Little time elapsed between the abrupt exit of fake populist Tucker Carlson from his perch at Fox News and the publication of paeans to his supposedly heterodox coverage, especially on US foreign policy.
It’s true Carlson was one of the few voices in corporate media who allowed occasional on-air criticism of the military-industrial complex, injected any dissenting opinions about Washington’s strategy regarding the Ukraine war, and raised concerns about nuclear war (even as his coverage has also at times veered explicitly into “root[ing] for Russia,” as the host once put it). Astoundingly, Carlson may be the singular person responsible for stopping Donald Trump from starting an idiotic war with Iran four years ago.
The fact that it fell to Carlson of all people — a former CIA aspirant, Iraq War supporter, and someone who once called the brutalized people of that country “semiliterate primitive monkeys” who “can’t govern themselves” — to make these commonsense points on TV speaks more to the stunted conformity of corporate news coverage than Carlson’s political virtue.
But the fixation on this small handful of deviations from Washington orthodoxy seems to have caused a collective bout of amnesia about something arguably far more important: the way Carlson has used his top-rated, highly influential show for years to push the US public and policymakers into a needless and disastrous conflict with China, a mirror image of the anti-Russia hawkishness the TV host criticizes elsewhere.
It’s a vision that, thanks in large part to Carlson’s efforts, has now become the new elite Washington orthodoxy — a remarkable achievement for a self-styled populist who claimed to be taking on the ruling class.
Threat Inflation Expansion Act
Carlson’s dissenting line on Ukraine policy has to be understood in light of his obsession with fighting China. As he outlined back in 2019, his dim view of Washington’s Russia strategy came from the fact that he viewed China, not Russia, as “our main enemy,” and that “the United States ought to be in a relationship with Russia aligned against China to the extent that we can.”
He reiterated this point three years later: because “China is the preeminent threat to the United States,” and because it’s impossible “to engage meaningfully simultaneously in Europe and in Asia,” the US focus on Ukraine only “detracts from our attention to China,” while at the same time pushing Moscow “into an alliance of convenience of necessity with the Chinese government.”
Carlson was right. If your main priorities are one day fighting a war with China and maintaining US supremacy across the globe — instead of, say, fixing the myriad homegrown crises of poverty and wealth inequality that fuel American despair — Washington’s foreign policy of antagonizing both Russia and China at the same time has been entirely backward.
Carlson was only putting forward a modified, twenty-first-century version of the foreign policy of Cold War hawks like Richard Nixon, who worked to deepen ties with Beijing in large part to keep China and the Soviet Union divided and eventually win the Cold War. Carlson’s vision also happens to be along the lines of the approach favored by hawks like frequent Tucker Carlson Tonight guest Elbridge Colby, the Donald Trump appointee responsible for the billionaire president’s anti-China 2018 National Defense Strategy. (“I wish you were running the State Department,” Carlson once told Colby.)
But, of course, such a vision has nothing to do with ensuring peace, let alone keeping Americans out of elite-led foreign adventures, like the Middle Eastern ones Carlson denounces. The opposite, actually: by paying lip service to restraint-oriented rhetoric, Carlson has worked to co-opt latent antiwar sentiment and redirect it into his warmongering crusade against China.
To this end, Carlson has worked hard to stoke anti-China hostility among his nightly audience of three million viewers, which include elected officials like the former president. Watching Carlson’s show these past six or so years has meant being regularly treated to the exact kind of crude, over-the-top coverage of US-China relations that the host has criticized when it comes to how the rest of the media treats Russia policy.
Carlson’s broadcasts were full of overwrought fearmongering about China, even as the restraint-oriented experts whom he aped stressed the opposite: that while its government is an authoritarian one with little regard for democracy and also certainly throws its weight around beyond its borders, it was less a threat than a competitor to the United States, one with a close-to-nonexistent military presence abroad, that Americans could learn to live with.
Not in Carlson’s world.
“For many years, the threat from China to the United States has been growing,” he told his viewers. It is “no longer simply an economic rival to the United States” but a “dangerous enemy”; a “racist” and “militarized ethno-state” that has “run along traditional fascist lines for the benefit of a specific ethnic group.”
It “plans to rule the world.” In fact, it already is “taking over the world,” Carlson insisted in one particularly melodramatic segment on what he called the “brutal Chinese colonization of Latin America.”
“The Chinese have succeeded in re-colonizing the entire continent of Africa,” where the country “now calls the shots,” he charged. “Allowing Brazil to become a colony of China would be a significant blow to us and potentially a very serious military threat,” he said about deepening ties between the two countries, which, unlike the United States’ relationship with nations in China’s near abroad, has no military component as of yet.
This kind of thing had serious, real-world consequences. Carlson was among the most prominent voices criticizing President Joe Biden for waiting before shooting down the Chinese spy balloon that drifted off course and over the US mainland this past February, claiming — falsely — that the aircraft “contained explosives.” As a result of this criticism, Biden, long easily baited by right-wing claims of weakness, soon rashly ordered the military to shoot down a bunch of random objects in the sky they later admitted weren’t Chinese spy balloons, with one of the missiles missing and luckily landing in a lake without killing anyone.
Taking a page from the anti-Russia hysterics that he mocked — who saw the Kremlin as the cause of everything from the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests to anti-fracking and antiwar sentiment — Carlson presented the sinister, hidden hand of China as the singular force behind just about every domestic US problem.
The country had “snatch[ed] up our properties in our cities, driving up rents, decreasing the rates of homeownership and destroying millions and millions, of course, of our manufacturing jobs,” he charged. It was “murdering tens of thousands of Americans every year with fentanyl,” “depopulating parts of the country,” and “pushing our life expectancy down.”
