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Tucker in the Rye

I wasn’t on the Tucker love/hate spectrum, myself, but as someone who’d worked for him and then moved on to more “mainstream” political reporting jobs at Vanity Fair, Politico and then Puck, I was fascinated with his metamorphosis.
I wasn’t on the Tucker love/hate spectrum, myself, but as someone who’d worked for him and then moved on to more “mainstream” political reporting jobs at Vanity Fair, Politico and then Puck, I was fascinated with his metamorphosis. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
January 4, 2024

I had decided not to see Tucker Carlson the weekend before he was fired from Fox News. We were both in Washington to attend the Heritage Leadership Summit, a gathering of the country’s most established (and inevitably older) conservative activists. Earlier in the day, I’d watched Ron DeSantis, on the cusp of running for president, sit for a fireside chat with the new Heritage president, Kevin Roberts; I’d watched Rep. Dan Bishop, a member of the hardline group that held up Kevin McCarthy’s speakership last January, talk about how he was bringing Washington’s horse-trading politics to heel. But the afternoon programming was over, and now I had one more decision to make: Did I want to see Tucker give a speech that night at the Heritage black-tie gala?

I hadn’t known that he would be speaking until I saw the program. In fact, I was surprised that he’d even set foot in Washington: Tucker had notoriously fled D.C. in the summer of 2020, amid Covid restrictions and racial justice protests, and now split his time between his summer house in Maine and his winter house in Florida, vowing never to live in an urban area again. He’d even convinced Fox News to build him a permanent studio in both locations. 

Briefly, I thought it over. On the one hand, it would be fascinating to see Tucker in person—we had not met up since 2016, long before he became a Fox primetime host. On the other hand, he wouldn’t be speaking for about five hours, and as a credentialed member of the press, I would only be allowed in the ballroom for 30 minutes just to watch his remarks, before being politely escorted out. The likelihood of saying hi to Tucker was slim. My apartment was 45 minutes away by car. And the next day was my birthday.

Crabbiness won out, as well as the need for a nap. Screw it, I’m going home, I thought, walking past several equally tired Heritage conference attendees wolfing down sandwiches and sushi, unaware that this was the weekend Tucker and Fox News would finally, dramatically break up.

At first, no one knew whether it was something he’d said at the Heritage dinner that set off the Murdoch family, or if it was the ongoing fallout from Fox’s $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. Or if, perhaps, there had been some sudden, Succession-esque boardroom drama. All they knew was that on Monday morning, without warning, Tucker Carlson had been axed. Although I’d known him for years, I found out via a New York Times push alert in the parking lot of my allergy doctor, at the same time that everybody else did.

“BRO,” I texted him. “WHAT.” He didn’t respond. 

Animal House

I first met Tucker in 2011, the day I interviewed for a job at The Daily Caller, his conservative media startup, fresh out of college. Stepping into his office was like entering a parallel world to the startup madness outside: overflowing bookcases, a massive couch, Persian rugs on the floor and fly fishing poles leaning on the walls, all well worn from years of loving use; posters of old presidential campaigns, paintings of placid, remote lakes, and other wall art of the estate sale genre, covering as much generic gray office paint as possible. 

There was something immediately familiar about the place, as if Tucker had teleported the office of a New England prep school headmaster into a bleak office building as a prank. Tucker himself was wearing a pink oxford button-down and chinos, sans bow tie—the very embodiment of the magazine feature writer I dreamed of becoming.

Long before he became a cable news figure—and even while he was on CNN and MSNBC—Tucker was churning out features for Esquire, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, thousands and thousands of three-dollar-per-word assignments. The legendary editor Tina Brown, who’d run Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, had brought him on to write for her latest venture, Talk. He had coasted through the skies of Liberia on a rickety prop plane with Al Sharpton; he had been a fly on the wall next to George W. Bush during his first campaign, so good at his job that he could get the future president to let his guard down enough to make a mocking imitation of a woman on death row, begging for clemency. He had written odes to the ingenuity of the potato cannon for a print issue of GQ. And he had sat at bars, long after he became sober, scribbling slice-of-life articles about the Palm’s long-time maître’d’ for The New York Times. 

He was, in short, exactly the sort of boss and mentor I had been looking for, after graduating from Claremont McKenna and its conservative media training camp: a professional adventurer and hilarious establishment-hater, wrapped in WASP decorations. He hired me, sans any experience, as a tech reporter.

