alternative narrative about the nation and national interest and identity, political elites intentionally overlooked and failed to protect,–no matter what they said. Viewers were less interested in commonalities, than in pressing the abilities of Free Speech, even if this meant outright mockery of individuals and racism.
The crisp division of the nation into two parties–and the continuity of a red central–clarified the battle that divided the nation trusting few where interest fully replaced authoritative expertise. As journalist Nicolas Confessore argued Carlson cultivated ideas previously “caged in a dark corner of American life” in a show beyond the MAGA movement. Carlson championed the racialized theory of “great replacement,” charging those backing immigration reform wanted to replacing white Americans with more obedient “Third World” immigrants, as architects of a demographic change of the nation that echoed white nationalists and Julius Evola. The specter of demographic replacement–that Democrats welcome into the country an “entirely new electorate from the Third World and change the demographics of the U.S. so completely they’ll never lose again” to render it unrecognizable–was dear to global right wing movements from Viktor Orbán to Marie LePen, but intersected with a deep nativism.
The Tucker Carlson Show had created a new global movement. But in 2020, and during the George Floyd Riots, Carlson attracted more viewers than any show in the history of cable news. His show became a staple of insecurity, articulating fear and rage even more than the anti-immigrant episodes that featured the arrival of immigrant”caravans” of criminality, at the southern border. But the viewing of fears of a race-based violence in the George Floyd riots he increasingly responded to what White Supremacist viewers wanted to hear, finding a bond with them that he rode to the top of the ratings. And while Carlson has left cable stations in the past, this time he was determined to hang on, riding the fears of the electorate to define his dominance on the airwaves, heaping scorn on Kamala Harris, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, and others, whose lack of credible qualifications he delighted in calling into question by mocking each of them as “stupid” if not a stooge, in a clear echo of the celebrated personal attacks dear to Donald Trump.
The espousal of Free Speech that Carlson claims is not only instrumental, but a freedom to select alt right narratives, recast as the inside truth, for the airwaves. These neglected stories political elites didn’t want you to know became the backbone of Carlson’s brand of political punditry. The ruling class that doesn’t like you was rebuffed by the red states in the electoral map backdrop of a nation divided defined Carlson’s new persona. It was a manifesto of sorts, attracting viewers ready to fetishized the electoral map of the recent election. His oratorical skill was honed against these elites, an elastic category indeed, but assembled from a bouquet of alt right insight into the true workings of the world Carlson’s tacit subject was indeed nation composed of separate countries, rather than one based on the consensus that the newscaster would deliver, as he became the darling of the White Supremacists whose presence in America he had earlier described as a hoax.
This increasingly turned, from the pivot of a fractured United States, to the disorientation of America’s position in the world. As the Ukraine War grew, Tucker Carlson returned in a fixated fashion to the rehabilitation of Putin, the prime and sole aggressor in Ukraine, by decrying how “hating Putin has become the central purpose of America’s foreign policy” as proof of America’s global disorientation. Indeed, “hatred of Vladimir Putin could bring the United States into a conflict in Eastern Europe.” If that wasn’t bad enough, there were gears of disinformation devoted to targeting Russia’s strongman. At the hands of elites, or “permanent Washington,” the out of touch deep state, “entire cable channels are devoted” to pouring bile on a world leader, without asking what Putin has done to me–“Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?“–in an accelerating rant that cast Ukraine as a benefactor of Joe Biden’s political fortunes, to explain or unveil the motivations for the President’s actual rational for defending Ukraine’s borders. Biden’s dedication to Ukraine, he insinuated, and only that, has elevated what he patronizingly called “a border dispute with a nation called Ukraine” removed from American interests and neglecting the immigration problem looming on America’s southern border, as if the traffic of fentanyl into America was a Democratic plot to exterminate MAGA voters.
You never understood how that fracture line between red and blue states–a border within a nation that demanded to be colored as distinct countries–mirrored not only different realities, but determined American policies far more nefarious than his viewers might have grasped. Carlson was, in the name of “Free Speech,” fomenting a civil war of disgust, resentment, and persecution whose proportions were never revealed so clearly or crisply on a global map–even as he cozied up to the very figures of global politics who have surpassed Free Speech, from Victor Orbán, to Putin.
