The Rise of the Tucker Carlson Politician

But these campaign videos actually have a different, more prosaically political antecedent: Tucker Carlson’s monologues. Five nights a week, Carlson offers his populist message to more than three million Fox News Channel viewers. He tells them that the people who run our country, namely Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, are “a senile man and an imbecile”; that our military leadership, in the person of Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is “not just a pig, he’s stupid”; and that in our schools, “your children are being taught by some of the most ignorant people in the country.” Now Masters — along with another former Thiel employee, J.D. Vance, who’s running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in Ohio — is trying to convert this rhetoric into an actual political campaign.

Carlson is the rare Fox News host whose words carry weight with conservative intellectuals. He is especially popular with those who identify as “national conservatives,” or NatCons — writers and thinkers who tack hard to the right on culture-war issues, denouncing Critical Race Theory and drag-queen story hours, while sharing a set of economic concerns with the left, supporting child subsidies and industrial policy. Depending on your point of view, NatCons are either attempting to add intellectual heft to Trumpism or trying to reverse-engineer an intellectual doctrine to match Trump’s lizard-brain populism. Either way, they have found a champion in Carlson, who delivered the keynote address at the inaugural National Conservatism Conference in 2019, and delivers their message every weeknight in prime time. “At some point, Donald Trump will be gone,” he told viewers in 2019. “What kind of country will it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.”

These stark positions have yet to be reduced to the simple shorthand images political ads normally rely on.

It makes sense that Masters and Vance would subscribe to national conservatism. Their former boss and patron, Thiel — who has donated millions to super PACs supporting each candidacy — is a NatCon, giving the keynote address at last year’s conference. And they come by the ideology honestly. They are products of elite institutions — Vance graduated from Yale Law School, Masters from Stanford Law — and claim to have been radicalized by the experience. Their populism is a form of contrarianism and rebellion. “Dominant elite society is boring, it is completely unreflective, and it is increasingly wrong,” Vance recently told The Washington Post Magazine. “I kind of had to make a choice.”

The challenge is turning that choice into votes. Trump created a constituency on instinct, but thus far there has been no way for politicians to signal affinity with it apart from pledging personal allegiance to Trump. Now that NatCons are trying to solidify that constituency ideologically, it seems freshly possible to align instead with Carlson, whose lead Masters and Vance have followed on everything from opposing vaccine mandates to sympathizing with Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical worldview. (Since the invasion of Ukraine, all three have recalibrated on Putin, with varying degrees of success.) Like Carlson, they go out of their way to troll liberals. Masters recently tweeted footage of a truck hauling lumber with the message: “I guarantee the guy driving this truck is conservative. Imagine a progressive dude driving a logging truck. You can’t.”