Murmurs from the Tucker Bunker

Tucker Carlson
Photo: Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
April 27, 2023

There’s a story I often tell people about the first time I met Tucker Carlson. I was interviewing for a job at The Daily Caller, in 2012, fresh out of college, and we were exchanging normal pleasantries—How was your trip here? Where did you go to college?, etcetera. Carlson paused when I said I’d grown up in Boston, and he subsequently asked where I had gone to high school. I told him that I went to Milton Academy, one of those centuries-old New England prep schools that I’d somehow gotten into despite my refugee kid background, and his eyebrows shot up. 

I went to high school with one of your teachers, he told me, alarmed. Then, without pausing for a beat, he continued: I hate him. Tucker then launched into a juicy story: back when they were both teenagers, this rival had tried to flirt with Tucker’s girlfriend, a slight that he—now a fully-grown adult—could not move past. I hate that fucker, he repeated, eyes burning.

I was 22, straight out of Claremont McKenna. And though I barely knew this teacher, I found this whole bit hilarious. So wait, I asked between cackles, who won? Another beat: I did, he responded. I married her.

I was mulling over this memory as I spoke this week to people inside Carlson’s inner circle and the MAGA mediaverse, which was reeling from the seismic news that Fox had, with scant warning, yanked his juggernaut show away from him on Monday morning. Almost immediately thereafter, the first shots in a legal-and-public relations war were fired and a highly visible game of optics chicken had commenced. First, Tucker hired the scorched-earth litigator Bryan Freedman, signaling he was out for treasure and presumably abdicating a non-compete. Then, Fox-centric stories emerged in the media purporting to illuminate the network’s rationale for firing him—disparaging texts about executives and coworkers, inappropriate comments about women, the c-word bit, details about Lachlan Murdoch and Suzanne Scott huddling on Friday to cut Carlson loose by Monday, and even one nugget about Rupert Murdoch, the parentco’s 92-year-old patriarch, becoming alarmed by Carlson’s religious rhetoric at a Heritage Foundation event. And then there was the alleged existence, reported in Rolling Stone, of an oppo file that Fox had compiled on Carlson.

On Wednesday, Carlson reciprocated in the form of a grainy video published on Twitter, straight from his home in Florida, on the same set where he shot his Fox Nation show Tucker Carlson Today, as if he was occupying enemy territory. Though he didn’t mention Fox or his firing, Tucker darkly alluded to censorship in the American discourse: “Where can you still find Americans saying true things? There aren’t many places left but there are some and that’s enough. As long as you can hear the words, there is hope.” 

The subtext of the video was clear to the 13 million-plus people who watched it and read about it, especially those who consume right-wing news: Tucker Carlson, a man who does not let go of slights, was truly digging in—using the rhetoric of free speech, that modern right wing trope, to negotiate publicly with Murdoch and use the press to launch his next thing, whatever that might be. 

After all, not only was Tucker the biggest star on Fox News, he was also one of its few umbilical cords to a sub-55 MAGA audience that largely gets its political media from Joe Rogan, Rumble, Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire platform, or even Telegram. He was a guy who could get cancel culture superstar Elon Musk to talk with him for a full hour. He seemed to be paving the ground for his next act in real time. MAGA’s biggest influencers, like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Charlie Kirk, publicly vowed to follow Carlson wherever he went next.

Indeed, inside the Tucker Bunker, Carlson’s allies are currently weighing what to do with this following while maintaining his political potency, and his ability to potentially raise millions of dollars for right-wing media. He could be the next seminal Bari WeissGlenn Beck-Rogan figure, the center of a digital or streaming media operation built around his personal brand, for better or worse. 

“He’s not going to disappear. He’s not gonna run for president. But he’s not gonna be silent,” a source close to Carlson’s camp told me. “So I’m sure people will know what he’s going to do within a few months. I think it’s way too early to make any sort of predictions about what sort of medium it’s on and what it looks like. But I think the safe prediction is that he won’t be in Iowa and he won’t disappear into the woods.” (Carlson declined to comment.) 