Meanwhile, as he reoriented red states to global politics, specters of true global danger were not only dismissed but demeaned as distractions, as he derisively dismissed fears of global warming as “absurd” and tantamount to a “religion,” rather than scientific consensus, but mindlessly parroted by Democratic elite, telling viewers it was yet another liberal myth akin “systemic racism in the sky,” a gospel and thought manipulation that if “you can’t see it, . . . rest assured it’s everywhere and its deadly,” of invented anthropogenic origins. Global warming was in fact a “mixed blessing,” whose upsides demand recognition that alleged experts and “climate scientists” conceal, in rants he told his Fox News viewers, most of whom remained by 2020 the least concerned or alarmed about climate change, which almost a fifth of Fox News viewers either doubted or outright dismissed–or were disengaged, even if slim majority acknowledged global warming was occurring (53%), most believed caused “mostly by natural changes.” Nearly half faulted American media for providing far too much coverage about global warming than warranted to what is not a national security issue. Over half described themselves as not at all afraid of warming, in a sampling from April 2019-April 2020 by the good people at Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication and its partners.
The derision for experts was not only a discovery of the “uneducated” as a demographic, that broad constituency that Trump embraced: the derision for experts was a championing of common sense, to be sure, of personal interests alone, but was also an illustration of the scams and cons perpetuated by those in power, and by coastal elites: the new demographic was a remapping of the nation. If Carlson’s logo for his Nightly News mirrored the 2016 electoral map proclaiming a “red nation,” he had also waged war for a territorial conquest of Fox News market share, itself grown to mirror the 2016 electoral map by 2018, indeed subsuming the Trump electorate and achieving the astounding growth that Carlson seemed to promise the network in adopting alt right debunking of climate change and a hard-line anti-immigration stance that played to his viewers, and played to white supremacists, even before the unfolding of national fear in the George Floyd riots, convulsing the nation far more intensely than the earlier beating of Rodney King ever had.
The arrival of a market share of the nation by 2018 that mirrored the 2016 electoral map he displayed on his show seemed to be a destiny of market, and one that prepared for the prominent role he gained to gloss the George Floyd riots as a national disgrace without political meaning.
We might compare the image of that electoral map before which Carlson delivered his assurances, confident in the new role of his program as a way to orient one to a divided nation. The prestige of the nightly news, for better or worse, had led to Walter Cronkite become the “most trusted man in America,” that created excitement at the idea that he might enter the political arena in an era when parties were less attractive across the political divide. That never happened, but was entertained.
The eagerness and rapidity with which one party cathected to Tucker Carlson’s 8:00 pm show in particular, and parallel the solid growth of Fox News in media markets across the country in ways that Carlson had notoriously courted, culling alt right talking points to boost his ratings and his base. The overwhelming shift in media dominance that ox News gained between 2014 and 2018 parallels the emergence of Tucker Carlson Tonight, and led to his own interest in gathering news items from increasingly right-wing media networks that gained a new prominence in America from 2018. The newscaster was able to tell his audiences “white supremacy” was not only a non-issue in America, but a “hoax” and a “conspiracy theory to divide the country and keep a hold on power,” even as mass shooters posted White Supremacist manifestos that foregrounded claims of an “immigrant invasion” that Carlson would later help to promote. Even as the ADL found White Supremacist groups to be responsible for the highest share of extremist fatalities in 2017, Carlson’s convenient dismissal of their danger in the light of massacres in El Paso, a shooting in a Pittsburg synagogue, and tallied a doubling of murders. While immigrants were cast as a threat to American “civilization” on Carlson’s show, the centrality of White Supremacy within the United States was erased. Inside the decade-long shift of viewer dominance from CNN to FOX, the right wing punditry of Carlson, with its sustained focus on immigration, helped make immigration central to Trump’s own policies, and tapped a strong nativist anti-immigrant rhetoric in America, that metastized as a cancer in the George Floyd riots.