The Caller, in those days, was a sort of early-aughts amalgam of National Review Online, Buzzfeed, and Animal House. Whenever Tucker emerged from his office, there was a certain level of gravitas that swept into the Caller newsroom with him, such that we almost felt like we were working at a print magazine, or at least someplace without a traffic needle ticker. It was the place where people rolled their eyes that the slide shows of supermodels in bikinis were getting more traffic than a deeply reported story on the Obama administration’s latest issues, but clicks were clicks and ad revenue was ad revenue, so more slide shows it was.

But regardless of the churn, if you were a politics reporter at The Daily Caller between 2010 and 2012, you probably had the time of your life. We were part of a fratty camaraderie of journalists within the creaky wreckage of IKEA furniture and scrawled jokes on whiteboards, whose libertarian-to-right-leaning ideology was carefully cultivated as a way to keep ourselves honest, and to help us find stories that our peers at other outlets wouldn’t. We developed a thrill for pissing off Obama officials and getting into Twitter fights, as well as a taste for whiskey and cigars. We didn’t fully understand then that being a journalist at an institution described as a “right-leaning outlet” would, with exceedingly few exceptions, condemn us to what my colleague Matt Lewis called the conservative media ghetto. 

In those early days, of course, the Caller had pitched itself as a sort of conservative alternative to The Huffington Post. As an exclusively digital operation, the Caller also hoped to be more nimble, untethered from the plodding process of print journalism, and ostensibly financially secure: more like Talk or The Weekly Standard than a Drudge Report-style news aggregator, or Andrew Breitbart’s all-caps scream machine. 

At the time, Tucker seemed committed to it. After all, he’d been famously booed a few years earlier at the Conservative Political Action Conference when he suggested something audacious: that the right needed its own version of The New York Times—something that may have reflected a conservative view of the world, but one that was aggressively facts-first. “The New York Times is a liberal paper, [but] it’s also a paper that cares about whether they spell people’s names right; it’s a paper that cares about accuracy,” he said at the time. “Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions.” The latter part of the quote didn’t matter to the crowd—they just heard New York Times and that set them off—but it was enough for him to get $3 million from a wealthy investor and launch his dream media property. 

The Gray Zone

The conservative media world underwent a radical transformation in the following decade, and Tucker did too. Prior to him adopting his current persona as a hyper-nationalist, right-wing demagogue, there were plenty of people among his peer set—journalists, media executives, lawyers, policy officials, comms directors—who had believed Tucker was One of Them. They’d breathed a sigh of relief when they saw him get a primetime show at Fox News, imagining he’d bring a touch of class and sanity to the network of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Even after he proved otherwise, they held on to a glimmer of hope when it was revealed that he’d convinced Trump to take Covid more seriously. 

But then, at some point in the summer of 2020, he sold his house in Northwest D.C. and left his fellow Coastal Elites for good. He began filming his Fox News show exclusively from deepest MAGA Country, in rural Maine. His politics got meaner, channeling the kind of stuff that I’d read on white nationalist forums and heard from the most die-hard people at Trump rallies. My friends, family, and everyone I knew who existed outside of the media loved him. And so did the Fox audience: At one point, during the summer of 2020, Tucker was breaking records as the highest-rated program in cable news history.

I wasn’t on the Tucker love/hate spectrum, myself, but as someone who’d worked for him and then moved on to more “mainstream” political reporting jobs at Vanity Fair, Politico and then Puck, I was simply fascinated with his metamorphosis. I was also working to reconnect with Tucker, after his self-imposed exile, to interview him for my book. I had hoped to catch him in Washington, in the summer of 2022, when I saw he was scheduled to be on a panel with Semafor’s Ben Smith, only to discover that he’d opted to Zoom in from what appeared to be his walk-in-closet, in Maine. The Semafor interview was a bit of a train wreck, for Smith, and also exemplified the difficulty of pinning down Carlson’s far-right, but often cryptic, views on race. When Smith challenged him on popularizing the white nationalist “language of replacement theory,” Carlson fired back: “This is why you’re considered, correctly, a propagandist and not a journalist.” Then he laughed. 

Later that month, when I finally managed to get Tucker on the phone, I asked him about their back-and-forth. The framing of Smith’s question, it seemed to me, was almost comically broad, designed to get a rise out of Carlson and generate headlines rather than elicit a thoughtful response. So I tried another tack: I asked him, what is a white nationalist to you?

