Presidents these days always seem to get worse, don’t they?
To many on the left, Donald Trump is an order of magnitude more disastrous a commander in chief than was George W. Bush, whose reputation now stands thoroughly rehabilitated in the popular culture.
Bush is no longer the incurious man who launched an unnecessary war that killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq; today, he’s the goofy old fella who paints portraits of the troops, pals around with Michelle Obama and seems to be in on the joke of our times.
“Sorta makes me look pretty good, doesn’t it?” Bush has been reported to smirk about the Trump era.
For the record, I think the jury is still out on whether Trump is worse than Bush. But for most of 2019, I’ve been trying to picture a future that elevates Trump in the same way it did Bush: How much worse could all this get? And worse in what direction — what politics, policies, rhetoric and media mastery will the next extremely terrible president marshal to ruin America anew?
In short: What sort of character do we have to imagine occupying the White House in 2029 to make lefties like myself feel even a slight pang of nostalgia for the good old days of Donald Trump?
The thought experiment is instructive because it compels us to ponder some of the fundamental forces shaping American culture and politics at the moment. It is also horrifying, because what quickly becomes evident is that we might now be only in the middle of everything spinning out of control.
Come, take a stroll with me through my recurrent nightmare: It’s the sweltering summer of 2029, and the man in charge is Tucker Carlson — that is, President Tucker Carlson, the one-time Fox News talker turned righteous, white nationalist economic populist, now in his triumphant second term, after having defeated the incumbent Joseph “Recession Joe” Biden back in 2024.
Like Trump, Carlson spends his first term refashioning America along racial lines. But unlike Trump, whose one term is now regarded by much of the right as a best-forgotten political disaster, Carlson advances an ethnonationalist populism that succeeds in a wild, frightening fashion. His secret: competence, a commitment to true political realignment, and a brutal online political machine that represents the full flowering of the tactics and ideology first displayed during 2014’s Gamergate movement.
Where Trump was a chaotic, undisciplined narcissist, the Carlson who wins in 2024 is a canny political strategist who makes good on Trump’s forgotten promise to embrace anti-corporate economic policies. On paper, parts of Carlson’s agenda seem ripped from former liberal firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren (now in exile in Toronto): His chief enemies are Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, megacorporations owned and staffed by wealthy liberals.
It’s a winning electoral formula: A large minority of Americans are willing to forgive Carlson’s authoritarian, nativist impulses if they see it as part of a war against out-of-touch, culture-destroying corporations that are automating our jobs; killing every other industry; and exercising complete control over what we watch, read, listen to, buy and believe. And in America, thanks to the Electoral College, winning over a large minority is good enough to regularly win the presidency.
Obviously I am making all of this up. But my premonition is based on months of research — this is what you might call an educated nightmare. My education: Carlson’s own nightly Fox News show, which I’ve been watching obsessively since January. I began tuning in because Carlson — who, with nearly 3 million viewers a night, is the second most popular host on cable, after Sean Hannity — has become one of the most fascinatingly terrifying men in conservative media.
There are two things that terrify and fascinate me about Carlson. First, unlike most Republican lawmakers today, Carlson is sketching an economic vision of a post-Trump America that departs in key ways from Trumpism, especially in its muscular anti-corporate, populist zeal.
In January, in a commentary that went viral on the right, Carlson excoriated American political leaders for their commitment to empty capitalism: “For our ruling class, more investment banking is always the answer,” he said. “They teach us it’s more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.”
He regularly criticizes tech giants, whom he argues are censoring his and his followers’ views. But he also hates corporations more generally for what he calls their attempts to influence culture and politics (including by boycotting his show): His critics, he said in May, “believe democracy is when a tiny group of rich people imposes its values on everyone else by force."
In June, Carlson praised Warren’s plan for “economic patriotism”: “Many of Warren’s policy prescriptions make obvious sense,” he said, wondering why Republicans, including Trump, didn’t join her vision. “What if the Republican leadership here in Washington had bothered to learn the lessons of the 2016 election?”
The second thing that scares me about Carlson is his racism, which is both more extreme and more cannily packaged for a digital audience than is Trump’s.
While Trump is a creature of cable television, Carlson’s segments look like extended YouTube clips, and they’re designed to play to an audience that is extremely online. His critics and white supremacists themselves point out that, more than anyone else on television, Carlson functions as a kind of laundromat for white identity movements: Several times a week, he’ll lift ideas, storylines and troll-based narratives directly from the fetid swamp of online hatred. Then he’ll clean these theories up and wrap them in a bow for his mainstream audience, usually to advance an overarching idea that he mentions constantly: that, thanks to an “invasion” of immigrants, white people in America and Europe face economic and cultural calamity, and that the political, corporate and media establishments are abetting their destruction.
“No one covers white identity more consistently than Tucker,” said Madeline Peltz, who watches Carlson’s show every night as a researcher for Media Matters for America, a liberal advocacy group that tracks conservative outlets. “I cannot remember a single episode in the last two years that didn’t include these ideas.”
I’d known all this before I started watching, but actually watching blew my mind: Carlson’s propaganda was so constant, and the sleight of hand with which he inserted barely sanitized racist theories into his broadcast so swift, that I began to see the outlines of my nightmare — that Trump was only a prelude, and that even if he loses next year, someone far more sophisticated than our current president could come along to push digitally mediated politics in an even darker direction.
Carlson — who talks often with Trump, and was reportedly instrumental in advising Trump against attacking Iran in June — recently disclaimed any interest in running for president. He has been a nimble shape-shifter over the course of his career (a decade ago, he was a libertarian), so it’s possible that his latest critiques of capitalism are just an act.
But he may also have noticed that there are lots of conservative voters in America who don’t care for the Republican Party’s giveaways to corporations. Hence the outlines of a political vision: Carlson is aiming to mix a lefty-sounding economic agenda with a white nationalist-inspired cultural agenda — and to muddy the marriage by arguing that his and his followers’ ideas are being stifled by the tech giants that he’s fighting.
This is Carlson’s entire shtick. He uses the cover of capitalist hardship to advance theories of white oppression, often while summoning further harassment of his critics. He’s taking it to television, five nights a week. And where it ends up could be hellish.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.