Millions of people look to daily TV news commentators to help inform their political opinions. Tucker Carlson, host of Tucker Carlson Tonight, is one of the most successful of those commentators, and he talks about how it works on this week’s Overton Window podcast.
Carlson doesn’t have a master plan for what he’s trying to accomplish. Instead, he’s trying to figure out what he’s going to do for the show each weeknight.
“By 11:00 or 11:30 I try to have figured out what the lead is at the show. That’s really the thing I work on. It’s an hour, so there are a lot of brilliant people working on the show and doing their thing and doing it much better than I could. So my thing on the show is really the first twenty minutes. I have control over it and I care about it, I’m really focused on it. So my whole day is devoted to figuring out what this one thing is,” he says.
“I’m very much an instinctive decision maker. I very rarely have a plan of any kind, much less a strategy. It’s not the way my brain works. If you wanted someone to start a revolution or remake the government, I’d be the last person to call,” Carlson says.
He develops those instincts through conversation.
“I lived in Washington for 35 years, but I don’t live there anymore,” Carlson says. “I live in a much more rural America. So I don’t run into people at lunch in the way I did my whole working life. I make an extra effort to communicate constantly with a huge group of people — I think as close as I can get to a cross section of people. Not just all people like me. I actually believe in diversity in the literal sense. I think it’s important to talk to people who disagree with you, of different life experiences, who are doing different things in different places. I talk to hundreds of people, literally hundreds of people, every week. And that informs my view.”
“All I do with my life is what I’m doing. So I’ve really thought a lot about it and I’ve tried to construct a system that gets me as much information, as many perspectives, as much wise thinking as I can. And this is what I’ve come up with and I think it works well,” Carlson says.
I ask him if he’s got an example, and he puts on his glasses and picks up his phone. “I had no idea, because I wouldn’t know, that there was a fire at a uranium facility today in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That’s just literally the last text I got before we went on this thing,” Carlson responds. [We recorded Wednesday February 22, 2023]
He gets a lot of information and is able to tie some of it, like the train derailments, problems with critical infrastructure and manufacturing plants, together. “I saw this here, I saw that there, do they add up to something bigger than their parts? Is this a trend? Is this something we should pay attention to?”
This is different from what he used to do. When he was on Crossfire, for instance, he’d opine about the day’s news. “My current job is not that. I’m the only anchor. I decide what’s important. I only pick that I have something to say about. I’ve kind of rigged my own game a little bit because if I don’t have a clear thought on it, I’m not going to address it,” Carlson says,
“People want to know what it means. I want to know what it means. Most of time I don’t.”
To figure it out he tries to get some quiet time to think about it. “I take a sauna every day, without any exceptions,” Carlson says. “I reserve a short window every day for silence and that is something I benefit from enormously.”
While he says that he generally doesn’t have goals about what he wants to accomplish with his show, there is one issue that sticks out. “The only time in the 25 or more years that I’ve been in television that I’ve set out to try and change a debate — I’m not even sure that my goal was that ambitious — that I set out to take on the prevailing view in the world that I live in, which is the conservative, right-wing world — was on the question of American foreign policy,” Carlson says.
“Neoconservative foreign policy I thought had completely corrupted the Republican Party and steered the entire nation in a wrong and very sad direction.” The Iraq war received support from many the people he knew. But he viewed it as a disaster and wanted to challenge that tendency.
Carlson thinks further American entanglement in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a mistake. Yet he doesn’t think that view is influential among conservatives.
“Sure, there are members of Congress who I think I agree with or who agree with me, but the leadership of the Republican Party is completely in the sway of, controlled by — however you describe it — under the influence of neoconservative foreign policy ideas.”
He questions the idea that politicians take this stance because they think it’s popular.
“I think that politicians again and again don’t do what the public wants and instead serve the interests of their donors or their peers. I don’t think it’s even that grubby and commercial a cause,” Carlson says, “I think that everyone they know and respect in their little world — this is true of all of us, by the way — thinks one thing and it’s impossible for them not to think that because of the pressure of the group. So I would like to see our foreign policy a little more informed by what the public wants, since in the end it’s the public that suffers the consequences.”
He also notes that the intelligence briefings received by policymakers encourage groupthink. Important enough government officers get updates from federal intelligence agencies about what is going on in the world.
“People from the executive branch agencies come over with a binder and they say, ‘Here’s what we think we know,’ or more often, ‘Here’s what we know about the rest of the world.’ There’s no one to verify whether any of this is true,” Carlson says, “Very few members of Congress are self confident enough — in some cases are not bright enough — to understand how thoroughly they’re being manipulated.”
“You don’t immediately want to impugn the motives of the people who disagree with you because sometimes they have very noble motives, and I think a lot of the people who disagree with me do have noble motives,” Carlson says, “As you saw with COVID, as you saw with [Black Lives Matter], people’s best instincts or altruistic instincts are being used against them to support something that’s bad for them and their country.”
In addition to thinking that he’s not very influential with the right-leaning political conversation, he downplays his own popularity. “There’s three-and-a-half hundred million people in this country and we get one percent or something. So most people don’t want to listen to what I say is the truth,” Carlson says.
It’s important for him to be careful about dwelling on his impact. “The one thing you don’t want to do if you work in a business where people are looking at you is look at yourself. Ever.” Carlson says, “Self-awareness leads to self-obsession which leads to misery, to narcissism — which is really self-hate posing as self-love. That is the main kind of work-related injury talk show hosts suffer from.
“I work in a business that encourages you to think about yourself constantly. Literally, your face is on TV. So if you don’t take extraordinary steps, you will decide that everything is about you. And you will become desperately unhappy and you will alienate the people you love and you’ll become a miserable sad person, period.” Carlson says, “God punishes stuff like that.”
Check out the conversation at the Overton Window podcast.
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