As we’ve noted in our live coverage of Russia’s declaration of war and subsequent full-scale military attack on Ukraine in the last 24 hours, there is a schism growing in the Republican Party on whether Vladimir Putin is a mortal enemy, or a brilliant friend. The wildly divergent thinking within the GOP has been on display repeatedly in recent days and weeks.
The hawkish, more traditional wing — to the extent it has survived the MAGA onslaught — is today condemning Putin’s actions and calling for tougher sanctions on Russia. The Trump adherents are taking cues from their leader, applauding the invasion and demonizing Ukraine as some sort of failed democratic pet project of the United States’. All sides have a common straw man at which they direct their ire: President Biden, with his administration’s supposed foreign policy weakness.
But few have taken the Trumpian affinity for Putin as far as Fox News host Tucker Carlson — not even Trump himself. In the days leading up to Putin’s declaration of war, Carlson downplayed Russia’s weeks-long campaign of aggression and threats toward Ukraine as a mere “border dispute,” while challenging viewers to dig deep within themselves and question why they “hate” the Russian president so much.
“It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much?” he wondered Tuesday night. “Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”
He then went on to ask viewers whether Putin was responsible for a litany of Republican grievances — has he pushed “racial discrimination” in public schools? Tried “to snuff out Christianity” in the United States? Or eaten … dogs? (I don’t really have an origin point for this one.) All, apparently, in the hope of leading readers to the conclusion that the Russian president, who was in the process of starting the first land war in Europe in decades, was not a cause for concern. The real enemy, one might conclude, was Biden/Democrats/the radical left/probably AOC.
“These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is ‘no.’ Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that,” he said. “So, why does permanent Washington hate him so much?”
Even before last night’s invasion, some Republicans in the vestiges of the GOP establishment criticized Carlson’s trolly perspective on Putin. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told Politico last month that Carlson is “obviously” not the right person to rely upon to address the matter in any serious way.
“He’s obviously not in a position of being responsible for those decisions,” Cornyn told Politico. “And we are.”
It just so happens, as Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan reminded us today, Carlson’s own lawyers agree.
Sullivan surfaced a crucial anecdote in her coverage of Putin’s war today, reminding readers that Carlson’s lawyers argued — and a federal judge concurred — in 2020 that Carlson is hardly an arbiter of “actual facts.” And that comments made on his high-ratings show should not be taken seriously.
U.S. District Court Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil echoed Fox’s own arguments in finding that Carlson didn’t commit slander when he accused a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, of extortion, after the National Enquirer bought her story of an affair with Trump and then promptly shelved it on his behalf.
Why not? Because, Vyskocil decided, the whole tenor of Carlson’s show makes it clear to viewers that he is not stating “actual facts” about his topics.
“Whether the Court frames Mr. Carlson’s statements as ‘exaggeration,’ ‘non-literal commentary,’ or simply bloviating for his audience,” she wrote, “the conclusion remains the same — the statements are not actionable.”
She added: “Fox persuasively argues, that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statement he makes.”
Perhaps Tucker Carlson is not meant to be taken seriously. But, of course, he also very much is. He is a — and perhaps the — leading voice of an American ideological movement as the U.S. faces down a series of crises, of which Putin’s war is just the latest. While at least one side of the GOP’s current schism is bear hugging pro-Putinism, the leading voice in that problematic faction is not even pretending to be anything more than a shock-jock big boy, a hyperbolic entertainer.
And viewers, it would seem, are not arriving at their TV sets for primetime happy hour “with an appropriate amount of skepticism” about the statements he makes.
The Best Of TPM Today
Here’s what you should read this evening:
The latest from Josh Kovensky, TPM reporter and our own specialist on all things Ukraine: How Russia’s War On Ukraine Risks Entangling NATO
Catch up on our live coverage here: Russia’s Assault On Ukraine Continues
From TPM Cafe: A Love Letter To Kharkiv, As Russian Troops Advance
Yesterday’s Most Read Story
What We Are Reading
Thousands join anti-war protests in Russia after Ukraine invasion — Pjotr Sauer and Andrew Roth