NEW YORK – Tucker Carlson is the hottest media personality in America. Comfortably the most watched cable news show, Tucker Carlson Tonight is a ratings bonanza, with even former President Donald Trump said to be a keen viewer. Part of Carlson’s appeal is that he presents himself as a maverick outsider, someone who thinks outside the box and is not afraid to launch tirades against the powerful and criticize the government and its foreign policy. Certainly, he does surprise many people, covering subjects other cable news hosts do not touch. However, on closer inspection, this populist everyman persona is all a facade; Carlson himself has deep connections to the government and the national security state and works hard to obscure the real centers of power, channeling popular rage towards safer targets.
A blue-blooded chip off the block
Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson was born into a wealthy California family in 1969. He attended a number of private preparatory schools in California and New England, including the exclusive St. George’s School in Rhode Island, where today attendance costs between $46,000 and $67,000 per year. From there, he went on to study history at Trinity College, a private Connecticut liberal arts institution that charges similar fees.
Carlson is a blue-blood through and through. His great-uncle was Arkansas Senator William Fulbright, while his step-mother, Patricia Swanson, is the heiress to the Swanson Frozen Food company fortune. In his earlier years, before his character change, Carlson openly described himself as a trust-fund baby. “I’m extraordinarily loaded just from money I inherited from a number of trust funds,” he said in 2008.
His father, Richard “Dick” Carlson is an important journalist and high state official who was appointed by Ronald Reagan as director of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), the body that oversees government-funded media, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Martí and Voice of America, of which Dick was also the director. (USIA has since been replaced by the U.S. Agency for Global Media). Together, these outlets are part of what The New York Times called a “worldwide propaganda network built by the CIA.” Their goal is to bombard enemy countries with regime-change propaganda. Until the 1970s, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was directly funded by the CIA.
In his position as director of USIA, Dick played a considerable part in the downfall of the Soviet Union. In a 1990 event alongside media moguls Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, he noted that “international broadcasting played a very critical role, as was suggested by Mr. Murdoch, in the events that took place in the USSR and Eastern Europe in the past couple of years.”
Listening to his speech, it is clear he saw his primary role as being to bring about regime change. In fact, he was proud of it, stating:
International broadcasters were equally important in laying the groundwork for the democratic revolutions that we have seen. Isn’t it incredible how Western all those Eastern Europeans sound in talking about freedom, democracy, free enterprise, environmental concerns. And they didn’t get those ideas from their own media or from textbooks in their own countries; they got them mainly from international broadcasters like Voice of America, the BBC, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe.”
In this same job, Dick was a key component in the ultimately successful attempt to bring down the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua through hybrid warfare. The U.S. bombarded the country with incessant propaganda, funding local media outlets that preached regime change, amplifying fake news and scare stories, and supplying enormous amounts of weapons and training to far-right death squads that labeled themselves “Contras” (short for counter-revolutionaries). U.S.-trained and -armed death squads would go on to carry out massacres across Central America throughout the 1980s, killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Dick would later be appointed by President George H.W. Bush as U.S. Ambassador to the Seychelles and serve on a number of neoconservative think tanks. Chief among these is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), an organization widely accused of being little more than a front for the Israel lobby. Indeed, when asked point blank if that were the case, he refused to deny it, stating only that, “Israel is a country under siege. It’s a democracy in a part of the world where there are no democracies. And it is under constant irregular terrorist attack and threat.”
Also on the board of the FDD at that time were Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a high official at the center of the Iran-Contra Affair, (the operation where the U.S. sold weapons to Iran to fund Nicaraguan death squads), and R. James Woolsey, CIA director from 1993 to 1995. Dick would later team up with Woolsey again at the Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.
A couple of preppy freedom-fighters
From his position as head of USIA, Dick’s role in the U.S. dirty, hybrid war against Nicaragua can be reasonably surmised. But far fewer people know that a young Tucker himself also played a part in it. While still in college, Tucker and his roommate, friend and Daily Caller co-founder Neil Patel went to Nicaragua at least two times to, in Tucker’s own words, “get involved in the war and support the side that was right, which was not the Sandinista side.”