The O’Reilly 2.0 Trap

The general narrative surrounding the Fall of Tucker goes like this: Fox News has existed as a brand for decades, singularly making and breaking right-wing politicians and talent, and they have a very good track record of breaking their talent. Bill O’Reilly, for instance, lost his influence after he was fired from Fox, in 2017, for sexual harassment. Megyn Kelly’s following was never the same after she abandoned Fox for NBC that year and subsequently got canceled. Greta van Susteren reached her heights at the network. It took years for Glenn Beck, after he was “transitioned off” Fox in 2011, to regain his footing with Blaze Media. And who knows (or cares) about what happened to Lou Dobbs and Eric Bolling and any number of other Fox pariahs? 

Carlson’s departure is an interesting test of whether the pendulum has shifted and individual brands now exude more value than the platform. “I’m getting increasingly annoyed by the idea that this is just O’Reilly again,” Saagar Enjeti, a former Daily Caller employee and the co-host of the popular, decidedly anti-MSM online show Breaking Points, told me. “I mean, 2017 was a media eternity ago. It was during the Trump cable news boom. That doesn’t exist [anymore]. Fox is literally facing more competition than ever before on linear and online. Their ratings with younger viewers are anemic. Their talent bench does not exist at the same level as 2017. And Trump is not gonna ride in and save them this time around.” (I floated this observation to a source close to Trump, who texted back: “Rupert is going to understand what ‘fuck around and find out’ is all about.”)

The source close to Carlson agreed, pointing out that his shock ejection had literally come out of nowhere, inadvertently preserving (and reaffirming) his anti-establishment cred among his viewers. “Other people are usually in this position because of some sort of indiscretion or they are just generally failing at their job,” the source observed. “So they have limited options. That’s not his situation.” 

Another element of the Carlson departure is that it seems teeming with frustration and self-aggrandizement. People around the Tucker Bunker believe the current spate of stories regarding Carlson’s alleged impropriety were facilitated by the Fox News P.R. machine—specifically, Irena Briganti, the historically menacing and devilishly effective head of public relations at Fox News. “A spokeswoman who is too afraid to put her name on statements isn’t going to have any meaningful impact on a man who shapes world events,” said the source close to Carlson’s camp. (A Fox spokesperson called the claim “categorically false.”) 

In addition, they told me that Fox’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made by Abby Grossberg, Carlson’s former booker currently suing Fox News for other reasons, had cleared them of wrongdoing. The Fox spokesperson confirmed that the investigation occurred, but declined to describe its findings. “Her allegations in connection with the Dominion case are baseless and we will continue to vigorously defend Fox” against her claims, they said. 

There’s a hypothesis in the Tucker Bunker that, contrary to virtually all previous reports, Lachlan and Scott did not make the call to fire Carlson. Instead, the thinking goes, the 92-year-old elder Murdoch had made an impulsive decision over the weekend, for reasons completely unknown to them, and delegated it to his underlings as Fox Corp. scrambled to justify the firing. This theory doesn’t appear to be rooted in reality (sure, Murdoch likely would have had to sign off on the decision, but an apparatus exists to protect the big boss from getting stains on his fingers), but that’s never stopped anyone on the right from a conspiracy. “I think it’s obvious an old man made a pretty grumpy, emotional decision over the weekend,” said a person familiar with the situation, laying out the Tucker camp’s view of events. 

Whatever the rationale for the defenestration, and whatever Carlson’s ideological rage at the Murdochs might be, he and Fox are still locked in a contractual battle over his future. Technically, Carlson and his executive producer Justin Wells, who was also axed on Monday, are still Fox employees, and it’s been widely reported that his contract with Fox expires in December 2024. The legal restrictions on Carlson—noncompetes, non-disparagements, the ability to make public appearances, etcetera—are currently unknown, but as populist figurehead Steve Bannon publicly speculated on Kirk’s podcast, this contract has the potential to muzzle Carlson throughout the 2024 election. “What the Murdochs have done is taken the populist voice, the anti-Ukraine voice, the anti-uniparty voice, the platform in mainstream media and primetime,” he argued. “The only voice out there of populist nationalism.”

