Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s” and cohosts the podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On November 14, 2016, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” made its debut. The timing was significant: Fox News had been reshuffling its shows and contributors for months, as it sought to hone in on a lineup that matched its audience’s preference for Donald Trump, who had won the presidency only days earlier.
Carlson delivered. His show became a clearinghouse for populist rage, a pipeline for far-right content and the most mainstream voice of the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which argued that White people were being purposefully replaced by non-white populations. The right-wing, America-First themes that defined Carlson’s broadcasts made him the voice of the MAGA base in during the Trump era — and by 2020, it made his show the most-watched in all of cable news.
So his surprise ouster from Fox News this week, coming just a week after Fox settled a $787 million defamation suit with Dominion Voting Systems, raises serious questions about where exactly Fox News goes from here — and whether it can bring its conservative audience with it.
The network has been in crisis mode for more than two years. It adjusted haltingly to the Trump era, as executives realized its audience seemed more loyal to him than to Fox News. But by the time of Trump’s inauguration, Fox News had found its footing: it would become the mouthpiece of the administration. The morning show Fox & Friends regularly gave airtime to rambling calls from the new president; primetime host Sean Hannity talked with the president most days after his show.
While Hannity became the voice of the White House, Carlson became the voice of the base. He positioned himself as a populist scrapper — never mind that he’s an heir to a frozen-food fortune with a penchant for bowties — and began warning his audience that liberal elites were coming for their gun, their jobs and their children.
From his position as the voice of the base, Carlson could criticize Trump when he stepped out of line for things like his failure to build the border wall or to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Carlson was also able to survive the discovery that his head writer regularly posted racist comments on White-nationalist web sites — and even attack corporate media, despite his role as anchor for the nation’s most popular cable-news corporation.
As the MAGA-whisperer on Fox News, Tucker was the network’s tentpole for the entire Trump era. When the network began bleeding listeners after calling the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden, Carlson helped lure them back with conspiratorial content about the attack on the Capitol. In his propaganda documentary “Patriot Purge,” Carlson argued that the Capitol assault had been carried out by “agents provocateur,” and that those who had been arrested were “political prisoners.” His MAGA-friendly conspiracies paved Fox News’s path back to credibility with its audience.
Yet while the audience rebounded, the troubles at Fox News continued to mount. Having doubled-down on election lies after the 2020 race, the network faced defamation suits from Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic, two voting-machine manufacturers central to the 2020 election conspiracies.
The Dominion suit, settled last week for $787 million, came with reams of discovery that showed just how beholden Fox News is to the beliefs of its audience. Executives, anchors and hosts all panicked after the 2020 election, worried that, by reporting the news, they had driven away their viewers. Given a choice between alienating its audience and reporting the news, Fox chose the ratings.
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Having made that choice, Fox News now finds itself in a corner once again. Back in the Obama years, the channel benefited from its reputation as a legitimate news organization. When the Obama administration dismissed Fox as propaganda, journalists came to its defense. That ended during the Trump years, as Fox largely shed its pretense of news coverage to serve the Trump administration.
Where Fox once competed with CNN and MSNBC for viewers, it increasingly found itself fighting for dominance with networks like Newsmax and web sites like Breitbart, outlets that were far less constrained by a pretense to journalism and willing to go much further with overtly racist content and wild conspiracy theories. Carlson was Fox’s leading fighter on that battlefield. With him gone, the network will have to find a new way to secure its audience — or risk losing even more ground to competitors on the right.