Hundreds of people have written about the Fox News star, but none have unearthed this connection. Carlson has rarely talked publicly about his time in Nicaragua, and never at any length. However, in a 2017 podcast interview with The Jamie Weinstein Show, he was asked about it directly. “I don’t think many people know that you were actually a freedom-fighter who traveled to Central America to fight with the Contras. Could you fill [our listeners] in on that story?” Weinstein asks. “No,” he replied, laughing, before coyly stating that his supposedly “liberal” father “let” him go because he and Patel “wanted to go see the war in Nicaragua.” “All kinds of hilarity ensued,” he added, laughing nervously before changing the subject.
Both Carlson and Patel would return in 1990 at the time of the presidential election, which pitted Sandinista Daniel Ortega against U.S.-backed, Contra-supporting candidate Violeta Chamorro. Thanks to years of U.S.-sponsored terror and a huge political war chest, Chamorro was able to win, becoming the sixth person in her family to hold the office. According to a 1990 edition of his college’s newsletter, The Trinity Tripod, Carlson and Patel attended “many [Chamorro] rallies.” Indeed, in the National Review podcast, Carlson said that he was literally “standing next to her when she won.”
The younger Carlson presents his time in Nicaragua as purely innocent. “We did not have a place to stay or any set plans. It was very spontaneous. We are both extremely political and we felt that getting to know the country and some of its citizens would give us a better perspective on the situation,” the Tripod quotes him as saying. Speaking to sources who were in Nicaragua at the time, MintPress understands that it was not uncommon for Americans of both socialist and conservative political dispositions to travel there as a kind of political gap year.
Thus, it is quite possible that these preppy conservatives were simply rich kids inspired by the attempts to unseat an anti-imperialist government. However, the fact that the son of a man in charge of a CIA front organization tasked with aiding the Contras and overthrowing the government went there on more than one occasion remains suspect. How was a random foreign college student able to be right at Chamorro’s side as she won, given the intense security precautions after years of bloody civil war? What sort of “support” did Carlson give the Contras, and how should we interpret the word “freedom-fighter?” MintPress asked Fox News and Patel for comment on these issues but has not yet received a response.
Even more questions are raised when one remembers that it was not long after his second trip to Nicaragua that he formally applied to become a member of the CIA. Little about this event is known, but it was reported that, after his apparent rejection, Dick suggested he take up journalism. “They’ll take anybody,” he said.
Today, the Sandinistas are back in power and the U.S. continues to support the Chamorro family, with CIA cutout organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy sending the Chamorro Foundation millions of dollars in an attempt to help Violeta’s daughter Cristina’s presidential bid.
A fan of Dan?
While Carlson has had multiple public spats with so-called neocons, he has also consistently defended the ones involved in operations against Nicaragua. When Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) grilled Elliott Abrams for his role in aiding Central American massacres, Carlson brushed it off, stating that the events were “over 30 years ago,” implying that they were irrelevant. In 1991, a U.S. court convicted Abrams of withholding information from Congress about his role in supplying weapons to the Contras.
Abrams’s partner in crime in this was Oliver North, who directly sold the Iranian government weapons, using the illegal proceeds to fund the Conta death squads, which carried out countless massacres against peasants, women, schoolchildren and other “soft targets.” North was also (initially) convicted of his central part in this so-called Iran-Contra Affair. Carlson, however, has only positive things to say about him. “He is a great man, Ollie North,” he said. North has also appeared as a guest on Tucker Carlson Tonight on multiple occasions.
In his 1991 college yearbook, Carlson listed himself as a member of the Jesse Helms Foundation. Helms is remembered as one of the last openly racist politicians, and is infamous for opposing the civil rights acts and voting rights for racial minorities, and for staging a 16-day Senate filibuster to block the approval of a federal holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, Helms also worked closely with the CIA in Central America to prop up far-right dictatorships and overthrow the Sandinistas.
The North Carolina senator was crucial in pushing through the Helms-Burton Act – the blockade of Cuba that continues to this day. He also wrote the legislation that established Radio Martí, of which Tucker’s father, Dick, became head.
