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A Post-Tucker Divergence
Kevin McCarthy finds liberation, while Lawrence Jones struggles with emulation.
It’s been a week and a half since Fox News fired Tucker Carlson, and we’re still hearing a lot of reports and analysis on his dismissal from the network, as well as speculation on what’s in store next for the popular right-wing commentator. But what’s been particularly fascinating to me is seeing how some notable figures on the right are adapting to a Tucker-less Fox News.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, for example, stunned many political observers from Israel the other day when he strongly rebuked a Russian reporter who premised a question to him with, “We know that you don't support aid to Ukraine.”
The reporter’s statement was a bit of a mischaracterization, but it wasn’t baseless. A growing number of Republican leaders in Washington have turned against the United States’ funding of Ukraine’s war efforts against the country’s Russian invaders. It’s not just the MAGA rock-stars (like Marjorie Taylor Greene) anymore, who’ve extended their critiques to vile, defamatory remarks about Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Even U.S. Senator Mike Lee recently hopped on the bandwagon, caving to populist-right pressure applied by Carlson and others.
Carlson, of course, was a very vocal critic of pro-Ukraine Republicans, portraying them as blood-thirsty neocons, and hounding them on-air (and reportedly behind the scenes) to change their positions or face serious political consequences via his top-rated show. His efforts even made him a regular feature on Russian state-run television.
Kevin McCarthy was keenly aware of Carlson’s influence among the Republican base and Republican lawmakers, himself having previously been a frequent Carlson target. Similar to his endless servility toward Donald Trump, and his eventual embrace of the QAnon-adjacent MTG, McCarthy worked hard to get on Carlson’s good side. He almost certainly saw it as a political necessity, first for gaining the speakership, and then for getting legislation passed through the House with a very narrow party majority.
McCarthy’s most obvious example of buttering up Carlson was when he granted the host exclusive access to about 44,000 hours of January 6, 2021 security footage from the U.S. Capitol (to be presented to the Fox audience however Carlson, a well-established propagandist, saw fit). But even before that, McCarthy was softening his rhetorical support of Ukraine toward something more conducive to Carlson’s position, adopting the faulty “blank check” narrative on funding, and even refusing an invitation from Zelenskyy to meet in Ukraine.
But when McCarthy responded to that Russian reporter the other day, he sounded like an entirely different person. He spoke with moral clarity and authority in strong support of Ukraine. One might have even described him, in that moment, as Reaganesque:
“No, I vote for aid for Ukraine. I support aid for Ukraine. I do not support what your country has done to Ukraine. I do not support your killing of the children either… And I think for one standpoint, you should pull out. And I don’t think it’s right. And we will continue to support, because the rest of the world sees it just as it is.”
Suffice to say, Tucker’s head would have exploded that night on Fox if he still had his show. He would have framed McCarthy’s position as anti-American, called him a warmonger, and demanded his ouster. But Tucker’s gone, at least for now. And if he hadn’t been fired, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell those words would have left McCarthy’s mouth.
From a political outsider’s perspective, it would seem absolutely absurd that a media-personality watched by less than 1% of Americans on any given night could hold so much power and influence over a top elected official. But sadly, tribalism and the media-driven nature of today’s politics allows for it.
Let’s hope more politicians discover something resembling a backbone, if even on a temporary basis, in Carlson’s absence.
Meanwhile, Fox hasn’t yet decided who will take over Carlson’s old time slot (or at least they haven’t announced it). Guest-hosts have been serving in the interim, and it’s not clear whether these individuals are auditioning for the permanent chair, or just answering the call of their network. What is clear, at least from the clips I’ve seen, is that these fill-ins are trying way too hard to appeal to Carlson’s old audience… which of course includes slaying (or at least trying to slay) “establishment” Republicans (aka non-MAGA types).
The results have fallen somewhere between glaringly unauthentic and godawful, which I suppose is a testament to Carlson’s unique abilities as a political entertainer.
Take this segment from Monday night, with guest-host Lawrence Jones “grilling” (at least according to Fox News’s social media team) long-shot Republican presidential candidate, Asa Hutchinson:
As Mediaite noted, Jones interrupted Hutchinson a whopping 11 times, trouncing his answers to essentially heckle the former Arkansas governor over his conservative stances, traditional Republican positions, support for Ukraine, supposedly insufficient anti-wokeness, and not being well-known at the national level.
Jones falsely claimed that Hutchinson supports puberty-blockers for kids, inferred that he believes there are more than two genders, and at one point even suggested the governor wanted to go to war with China. And each time Hutchinson attempted to explain his actual position, Jones cut him off, ironically inserting, “Respectfully sir…” before indiscriminately declaring the governor was out of touch with the Republican base.
Hutchinson, an unapologetic conservative, probably would have received fairer, more respectful treatment on The View.
“It seems like you’re opposed to all of the things that the modern-day Republican party stands for,” Jones nonsensically declared at the end of the segment.
I say nonsensically, because Jones hadn’t presented a single argument or observation that could have coherently led to such a conclusion. Those familiar with Hutchinson know that he’s not afraid to criticize Donald Trump and the big-government positions many in the Republican party have grown comfortable with under his political reign, but no one watching the interview would have gathered that.
Maybe Jones envisioned the interview going differently, in a way in which his clearly scripted line would have made sense, but by the end of the segment, I’m not sure how anyone watching could have come away with a much different take than this guy did:
When it was announced days earlier that Jones would be stepping in as a guest host in Carlson’s old slot, he tweeted, “I’m no TC.. he carved his own lane & earned your trust. I can only be the LJ you’ve allowed to grow the last 9 years on Fox.”
Aside from the “earned your trust” laugh line, Jones clearly didn’t hold true to his word. He indeed tried to emulate Carlson, driving in his “lane” to try and impress (or at least connect with) Carlson’s old audience. And I can’t imagine anyone, including right-wing populist types who can’t stand traditional Republicans like Hutchinson, bought it.
Truth be told, there’s not a lot of intellectual depth required for populist-pandering, but Carlson was exceptionally good at making people believe there was. For most others, including Jones, it’s a hard sell. It comes across as ugly, shallow, and disingenuous… because that’s typically what it is.
So, let me offer some unsolicited advice to politicians and political-media figures currently suffering from post-Tucker stress disorder:
Instead of trying to pick up the pieces of Carlson’s demise at Fox, and cobble those pieces together to try and build something for your own benefit, why not take this opportunity (as even the typically weak Kevin McCarthy has managed to in this instance) to liberate yourself from the intellectual and ideological paralysis Carlson helped create. Stand on your own two feet. Say what you really believe. Actually respect your audience, and share views and ideas that are morally and ethically right… even if they’re not professionally expedient.
Carlson’s absence might make it even easier than you think.