“I literally have no fucking idea,” he said, the exasperation clear in his voice. “No one’s ever explained it to me. I assume, because it’s nationalism—I mean, the word nationalism suggests a country—it’s people who want an all-white country and they just want to expel everyone who’s not white from the country? . . . I have kind of like very old-fashioned liberal views on race, like Dr. Seuss views—‘we’re all the same underneath our skin and all that,’ which is actually my real view, which I’ve explained about a thousand times in public.”

It was the sort of answer that got more complicated when Carlson declared himself “strongly for the Western civilization,” presumably as opposed to whatever other cultures or civilizations were fighting for space in the American melting pot. “You know, I’m a product of Western civilization,” he continued. “And I think I have the right to want to continue it. . . . [I]f you said to a Nigerian, you know, how far would you go to protect African civilization, he’d be like, what wouldn’t you do?”

As we caught up, I observed the similarities between the Tucker who had fled the establishment oasis of Washington—who swore to me that he would never set foot in any city again, if he could help it—and the Tucker I’d met 11 years ago, with his ability to nurse a grudge or craft a withering epithet: Ben “Reptile” Smith, Arianna “Narcissistic Rich Lady” Huffington, Bill “Never a Genius” Kristol, and so on. It was a talent befitting a former magazine writer turned pundit. (In the days of print magazines, the withering bon mot was the coin of the realm.)

But I also noted a new depth of hostility toward the news industry that had made him. Tucker, in this way, was not so different from the majority of Americans who have disengaged from mainstream media, whether from lack of interest or out of spite. I’d read a poll earlier that week from Gallup with alarming statistics: Only 16 percent of Americans trusted print media. Only 11 percent trusted television news.

I was particularly curious about how Carlson, a journalist from the print era, who’d flirted with digital, and now lived on cable, viewed the modern flow of information. After all, he’d been the one who suggested that the right needed its own version of The New York Times, back in 2005. Had the right met that challenge and followed the trajectory he had hoped?

He paused briefly to greet a neighbor in his tiny town. “I don’t know how interested in conservative journalism I am anymore, but not very,” he went on. “What I’m interested in is freethinking, open-minded journalism. And, to me, it’s just super simple.” What he hated: sites like The Daily Beast, where Andrew Kirell, my old Mediaite colleague and fellow escapee from libertarian journalism hell, was now an editor. “If the State Department says, ‘Well, Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people,’ I think a journalist would say, ‘Okay, that sounds bad. Show me the evidence that proves that he did that,’” Tucker said. “The Daily Beast, rather than sort of running that story down, will find like the three people—in that specific case, one person, me—who questioned the story and asked for real evidence, and then denounce that person for being skeptical of whatever the official story is.” What he liked: “Anyone who doesn’t do that.” That seemed broad, so I prodded. “I definitely don’t think it’s a matter of Republican versus Democrat or left versus right,” he insisted.

“Or, like, conservative media versus MSM?”

“No! I don’t care about that! I read The Grayzone every day. Do you know what that is?”

“No.” I truly didn’t.

“It’s like some forbidden hard-left website run by Max Blumenthal and his wife or his partner, who are just absolutely wonderful people. And they have a different foreign policy perspective.”

Either Tucker had evolved to a new level of information diet, or this was the way that everyone outside the Times readership consumed the news, and I was panting in the distance, trying to catch up. And I thought I was good at this. “Wait, so what other sites are you reading besides that? Like what’s in your daily information diet?”

“I do most of my reading, honestly, based on texts that I get. I do most of my communicating by text and I don’t email.”

I let him spin through another rant about Arianna Huffington (“Totally deep into frivolous bullshit . . . No one wants to hear your boring self-care lectures anymore”); the sanctification of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (“No one asked any questions. Zelensky was George Washington. If you don’t agree, you’re for Putin.”); and his wealthy liberal neighbors in D.C. hanging Black Lives Matter signs in their windows (“It was only about ‘I’m a good person.’ It was almost like going to SoulCycle for them”). 

But underneath his barbs and quips and grudges was a palpable, roiling anger against his former industry colleagues, their brains rotted by the incentive structure of the iPhone and the internet, and who’d turned him off the Times and toward… Grayzone. “All the little feature pieces, all the soft feature pieces, are about the same class of people,” he seethed. “This tiny class of people—and they’re tiny; globally, it’s like a hundredth of a percent [who] are affluent, well-educated, urban dwellers with Twitter accounts in American cities. That’s just a sliver of the world population. And yet, almost all media caters to them. And even if I didn’t hate them—comma, which I do, comma—I would still find it totally disproportionate. I really would. I really, really would. Because it is.”

