He entered to rapturous applause, flattered his hosts shamelessly, told them about his political vision and sold them merchandise bearing his name.
Tucker Carlson’s appearance in Iowa on Friday looked like a presidential run, walked like a presidential run and quacked like a presidential run but was most certainly not a presidential run, at least as far as anyone knows.
The Fox News host was the keynote speaker at the Family Leadership Summit, a gathering of more than 1,800 religious conservatives in Des Moines, Iowa, which every four years is the first state to have a say in picking the Republican presidential nominee.
It was at the same forum in the same state seven years ago that businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump told the audience that Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, was “not a war hero” – instantly dooming his candidacy, or so everyone thought.
Carlson, 53, another political neophyte and media celebrity, has been touted as a potential Trump heir who might launch a bid for the White House by stoking the same flames of populism, white identity politics and hunger for a man who says what he thinks – the more outrageous the better.
The New York Times has described Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News as “what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news”. It is also the most highly rated in prime time.
Carlson describes white supremacy as a “hoax” but has become a prominent conduit for its talking points, suggesting that diversity is America’s biggest existential threat. He has notoriously promoted the far right “great replacement” theory, which holds that western elites are importing immigrant voters to usurp white people.
Yet while he has embraced the nativist and liberal-taunting strains of the “Make America great again” movement, Carlson had been careful to keep some daylight between himself and Trump – leading some to speculate that he is carving out his own lane.
“He could be a good president for sure,” said Kent Proudfit, 70, attending Friday’s Family Leadership Summit. “I don’t know if he would run but he’s pretty popular. He’s got the biggest cable show in America right now. I’d definitely vote for him.”
Proudfit, a retired hospital courier driver wearing a “Trump 2024 revenge tour” cap that he got for free, said he was untroubled by Carlson’s lack of political experience.
“You don’t always need to have somebody that’s a politician; maybe somebody that’s in business just like Trump was,” Proudfit said. “We need a businessman and he’s done pretty good in business so that’s where I would lean.”
At the conference, Carlson’s warm-up acts were Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s governor, and Chuck Grassley, the longest-serving US senator in Iowa history, both of whom lauded the supreme court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
Taking the stage in a dark blue jacket, blue checkered shirt, blue-and-yellow striped tie and grey slacks, Carlson gave a 42-minute speech that ticked some of the boxes of a typical would-be candidate.
There was personal biography (“I was super unpopular in sixth grade because I had exactly the same views that I have now.”), compliments to the hosts (“Think I’ve been to all 99 of your counties.”) and swipes at the Democrats (“The other side is so menacing and so scary at this point.”).
Carlson also sought to clean up past comments that could be used against him. He has been widely condemned for voicing support for Russia in its war on Ukraine as well as for Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán.
“I’m not a Putin defender, despite what you may have heard,” he said. “I don’t care one way or the other because he’s not my president. He doesn’t preside over my country and what he does in Ukraine, while I think historically significant, certainly significant to Ukrainians, is not more significant to me than what gas costs. In fact it’s not even in the same universe.”
There was a ripple of applause. Carlson continued: “The rising price of fossil fuels is not an inconvenience. It’s the whole story. … Cheap energy, cheap fossil fuels make the difference between living in the Central African Republic and Des Moines.”
He also bore some stylistic similarities to Trump in digressive, meandering remarks, sometimes with flashes of sardonic humour, that were more evocative of a man venting in a bar late at night than a politician reading from a teleprompter. Noting how Iowans have long been besieged by eager candidates, Carlson quipped: “I cannot even imagine being in my boxer shorts and, like, bumping into Beto O’Rourke.”
But he admitted that he is “no Bible scholar” and gave no hint of joining that throng as he expressed surprise at being invited to address the conference, saying: “Then I thought, no, actually, I’m the perfect person to come up here because I can give you advice for how to assess the sweaty people begging for your vote. Because if there’s one group I know well, it’s politicians.”
He argued that Republicans should choose a candidate who pays attention to voters’ core concerns, such as the welfare of their children, and who does not care what the New York Times thinks. Carlson’s speech went in esoteric directions, including reactionary gripes about modern architecture and an encounter with an underground bees’ nest.