This was not a map of blue and red states, but the final map oddly echoed the icon of an American where no consensus existed, divided into blue and red states, before which Carlson delivered a nightly almost motivational harangue. An increasingly symbiotic relationship was evident in how Donald Trump took cues from the extremist positions Tucker Carlson broadcast on his show–Trump was a regular interlocutor who called in with regularity, identifying his appreciation of its themes–mirrored Fox dominance in media networks. Boosted by Facebook and Twitter, and other media markets, rejected the objectivity that was tied to still fetishized Mercator projection, used by Walter Cronkite and bequeathed to the Nightly News.
With a smugness few had seen from a young newscaster before in America, Carlson however held a torch for the deep fissures of the 2016 election as a part of our new political landscape, without ever mentioning that district maps were designed. He announced the anointed nature of Trump’s Presidency as based in a bright red foundation, even as Trump’s victory was attacked as “illegitimate”–even before fears of the “sweeping and systematic” undermining of his opponent by Russian intelligence agencies running of interference in the election–and perpetuating the nation’s division as a clear record of the new status quo of which he seemed quite proud.
His show was based on a gloss of the electoral map by which Trump was so energized to post in the West Wing, given out to visitors, and to take as his victory by a popular mandate. Perhaps the tabulation on FoxNews of an “electoral scorecard” in the months up to the election led to fetishize the map as a sign of his victory; it seems to have offered grounds for a new national narrative of sorts and Brave New World. The division of the nation diagrammed on election night 2016 offered moorings to define a divisive status quo. It clarified his show oriented viewers to an ongoing battle before Carson even began speaking, as he sought to orient viewers to intense partisan opposition.
Claiming to be the rudder for a “Real America” from the election of 2016, Tucker offered a sort of rudder not only for the disaffected, but those with deep skepticism of being by global elites, and a way of expressing pride in red-neck nativism for the group of voters whom Donald Trump had cleverly identified as “the smart, smart, smart people that don’t have the big education.” He was the leader of their church, foregrounding a “heartland” of the nation that echoed the maps of square footage of republicans that echoed the Republican political pollster’s claims that if the President was decided by square miles, the election wouldn’t be close. Indeed, the landscape of the new America was a map of Carlson’s viewers, given the degree to which the election divided Democrats from Republicans, and he relished his role as the broadcast voice of a new regime, where a full 92% of Republicans had voted for Donald Trump, and 94% of Democrats had voted for Clinton, dividing the nation in a map that seemed to confine Democratic voters on the edges of the nation, but where a sense of gravity seemed to exist in a more continuous, solidly dependable red swath stretching across much of the nation–albeit less inhabited—of nearly unprecedented continuity.
6. Tucker Carlson’s news show, having run concurrently with the Trump Show for many years, did not use as its logo the more subtle map of gradations of an electorate. Rather, the map Trump seems to have recycled on the White House walls and for visitors to the Oval Office and West Wing, eager to distribute to visitors to the White House as evidence of the scope of his “massive” electoral victory provided a basis for his future contestation of the 2020 electoral map or election denialism.
The scale of the victory was perhaps more accurately understood by an electoral map whose chromatic intensity shaded acknowledging variations of the partisan victory among American voters–departing from the clear blocks of continuous red, if showing clear pockets of crimson–
2016 Presidential Election, Weighting Counties by Share of Partisan Votes
–or those regions where Trump gained in votes from the performance of the 2012 Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, in 2020, in a map whose color ramp was adjusted for numbers of voters, spelled out per the LA Times—
016 Presidential Election Shaded by Votes Gained in Comparison to 2012
–but it was a mirror that Carlson wanted to haunt his audience’s mind as he delivered partisan rants.
He quite decisively stuck with the iconic television news maps of election night, as if that was a night to be preserved in modern memory, far more impressive and decisive as if it marked an extraordinary change in the electoral landscape of historical consequence. The map only departed as he started his new Twitter show, perhaps in some tacit realization several years after the fact that the map had become outdated. But he didn’t act as if it ever hand.