While there is and was such an organization as the Jesse Helms Foundation, it is likely that its inclusion in Carlson’s profile was meant as a joke, as it appears next to a claim that he was also part of the “Dan White Society.” Dan White was the man who killed Harvey Milk, California’s first openly-gay elected politician. In this light, then, it is likely that Carlson was merely signaling in a creative manner that he supported racism and homophobia.
Defending the CIA – firing back at Gary Webb
The CIA funded its dirty war against Nicaragua by helping the Contras to flood America’s Black urban centers with crack cocaine. That is the argument put forward by investigative journalist Gary Webb in his “dark alliance” series for The San Jose Mercury News and later in his book of the same name. The articles were widely republished and caused a storm of indignation across the country, with massive public anger being directed towards the agency.
Fortunately, the CIA could count on the loyalty of many friendly journalists, among them Tucker Carlson, who by 1996 was working for neocon publication The Weekly Standard. In an article titled “A Disgraceful Newspaper Exposé and Its Fans,” Carlson launched a wall-to-wall defense of the organization he had recently applied to join.
Framing it all as a ludicrous accusation, he claimed that there was “no evidence” for Webb’s claims, and presented the CIA as a noble institution under unfair scrutiny and constant attack from forces inside the U.S. that wanted to bring it down. Far from engaging in the drug trade, he claimed that there is “ample evidence” that CIA officials had “moved to remove drug traffickers” from the “Nicaraguan resistance” – an interesting choice of words to describe the Contras.
He also wrote off the Black journalists showing interest in Webb’s findings as conspiracy theorists, stating that “few major media outlets have validated the series by reporting on its charges in any detail,” as if to say that this proved its erroneousness. In his book, “Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News,” he would later describe the idea as “ridiculous.”
The CIA was very thankful to Carlson for helping muddy the waters and shooting the messenger. A declassified CIA document cites his Weekly Standard article, among others, as aiding them in “managing a nightmare.”
Webb was subject to a huge campaign to sully his name and hound him out of journalism. He faced intense scrutiny and criticism from the national security state. In 2004, he was found in his home in California with two bullets in his head. His death was officially ruled a suicide. Others believe the messenger was killed.
Spears, Libby, and “semiliterate primitive monkeys”
As the millennium approached, Carlson had begun to establish himself as a neoconservative writer, reportedly “begging” arch neocon and future Iraq War architect Bill Kristol to hire him at The Weekly Standard.
After The Weekly Standard, Carlson jumped to CNN, hosting the show Crossfire. Like Kristol, he supported the invasion of Iraq, even going there to mingle with private U.S. mercenaries. An image from 2004 shows Carlson posing with two armed employees of DynCorp International, holding a Kalshnikoff rifle himself. Carlson’s article presents them as a relatively laudable force conducting vital operations, rather than an occupying army carrying out war crimes.
Apart from this soldier cosplaying, Carlson was also involved in one of the most iconic and bizarre pieces of pro-war propaganda from the time. In a 2003 interview with Britney Spears, Carlson asks the pop superstar what she thought about Iraq and what followers should do. “Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens,” she replies. “Do you trust this president?” Carlson asks. “Yes, I do,” she responds. “Excellent!” he exclaims. The clip was replayed countless times and is featured in a number of documentaries about the war, coming to define an era of pro-war media reporting.
Another top neocon close to the Carlson family is the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby. Along with Kristol, Libby was a founding member of the Project for a New American Century, the controversial think tank that pushed for the United States to become a global empire and take out any and all governments that did not comply with its dictates. In 2007, Libby was famously sentenced to 30 months in prison for his role in a CIA scandal, although he was later pardoned by Trump.
By the time of Libby’s arraignment before a federal judge, Carlson had his own show on MSNBC, where he defended Libby, stating “This is a guy who devoted his whole life to the vice president. He’s got little kids. He worked 18 hours every day for five years.” What Carlson did not note were his own connections to Libby. His father Dick had employed Libby as his lawyer for some time and was even on the Libby Legal Defense Fund. “I’m a good friend of Scooter Libby,” Dick said in a 2006 interview on C-Span; “I’ve been a friend of Scooter’s for years. Scooter Libby is, in my view, a person of great integrity and character,” he added. Libby and the elder Carlson also worked together to represent Monica Lewinski and help fund her legal fees. Furthermore, Neil Patel had worked for Libby for a number of years, rising to become his deputy chief policy advisor.
