IT’S RARE THAT the sacking of a journalist becomes breaking news across the American media, generating more punditry than Joe Biden’s announcement of a second run. But then Tucker Carlson was not your average prime-time cable TV host. Apart from being the most watched media proselytiser, he was a soldier-entertainer in the culture wars that came to divide America in the wake of Donald Trump, his every word either a denial, a debunking, an endorsement, or an enticement in which the relativism of fact was only matched by the fluidity of truth. A lie? Oh, that’s all about the ideological nature of the prism through which you saw the ‘ravaged’ homeland—and the perspective programmed into your partisan self. The Fox News host was the other voice that one part of America, distrustful of the cultural as well as political consensus upheld by the Establishment, wanted to listen to. His voice was the drug that opened a dizzying world of alternative salvation for a section of America beyond the conventional boundaries of left and right. He was engrossing television and he talked aside the decencies both old school liberals and conservatives valued in arguments. Carlson was “New Journalism” for the era of QAnon and Trumpism.
Or, shall we say New Evangelism? This column, after all, is not about Tucker Carlson himself, who spoke to an idealised version of America, but about the wider resonance of the journalism he practised — and its persuasive power, for bad or worse. Journalism, at its creative (a problematic word here) best, has never followed the objectivity of lofty stenography. The New Journalism that writers such as Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote popularised was a narrative subversion in which imagination didn’t minimise but magnify reality. It was journalism as literature. If it was the countercultural impulses of the Sixties that added the aura of the New to journalism, it was the shocks of Brexit and Trump that brought ideological evangelism to journalism. Both the left and the right in the media space were equally passionate in their evangelism.
What frightened the Left was the collapse of the liberal consensus of the post-Cold War order. It was supposed to be the normalisation of civil society, with no scope for another wave of salvation theologies, with another set of liberators playing sorcerers of the mass mind. Suddenly, there they were, reapers of resentment, idyll-breakers from below, mobilising the grievances of those who felt abandoned by the traditional left and right. They were the outsider-populists with a solid base, with a belief system hardened by impatience. The liberal evangelism in media, invoking the imminence of the-end-of-democracy, was self-consciously lofty. It was for a good reason, whether it was the end of Trumpism or the restoration of the Euro-mindedness of the United Kingdom, that they cried apocalypse.
For the liberal evangelists, power was in the campaign itself. For the rightwing evangelists, power was a catalyst. It intensified the argument for perfuming the past, purifying the present and pre-booking the future. Carlson, the most influential evangelist of his generation in journalism, had become the chosen channel of the powerless despite being in power. In the media evangelism he personified, power was not the end of the struggle but a motivation for maximising it, for a ritual exposure of the ‘elitist’ agenda on prime-time television. Setting aside racial niceties and social decencies towards immigration, he fed the base with fear and paranoia. It was media evangelism as social revolution.
The common criticism of his incendiary style was that he peddled lies and conspiracies. A lie, in evangelical journalism, was justified by its practitioners as a necessary route to the truth that satisfies the base. Conspiracy is a more problematic charge. A better word, as the conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times, is “suspicionism”. It is a political attitude shaped by distrust, and in Douthat’s words, it’s prevalent among “conservatives who have come of age since the Iraq war, the financial crisis and the Great Awokening. Alienated from many more American institutions than their predecessors, staring at a record of elite failure and a social landscape where it seems like there’s little to conserve, they increasingly start out where Carlson ended up—in a posture of reflexive distrust…” The angry ‘suspicionist’ of cable television had a sea of the faithful out there, yearning for the soul food of distrust.
Evangelists, in the media and elsewhere, thrive in adversity. They see the same institutions that the Establishment reveres as edifices that subvert national interest. Evangelism, whether from the extreme provinces of the Left or Right, is an argument against what the evangelist considers the fallacy of the normal. Maybe it’s premature to talk about the media evangelism of a Tucker Carlson in the past tense.