As “truth” became a matter of belief, openly conditioned by and dependent on the identity of where one stands in the nation, or on the epistemic terrain of the divided electoral map, Tucker Carlson promised to provide an even keel and compass, of sorts, in ways that would parse the wheat from the chaff or to sift through the dross. The fault-lines that the map perpetuated as a status quo provided the basis for staging his theories of racial replacement by immigration, charging blue-state legislators as behind an un-American scheme to replace white America, and reduce the red expanse shown behind him nightly as a record of current political divides, even as he praised the country as “a color-blind meritocracy” that “should not impugn people for things they cannot control, for their immutable characteristics,” even if he referenced whites. For the 4.33 million viewers that the show captured in 2020’s second quarter, he provided new guideposts to deal with race, gender, and immigration, which he did by exploiting and magnifying the divisions of that electoral map by boosting them by outrage and grievance more than Trump himself, demanding the President to use the military to control spreading riots in protest of George Floyd’s murder by the use of excessive police force.
Carlson went on the warpath, often culling chirons from social media sites of the alt right audience. He used the Maine studio as the site to take ample swipes at the dangers that immigration posed for the nation, currying fears of the Great Replacement, pandering notion of Democrats’ clear designs to devalue the votes of the white electorate, by “importing a whole new electorate” and chipping at God-given constitutional rights of white men and women, by “relying on demographic change”–offering “reality checks” about the nature of immigration and its dangers to the nation, and more recently questioning the importance of supporting an independent Ukraine, as if he were speaking before the White House capitol building. Was it not, indeed, the image of the domed neoclassical building that led many January 6’ers to have a sense of their rights to occupy its chambers?
The voice of reason, or at least of a credible semblance of it, from the days of Trump’s “landslide” of 2017, his backdrop promoted the illusion of a true Red State Nation, waiting to break out of the United States, and take direction from his blue room. But having told viewers that they were long being targeted by elites who want to control them, Carlson’s new Twitter-based broadcast seemed to boast a willingness to go it alone, as if he was bootstrapping, ready to offer unvarnished truth that was rarely available from any other news venue. And he told you the perspective of an America divided by two parties, but reminded viewers it was defined by its red expanse.
After inviting Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, during his final week on Fox News, where Musk predicted Twitter would indeed play a major role not only nationally but internationally in Trump’s 2024 candidacy for U.S. President,–whatever that means given that the vote is limited to national citizens–Tucker Carlson seemed eager to return the favor, telling his 6.7 Twitter followers that at the news media as a whole in fact constantly duped them, and that he realized, a week off the broadcast news, that as a whole all debates on television were “unbelievably stupid,” asking followers to follow future rants to get a better purchase on all global events if they wanted to think of themselves as smart. His show, he implied, remained a prerequisite for preserving Democracy–courting the FOX audience that with 1% of its audience black and roughly a third attended of whom attended some college, without gaining a degree, and a third have a high school diplomas or less–about the same number of Americans with college degrees.
Carlson’s “prerequisite” was an added plus! He would continue to be a pilot for truth, even as those shady jerks illegally occupying in the White House were continuing to mislead.
And be part of the red state dream. Speaking from what looked like a toney Maine wood paneled room, he assured viewers that “facts are being withheld” routinely, suggesting that no media were truly informing anyone, in a tacit reference to the recent verdict against Donald Trump, assuring that for anyone to work in the news media in America realized that they only had “the freedom to tell the fullest truth that you can,” but that if you “bump up against those limits,” you would be “will be fired for it,” rather than allowing people “to tell what you believe is true,” save on Twitter–the only remaining place for Free Speech in the entire world. “Speech is the fundamental prerequisite for democracy” and he would be determined to keep it on offer–by continuing to provide “the freedom to tell the fullest truth that you can,” in a tortured formulation of his mission. He would not allow “us” to be lied to about what was occurring in the Ukraine War, about immigration, or indeed about the dangers to voting rights of attempts to protect the vote.
The truth was under assault, and he would do his darnedest up in Maine to preserve the truth of white American. In extolling the new venue of his show, the very venue which its new owner, the libertarian Elon Musk, had unbelievably boasted would be the site of information in the 2024 Presidential election, Carlson called it a non-partisan site with room for those not embedded in “media organization that are themselves thinly disguised propaganda outfits” that don’t allow debate. At those other sites, or platforms, “the gate-keepers” remained in charge, but Carlson promised to remain on Twitter to defend free speech as a fundamental right needed in democracy, so fundamental that “without it, you no others,” at risk by the duplicitous information systems that media lawyers perpetuated. While “the news we consume is a lie,” Tucker Carlson promised no facts withheld, promising a true mission of informing that undercuts how the news “systematically misleads viewers.”
