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John Oliver Breaks Down Exactly What Makes Tucker Carlson’s Specific Brand of White Supremacy So Dangerous

Tucker Carlson is a pro at making himself an easy target. Every night, he goes on Fox News and scrunches his face up and pretends not to understand why the things he’s saying are so misogynistic, racist, transphobic, or whatever form of bigotry he’s chosen to focus on in a given segment—usually, it’s more than one. His bigotry is so far removed from any factual basis that he literally had to argue in court that his audience views him as an entertainer and doesn’t expect him to operate with any sort of journalistic integrity.

And yet, his audience is massive. Carlson brings in 3 million viewers a night from a wide range of age groups and just signed a deal to dramatically expand his Fox presence, branching out into a video podcast series and Tucker Carlson Originals specials. So, while he seems like the kind of “performatively outraged wedge salad”—as John Oliver describes him—that you wouldn’t want to risk giving extra attention to, it’s actually pretty hard to give him any attention he’s not already getting. And given his massive reach and insidious rhetoric, it seems worse to ignore him than to try to break down what makes him so dangerous.

Carlson has long pretended to not understand why “the left” is always calling him a white supremacist. On this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight, Oliver lays it all out in explicit detail.

As Oliver puts it, Carlson is “the most prominent vessel in America for white supremacist talking points.” The clearest evidence of this is just how beloved he is by other white supremacists. Oliver played a clip of an interview with Derek Black, a former white supremacist whose father founded Stormfront, the largest white supremacist site on the internet.

“My family watches Tucker Carlson’s show once and then watches it on the replay because they feel that he is making the white nationalist talking points better than they have and they’re trying to get some tips on how to advance it,” Black says. As Oliver summarizes, “They watch it once to enjoy it and a second time to learn from it.”

Tucker has two main defenses against the accusations that he’s pushing white supremacist ideologies on his show. The first is that he doesn’t even know what that means. Since he doesn’t dress in klan robes and spout racist slurs on air, that’s supposed to give him plausible deniability—as if that’s the only form racism and white supremacy take.

This view of racism is, unfortunately, extremely pervasive. We see this all the time, with white people claiming to hate racism (Carlson himself continuously insists he’d love to live in a “color blind” society) while actively engaging in racist behaviors, then being shocked when they are called out for racism.

Take, for example, Sharon Osbourne, who recently chose to defend Piers Morgan’s racist attacks on Meghan Markle. She then lashed out at her Black talk show co-host Sheryl Underwood, insisting that she isn’t racist and saying she felt like she was “about to be put in the electric chair because I have a friend [Morgan] who many people think is a racist and that makes me a racist.” This framing of racism, as something that you are rather than an ideology that can be propagated, even unknowingly, through words and actions, is all too entrenched in so many people’s minds.

And that’s what Tucker has built his career on. As Oliver lays out, there are a ton of people who wouldn’t tune in to listen to David Duke’s podcast, but they’ll watch Tucker Carlson and feel fine about it, even though the two are saying essentially the exact same things. But because one is a proud white supremacist, and the other claims to just be asking questions, there are plenty of people who simply refuse to believe that Carlson is racist—despite all the incredibly racist things Carlson says every single night.

Which brings us to Tucker’s other main line of defense: framing his bigotry as questions. Carlson presents himself as someone who’s just speaking truth to power and asking tough questions. But his “questions” are presented as rhetorical, with the answer always being obvious. He might “ask a question” about “diversity,” and follow it up with a segment about how immigration is destroying America. It’s not exactly subtle.

What Tucker is doing, as Oliver puts it, is “just asking questions while heavily implying that the answer is yes. But when in turn, anyone questions him, they are not just censoring free speech, they are launching an attack on the foundations of our democracy and the vast working class who this humble TV dinner princeling somehow represents.”

Just looking at Carlson’s permanently applied facial expression of extreme befuddlement might give you the impression that he is a newborn baby in an adult’s body, perpetually overwhelmed by all these Big Ideas that he’s just now making connections between for the first time. The attempts to get us to underestimate him are deliberate and calculated. It means he can ask questions like “What is white supremacy?” and people will believe he doesn’t already have an answer lined up. He can ask why he’s not allowed to be upset about “diversity” and how it changes America, and his audience will think, “Well, he’s just asking a question, right?”

Tucker Carlson is spreading white supremacist talking points to millions of viewers every night, and as Oliver says, “There is real harm in that.”

“Because while white supremacy is clearly dangerous when promoted by self-avowed white supremacists, it can actually be even more dangerous when it isn’t. And what Tucker Carlson’s show sells (in addition to utterly terrible pillows) is very seductive. It’s the idea that this country is fundamentally colorblind, that anyone who mentions race is just trying to start trouble, that historic oppression is no longer relevant, and that, in fact, you, his viewers, are the ones currently being oppressed.”

“And if he can sell his audience on his white-identity politics—if he can persuade them that the big existential threat to America right now is diversity, it sort of doesn’t matter if he says aloud what his preferred solutions to that might be,” Oliver continues. “And while it’s bad enough to hear that white supremacist families gather around to watch Tucker twice, the fact is, millions of viewers a night watch him once, and once is already more than enough.”

(image: screenshot)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.