Tucker Carlson’s Fatal Attraction
The right-wing conspiracy monger shares Putin’s worldview.
THE TITLE OF MY 2003 BOOK, Useful Idiots, was a reference to a perhaps apocryphal quote sometimes attributed to Lenin to the effect that gullible liberals in the West would prove useful idiots for the Soviet Union. Too many Democrats fulfilled that cynical prediction, and 12 years after the hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time, I attempted to preserve the record.
Twenty-one years later, the epithet belongs wholeheartedly to the GOP. Their choice to support Trump—Putin’s biddable spaniel—for the party’s nomination; their decision to sabotage aid to Ukraine; and Tucker Carlson’s ring-kissing visit to the dictator’s lair at a crucial moment in congressional negotiations cements the status of Republicans as the useful idiots of the twenty-first century.
As a friend put it, “If you had told me 10 years ago that a day would come when supporting or betraying a democratic ally would be decided in congress, and that President Biden would be on the side of our ally while the Republicans would side with Putin, I would have thought you were insane.”
The GOP’s actions are being mocked as chaotic—the attempt and clownish failure to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas followed by another faceplant when leadership put up a stand-alone package of aid for Israel that also failed. But the reality of today’s Republican party is far worse than just incompetence.
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The party has turned its back on America’s world role and its very identity as a tent pole of global stability. Republicans are well down the path of handing Putin an historic victory in his war of conquest against Ukraine, and so dies the consensus in place since 1945 that aggression must never be rewarded. Think of what this will do to NATO, whose membership has expanded in response to Russian belligerence. Think of what it conveys to China about American resolve on Taiwan. Think of what it says to Iran, whose proxies have been firing at American forces and international shipping for three months. And consider what it conveys to friends who may rethink their relationships with a country so clearly unreliable. The Republicans, who imagine themselves “tough,” are signaling the very opposite—cringing capitulation to a despot.
Tucker Carlson is not a useful idiot. Not precisely. The term implies naïveté, but he seems to know exactly what he’s doing. He claims to be in Moscow to interview Putin because the rest of the press refuses to do so. In fact, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, was just one of many who have pointed out that major press organizations have repeatedly requested interviews and been rebuffed. Peskov explained that Carlson had been approved because “he has a position that differs from the rest of [Western media].” Yes, supine.
For the past several years, Carlson’s project has been consonant with Putin’s. Both seek to sow division in the United States. Both seek to flood the zone with s— so that people won’t know what to believe or whom to trust. Both seek to undermine confidence in institutions. Both seek to subvert confidence in democratic systems—most especially in elections. And both seek to stoke feelings of persecution and existential danger in their followers.
Carlson played a leading role in spreading the big lie about the 2020 election and distorting the events of January 6th. He’s the one to whom Kevin McCarthy released thousands of hours of surveillance tape so that Carlson could then cherry pick a few anodyne frames and say to his millions of viewers (I’m paraphrasing) “See, a normal tourist visit.”
Months later, in a display of his dominance over Republicans, Carlson forced Ted Cruz to grovel on the air for having called the January 6th rioters “terrorists.” Like a lamb, Cruz agreed with the host that his words were “sloppy” and “frankly dumb.” Carlson wasn’t satisfied. “You told that lie on purpose and I’m wondering why you did.” Cruz sniveled that of course he wasn’t casting aspersions on the fine Americans who came to D.C. on January 6th to protest, and reminded Carlson that he was among the first to say he would not vote to certify Biden’s victory. Carlson finished the segment with “I guess I just don’t believe you.”
Carlson has been one of the chief conduits for Russian disinformation in the United States, peddling lies such as the story that the U.S. government was involved in chemical and biological research labs in Ukraine. Here was Carlson in 2022:
It turns out that our government has, for some time, funded biolabs in Ukraine that do, among other things, research on, yes, biological weapons. This is not a conspiracy theory. It's true. So why is the U.S. government doing this in Ukraine?
His Fox News show was appointment viewing in Russia, where reruns were featured on state-controlled TV. In 2022, Mother Jones obtained a memo from the Russian Department of Information and Telecommunications Support, urging its outlets
to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who sharply criticizes the actions of the United States [and] NATO, their negative role in unleashing the conflict in Ukraine, [and] the defiantly provocative behavior from the leadership of the Western countries and NATO towards the Russian Federation and towards President Putin, personally.
After Volodomyr Zelensky addressed Congress dressed in army fatigues, Carlson was unmoved by the mien of the brave leader of a nation under unprovoked attack:
As far as we know, no one’s ever addressed the United States Congress in a sweatshirt before, but they love him much more than they love you. . . . The president of Ukraine arrived at the White House dressed like the manager of a strip club and started to demand money. Amazingly, no one threw him out.
In another monologue, Carlson spouted the vilest Russian propaganda:
Zelensky himself is a very dark force. That is obvious if you watch him. It is unmistakable. Who could not see that? This man is a destroyer. He banned a Christian faith in his country and arrested nuns and priests. “Oh, but he’s a hero,” claim our leaders from Chuck Schumer to Mitch McConnell. No, Zelensky is not a hero. He is an instrument of total destruction. That is not a defense of his enemies. It’s just true, and maybe that’s why Joe Biden is drawn to him. Biden landed in Kyiv today to promote another world war.
Just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Carlson did say he opposed, if in the gentlest possible way, he famously accused Democrats of trying to gin up hatred of Putin.
Democrats in Washington have told you it’s your patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a mandate. Anything less than hatred for Putin is treason. . . . It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this really about? “Why do I hate Putin so much?” Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?
Putin has, as Carlson knows full well, arrested more than 20,000 people for protesting the war. As for his cruel attack on Ukraine—for no reason other than Putin’s appetite—it has claimed the lives of half a million soldiers (two-thirds of them Russian) and at least 10,000 Ukrainian civilians. Whole cities such as Bakhmut and Mariupol have been obliterated. Millions of refugees have flooded into neighboring nations. Russian forces have deliberately targeted power plants, hospitals, and civilian apartments. Putin is a war criminal. The world knows this. Carlson knows it, too.
Carlson says he went to Moscow because he’s a journalist. He isn’t. He’s a tool. Putin has kidnapped and jailed two real American journalists: the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich, who has been rotting in a Russian prison for 11 months, and Alsu Kurmasheva of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who committed the crime of visiting her sick mother while being an American. But while Gershkovich and Kurmasheva are suffering God only knows what in Russian prisons, Carlson is swanning about Moscow tailed by eager regime boosters. Here he is at the Bolshoi Theater. Now he’s visiting Vkusno i Tochka, the fast food outlet that took the place of McDonalds after the golden arches pulled out.
As of this writing, it seems Carlson got the interview he craved with Putin. Doubtless Trump will find it very interesting and urge his people to “take a look,” which will be the signal for the rest of the GOP to agree that we’ve really been getting only half of the story, haven’t we? And it’s really Biden, not Putin, and certainly not Trump, who’s a threat to world peace.
What a catastrophic turn for a once-great political party.