It is uncanny how Carlon’s promise so very smoothly dovetailed with Musk’s own to allow Twitter users to generate their own profits by their postings and accounts, he promised to remain outside a media world where “the rules of what you can’t say defines everyone” outside manipulation by the news media, but encourage Twitter to continue to incubate national discussion without gate-keepers, as his viewers were used to expect. And as Musk seeks to remake he social media corporation a forum to promote his own views, to guide users into new platforms, and to promote a revenue-based model of content generation, capturing the Tucker Carlson demographic demands the acceleration of biased form of reporting, riddled with dog-whistles and incendiary remarks.
“Grateful” to be allowed to broadcast on Twitter, Carlson continued to pose as a defender of rights, posing as the protector of the rights of followers, claiming to promote pure transparency, as he continued to broadcast what would be the “same show” viewers had come to expect on Fox News. Tucker Carlson claimed to take the true high road, the ethical upper hand even if that allowed him to depart from any ethos, was a master-play in claiming a new ethical high road, broadcast from his own wood-paneled house, protecting “speech–the fundamental prerequisite for democracy.” Forget about the Fake News, and get ready for MAGA 2024. “We’re back!” The tweet topped 100 million views in just twenty-four hours, and the video watched 21 million times. This was the man that his audience wanted to see again, who wouldn’t allow himself to be pushed around by anyone, bu would speak in the unvarnished, unrestrained manner that his audience appreciated.
The prodigal return of Tucker occurred on the very day that Donald Trump both was convicted by a jury and denied the verdict and declared his intent to appeal as it was both impossible for him to have a fair trial in New York and was decided by a Democratic judge, the question of a right to trial and impartiality of a jury system were of course back in the news. The absence of even the possibility of fair trial by jury in New York–the claim that the prejudice of all jurors in a place whose residents had been fed a set of lies by Fake News Media in a city where everything was rigged–“In New York, you can’t get a fair trial”–was just an affirmation that the “place was beyond the pale,” outside of the moral economy of truth, and indeed just a “circus atmosphere” even if the media attention was Trump’s own making. “We should have been able to tell something about the background to these jurors,” Trump’s lawyer, James Tacopina, said after the verdict that unanimously accused him as being liable for battery and defamation. Trump echoed the verdict by dismissing the trial as a “rigged deal,” using a favorite adjective of the aggrieved.
Trump made it clearer in the coming days, in the CNN-sponsored “Town Hall” in the first primary state, that amounted to the announcement of his ’24 campaign: he ridiculed the trials in New York. Several have noted that CNN’s sponsorship of the venue reflects its new owner, a donor to Trump’s inauguration who owned a third of shares in Murdoch’s News Corporation, and wants to reposition CNN for the coming Presidential election. Dismissing the jurors’ verdict in the civil case out of hand as “fake news” repeated assertions after the federal jurors reached their verdict of battery and defamation rejected the jury outright. All are entitled to a jury by their peers by law. But Trump claimed an extraordinary degree of exceptionalism; following indictment by a Grand Jury in New York of thirty counts stemming from business fraud he explained the possibility of “a fair trial” in Washington, DC or in New York was nil: “in Washington, D.C. you cannot get a fair trial . . . . Just like in New York City, you can’t get a fair trial either.” The cities that were associated with elites were inherently biased against him, places unable to offer an unbiased jury pool and tainted by the press, eccentric outsiders not like America, largely because they were mainstream media centers. Neither Tacopina nor Trump referenced the jury exclusion principles many states have adopted, that render juries less likely to include Blacks or Latinx by barring those with felony convictions from serving as jurors–excluding at one stroke an estimated 30% of black men nationwide with felony convictions from serving as jurors, per the Sentencing Project–
–a map that bears some study. But neither Tacopina or Trump were describing this reality. They argued the tainted opinions of the entire pool of potential jurors in biased towns where the former President had bad publicity. Although the composition of juries across the US is often been unrepresentative of communities–reducing representation of racial monitories, the transient or unhoused, or the young–an issue that may be increasingly problematic for the unsheltered in America–the skewing of jurors and jury pools from the actual local population is endemic, but distinct from what Trump implied vacated his own recent trials.