Got that? Not private equity firms buying up properties to become massive landlords and hike rents, not “free trade” deals pushed by US corporations to keep wages down and weaken workers’ bargaining power, not decades’ worth of politicians shredding the US safety net and corporate domination of health care throwing people into precarity or even destitution. Nope — it’s all China.
At one point, guest Adam Carolla directly imitated Russiagate-era liberal paranoia to claim China was “shut[ting] down our pipelines and hack[ing] into our infrastructure.” Elsewhere, Carlson claimed that the US food supply was “now imperiled” because China was “buy[ing] up this country’s farmland,” with Carlson approvingly quoting US representative for Washington State Dan Newhouse’s claim that “a Chinese-owned agricultural land monopoly” was taking shape in the United States. In reality, Chinese owners are responsible for less than 1 percent of foreign-owned US agricultural land, well outside the top ten by acreage, which is dominated by Canada and nine major European countries.
No wonder, then, that Carlson’s nightly show was a prized destination for a variety of war hawks to come and peddle their trade, whether Florida Republican Marco Rubio darkly warning that “the challenge before us is dramatic,” Missouri Republican Josh Hawley stressing that “partnering with China is dangerous,” or talk radio host Jesse Kelly calling for a “flat-out hostile” military full of troops “who want to sit on a throne of Chinese skulls.”
One frequent guest was Gordon Chang — famous for incorrectly predicting the imminent collapse of the Chinese government not once, not twice, but three separate times — who Carlson had on to repeat Hawley’s point that, at a time when international cooperation is more urgent than ever to deal with the planetary threat of climate change and other global crises, the United States must not under any circumstances work with China.
It “sounded very good to the ear, you know, cooperation, friendly ties, all the rest of it,” Chang said, leading US elites “to accept this notion of inevitable Chinese dominance.”
But in fact, Chang argued another time, “we’ve got to break those connections” and to “push back” like Washington did under Trump, when the Chinese “were afraid of him.” Chang now pushes this same kind of message on MSNBC, suggesting the fundamental overlap between Carlson and his corporate liberal critics — a fact inconvenient to both and thus summarily ignored.
In the process of all this, Carlson regularly took part in exactly the same kind of tiresome and scurrilous neo-McCarthyite accusations of treachery that he complains about his liberal critics doing.
“Many of the very people who ranted so hysterically about Russia” were in fact “working on behalf of our chief global rival, the government of China,” he said. “Instead of protecting us from this threat . . . our leadership class collaborates with the other side,” he charged. Elsewhere, he accused the Biden White House of “intentionally trying to weaken and destroy the United States” — even as that White House pushed through colossally wasteful military budgets and engaged in dangerous escalations.
One Dares Call It Treason
Carlson might have allowed criticism of the military-industrial complex once or twice on his show, but his China saber-rattling was explicitly about strengthening that complex — and even the “deep state” that he claimed to oppose. How would Beto O’Rourke’s plan to reverse a ban on transgender soldiers in the military “make America’s military stronger?” Carlson demanded to know in relation to China becoming “a direct rival to this country.”
“Our defensive capabilities have never been weaker and that’s not an accident,” he intoned after Nancy Pelosi’s reckless trip to Taiwan last year. “We should have been making defensive, strategic moves for the past twenty years” instead, he said, and “building up a strong military and, yes, a strong CIA.”
As Carlson’s coverage of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit indicated, even the occasional dovish segment on Tucker Carlson Tonight expressing alarm over the risk of provoking Beijing was framed around the need to shore up US military strength, at a time when Congress is passing record defense budgets that have the United States spending more on the military than the next ten countries combined — almost all of whom are US allies.
At one point, Colby came on the show to reprimand the Biden administration for “pok[ing] the dragon” with various provocations — not because it raised the risk of a Chinese attack on Taiwan or brought the two nuclear-armed countries closer to war but because the United States was “not quite ready” to fight that war. Carlson’s only objection was that it didn’t make sense to fight “a war over Taiwan right now” (emphasis mine).
And while he may have warned about nuclear catastrophe in the context of the Ukraine war, Carlson treated the idea of taking steps to prevent the same outcome in the China conflict as the literal act of a traitor. He called Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley’s admission that he would call his Chinese counterpart to tell him about a US attack ahead of time “treason” and “a crime,” with little regard for what a surprise attack could lead to in the nuclear era. As a result, Carlson charged, he was “a danger to the country.”
War Was the Winner
Congratulations to Carlson, though, because while he might be out of a job, his years of diligent efforts to spark a war with China have paid off.
Lawmakers from both parties now call China the greatest foreign threat and vote lockstep for escalations that even hawks admit are dangerously provocative. Relations between the two countries are at an alarming low, as a Democratic White House terrified of accusations of being soft on China crosses lines previous presidents wouldn’t. And US cooperation with Beijing has ground to a halt, as the Biden administration works to sever connections to China and decouple the two countries’ economies in preparation for an eventual catastrophic war.
In the process, Carlson has engaged in exactly the same kind of disgraceful behavior as the pro-war Russia hawks he’s now receiving plaudits for having criticized in the past: accusing opponents of being secretly in cahoots with the Chinese government, throwing around treason accusations, blaming any and every US problem on Chinese leadership, and deliberately inflating China’s current threat to the United States.
It’s telling that, in all the think pieces devoted to Carlson and his legacy since his ouster at Fox, and in the midst of a never-ending panic around misinformation, there’s so far not a single piece of criticism of his rabid China coverage, even in the liberal pushback to the limited praise Carlson’s gotten. That’s because, in a few short years, the entire spectrum of the political and media establishment has become a collection of mini–Tucker Carlsons, quietly agreeing with the host’s China war fever even as they denounce everything else he says.
All the while, the very real and far more influential role US oligarchs and corporate power has played in creating the daily miseries Carlson ascribes to China goes undiscussed — which is exactly the point.