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The Rise of the Tucker Carlson Politician – The New York Times


Two Republican Senate candidates field-test a new message honed in the cable-news studio.

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Credit…Photo illustration by Mark Harris

There are legal rules that govern political ads — say, the one that requires federal candidates to appear onscreen and “approve this message” — and then there are aesthetic rules. A candidate who’s touting education proposals, for instance, will invariably be shown sitting awkwardly in a kid-size chair, reading to elementary-school students. A promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States must be accompanied by footage of the candidate, preferably in a hard hat, nodding meaningfully at someone in a factory. The candidate should always appear with people — talking, listening, shaking hands — except when speaking directly to the viewer, which should be done from a living room, with a credenza cluttered with family photos in the background.

Blake Masters, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, ignores these rules. In a series of online videos for his campaign, he appears all by himself, far from hearth and home, to make a slew of dire pronouncements. In one, Masters stands in the desert, flanked by cactuses, and declares: “Psychopaths are running the country right now.” In another, he’s in the middle of a hayfield, saying, “Our military leadership is totally incompetent.” In a third, he appears to have just walked out of a forest at twilight to announce, “Our schools are making our kids dumber.”

This is Masters’s first campaign. He is 35, and before entering politics, he spent eight years working for the billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel. The unsettlingly intense gaze and untucked chambray shirt in his videos leave him looking more like a venture capitalist than a politician; even his name sounds like something Bret Easton Ellis might have dreamed up for a Silicon Valley novel. It’s clearly tempting to view Masters’s videos through that tech- and Thiel-inflected lens. When they hit Twitter, a Motherboard writer joked that it seemed like Masters would “flay you and wear your skin” if Thiel commanded it, while The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer observed that the spots were less like political ads and “more like MoMA installations, made to broadcast on the museum wall. It is always dawn or dusk, the tech oracles have returned from space and half of your countrymen want to destroy you.”

But these campaign videos actually have a different, more prosaically political antecedent: Tucker Carlson’s monologues. Five nights a week, Carlson offers his populist message to more than three million Fox News Channel viewers. He tells them that the people who run our country, namely Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, are “a senile man and an imbecile”; that our military leadership, in the person of Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is “not just a pig, he’s stupid”; and that in our schools, “your children are being taught by some of the most ignorant people in the country.” Now Masters — along with another former Thiel employee, J.D. Vance, who’s running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in Ohio — is trying to convert this rhetoric into an actual political campaign.

Carlson is the rare Fox News host whose words carry weight with conservative intellectuals. He is especially popular with those who identify as “national conservatives,” or NatCons — writers and thinkers who tack hard to the right on culture-war issues, denouncing Critical Race Theory and drag-queen story hours, while sharing a set of economic concerns with the left, supporting child subsidies and industrial policy. Depending on your point of view, NatCons are either attempting to add intellectual heft to Trumpism or trying to reverse-engineer an intellectual doctrine to match Trump’s lizard-brain populism. Either way, they have found a champion in Carlson, who delivered the keynote address at the inaugural National Conservatism Conference in 2019, and delivers their message every weeknight in prime time. “At some point, Donald Trump will be gone,” he told viewers in 2019. “What kind of country will it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.”

These stark positions have yet to be reduced to the simple shorthand images political ads normally rely on.

It makes sense that Masters and Vance would subscribe to national conservatism. Their former boss and patron, Thiel — who has donated millions to super PACs supporting each candidacy — is a NatCon, giving the keynote address at last year’s conference. And they come by the ideology honestly. They are products of elite institutions — Vance graduated from Yale Law School, Masters from Stanford Law — and claim to have been radicalized by the experience. Their populism is a form of contrarianism and rebellion. “Dominant elite society is boring, it is completely unreflective, and it is increasingly wrong,” Vance recently told The Washington Post Magazine. “I kind of had to make a choice.”

The challenge is turning that choice into votes. Trump created a constituency on instinct, but thus far there has been no way for politicians to signal affinity with it apart from pledging personal allegiance to Trump. Now that NatCons are trying to solidify that constituency ideologically, it seems freshly possible to align instead with Carlson, whose lead Masters and Vance have followed on everything from opposing vaccine mandates to sympathizing with Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical worldview. (Since the invasion of Ukraine, all three have recalibrated on Putin, with varying degrees of success.) Like Carlson, they go out of their way to troll liberals. Masters recently tweeted footage of a truck hauling lumber with the message: “I guarantee the guy driving this truck is conservative. Imagine a progressive dude driving a logging truck. You can’t.”

It’s in Masters’s videos, though, where the alignment with Carlson is most awkwardly apparent. They employ the same issues, the same cadences, even the same words as Carlson’s monologues. “Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy?” Carlson once asked his viewers. Masters tells voters, “Amazon will send you some useless Chinese junk at the press of a button. But the things people actually need — housing, health care, education — this stuff just keeps getting more and more expensive every year.”

Carlson delivers his monologues from the familiar setting of a cable-news studio. Masters isn’t a Fox host. But his stark positions have yet to be reduced to the simple shorthand images political ads normally rely on. He can’t declare that schools are making kids dumber over footage of himself talking to kindergartners. His living room would be an incongruously cozy place from which to convey the message that the country is run by psychopaths. So we get Masters, by himself, prophesizing doom from a desert or a hayfield, his ads radiating a weird, wordy energy.

Carlson seems to appreciate the homages; Masters and Vance are frequent guests on his show. “The Republican Party is getting better, much better,” he told viewers last July. “We know that because of two new Republican Senate candidates” — Vance and Masters. Both have won the Tucker Primary. The question — for the candidates and, more consequently, for their party — is whether that’s enough to win an election.

Source photographs: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images; Andrew Holt/Getty Images; Bill Hornstein/Getty Images: Screen grabs from YouTube

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