August 24, 2023 - 7:00am

While television viewers watched a conventional debate among a host of Republican candidates whose combined polling numbers don’t equal Donald Trump’s poll lead, the former president chose a different route. Rather than sparring with lesser-known rivals, he spoke with exiled-to-X commentator Tucker Carlson in a far more unorthodox format.

Instead of asking Trump a series of tedious questions about domestic policies, Carlson served up red meat to his base. He candidly pressed the real estate magnate on issues such as the death of Jeffrey Epstein, the likelihood of civil war, the physical condition of President Joe Biden, and the possibility that Trump might be assassinated if the indictments fail to stop his reelection. 

One of the first topics broached set the stage for everything that followed: the death of financier Jeffrey Epstein. Carlson asked Trump whether he thought Epstein was murdered, noting that he himself believed so. Trump initially said he believed it was a suicide, given that Epstein was leaving behind a very good life for prison, but Carlson’s decision to press the issue led to a noncommittal response, with the former president stating that “a case could be made either way”.

Aside from the expected attacks on Biden’s fitness and stamina, Trump continued to question the President’s diplomatic decisions and relationships, especially regarding North Korea, China, and Russia. The Republican touted that he saved “40,000 lives” — as well as the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea — by averting nuclear war with North Korea. 

While discussing foreign affairs, Trump’s narrative meandered into unexpected territories, such as the Panama Canal, which he insisted he could return to American control given that we lost “35,000 lives to the mosquito” in the course of building it (the number actually isn’t far off: 25,000 died over the three decades it took for the construction of the canal, though many of the workers weren’t American citizens). Trump’s off-the-cuff assertion that it should be considered one of the “nine” wonders of the world — instead of the traditional seven, because nine sounds better — underscores his knack for stamping conversations with oddly memorable digressions and asides. 

Another topic that saw a departure from traditional political rhetoric was the way Trump framed his views on environmental issues. From electric cars to water-saving fixtures, the former president’s commentary often appeared to be at odds with broader efforts to combat climate change. In doing so, he justified his positions using phrases only he could conceivably utter, arguing, for example, that “water restrictors” on sinks and bathtubs prevented people from properly washing their “beautiful hair”.

Concerns over election integrity also resurfaced. Trump touched on his suspicions surrounding the 2020 election results, including his belief in the existence of widespread voter fraud, perhaps affecting as much as 10-17% of the final vote. But arguably the most poignant part of the interview came when Carlson posed a question about the potential for civil war. Trump harkened back to 6 January 2021, describing the “tremendous love” for the country he felt from the people who gathered there — mostly peacefully, in his opinion. And while he did not give a direct answer to Carlson’s follow-up, Trump did highlight the deep divisions he saw in the nation, speaking of both “hatred” and “passion”.

Far more than a staid debate among blue-suited GOP apparatchiks that ran late into the night, Carlson’s interview serves as a mirror to America’s current political climate. With subjects that oscillated between the genuinely concerning and the bizarre, it’s clear that the traditional boundaries of political discourse are shifting. The so-called “Overton Window” related to certain once-verboten topics is opening, and Trump — though still somewhat equivocal in his answers to Carlson’s wildest questions — is again leading that charge.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work