That’s an outcome ripe to upset his fanbase. And in that regard, Fox seems to have inadvertently offered its ex star a prime opportunity to frame himself as a free speech martyr who has been silenced by the establishment. As Fox reels from its Dominion suit, and prepares for a likely Smartmatic settlement, having Tucker rage from the set of his Florida mansion almost makes him more dangerous than having him on the air in the first place.

What’s Next

There’s no denying the immense power and reach of Fox News, which Carlson has now been denied. But in 2023, linear cable is on the decline, streaming is on the rise, and Carlson, as numerous people pointed out, almost single-handedly made Fox Nation a viable business. “He has a much younger demographic who listens to him on TV,” Enjeti pointed out. “Not only that, his clips have been doing quite well on YouTube for a long time, if you look at the average views on his monologue. He absolutely has tapped into something there.” (Carlson’s last monologue from a week ago, posted on YouTube, has already racked up 2.3 million views, and his monologues frequently generate 1 million views per video.)

At the moment, there are two potential paths the Tucker brand could follow. He could take the quick-fix, guaranteed cash route by joining a preexisting conservative news channel, such as Newsmax or the Daily Wire. I’m told that Carlson’s team cannot currently negotiate with other networks or companies as they try to untangle his Fox deal, but that hasn’t stopped right-wing media outlets from salivating, sometimes behind the scenes, and sometimes publicly. “I suspect that Tucker already has a plan, but we’d break out the big novelty checkbook for him if he doesn’t,” tweeted Daily Wire C.E.O. Jeremy Boreing. (The Wire, home of former Carlson guests like Candace Owens and Matt Walsh, certainly has the access to money: they recently disclosed that they’d offered Steven Crowder a $50 million, four-year contract.) 

But that strategy would unequivocally limit Carlson’s upside. After all, the Tucker Carlson brand is too big for certain online places, such as Rumble, the anti-woke YouTube alternative that is currently home to Dan Bongino and Glenn Greenwald, and with no disrespect to my former colleagues, a return to the Daily Caller, which he left in 2018, would be viewed as a demotion. “In the current environment, you are the brand. I think Tucker is bigger than Rumble. I think Tucker is bigger than the Daily Wire. And even if they were willing to pay exorbitant sums of cash, that still makes him an employee,” Enjeti observed. “He’s already being paid the highest salary in all the business outside of Rachel Maddow. So it’s not like somebody would necessarily match that on top of the editorial freedom.”

Does Carlson, already extremely wealthy and approaching his mid-50s, have the drive to be an entrepreneur? It’s a valid question that some have wondered, especially after he famously blew out of Washington, D.C. in 2020 in order to spend his summers in Maine and winters in Florida. That said, this is a man who holds grudges, whether it’s with a guy who once flirted with his wife or nonagenarian Rupert Murdoch. And, for what it’s worth, some of the great digital media companies of our age began as revenge fantasies: Bill Simmons built The Ringer after being fired from ESPN; Jim VandeHei lost patience with The Washington Post and then co-founded Politico, and then did it all over again with Axios. In this regard, Tucker seems poised for success, and could easily access the necessary capital and hire an operator to run the business. He might also be content to run a shoestring operation: As conservative podcaster Dave Rubin recently recounted, “When Tucker walked into my house years ago for the first time… he walked into my garage, sees my whole home operation, and goes: ‘Holy fucking shit, you’re living the dream.’”

Meanwhile, there might even be a bit of continuity. After Carlson located out of the DMV for Maine and Florida, Fox News built professional cable news studios in both locations, allowing him to broadcast out of his home over the next several years. “Powerful seeing and hearing Tucker again from his customary Today set, a place that felt familiar,” Kirk, the founder of the right-wing student group Turning Point USA, tweeted after Carlson published his first video. “The aesthetic provided continuity. Whatever he does next, it should come from the same studio. His audience will feel at home.” Carlson, I’m told, controls both sets.

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