The future Fox News anchor claims that he quickly turned against the war. However, many of his earliest known anti-war statements do not present him in the best light. “It’s beyond our control. I mean if, somehow, the Iraqis decided to behave like human beings or something. It’s beyond that. We can’t – I don’t think we can control. I think that’s the whole lesson of Iraq is that it is very difficult to control other people’s countries,” he said in 2008, adding a few months later that, “Iraq is a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys – that’s why it wasn’t worth invading.”
Thus, his objection to the war was not that it was immoral, but that it was too much of a burden on the U.S. On Iraqis, he was explicit, stating in 2006: “They can just shut the fuck up and obey, is my view. And, you know, the second we leave, they’re going to be calling for us to return because they can’t govern themselves.”
The pot calls O’Reilly black
Throughout the 2000s, Carlson’s on-air persona was very different to the one he projects today. Sporting a bowtie and a suit, he reveled in his position among the upper-classes. “I’m an out-of-the-closet-elitist… I don’t run around pretending to be a man of the people; I’m absolutely not a man of the people, at all.” he said in a 2008 radio interview. Even after he joined Fox News as an analyst in 2009, he was still very frank about his role in the media. “I am 100% his bitch. Whatever Mr. Murdoch says, I do,” he said, referring to the conservative press baron who owns Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and a host of other outlets.
He also had little time for right-wingers and their faux populism, which he regarded as attempting to appeal to working-class people by offering them false consciousness. In a 2003 interview, he criticized Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, stating:
I think there’s a deep phoniness at the center of his schtick. It’s built on the perception that he is the character he plays; he is everyman. He’s not right-wing, he’s a populist fighting for you against the powers that be… And that’s great as a schtick. But I’m just saying that the moment it is revealed not to be true, it’s over!.. Because the whole thing is predicated on the fact that he is who he says he is. And nobody is that person. Especially not somebody who makes many millions a year.”
And yet, when Carlson replaced O’Reilly in his 8 p.m. slot on Fox News, he adopted virtually the same persona, as a fiery, unpredictable outsider standing up for working people and saying what so many are thinking. He has certainly taken a number of positions against the establishment consensus. He was the only mainstream pundit to cover the Syria-OPCW coverup in 2019 and has generally supported calls to free Australian publisher Julian Assange.
Moreover, his rhetoric about elites in Washington is sometimes eerily reminiscent of Senator Bernie Sanders. For instance, in 2019 he said:
Working-class people of all colors have a lot more in common, infinitely more in common with each other than they do with some overpaid MSNBC anchor. And if you were allowed to think about that for long enough, you might start to get unauthorized ideas about economics, and that would be disruptive to a very lucrative status quo.”
Talk like this has built his credibility in conservative circles and even among portions of the political left. Carlson regularly invites on leftist commentators who are rarely seen on the other networks. Journalist Glenn Greenwald even went so far as to say that he would “consider Tucker Carlson to be a socialist.”
Yet closer inspection of his position finds that Carlson largely identifies Democrats rather than Republicans as the real problem. “Democrats have become the party of the elite, professional class,” he tells viewers, with the phrases “elite” and “liberal elites” often used interchangeably. Even in the quote above, he identifies “overpaid MSNBC anchor[s]” as the problem, rather than the upper class more generally.
Tucker’s real purpose
Thus, the Fox News host also attempts to channel popular frustrations away from the real causes of economic grief and into a pointless and endless red vs. blue culture war. Carlson has attempted to get his viewers angry about how liberals are supposedly claiming that the number “8” and trees are racist, or trying to get you to eat bugs. As media critic Carlos Maza noted:
The goal of Tucker’s show isn’t to challenge the elite; it is to make sure that you never realize who they are. To get you so mad at atheists, feminists, immigrants, millennials, trans people, pot smokers, college students, vegans, the NFL, Brooklyn witches and Lena fucking Dunham, that you don’t get mad at the people who are actually in charge.”