They were rather strategically running preemptive legal defense, hoping to circumvent the authority of jury-based verdicts that had been passed by “common sense,” a debased if not dumbing down version of legal procedure. “Common sense” seemed to give Trump an upper hand, by questioning the very possibility that the former President might be entitled to a fair trial in cities where he was being tried, as if the cases were compromised from the very start. Echoing previous complaints of unfair political persecution of a “witch hunt” that precluded justice, he sought the decisions be vacated as they were premised on his own inability to have a just hearing in the first place–prejudicial bias. The former President claimed negative publicity–even if provoked–created, in impending indictments, indictments, and arraignments for other trials, prejudicial atmospheres warranting trial postponement for a “cooling-off period.” Any jury in two of the largest cities in the nation would be biased, Trump claimed. The two cities were Trump and the January 6 rioters had recently faced trial by jury. He suggested that the trials were fakes, or “deep” fakes, concealing vested interests much as the impeachments he faced were not real impeachments, but motivated partisan interests.
In both places, the law was rigged, in a formulation all too logically familiar. Trump remained outside the law, because the law could not legally be applied, and the guarantee of due process was absent. Trump was transformed, by a neat sleight of hand, to an everyman, his legal quandary explained to anyone who might care to appreciate it. The former President effectively reprised claims of defense lawyers that jury selection in trials of members of right-wing groups as Oath Keepers, including Stewart Rhodes, or Proud Boys could not gain fair trials in Washington, DC, after potential jurors confessed to feeling violated by the group–less because of their extreme right political ideology than entering the city by marching in military gear to disturb the peace and violate civil order? Was Trump actually tacitly tying his own legal fortunes and his own chances for a fair trial to the trials of right wing January 6’ers, who he would argue but a few days later in a “Town Hall” format might well merit Presidential pardons? They had only been acting on their ties to the nation, “with love in their hearts,” he claimed in the CNN “Town Hall,” as if their hearts had been filled on that “beautiful day” of carnage and collectively chanted death threats that targeted lawgivers in an armed attack on the U.S. Congress. The vitriol with which Tacopina addressed in the courtroom seemed to go beyond norms of free speech itself, if we can trust the visceral reaction recorded by the court artist. The jury selection process was jarringly comparatively business as usual, but
Jury Selection of Washington, DC Residents for Trial of Oath Keepers’ US Capitol Attack/Bill Hennessy
The convention of the jury trial was, indeed, transformed into an interrogational setting for reviewing the accuracy of the very charges at the root of the trial, hoping to undermine the credibility of the witness E. Jean Carroll, who had long sustained she was sexually assaulted–a strategy that will be reprised as Trump vowed to appeal the conviction of the civil trial in the second circuit court, just two hours after the presiding judge demanded payment of $5 million in damages. During the trial, the legendary trial lawyer Tacopina had demanded Carroll describe in precise detail what dress exactly she wore to a store that ominous day in the mid-1990s, haranguing the older woman about her lack of memory about the facts, recasting the trial not as one of defamation, but intimidation in a show trial. He openly insinuated that her gripping account of assault given the previous day, with corroboration, was vindictive, a personal vendetta without factual basis.
So tweeted Trump. If Trump didn’t want to tell his side of the story–he had done so on Truth Social–the story Carroll offered was just that, and deeply duplicitous at best. It didn’t even deserve the jurors’ attention. Tacopina, the legendary bulldog, as if he to silence E. Jean Carroll’s right to Free Speech by intimidation.
