Tucker Carlson “may be the most powerful conservative in America.” That was Time’s recent assessment of the Fox News commentator, whose primetime program debuted shortly after former President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and is now the most-watched show on cable news. Carlson frequently triggers outrage on the American left—and in the mainstream U.S. media—for promoting a politics of right-wing cultural resentment that sometimes includes conspiratorial speculation and outright bigotry. He drew controversy earlier this month with broadcasts from Budapest, where he interviewed and promoted the authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, claiming that Hungary has “a lot of lessons for the rest of us.” But what makes Carlson so influential, and what does his prominence suggest about where the American right is headed without Trump in the White House?

Charlie Sykes—a founder and editor at large of The Bulwark, who spent decades as a prominent conservative talk-radio host in Wisconsin—says that Carlson shares Trump’s rejection of many small-government ideas that had defined the conservative movement from the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Carlson embodies much of the same politics that Trump embraced, including harsh stances on immigration and an often furious engagement in the U.S. culture wars. Yet as an “intelligent demagogue,” as Sykes calls him, Carlson has also sought to move his audience beyond Trump’s ideas, shaping as well as reflecting the right-wing populism of the moment. According to Sykes, “the entertainment wing of the Republican Party is dominant right now,” and Carlson is more than a megaphone. “Donald Trump is a follower,” Sykes says. "One of his skills is watching what people like Tucker are talking about and then following along with it. He’s always in synch with cable news and talk radio, and the feedback loop doesn’t necessarily start with Trump’s ideas.”

Graham Vyse: What explains Carlson’s influence?

Charlie Sykes: You start with the obvious—that he has a large and influential audience. But how did he get that audience? Tucker is very conscious of building his image by constantly pushing the envelope of outrageousness. He knows where the audience is, but also that if he pushes them a few degrees further, that will make him even more influential.

Vyse: You say he “knows where the audience is.” Has he gained influence by understanding something about that audience others didn’t?

Sykes: That’s a good question. The answer is yes. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. One thing he doesn’t have is a set of coherent, conservative intellectual principles that he feels the need to stick to. He’s able to move with the tide. He understands that a lot of what motivates the conservative base now is insulting and humiliating people they don’t like, and he’s very effective at that. He can channel a sense of victimization very effectively. He’s also got an ability to convince people that he’s going to tell them things nobody else is going to tell them—exposing all the secret knowledge out there—and an ability to deconstruct the liberal narrative in a way other hosts really don’t have the ability to do.

Quite frankly, the others, they’re not as smart as he is. Sean Hannity doesn’t bother me, because the guy is as dumb as a box of rocks. Dan Bongino? I mean, who gives a damn?

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But guys like Tucker are smart, talented, and know what they’re doing. When Tucker pushes the replacement theory [about white people being replaced by non-white people] or advances vaccine disinformation, it’s with a malice of forethought.

Vyse: What did you make of his recent trip to Hungary? What was the significance of that?

Sykes: It’s very significant. Something Tucker has been doing very effectively, and alarmingly, is taking ideas that have percolated in the fever swamps of the right and moving them into the mainstream. He’s given ideas like replacement theory a respectability—a forum they’ve never enjoyed before—which is appalling. Fox News ought to be much more concerned about what he’s doing.

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