“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. Carlson groused on Twitter few platforms allowed free speech anymore, in quite strikingly globalizing terms, even if he meant the United States–Twitter was “the last big one remaining in the world,” he insisted. After being dismissed Fox News where he had aired an increasingly divisive news hour that was one of the highest rated on the air, he aligned himself with “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk’s proclamation that Twitter was the new public town square of democracy. (Far from an ephemeral media, Twitter is a repository of apparent historical weight: Trinity College will feature in Fall, 2023 a co-taught course by Tucker Carlson and Jesse Waters in the writing, rhetoric, and media studies departments, that includes as assigned reading all of Trump’s tweets–as well as the inaugural address of Andrew Jackson and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.)
While it was hardly new that Carlson acted aggrieved, as if his own rights to free speech had been denied, by recasting his own abusive behavior as a preservation of rights he seemed to tailor a new sense of free speech familiar to his demographic. The “denial” of free speech rights was a relatively recent bête-noire of the alt right. From calls to speak out “against the numerous attempts by college administrators to limit and attack students’ free-speech right” as “free speech zones” that were argued to restrict “a culture of free expression and develop in students a robust ability to reason” began a narrative of repressive left Carlson seemed to parrot. The multiplication of “free speech zones” at political conventions, areas of protest, or during the war on terror made the mapping of areas guaranteeing freedom of expression protected by the first amendment a contested concept of civil rights–isn’t the entire country a free speech zone?–and the emergence of “free speech zones” on universities have created real limitation of public protest and had restricted freedom of speech at over three-quarters of universities–even as judges have questioned the limitation of “free of speech zones” on campus, and legislatures in multiple states passed prohibitions that outlawed the establishment at campuses of “free speech zones” in conservative states suggesting the different natures of “free speech” in a starkly divided partisan map: Kentucky, Missouri, and Virginia became sites championing “free expression” and “individual rights in education” from 2014-17, as claims to “free speech” preventing restrictions on political or hate speech grew in the aftermath college protests of the election of President Trump. Legislatures restrictions on the curtailing of free speech zone polices, as a ballast to academic freedom,–
–in ways that alt right media like Breitbart embraced as a the rewriting of claims to free speech, claiming censorship by universities, as if to protect free political expression–even if such expression embraced incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric–that challenged boundaries of “free speech” in unexpected and unprecedented ways that Carlson seemed to invoke more than the Bill of Rights had ever intended. While he cast his intentions as an echoe of the First Ammendment, Carlson’s own pursuit of polemics pleasing the alt right white supremacists was long known–it seemed he had targeted the demographic in attacking mainstream news–to provide alternative news able to unite an increasingly intolerant partisan political constituency that was as rooted in anti-intellectualism as it fetishized the freedom to hold hateful positions. Free speech was expanded as a megaphone of public address on social media, as the logo of “Campus Reform,” a news organization backed by the funders of Breitbart, dedicated to exposing liberal “bias and abuse” in American universities and colleges to delegitimize higher education around issues of free speech.
As the new terrain of “free speech” expanded from civil liberties to anti-immigrant rhetoric to Black Lives Matter to anti-vaxxers to mask-wearing, it embraced shelter-in-place policies in the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, and public health responses before election denialism. Ever broader and broadened concepts of “free speech” became a surrogate for perpetuating persistently deep fissures in the body politic, boosted in no small part by Tucker Carlson’s news show on FOX. Tucker Carlson Tonight embraced an algorithm oriented to the distortion of free speech, and created a demographic that distorted free speech from the freedom of parents to protest school curriculum, as learning institutions were attacked as restricting abilities of open inquiry and “debate” by mandating reading lists. “Restore Free Speech Acts” had earlier emerged in local state legislatures to push back against such perceived restrictions. Carlson reached back in his recent relaunch on Twitter–his first appearance on airwaves after leaving or being let go from Fox News–to echo the image of a restrictive environment of free speech by those who sought to push the envelope of foundational freedoms and the Bill of Rights as protecting the open circulation of ideas online, and the end of “free speech zones” at universities that legislators had introduced back in 2017–more than the Bill of Rights that was framed in 1789. The partisan legislatures tied to red states, from Texas to Louisiana to Kentucky, vacated the “free speech zones” on university campuses, long before Donald Trump.
States Where Bills Preventing Campus Restrictions on Free Speech Were Introduced, 2017/Campus Reform
Maps of free speech seem to have broadened to free speech zones in the media, often adopting notions of free speech not based on expression but social media platforms and the fears of a restriction of political speech in a specter of de-platforming. Broadened claims for the protection of free speech was condensed to an electoral map every night on Tucker Carlson’s popular news hour. As Free Speech was rooted in the algorithm that brought his messages to millions and reached the right audiences, invoked against deplatforming, as if his sprinkling of volatile statements designed to open a greater cleave in the electoral divide was rooted in a freedom to collapse complicated and considered political debate into an ongoing strategic battle between two parties and ways of life. To be sure, this was “free speech” as understood in terms of a search for ever-higher ratings, a “free speech” that was in a sense modeled after alt right journalism, coopted by @realDonaldTrump, “liberties” easily seen as shaping a battleground for electoral votes.