Joe Tacopina Trying His Best to Intimidate E. Jean Carroll in Trial Cross-Examination/Jane Rosenberg
Even if the city was a stage he famously referenced his political ambitions in another Presidential campaign, boasting with impunity he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t loose voters, OK?” as if the power of his campaign exempted his person from the law, it was now a site of danger not to be trusted. Rather than actually describing his ability or interest in marksmanship, the rather toxic image was figurative, if not a metaphor of the license that the vitriol of the campaign invited him to indulge, without moral compass or respect for the law: Trump had grew intoxicated already in Iowa by the license crowds granted him to speak about immigrants, growing more energized as his claims grew more animated. This new threshold of free speech grew in the Republican primary, revealing a new ability to drive crowds wild that left Trump quite amazed that at every mention of the wall, he could animate the audience at his rallies and would generate a level of excitement that was visceral, beyond all sense of decorum, in almost electric ways. He tossed off lines about the criminality of migrants, the drugs they brought into the country, or provided to our children, the violence of those who were entering the border, and then culminate in describing the wall he would build on the border as a culminating flourish that drove crowds mad. He could say anything, and no one would care, and his numbers only grew, as he grew all the more eager at his ability to engage the crowd in his incendiary remarks.
Any jury of New Yorkers was so “highly prejudicial” to warrant immediate appeal. Perhaps the boast remains essentially the same: no legal verdict would have weight or bearing on a candidate who stood outside the law, buoyed by his popularity; Trump could get away with it in the eye of his constituents, who would not be bothered by his criminal offense, in the narcissistic image he presented to voters and continued to present. The debt ceiling was something he had of course defended as a President, when his job was to secure economic stability; in his Town Hall, he urged that the debt limit be pushed by his party to secure political gains of spending cuts, to override the current President’s priorities, “Because now I’m not President,” but rather a rabble rouser. It all revolved around him, not legal norms.
The lack of compunction or convictions is less the point than the lack of any playbook outside of his own personal status at the moment. The very dark nature of the explanations in relation to the law demands to be taken seriously as an assault on the American justice system at its roots. As the same time that ties of the former President and his inner circle to the January 6 rioters continue to be investigated, Trump’s questioning of the “fairness” of a jury trial due to the bias of two cities suggested a divided map, where one body of jurors could not be expected to guarantee him justice, as they were in the other side of a line, but was an argument that he was himself eccentric to the law. The slander of the “fairness” of a jury trial, and implicitly any trial, is an open-faced devaluing of the legal system, boosted by his attacks on a jury’s recent verdict. While the legal system does not deem questioning of a verdict to be a form of slander that is malicious, the malicious nature of undermining the judgement the New York jury had delivered.
The case itself was manufactured by lawyers, or a demented scheme of a devious woman who was only out for herself. The pseudo-argument of a group of claims that he repeated ignored that the jury system, and right to a trial by jury, is in fact a central pillar of democracy. But in New York, the pans of the scale of justice were uneven, Trump’s lawyer claimed on his behalf, on that very same day; in fact, the problem of trying Trump by a jury may have even suggested that there was no jury of his peers. At the end of the day, Tucker Carlson, on the ready like a fireman, arrived at the scene, appeared to affirm the news media has systematically failed to provide both sides of the story; fairness couldn’t ever be expected with such gatekeepers holding back both sides being told from the audience of spectators who were, he implied, due their rights to hear both sides of a dispute that was his word against hers. The claim of an absence of the possibility for fairness was not due to the “fact” the trial’s location in a “blue” state, or a storied Democratic stronghold,–as well as in a place whose district attorney had in fact prosecuted Trump. If this created a biased forum for any trial, or exposed the lack of shared ground in the New York courtroom, it was more unfair because it was pure chicanery to not trust Donald Trump’s side of the story.
