They’re lining up to condemn Tucker Carlson of Fox News and understandably so. That shooter, a self-declared white supremacist who killed 10 people in Buffalo, had reportedly posted an online manifesto espousing the Great Replacement theory, and Carlson is the biggest purveyor of that conspiracy belief.
The conspiracy theory is that non-white individuals are being deliberately brought into the United States (and other Western countries) to supplant white voters, in order to further a political agenda. It’s been around for decades, this crackpot theory, but Carlson is the one who mines it with cunning and determination. He’s touched on it often and sometimes been more brazen.
On one of his shows in April, Carlson said: “I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually.”
Moral condemnation of Carlson is in order. He knows what he’s doing. (His use of key words is telling, and we note Pierre Poilievre aims anger at various “gatekeepers” while campaigning for the leadership of Canada’s Conservative Party.) But there’s context to take into account. First, Carlson is only the latest in a long list of demagogues in the United States who incite hate based on fear of non-white ethnicities. You don’t need to be a historian to be aware of Huey Long, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan. You don’t need to be a student of U.S. media to know that there is a through-line going back from Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh to Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest” who had an audience of tens of millions in the 1930s, peddling anti-Semitism and fear about immigrants being “foreign invaders.”
The American tolerance of demagogues who incite hate is an anomaly in Western countries. But the matter was settled decades ago when First Amendment rights were solidified by the courts and all kinds of commentary and assertions were allowed to participate in what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called, “the marketplace of ideas.”
Carlson is an entrepreneur in that marketplace, as is his employer, Fox News, mining white panic and other alarmist ideas for profit. It’s just business and it’s not new.
What is new is the absence of truly mass media and entertainment. Carlson may only have a tiny fraction of the audience that Father Coughlin once had, but he’s stirring up what exists in the dark corners of the internet, mainly unseen. And there is very little to counter what Carlson is stirring up. The remaining remnants of mass-appeal news and entertainment outlets shine their lights on a sunlit America, not its dark subculture corners. Network TV and cable channels cling on to smaller audiences than before, and only live sports seem capable of engaging a mass audience. If there’s no mass audience, then the expectation of a mass revulsion at Tucker Carlson is futile.
A lot of Americans have no idea that Carlson might be connected to the mass shooting in Buffalo. You don’t have to be a TV critic to understand that Fox News now exists in a shattered landscape in which there is simply too much TV – more and more streaming services producing more content than anyone can catch up with, plus network TV, cable and an array of web services. There’s no national narrative, there are only sparks flying occasionally that briefly illuminate very dark spaces.
While Fox News monetizes white fear of change, other outlets monetize escapism. There have been few attempts to dramatize or illustrate the dangers of racist subcultures. One of the few, HBO’s Watchmen, was very powerful but probably had more critical accolades than it had engaged viewers. The same applies to HBO’s Lovecraft Country, and both present structural racism in the context of an alternative reality or the supernatural. The movies of Jordan Peele, Get Out and Us, treat racial paranoia with seriousness, but they are outlier entertainment in a world of Marvel superheroes.
One could take comfort in the fact that Grey’s Anatomy has been going for 18 seasons in part because it looks like the United States; the diversity of characters is striking and over the years it simply became steadily more and more inclusive. Right now, mind you, diversity is the devil that Fox News and Tucker Carlson are warning viewers about. And there’s more money to be made from that in a media and entertainment landscape shattered beyond recognition. That’s the important context.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.