Tucker Carlson’s Code of Whiteness
"The racial ideology revealed in the former Fox News host’s text message.
Gertrude Stein warned that remarks are not literature. Neither are hateful messages sent to a television producer’s smartphone and hidden away in redacted legal documents.
In the case of Tucker Carlson’s now notorious post-Jan. 6 remarks on an earlier episode of political violence — recently uncovered by New York Times reporters— literary criticism seems to be beside the point. But given that the text is both unusually long (almost 200 words) and contributed to Carlson’s firing from Fox News, some textual analysis might illuminate the author’s state of mind and the political context in which he operates.
What Carlson wrote is a complicated and troubling piece of prose. That it can even be called prose is somewhat remarkable. Not many of us, thumbing away on our phones, would compose such a grammatically coherent, cleanly punctuated missive, without an abbreviation, emoji or autocorrect snafu in sight.
Tucker Carlson January 7, 2021 — 04:18:04 PM UTC
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching video of people fighting on the street in Washington. A group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid and started pounding the living shit out of him. It was three against one, at least. Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight. Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it. Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be. The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it. I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?
Before he was a cable-news demagogue, Carlson was a magazine journalist, and some of the old print discipline clings to these 15 sentences. They quickly set a scene, place the author within it and tell a compact story, complete with a moral at the end.
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That story — about Carlson’s conflicted response to the sight of “a group of Trump guys” dogpiling an “Antifa kid” — appears to involve a crisis of conscience, an unexpected, chastening eruption of empathy. The narrator’s bloodlust seems to waver as he moves from solidarity with the perpetrators of the attack to a grudging acknowledgment of their victim’s humanity. This looks like the kind of wishy-washyness Carlson often mocked on the air, a departure from the demonization of political and cultural enemies that was his nightly bread and butter. You might wonder if Fox fired him for going offbrand. But a closer reading elucidates what that brand always was.
At first, Carlson is right where you’d expect him to be: on the side of the attackers, rooting them on toward homicide, even as he finds their behavior “dishonorable.” “It’s not how white men fight,” he says.
That is a jaw-dropping sentence — as empirically ludicrous as it is ideologically loaded. A glance at American history — taking in night riders, lynch mobs, the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 and the killings of Michael Griffith and Yusef Hawkinsin New York in the 1980s, to say nothing of Jan. 6 itself — suggests that this is exactly how white men fight. Not all white men, of course, and not only white men, but white men precisely when they perceive the symbolic and material prerogatives of their whiteness to be under attack.
Thinking otherwise is more than just a fantasy of Anglo-Saxon righteousness, redolent of Rudyard Kipling and The Marquess of Queensberry. The old imperial myth undergirding that fantasy — the belief that a program of plunder and subjugation was, in spite of everything, a noble crusade — survives in the curious amalgam of genteel preening and pseudo-proletarian rage that Carlson manifested in his nightly broadcast.
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His most successful on-air persona, perfected on Fox after the departure of Bill O’Reilly, has been a volatile mixture of upper crust and salt of the earth. Whiteness was the glue that held the package together, and in this text you can see it coming unstuck, even as Carlson tries to work through some inherent contradictions.
At stake is not the life or safety of the anonymous “Antifa kid,” but rather Carlson’s own perception of himself. “This isn’t good for me,” he finds himself thinking. That phrase, a syntactic echo of “it’s not how white men fight,” establishes the stakes, which are not so much Carlson’s ethical probity as his racial superiority. Watching the beating, he becomes aware of what Kipling called “the white man’s burden” — the duty to subjugate the supposedly lesser races without sinking to their level.
The race of the man being beaten isn’t specified in the text, but his otherness — his debased status relative to both his attackers and Carlson — is repeatedly emphasized. “The Antifa creep is a human being,” he writes. This is not exactly an upwelling of compassion, and even so Carlson rushes to qualify it. “Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him, personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it.” The “shoulds” indicate that Carlson isn’t really bothered — is still actually gloating — but is aware that this reaction poses a problem.
It’s a problem because he imagines that the glee he feels at the man’s suffering aligns him not with those inflicting the suffering, but with the man himself. If he takes pleasure in watching an Antifa creep get pounded, that makes him as bad as the Antifa creep. Because that guy reduces “people to their politics.”
How can Carlson be sure of this? Isn’t this just projection? Yes, but it’s also another way of insisting that this isn’t how your side behaves, even as you prove the opposite. Reducing people to their politics is what the enemies — the others, the savages, those without honor — do. Making a point of not doing that, even when it’s clearly what you’re doing, is what sets you above them.
“How am I better than he is?” That question isn’t rhetorical, it’s existential, and it presents Carlson as both the hero and the victim in this story. To borrow a phrase from Elvis Costello, this is someone who “wants to know the names of all those he’s better than.” Not because of personal insecurity, but as a matter of racial and ideological principle. That’s how white men fight."