Nothing in my professional life has frustrated my ability to work as much as having my words attacked by Tucker Carlson. I’ve been called out by Sean Hannity and quoted out of context in the pages of Brietbart; I’ve been mocked by the Federalist Society and watched Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz disparage my book during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. But in terms of pure disruption to my life, nothing compared to having my image shown on Carlson’s nightly white supremacist hoedown.
The first time it happened, he showed a clip of me criticizing the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh and Trump’s delivery of an alleged attempted rapist to the Supreme Court. Carlson called me “Mr. Harvard Law School” and then suggested that I couldn’t tell him the date that World War II ended. The questioning of the credentials and intelligence of Black Ivy League graduates was a typical occurrence on his show, probably because it’s a sore spot for Tucker, who went to Trinity College—the Yale of Hartford, Conn.
After my “appearance” I was shocked by how much hate mail I got in such a short period of time. I hadn’t had so many people interested in what I scored on the LSAT since I worked at Kaplan TestPrep. I tried to laugh it all off, and move on.
But there would be other times that weren’t so easy to laugh off. Whenever Carlson would show a clip of me and claim that my support of protests against one thing or another was a call for “violence” against white folks, my social media accounts and e-mail inbox would fill with people who use American flags and/or guns as their avatars, assuring me that I would one day reap whatever they’d been told I was sowing.
Then, the really disturbing part of his fanbase, the neo-Confederate part, would be alerted to my presence. I would endure a few days of hateful, vaguely threatening but not legally actionable messages, making it unhealthy to even turn on my computer. Those notes were interspersed with the almost equally annoying “concern” e-mails from friends worried that I’d be fired for whatever I said that caught Carlson’s attention, as if there was some way to do my job without pissing him off.
Getting hit by Tucker was a bit like getting kicked in the balls: There’s the moment after the strike but before the pain registers when you can hope it was a glancing blow but know that in a few moments you’ll be in agonizing pain. And then it passes and you get up off the floor and resume your normal life, without any visible injuries to attest to your experience but gun-shy about any activity that could lead you to getting kicked again.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t think the man ever used my given name. I just showed up in clip packages his people had put together to attack liberals or Black people more famous than me, like this infamous hit job he ran on my friend Tiffany Cross.
Being on Tucker’s radar was completely different from getting criticized by hosts of other shows or by other newsmakers. I’ve been in extended flame wars with Glenn Greenwald and Megyn Kelly, and my punishment has been having to read a few Greenwald or Kelly tweets. On a bad day, any of these Fox and Fools can make you update your passwords; Carlson’s show made you update your home security system.
And I’m not the only one who noticed this difference between Carlson and his competition. Rachel Vindman (writer, podcaster, and wife of Trump impeachment witness Alexander Vindman) tweeted: “The hate and death threats that come from being on Tucker’s show are worse than when the former president mentions you.” She would know. If you haven’t been caught in a Tucker tornado, you’ll have to trust us that it is… unpleasant.
I can only speculate as to why Carlson engendered this heightened level of antagonism compared to other hosts whose shows are just as vile. Tucker himself is an intellectual lightweight, “a dumb person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like,” according to political scientist, Dr. Jason Johnson. He is the Swanson’s Frozen Dinner version of a home-cooked meal.
Bill O’Reilly was smarter (in a racist uncle’s armchair-version-of-history sort of way). Rush Limbaugh was more entertaining (for people who thought Archie Bunker was funny but didn’t get that he was the joke). But Carlson’s show somehow managed to make the most aggrieved white people in society feel seen, and empowered. He didn’t instruct his viewers—it would be wrong to think of him as “general” or a “leader”—and he doesn’t have the charisma to inspire folks. Instead, I think his show functioned more as a license for his viewers. Carlson gave his people cover to be the worst version of themselves. His only true skill is in the construction of plausible deniability.
And now Carlson’s show is gone. He was fired from Fox News earlier this week—and I’m going to use the word “fired” because he closed what would turn out to be his final show last Friday with “See you on Monday.” Also, there is reporting—from the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, no less—that Carlson was informed that Fox was taking his show away just 10 minutes before the news was made public. If that’s a “mutual termination,” then I wouldn’t want to see what happens if Fox “fires” somebody.
We can, again, only speculate as to why Fox gave Carlson, the network’s highest-rated host, the boot. It might be because his election-denying antics helped cost Fox $787.5 million in its settlement negotiations with Dominion Voting Systems (with what is likely to be a similarly pricey payout still to come once Fox figures out how to settle with Smartmatic). It might be because the discovery process for the Dominion lawsuit revealed that Carlson had privately insulted NewsCorp CEO Rupert Murdoch. It might be because allegations about Carlson’s toxic behavior and fondness for the c-word are threaded throughout a lawsuit filed against Fox by one of his former producers, Abby Grossberg.
The most recent justification we’re hearing for the firing is a Vanity Fair report claiming that Carlson’s “spiritual talk” on his last show “freak[ed] Rupert out.” I wouldn’t buy that if you sold it to me with a plenary indulgence.
One reason he does not seem to have been fired is for the on-air bigotry, sexism, and hatefulness that powered his program. We know this because nobody at Fox, connected with Fox, or speaking as an anonymous source on behalf of Fox has so much as suggested that Tucker’s on-air hate-mongering was the problem. Bigotry, sexism, and hate are features, not bugs, when Fox is looking for “talent.”
I believe it was Carlson’s ability to tap into the worst impulses of his viewers that likely persuaded the network to put up with all the other stuff he did for so long. Carlson wasn’t fired when he started surfacing the “Great Replacement Theory,” famously touted by the Tiki-Torch-waving white supremacists during their deadly rally in Charlottesville. He wasn’t fired when a reformed white supremacist said that Carlson does white nationalist messaging better than avowed white nationalist leaders. He wasn’t fired when his head writer resigned after it was discovered that he’d been posting racist and sexist messages on a notorious online hate forum. Nothing about Carlson’s on-air program suddenly got him fired this week, because nothing about his program was new or surprising to anybody who had been paying attention.
Sadly, that will likely be the lesson that Carlson’s replacement will take from the whole affair, just like it was the lesson Carlson himself probably took when he was tapped to replace Bill O’Reilly (who himself was forced out after a series of sexual harassment allegations). Fox apparently has finite (if still generous) patience with hosts who allegedly mistreat their women colleagues. But it will happily risk sexual harassment lawsuits for a time—at least until those women sue the network—as long as the hosts deliver the bigotry and vitriol their audiences crave.
It is therefore entirely possible that the person the network finds to replace Carlson will end up being even worse than Carlson. Let’s not forget that Carlson has failed at every stop in his career: He’s now been fired by MSNBC, CNN, Fox, and even PBS. The man fails up more often than SpaceX. One of these days, Fox is going to luck out on a prime-time host who is able to deliver all the white nationalist messaging without harassing their coworkers or slagging off their boss. I’m sure that person exists. The one true rule about American media I have learned is: It can always get worse.
For now, though, my life is better. My life is safer. The next host will surely try to keep Tucker’s deplorable audience engaged and enraged. But while many hosts can ride the wave of white grievance that keeps Fox afloat, few can amplify and justify those grievances the way Carlson could. Carlson is replaceable, but I hope that his show cannot be easily recreated.