The Mystery of Tucker Carlson Is That There Is No Mystery

Once Carlson ascended to his perch as the poet laureate of the MAGA movement, many of his fellow Beltway writers were perplexed. Was this the same Tucker Carlson that they used to see at cocktail parties? Surely Tucker didn’t actually believe the horrible things he was saying—after all, he was just like them. And so a journalistic fixture of the Trump era was born: profiles of Carlson that attempted to figure out whether he was really serious, or whether this was all an act, or whether it was a different, third thing.

These pieces were earnest; they often relied on interviews with Carlson (insisting, of course, that he really did believe these things) and with friends and former friends (reminiscing about his talent and generosity, perplexed by his descent into the fever swamps). As Conor Friedersdorf wrote in one such piece, “Carlson squandered his considerable God-given talent for scrupulously true commentary, opting instead for clickbait at The Daily Caller or dumbed-down demagoguery at Fox.” There was always hand-wringing, but there were few conclusions: No one could ultimately determine what Carlson actually believed, why he changed, or if he was still deep down the preppy hack that many knew from Georgetown salons.

Carlson’s text messages do solve that mystery, to the extent that it was one at all. Tucker Carlson often does not believe the things that he says; his union with Donald Trump was a marriage of convenience more than anything else; he has no integrity whatsoever. He will happily say one thing on television and another to his friends and co-workers. As I wrote in my own contribution to the literature of Carlson profiles, when he landed at Fox News his television career was basically over: He had washed out even at MSNBC. Carlson’s ambition and desperation fused, creating the persona that he has held onto ever since. It made him a star. It cost whatever integrity and decency he had left, which by that point wasn’t much. It is also clear from his texts that Carlson is intensely concerned with Fox’s financial well-being and frets endlessly about its stock price: Carlson’s hatemongering gets eyeballs, and eyeballs mean money. That, at least, is one way of thinking about the texts.