The TV host took familiar potshots at women who have abortions and transgender athletes before concluding: “Twitter isn’t real, OK? It’s the domain of super unhappy people with empty personal lives and creepy political agendas. What matters to you is what matters to you and you have every right, in fact you have a constitutional duty, to tell your representative to represent you on those issues.”
The room erupted in whoops and applause from the conservative, overwhelmingly white audience that included many regular viewers of Tucker Carlson Tonight.
Jim Hawkins, 77, retired from a career in education, said: “He is probably one of the more fearless people to expose many of the false truths. It’s very obvious that our press has a bias that leans toward liberalism.”
At first Hawkins was skeptical about Carlson running for president but then appeared to warm to the idea, saying, “He would certainly outshine many of the people who would run against him through his intellect, his exposure to a variety of things. I could get behind that but he would leave a void in what he’s doing now.”
Kyle Danilson, 16, wearing a white “Tucker Carlson” cap on sale in the lobby for $30, alongside water bottles for $20, said he had been watching Carlson’s show since he was 14. “He’s probably the number one reporter in conservative media,” Danilson remarked. “I agree with 75% of everything he says.
“If he wanted to run for president he’d have the platform but I don’t think he should or would. He’s more one to promote somebody else instead of promoting himself.”
Mary Jane Kolars, 71, watches Carlson’s show – widely condemned by fact checkers for spreading false conspiracy theories – every night.
“I like that he’s honest,” she said. “He’s exposing a lot of corruption in our country and he’s not afraid to talk about what’s really going on behind the scenes.”
But the retired substitute teacher and church secretary added: “I wouldn’t want him to run for president; I want Trump to. Tucker Carlson has his place and he’s gifted in that area. I don’t think he’s gifted in running a country or dealing with foreign countries and making deals like Trump can make deals.”
Cindy Manning, 62, a teacher who watches the show almost every night, added: “He could run for president. I don’t know if that’s in his interest at all but he would make a good candidate. He does lack some things that he would need but he would just have to surround himself with people that would help him.”
Democrats appear poised to end the first-in-the-nation status of their Iowa caucuses but Republicans are expected to maintain the tradition. Potential 2024 contenders including former vice-president Mike Pence, ex-secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Senator Tom Cotton have been making visits to the Hawkeye state.
Some observers suggest that Carlson, who was born to a wealthy family in San Francisco and attended a prestigious boarding school in Rhode Island, would struggle to appeal to Iowa’s conservative rural areas.
Storm Lake Times newspaper editor Art Cullen said: “It seems to me like Tom Cotton or Mike Pence is much more a fit for Iowa than, say, Tucker Carlson, a guy who used to wear a bow tie and natty suits and everything. He shows up in Des Moines and Tom Cotton shows up in that little dinky town where there’s a lot of evangelicals.”
Carlson’s brand of white nationalism would not necessarily be a vote winner here, Cullen added, saying, “There was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment stirred up by the likes of former congressman Steve King. But there isn’t the kind of overt racism in Iowa that you’ll see in other places. It’s a much subtler form of racism so I don’t know if overt appeals are going to be that attractive.”
Carlson has described impoverished immigrants as making America “poorer, dirtier, and more divided” and dismissed people protesting the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 as “criminal mobs”. He has also sown doubts about coronavirus vaccines and claimed without evidence that the January 6 Capitol insurrection was a government “false flag” operation.
All told, his Iowa trip is unlikely to quell speculation that he could seek the Republican nomination.
Democratic National Committee adviser Kurt Bardella said: “Tucker Carlson is someone who is very smart, a gifted performer, and would embody the absolute worst impulses of the Republican party come to life.
“He would in many ways become the living embodiment of the white grievances that seem to have overrun the platform of the Republican party. When you tune into his programming every night, really it is the white grievance hour.”
Bardella, a former Republican congressional aide, added: “The white nationalist element within the party has grown larger and larger and more vocal and influential and visible. That would be a natural launching pad and constituency for a Tucker Carlson presidential bid.
“In many ways, think of Tucker Carlson as a more polished Steve Bannon. Just right out of central casting, someone who embodies all the destructive elements that Steve Bannon represents but in a much more presentable and polished way.”
July 17, 2022 at 11:58AM David Smith in Des Moines, Iowa