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The Fall of Tucker Carlson, Conflict Entrepreneur – BCB #49
How one person can be both terrible and beloved
Fox News’ former primetime host Tucker Carlson is, of course, a deeply controversial figure. You’ve probably already decided what he stands for, which makes him difficult to discuss without alienating at least some people. For our part, it’s safe to say we don’t think he made the culture war better. Yet we understand why many people loved him.
He had the skills, the mind, the skepticism, and the platform. He knows this country and he knows his audience. But instead of embracing debate, rejecting partisan lines, questioning our own biases, talking across the aisle, and seeing fellow citizens as partners in improving our country, he did the opposite. He used his considerable talent to spread fear. He called for anger. He taught viewers to hate the opposition, and told them that the opposition hated them. And he misled his viewers.
Amanda Ripley (previously a guest on our podcast) calls this type of figure a conflict entrepreneur in her book High Conflict (though the phrase is older). This is someone who inflames conflict for their own ends:
Notice who delights in each new plot twist of a feud. Who is quick to validate every lament and to articulate wrongs no one else has even thought of? We all know people like this, and it’s important to keep them at a safe distance.
In practice, this can be hard to do, especially for people trapped in the conflict themselves. Because conflict entrepreneurs are often very important in people’s lives. They can be loving, persuasive, and charismatic. The best ones make themselves essential. They become central to a group’s identity, and without them, it’s harder to feel like there’s an us.
Such figures can be beloved because conflict is not inherently bad – that is of course the premise of this Bulletin. Like conflict itself, “conflict entrepreneur” has a dual nature, depending on the nature of the conflict they produce. And it’s hard to argue that Carlson created the good kind of conflict.
For example, he stoked racial resentment. The New York Times analyzed 1,150 episodes of his show going back to 2016. The visualization below shows the number of times he brought up the “Great Replacement Theory,” the idea that Blue wants to import immigrants to change the demographic of the U.S. to have more voters. It’s worth emphasizing that Blue politicians have often publicly approved of immigrant-led demographic change for its supposed electoral advantages. Carlson weaponized this – conflict entrepreneurs always draw on pre-existing divisions – calling it an intentional, cynical plot, defining Blue as the enemy, and driving the threat home in Good-vs-Evil terms show after show.
He wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, you could argue that he was a productive force for good conflict. Saul argues that unlike hosts from CNN and MSNBC, he reported against the grain. He questioned monolithic establishments like the FBI, interviewed a wide range of guests, and had genuine anti-war and anti-interventionist views ahead of the mainstream Red, predating Trump.
But Carlson became more destructive with time, reportedly becoming obsessed with his ratings and increasingly willing to deceive viewers (for example by hiding his true low opinion of Trump). He certainly followed the incentives of media economics in this, captive to his hyper-polarized audience in a way we’ve previously discussed. The same New York Times analysis found that Carlson gradually shifted away from hosting guests who disagreed with him. About 1,000 out of 7,000 guests on his show opposed his talking points, but after 2019, almost all guests supported him. This came after the network realized its audiences watched more segments where guests agreed with Carlson rather than debating him or each other.
There’s never really been a Blue equivalent to Carlson, a television demagogue quite so central to Blue identity. But there were liberal forerunners. Jon Askonas credits late night comedian Jon Stewart with the rise of a new form of journalism, a more interpretative, partisan style. Stewart insisted he was just doing comedy while Carlson aired on “Fox News,” but the business model of creating an identity by relentlessly mocking the enemy was the same.
And because [Stewart’s show] made no pretense of “fairness” or “objectivity,” it had an enormous advantage in competing for the eyeballs and allegiances of its young audience. Because its only explicit loyalty was to the laughs, the show could ignore “the news cycle” and focus on the stories that hit the right notes for its audience. Even as Jon Stewart fought a world of empty spin, he pioneered a model of television news where you didn’t need to manage the reporting, the sources, or the production of compelling televisual imagery. By wresting control of the context, you could bend it to your will and tell the story you wanted to tell.
Carlson similarly became heavily dependent on what his viewers wanted. Yet all of us face the same incentives on some scale. To quote Ripley in our podcast,
We are all capable of being conflict entrepreneurs, especially in a time like this where it's really incentivized on social media and sometimes on cable news. There's a lot of attention and power that has been granted by many of us to conflict entrepreneurs. It’s important to just at first notice who they are and then try to distance yourself from them.
Carlson is a living example of the principle that we must judge people not just by what they fight for, but by how they fight. Whatever his virtues might have been, Carlson’s relentless fearmongering and casual incitement of violence made him a destructive force in American politics.
Quote of the Week
Trump’s election wasn’t about Trump. It was a throbbing middle finger in the face of America’s ruling class. It was a gesture of contempt, a howl of rage, the end result of decades of selfish and unwise decisions made by selfish and unwise leaders. Happy countries don’t elect Donald Trump president. Desperate ones do. In retrospect, the lesson seemed obvious: Ignore voters for long enough and you get Donald Trump.