Carlson is generally quite respectful of his interviewees, his affable personality and charm disarming many. Yet when a guest actually brought up systemic failures of capitalism and highlighted his network’s own part in it, Carlson shut it down. In 2019, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman was brought on to criticize the World Economic Forum at Davos, but it did not go as planned after Bregman went off-script, highlighting the phony nature of Carlson’s critique. “You are a millionaire funded by billionaires… And that’s the reason you’re not talking about these issues… You are not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” he told Carlson. “You’re all like ‘I’m against the globalist elite, blah, blah blah.’ It’s not very convincing,” he added, to which Carlson replied, “Why don’t you go fuck yourself!” The interview was terminated and never broadcast.
Throughout his career, he has also consistently opposed labor unions – historically, the principal method through which working-class people build consciousness and organize for better wages and conditions. Why is this? In a 2009 radio segment, when he was yet to don his O’Reilly-borrowed everyman persona, he laid it out. Referencing his own privileged upbringing, he explained, “One thing you learn when you grow up in a castle and look out across the moat every day at the hungry peasants in the village is you don’t want to stoke envy among the proletariat.”
“Tucker Carlson isn’t a populist,” Maza said; “he’s a safety valve; a way to make sure that when the peasants in the village get angry, they don’t take it out on the party giving tax cuts to him or [Rupert Murdoch], his multi-billionaire boss.” Maza noted that Carlson spent twice as long discussing how liberals think trees are racist as he did covering Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which were, at the time, the biggest giveaway from the poor to the super-wealthy in American history. That Carlson is still an elitist at heart and not some kind of radical, anti-neocon outsider can be gauged by the fact that last year he was spotted eating dinner together with President George W. Bush at a private residence in Florida.
Carlson has also stoked racial resentment on his show, platforming far-right guests and scaremongering about gypsies coming to America and suggesting they would defecate in public. He also claimed that immigrants make the country “poorer and dirtier” and repeated the “great replacement” conspiracy theory – an idea that the Democrats are intentionally inviting people of color to the U.S. in an attempt to replace the white race.
A brilliant disguise
While Carlson has generally opposed increasing tensions with Russia, this should not be mistaken as a principled, anti-war stance. Rather, Carlson wants the U.S.’ attention to be firmly on what he calls “the China threat.” In a segment entitled “America is being sold to China,” he frames the opioid crisis as a possibly deliberate Chinese attack on the U.S. He has also claimed that Biden has “accelerated America’s bend to communist China” and that Beijing is engaged in “wholesale theft” and “relentless espionage” against the United States, in what, for him, amounts to “the biggest story of the decade.”
In this position, Carlson is mirroring that of the Pentagon, which long ago began its so-called “Pivot to Asia.” For years, the U.S. military has been building up its forces for what the head of Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, described as the “real possibility” of a nuclear war with China.
In December, Carlson attempted to fuse his crusade against woke liberals with an aggressive pro-confrontation message. He and media personality Jesse Kelly agreed that wokeness will lead to hundreds of thousands of Americans dying in battle, presumably because the military has become too sissified to win in a coming war against China, a power Carlson described as a “massive, real threat.” Kelly added:
We don’t need a military that’s women-friendly. We don’t need a military that’s gay-friendly, with all due respect to the Air Force. We need a military that is flat-out hostile. We need a military full of type-A men that want to sit on a throne of Chinese skulls. But we don’t have that now. We can’t even get women off of naval vessels. That should be step one. But most of them are already pregnant anyway.”
Carlson nodded along, even as Kelly hinted at genocide against Chinese people.
Ultimately, while Carlson – like others – has found a massive audience for his populist sentiment, careful scrutiny of his background and past statements prove that this is little more than an act. In the same manner as Bill O’Reilly, this elitist trust-fund kid has managed to make his audience believe that he is a radical outsider working on behalf of ordinary people like him, despite the fact that the billionaire-owned Fox News has given him a platform and a multimillion-dollar contract.
Despite his family’s wealth and close connections with state power, he has convinced millions that he is on their side. Yet Tucker Carlson is no threat to the establishment; in fact, he is one of their greatest assets.
Feature photo | Graphic by MintPress News
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.