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Tucker Carlson said he hated Trump. So why does he defend him?

The Fox News host secretly doesn't respect the man he champions on his show — or his own viewers.
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: Fox News host Tucker Carlson leaves the stage after talking about 'Populism and the Right' during the National Review Institute's Ideas Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel March 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. Carlson talked about a large variety of topics including dropping testosterone levels, increasing rates of suicide, unemployment, drug addiction and social hierarchy at the summit, which had the theme 'The Case for the American Experiment.'
Fox News host Tucker Carlson leaves the stage after talking about 'Populism and the Right' in Washington, DC., on March 29, 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Fox News host Tucker Carlson is arguably the most powerful advocate of Trumpism in America. It turns out that he also privately hates Donald Trump “passionately.” 

We know that because of new court filings from Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against Fox. A huge trove of Fox News staffers’ private text messages and emails have been made public, and they are exposing the vast gulf between the public personas of Fox’s influential pundits and their private beliefs. The Carlson revelations have been particularly juicy because they show how Trump’s most prominent champion actually loathes him, and they illustrate how Carlson doesn’t respect his viewers enough to speak to them truthfully about the problems that he believes Trump poses to the country. 

Carlson does not respect, like or trust the man he has spent years defending in front of the largest cable news audience in America.

According to the filings, Carlson texted a co-worker two days before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol expressing joy over Trump’s imminent departure from the White House: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait.” He added later in the text exchange, “I hate him passionately,” and he confessed that he “can’t handle much more of this.”

According to an another exchange from an earlier filing, two days after the 2020 election Carlson told a producer, “What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong. It’s so obvious.”

And in another exchange in the new filings, Carlson texted an unnamed person in November 2020 that he thought that Trump’s expected refusal to attend Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration was “hard to believe” and “so destructive.” When his interlocutor lamented that “millions believe every word he says,” Carlson replied, “It’s disgusting. I’m trying to look away.”

We also know from previous filings that Carlson characterized Trump in a text on Jan. 6 as a “demonic force” and a “destroyer.”

It’s not difficult to come to a straightforward conclusion: Carlson does not respect, like or trust the man he has spent years defending in front of the largest cable news audience in America. He also apparently doesn’t respect his own audience.

If Carlson believed that Trump and his 2020 lies were so dangerous and damaging, why has he used his show and his enormous influence to shield them? Carlson is still, as of this week, downplaying Jan. 6 as a faux crisis using tapes he obtained from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Carlson has elected to all himself with the “destroyer.”

There are a couple of non-mutually-exclusive explanations for Carlson’s behavior.

First, assuming that any of Carlson’s positions as a right-wing nationalist ideologue are sincerely held — and I think it’s reasonable to believe they are, considering how he has spent much of his career as a conservative, and how he broke with the mainstream right on the Iraq War very early — he prefers Trumpism to Trump. That is to say, Carlson aligns with Trump not out of faith in him as a person but because he views Trump's popularity as a strategic way to advance their overlapping ideological goals. Carlson might view Trump as personally insufferable or incompetent, but he could have seen much to gain politically from backing Trump’s right-wing nationalist positions on issues like immigration, policing, race relations and trade. Part of the reason this explanation is plausible is because Carlson has in fact criticized Trump when he strayed from his preferred right-wing nationalist program, and he often defended Trump by focusing on criticizing Trump’s critics, which served as a broader defense of the MAGA worldview.

Second, there is the issue of ratings. Carlson likely understood that turning on Trump after he refused to accept his own electoral loss would hurt Carlson’s standing with Fox executives and with Fox’s audience. Consider this text from the filings in which a producer of Carlson’s show vented bluntly to another producer in November 2020: “We’re threading a needle that has to be thread because of the dumb f---s at Fox on Election Day. We can’t make people think we’ve turned against Trump. Yet also call out the bullshit. You and I see through it. But we have to reassure some in the audience.”

It’s a remarkable admission. The Carlson producer was framing the idea of going soft on Trump as a way of managing expectations from the company establishment, and as a way to guard against losing Carlson’s generally loyal audience.

It’s a reminder of how Fox’s editorial and business models dictate deference to Trump. The network profits by confirming the prejudices and fears of its viewers; with Trump as popular as he was with the conservative base, it would go against Fox’s entire programming ethos to criticize Trump, even though it’s now inarguable that Fox executives and hosts knew that Trump was lying to his own followers about the election.

Describing Carlson’s behavior as strategic is not to excuse him — it’s damning. If Carlson’s so-called populism was really about the people, then he’d level with them about what he really thinks about Trump and what he really believes about the legitimacy of the election.

But I’m not sure a more honest Carlson would necessarily be less dangerous. Like many conservative activists, part of Carlson’s disdain for Trump is likely because Trump is a self-involved, ineffective politician. It’s unclear whether Carlson found Trump on Jan. 6 to be a “destroyer” of the republic, or a destroyer of the credibility of the MAGA program. There is the possibility that he simply views Trump as a weak authoritarian when he would prefer a smarter and stronger one.