Patriot Prayers

I had so many questions after I’d learned Tucker had been fired at Fox News. Why would the network fire their biggest star at the height of his popularity and ratings, when he had the biggest audience in cable news, period? Were they aware that they risked losing a giant segment of their viewers, who’d watched the network for Tucker alone and were hyper-sensitive about cancel culture, especially if it was a decision made by New York City elites? Over the next few days of reporting, I still didn’t get a good answer, either from the people in Tucker’s orbit, who had their own theories, or from the people familiar with Fox’s decision, whose answers seemed thin and inconsistent.

Vanity Fair’s Gabe Sherman, an old colleague of mine from the Hive and an author who’d written the definitive book about the network’s founding, had reported several notably different theories floating around Fox’s leadership: one claimed that Rupert Murdoch, the 92-year-old chairman of the parent company News Corp, had recently broken off his engagement to his would-be fifth wife, Ann Lesley Smith, after she had declared Tucker a “messenger from God” and was seemingly infatuated with him during a dinner back in March. The firing, this theory went, was driven by jealousy. A further theory claimed that when Murdoch watched Tucker’s speech at the Heritage dinner, he was immediately reminded of his fiancée’s messianic obsession with Tucker, and was “freak[ed]” out by the “spiritual talk,” as one source told Sherman. I was initially dubious: Murdoch had run Fox freaking News for decades as a mouthpiece for conservatism, which required a high tolerance for even the wackiest segments of American Christianity.

But as I went through Tucker’s speech again, I could indeed envision someone in Fox leadership freaking out over it: a Christianity-laced sermon implying that the forces of the left were spiritually evil, accelerating the destabilization and possible end of Western civilization itself. Loving Jesus was one thing; invoking theology to wage a holy war on the foundations of government was not. Here was Tucker in his own words:

When people, or crowds of people, or the largest crowd of people at all, which is the federal government, the largest human organization in human history, decide that the goal is to destroy things, destruction for its own sake, “Hey, let’s tear it down,” what you’re watching is not a political movement. It’s evil.

. . . And I’ll stop with this. I’ll put it in nonpolitical or rather nonspecific theological terms, and just say, if you want to know what’s evil and what’s good, what are the characteristics of those?

And by the way, I think the Athenians would’ve agreed with this. This is not necessarily just a Christian notion, this is kind of a, I would say, widely agreed-upon understanding of good and evil. What are its products? What do these two conditions produce?

Well, I mean, good is characterized by order, calmness, tranquility, peace, whatever you want to call it, lack of conflict, cleanliness. Cleanliness is next to godliness. It’s true. It is.

And evil is characterized by their opposites. Violence, hate, disorder, division, disorganization, and filth. So, if you are all in on the things that produce the latter basket of outcomes, what you’re really advocating for is evil. That’s just true. I’m not calling for religious war. Far from it. I’m merely calling for an acknowledgment of what we’re watching . . .

Days after Tucker was fired, he published an enigmatic video on Twitter, seemingly taped on a GoPro while bunkered in his home studio in Maine, alluding to his cancellation by Fox News—an organization, he hinted, now allied with shadowy, powerful elites. “Both political parties and their donors have reached consensus on what benefits them, and they actively collude to shut down any conversation about it,” he said, staring down his nose into the lens. “Suddenly, the United States looks very much like a one-party state. That’s a depressing realization, but it’s not permanent. Where can you still find Americans saying true things? There aren’t many places left, but there are some.”

I immediately ran into a local coffee shop with my laptop, sending messages to sources and scouring Twitter for clues, my keyboard loudly clacking away to the annoyance of the other patrons. And in the back of my mind, as I tapped away like a woman possessed, was an odd sense of irony mixed with wonder mixed with bafflement. 

All of my universes had started to concentrate down into one man—the man I used to dream of being. Yet our paths had diverged so wildly, looping past each other and into our opposing worlds. He was now the right-wing internet creator, brash and bold and twisting the world by the sheer force of his personality, with the message that the conservative movement had wanted to push for decades. I was now the magazine writer, observing the world in the background, as neutral as I possibly could be. 

Copyright © 2024 by Galaxy Brain Creative, Inc. Adapted from the forthcoming book THE MAGA DIARIES by Tina Nguyen, to be published by One Signal Publishers/Atria Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC. Printed by permission.