The understanding of “fundamental freedoms” that expanded the electoral footprint for partisan ends was a great feature of his Fox Newshour that was embraced by Lachlan Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch, until the Dominion case revealed unethical improprieties. Carlson tried to stake out higher ground. Flattery may get him nowhere, but the post imitated none other than Musk, who cast his social media network at the center of a “battle of civilization” in promoting Twitter-without-monitors as a vanguard of free speech, tweeting out, “if free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead”! As Musk tried to represent or rebrand social media without constraints on hate speech or disinformation as American, issuing the latest iteration of his Messiah complex on his private social media platform, gaslighting the nation has long been Tucker Carlson’s principle trade. Branding of the social media platform as a venue for free speech may have been suggested by Musk in an invitation of Carlson–the most offensive of pundits–to the social media platform. Carlson waxed elegaic on free speech as the rarest commodity, affirming dedication to protecting speech though he lost the platform of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the highest-rated show on Fox, as if his departure his new venue was his free choice, or a changing media landscape, not how his own alienating comments and actions left him damaged goods.
The global scale of Carlson’s claim about Twitter was absolutely self-serving, to be sure, as much as an illustration of Musk’s uniquely deceitful brand of “free speech absolutism.” He sought to flatter Musk, his new platform’s host and sole proprietor, and to offer a powerful dig at Fox News, by upsetting the algorithm in his own favor, as if he were able to wrest it back from the Murdochs by becoming his own media figure, so much as Twitter offered him the chance. He claimed to have thrown his lot the last remaining safe space in media, and turning his back on television in disgust. Carlson was long habituated to rail against the media, and offer the alternative story of the disaffected and aggrieved. But this time, aligning himself with a “free speech absolutist” eager to attack Twitter for “failing to adhere to free speech principles” as a platform before purchasing it, and doing so only to make it a “public town square” of democratic value. Yet he fired all objecting to his corporate policies and politics, if he felt censorship of a social media platform was unethical. The two-faced nature of Musk firing employees he disagreed modeled free speech as a fundamental freedom specific to social media. Long before Carlson’s revisionism of the January 6 Capitol riots, calling “mostly peaceful” the violence begun as President Trump urged crowds “fight like hell” to contest 2020 election results then being tabulated by Congress, Carlson forged the combative nature of “free speech” as a pragmatics of perpetuating hyper-partisan social divisions of a sharply polarized nation in alt right media as the Daily Stormer. He perpetuated divides displayed in a dated electoral map of 2016 as a battlefield map on the new show premiering after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, as a realpolitik of broadcasting. When Kevin McCarthy gave Carlson secret footage of the Capitol Riots to allow viewers “to see the truth” of “exactly what transpired that day” in a “media exclusive,” he perpetuated claims of election fraud he claimed protected by a freedom of speech.
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. However, he was without the tell-tale map that was a longtime logo for his news show–a news graphic of 2016 that had become the permanent illustration of the status quo he sought to address, and to filter all “current” events, as if in a time warp from the 2016 Presidential election, that showed the country divided, or nation split, into two sharply divided nations, hued red and blue, that formed the perspective to which his commentary was addressed. Immediately after Trump’s inauguration, Carlson was broadcasting live from Washington DC, promising to guide the nation on “a live hour of spirited debate and powerful reporting each night, as America gets set for the administration of President Donald Trump,” while only addressing half the nation. While preparing perspectives on news able to “bring you to every corner of America to hear from you and tackle the issues you care about” engagning “what the other outlets are missing and what the media isn’t telling you,” Carlson’s brand was to supplement the mainstream media by dedicating himself to “calling out the status quo in his signature style,” using his status as founder of The Daily Caller to reach a large 2.8 million since starting to air, and gaining viewers across demographics by speaking to a divided United States electorate by presenting issues through the fierce urgency of now.
Or was this an image, a counter map of the traditional newsman that showed the planet since the studio of Walter Cronkite, a representation of the new limits of the expansiveness of free speech? The visualization of the continental United States–the lower 48, and the continuous heartland at its center–offered an image of belonging that was talismanic for the TV audience, and a powerful image of belonging in an increasingly atomized United States, bowling alone and with few ties in its neighborhoods. Carlson was its prophet and its oracle, and effectively ventriloquized the divides with such success that he had become a channel for Donald Trump himself. Despite his affirmation of the stolen election, and the credence he gave to January 6 protestors, without that map Carlson was suddenly weaker, suddenly punctured by the actual news. Yet his relation to the White House and to the talisman of his news show was far less powerful, even after January 6.
The map of the Lower 48 was a nice means to deny global warming, to ignore weather maps, or international politics, and even the real pressure migrants face. It was an image of the New Isolationism, America First for the twenty-first century, an image without rising temperatures, sea-level rise, or global economic forces beyond Americans’ or America’s control. Yet in a few weeks, Carlson 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. Yet without the map of a permanently divided landscape of politics, promoting a polarized landscape split by partisan hues as a different reality, the values that Carlson was suddenly so desperate to fall back on–the Bill of Rights–as a language of the aggrieved was all too inappropriate and far less credible or effective. A trademark of 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. But it didn’t break Twitter.)
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.Continue reading