Tucker Carlson’s Top Ratings a Good Sign for Trump

Tucker Carlson’s Top Ratings a Good Sign for Trump
AP Photo/Richard Drew, File
Tucker Carlson’s Top Ratings a Good Sign for Trump
AP Photo/Richard Drew, File
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Donald Trump may be down in the polls, but Tucker Carlson’s ratings are up – way up.

In the second quarter of 2020, Carlson edged passed his Fox colleague Sean Hannity to become the highest-rated show in cable news. That would be a career pinnacle for any cable news host, but Carlson is on the vanguard of something even bigger – he’s become the highest-rated cable news show in history. “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” along with “Hannity,” which airs in the following time slot, have become the first shows in cable news history to average more than 4 million viewers for an entire quarter.

Last month, as riots swept across the country, Carlson’s crisply written and acidic opening monologues about the state of the country became appointment viewing. On June 2, Carlson opened with a riveting 30-minute soliloquy – a veritable eternity of one man speaking directly to the camera – to warn his viewers that “our leaders dither as our cities burn.” It was powerful stuff.

Ben Domenech of The Federalist observed, “Tucker Carlson's 30+ minute monologue tonight feels like a rare significant cable news moment, on the scale of Rick Santelli's Tea Party rant a decade ago.” Even CNN media critic Brian Stelter, who expends much of his energy criticizing conservative media and his competitors at Fox, agreed that Carlson’s monologue was watershed moment for the medium.

Carlson hasn’t let up the on the gas in the weeks since, giving voice to the frustrations of millions of Americans fed up with major media that have effectively endorsed violent rioting and share Carlson’s disgust of the timid political reaction to the breakdown of law and order and the radically left-wing sentiment expressed by elements of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Even before the recent rioting, there were reports Carlson had become so influential that even President Trump is following his lead on issues such as the coronavirus response and how to handle a hostile Iran. So, what does Carlson’s rise say about the present political moment? Well, a notable feature of recent politics is the way that the emergence of certain cable news personalities and ratings trends seems to be a leading indicator of political fortunes. 

In 2006, Keith Olbermann became a national name as his ratings jumped 67% ahead of Democrats’ congressional takeover. In 2010, Glenn Beck was a ratings bonanza for Fox, pulling in as many as 3.4 million viewers – a figure that’s all the more astounding when you consider his show aired at 5 p.m. and not in prime time. Later that same year, Republicans handed Democrats the worst congressional defeat for any party since World War II.

In the Obama election years 2008 and 2012, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow emerged as the leading cable personality of the left. In both those years she racked up rare victories over Sean Hannity, her Fox time-slot competitor, in the key 25-to-54-age advertising demographic. In 2016, Trump’s dominance of cable news was so total that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough publicly flirted with running as Trump’s vice president, and CNN President Jeff Zucker would later apologize for running so many unfiltered Trump rallies, though both men would rather you forget these things happened.

Despite Tucker Carlson being the undisputed cable news story of 2020, Trump’s political fortunes seem out of sync with the runaway success of conservative populism on television. Carlson is doing better than Trump.

Charles Krauthammer famously observed regarding Fox News that “the genius of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes was to have discovered a niche market in American broadcasting -- half the American people.” Carlson is a force precisely because he takes Fox’s base appeal and expands it, thanks to a fearless willingness to scramble partisan conceptions.

Carlson regularly offers up searing criticism of establishment figures that prominent conservatives have long been afraid to take on, including predatory capitalists, big tech censors, and D.C.’s pro-intervention foreign policy blob. Notably, his favorite target lately is the Republican Party, which he repeatedly characterizes as feckless and cowardly.

Two weeks ago, after Carlson criticized Indiana Sen. Mike Braun’s police reform legislation, Braun asked to appear on the show to discuss the matter. Fox News complied, and the ensuing nine-minute segment was riveting from beginning to end, as Carlson nailed Braun for misleading rhetoric suggesting police organizations supported his bill. One would be hard-pressed to find a similarly tough mainstream media interview of a Democratic member of Congress at any point in the last decade.

Carlson’s eagerness to bash his own party should earn him some brownie points from his liberal journalistic peers, but the narratives spun by the Washington establishment are dependent on defining heroes and villains according to trite partisan conceptions. Instead of grudging admiration, there has been an ongoing campaign to destroy Carlson.

For some time, Carlson has been subject to an advertising boycott by Sleeping Giants, a left-wing advocacy group that admits its boycotts are hurting the entire journalism industry by causing advertisers to shy away from all political content. One of Sleeping Giants’ two founders is currently accusing the other of racism and sexism, which only underscores Carlson’s frequent commentary about the destructive tendencies of cultural progressives.  

The campaign to destroy Carlson was given ammunition when CNN revealed last week that the show’s head writer pseudonymously posted sexist and racist comments on an internet forum where other participants indulged in racist humor. The writer was fired, but Carlson’s enemies gloated publicly and are unlikely to give Fox News any credit for dealing with the episode decisively.

The clearest sign that Carlson’s success has Trump’s opponents running scared comes from a Washington Post puff piece last week about the dubiously financed Never Trump PAC, the Lincoln Project. A recent memo put out by the group “cited Fox News host Tucker Carlson, as well as Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), as other potential party leaders [the group] hopes to sideline.” It’s one thing for a PAC to target elected officials. It’s quite another for the so-called conservatives behind the Lincoln Project to try to de-platform a journalist who doesn’t toe their orthodoxy.

So are Carlson’s stellar ratings and the fact he strikes fear in the hearts of Trump’s opponents leading indicators of a Trump victory in November? Well, just before Election Day in 2016, Trump super fan Bill Mitchell was relentlessly mocked for looking at flagging polls and saying Trump’s “ground game is in our hearts.” If Trump pulls off another shocking upset, maybe we’ll look back at Tucker Carlson’s surge in popularity and say the ground game began in the living rooms of Trump voters, nodding in agreement in front of their televisions.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.

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