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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Chris McGreal

Who is Tucker Carlson really ‘rooting for’ in Ukraine?

Tucker Carlson enjoying a laugh with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Trump in July 2022.
Tucker Carlson enjoying a laugh with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump in July 2022. Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

If Americans think things are bad, there is always Tucker Carlson to make them seem worse. Never more so than when the Fox News host is talking about Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“We’ve entered a new phase, one in which the United States is directly at war with the largest nuclear power in the world,” Carlson grimly warned his viewers on Tuesday.

This alarming development, which apparently escaped the rest of the US media, was supposedly brought about by the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines from Russia to western Europe. Sweden and Denmark say the pipelines were blown up with several hundred kilos of explosives, pouring vast amounts of natural gas into the sea and atmosphere.

While European politicians hinted that Russia was responsible as part of a new phase of hybrid war over Ukraine, Carlson said the evidence pointed in another direction.

“If you are Vladimir Putin, you would have to be a suicidal moron to blow up your own energy pipeline,” he claimed.

So if not Putin, who?

“In early February, less than three weeks before the war in Ukraine began, Joe Biden suggested on camera that he might take out these pipelines,” said Carlson.

The Fox News anchor reasoned that the president’s warning that if Russia invaded Ukraine the US would shut down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a direct threat to sabotage it.

“He said, there won’t be a Nord Stream 2. We’ll put an end to it. We will take it out. We will blow it up,” said Carlson.

Biden did not say “take it out” or “blow it up” but that did not stop Carlson from concluding that the president had brought the US to the brink of nuclear war.

It’s not clear how this take on events goes down with Fox News viewers, many of whom are more than willing to blame Biden for a wide array of problems but who might flinch at Carlson allying himself so closely with one of America’s sworn enemies.

But it goes down very well in Moscow.

Carlson’s commentaries on the Ukraine war generally reflect Putin’s speeches and claims. Russian television then plays back the monologues as evidence that Putin is right because the same is being said by “the most popular television presenter in America”.

That in itself is a dubious claim. Although Tucker Carlson Tonight does well on cable, terrestrial channels have much larger audiences for their newscasts. But there is no doubt that Carlson has outsize impact. What is less clear is whether he really believes what he’s saying.

A fast-moving war has required some deft footwork from Carlson.

In August he scoffed at claims Russia was losing the war. “Here’s the weird thing. By any actual reality-based measure, Vladimir Putin is not losing the war in Ukraine. He is winning the war in Ukraine and Joe Biden looks at that and says we won’t stop until you proffer an unconditional surrender,” Carlson claimed.

Russian television liked that so much it rebroadcast the monologue. Unfortunately for Carlson’s credibility as a military analyst, that very day Ukraine began an assault that resulted in Russian soldiers throwing away their weapons and running for the border.

After that, Carlson swung back to claiming that Russia wasn’t fighting Ukraine but the west, particularly the US and Britain.

He called Boris Johnson, the British prime minister at the time, a “hapless cutout” driving Ukraine to war at Washington’s bidding.

“America and the UK demand total war with Russia, regime change war with Russia and of course, the Ukrainians caught in the middle had no choice but to concede,” he told his viewers.

Carlson was apologising for Putin long before February’s invasion. In November, the Fox News host questioned US support for Kyiv in its fight with Russian proxies in breakaway regions and said he was rooting for Moscow.

“Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia?” he said. “I’m serious. Why do I care? Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.”

Amid an outpouring of derision, Carlson claimed he wasn’t serious after all.

“Of course, I’m joking. I’m only rooting for America, mocking the obsession many on the left have,” he said.

Yet in the following months, it proved not to be a joke. Carlson regularly delivered up a defense of Russia, or at least its leader.

People stand outside the News Corp and Fox News building in New York protesting against Fox News and Tucker Carlson’s coverage of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
People stand outside the News Corp and Fox News building in New York protesting against Tucker Carlson’s coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Shortly before Russia invaded in February, Carlson laid out a set of talking points that mirrored a speech made by Putin a few hours earlier attacking Nato.

“Their one and only goal is to hold back the development of Russia,” Putin had claimed. “They just do not need a big and independent country like Russia around.” Carlson parroted Putin’s claim that Ukraine wasn’t a real country and said that its government was a “puppet” of the west, “essentially managed by the [US] state department”.

Three months after the invasion, Carlson was still echoing Putin’s talking points with the added claim that the US was backing Ukraine as “payback for the 2016 election” won by Donald Trump and to exact “regime change” in Moscow.

“We don’t arm Ukraine so we can help the Ukrainians. They are merely unfortunate pawns in all of this,” the Fox News host said. “We arm Ukraine so that we can punish Russia. Why? For stealing Hillary Clinton’s coronation.”

It’s clear that Carlson’s support of Putin is at least partly rooted in hostility to Biden and the Democrats. But the Fox News host has also shown a predilection for associating with authoritarian leaders and not just Donald Trump.

Carlson has developed a particular affection for Hungary’s president, Viktor Orbán, who is widely regarded as Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European Union. The Fox News presenter made a drooling documentary about Orbán, praising him for his brutal treatment of migrants. Orbán rewarded Carlson with a long interview, something the Hungarian leader has not done with his country’s own independent media since he took office in 2010.

Carlson also visited Brazil to heap praise on its rightwing leader, Jair Bolsonaro. He has defended the Syrian dictator and Russian ally, Bashar al-Assad, and questioned whether he was guilty of the atrocities documented by the United Nations human rights groups.

All of this has proved too much for others on the right who, while happy to attack Biden, recoil at Carlson siding so completely with Putin that he looks hostile to his own country.

Eric Bolling, a host on the rightwing websiteNewsmax, on Monday called Carlson an “alleged American” and accused him of stoking a nuclear conflict.

“It turns out Russian state media are using clips of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson to support Vladimir Putin’s war efforts in Ukraine,” said Bolling. “That is Russian state media using Tucker Carlson, alleged American, as propaganda to make their case that Russia is the victim.”

Months earlier, the Republican political consultant Frank Luntz responded to Carlson’s claim to be rooting for Russia by questioning whose side the Fox News host was on.

“It’s comments like this from Tucker Carlson that make me wonder who my friends are and who my enemies are – it makes me wonder whether the world has gone insane,” he tweeted.

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