The legal objection Tacopina raised was not foreign in any way to legal practice. It was the norm. Staking an objection to a verdict due to jurors’ bias is so very familiar in American jurisprudence that it is repeated on television shows. Jury bias has become common in legal and popular discourse in the unconscious racial discrimination among jurors, and the presumption of guilt to to perceived stereotype. Trump did not need to reference race openly, so strong an undercurrent had he created in the tirades against New York’s District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, on his social media platform–“Truth Social,” whose name suggests it is a network for disseminating a new truth by a new sort of truth-teller, as an apotheosis of his own narcissism–as Bragg had brought charges against him as a “degenerate psychopath who truly hates the U.S.A.” desperate to turn attention from crime-levels in New York that were out of control. Despite the former President’s indictment by a Grand Jury indictment over the payment of hush money to the porn star known as Stormy Daniels, Bragg’s race unsubtly coded in Trump’s tirades by the demeaning word “animal.” The radicalized targeting of Bragg as out to get Trump, as violent and obsessed, led Civil Rights leaders to wincingly recognize how he took pleasure in becoming “a bullhorn of incendiary racist and antisemitic bile, spewed out for the sole purpose of intimidating and sabotaging a lawful, legitimate, fact-based investigation.” Trump identified Bragg by White Supremacist dog-whistle as a “Soros-backed animal,” dehumanizing the elected Attorney General as but a tool of vested interests he wanted to hidden kept, the most recent tool in a “witch hunt” from New York, “radical left,” as if to suggest his criminality. He was deflecting, in concert with legal advice, any “criminal” charges or accusations, as not worthy of consideration due to their deep bias, calling the two jury trials deep fakes.
The specifics of both trials were based on the objection that the entire city was disqualified from pronouncing a verdict, or from providing a jury pool, that seemed to deflect from the master of fabrication who stood at the center of the trial. While Trump did not appear in the courtroom–and indeed refused to offer testimony before the court of his side of the story–he had offered a story about what really happened back in the Fall of 1995 or Spring of 1996 by labelling the allegations “fraudulent & false” on social media platforms–if E. Jean Carroll had stated Trump sexually abused her in that dressing room in Bergdorf Goodman, “no anything” happened at that store; “I never knew her;” “It never happened. She is not my type;” “I have absolutely no idea who this woman is”; “It never happened–it never happened, ok?”; “I know nothing about this woman. I know nothing about her.” If you think he protested too much since 2019, when she went public with her story in a book, there’s always “I know nothing about Wikileaks. It’s not my thing.” And, more recently, going on the attack: “She’s a whack job . . . She’s sick. She’s mentally sick.” The whole case was manufactured by the lawyers, who had perhaps themselves crafted the “phony case” that was waged against him. The “Town Hall” on CNN that focussed on demeaning Carroll’s case was the end of an ongoing tirade, the absolute selfishness of Trump’s re-branding of post-truth rejects the adequacy of any jury at all.
The dark forces demand to be taken seriously as an assault on the American justice system, at the same time that ties of the former President and his inner circle to the January 6 rioters continue to be investigated. The slander of the “fairness” of a jury trial, and implicitly any trial, is an open-faced devaluing of the legal system, boosted by his attacks on a Jury’s recent verdict. While the leal system does not deem questioning of a verdict to be a form of slander that is malicious, the malicious nature of pre-empting of a legal verdict, suggesting that it was only temporary.
Trump insisted that he saw no need at all to testify in the case because he had been streaming his side of the story for some time. But it was also a question of the narcissism of the accuser, or the selfishness of the feelings that the former President knows to be true, and which he asks the audience to trust, lodging objections by his first-person engagement in contradicting of witnesses, that undercut their entire first-person testimony of E. Jean Carroll as sheer opportunism. Carroll had cast herself as a trustworthy interlocutor, first as a gonzo journalist and longstanding Ask E. Jean in Elle magazine, before on television’s NBC, and while her testimony was dismissed as a desire for self-advancement, Trump managed to turn the accuser into the story (“She’s the puppet!”) in a way that made his word the only metric and standard of truth in a truthless world which had conspired against him.
If television to some extent creates an openness to fraudulent claims, Twitter offers or poses as an exposure or rejiggering of a knowledge hierarchy. It is a form that has been fully taken political analysis and discussion away from all experts and put everything on offer to all, as if asking them to feel empowered by navigating a social media system where everything is on offer. While the claims to open-ness and transparency disguise the ugly fact that proprietary algorithms more than the old experts with degrees are the ones who are generating our hierarchy, or the algorithms that are now retraining themselves to provide a hierarchy of searches, and are doing it in .64 seconds, there is a sense of true release, a new version of the self-made man on the frontier, of going alone on the twittersphere, finding your tribe, and having it out in the new state of nature, as it exists online, in all its nastiness and brutishness. By reducing the trial to claims and counter-claims in a narcissistic manner, the very possibility of external validation is impossible.