September 6, 2023 - 7:10pm

What’s old is new again. In a move that underscores his continued trajectory from traditional conservative pundit to voice of populist outrage to social media provocateur, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson is now interviewing figures on the periphery of credibility, such as manosphere influencer Andrew Tate and Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy. Tonight, he’s taking it a step further by speaking to Larry Sinclair, a man notorious for making unverified claims that he engaged in a drug-fuelled sexual encounter with former president Barack Obama in 1999.

Carlson teased this forthcoming interview on X. The promo clip featured Sinclair rehashing an old story about giving Obama $250 for drugs before they had a sexual encounter. In a bold move, Carlson deemed Sinclair’s account to be “credible information that [Obama is] smoking crack and having sex with dudes” — providing his interviewee with the biggest platform of his career in the process. Yet Sinclair’s allegations have never been substantiated. His credibility is further marred by a lengthy criminal record, which includes convictions related to forgery, fraud and larceny. He even once claimed to be “terminally ill”, likely as a strategy to have an arrest warrant dismissed.

By choosing to interview Sinclair and resuscitating decade-old theories once peddled by Jerome Corsi, Carlson appears to be trading intellectual rigour for sensationalism. Although these topics may excite a certain faction on the Right, they’re fundamentally recycled and unimportant tales that reveal more about Carlson’s willingness to capitalise on controversy than they do about the state of American politics.

The evolution of Carlson from a bridge between traditional Republican orthodoxy and the burgeoning populist Right to his current persona is both striking and indicative of the broader shifts within conservative media. Once wearing the bowtie of establishment conservatism, Carlson was a figure who could comfortably navigate the worlds of both policy wonks and grassroots activists. His critiques of globalism, immigration, and the liberal elites had elements that could resonate across party lines, opening up conversations that had bipartisan relevance.

However, this previous image of him as a political intermediary seems to be fading into the rearview mirror. In its place is a provocateur who increasingly trades in National Enquirer-style sensationalism. The change isn’t just cosmetic, involving the occasional wearing of flannel shirts and working in a woodshop: it signals a shift in focus from presenting issues of legitimate public concern to resurrecting salacious tabloid stories that were debunked or broadly dismissed years ago. The line between respectable journalism and gossip-mongering has not just been blurred: for Carlson, it appears in danger of being completely erased.

What’s particularly interesting is how this transformation is received by his viewership. For the “based” Right — a faction that appreciates audacity and often eschews political correctness — Carlson’s latest antics may be a welcome development (save for those who believe he is an “op”, discrediting fringe stories by presenting them in ridiculous ways).

But this new tack seems more like a play to the lowest common denominator than a genuine attempt to enlighten the public discourse. By choosing to air interviews with fringe figures peddling old, discredited rumours, Carlson — no stranger to evolving to grow his brand — is completely embracing commercially-oriented opportunism. It’s a move designed to draw eyes and clicks, not to encourage serious reflection on the state of American society or its politics.

While the presenter’s shift may be personally profitable in the short term, one cannot help but feel pessimistic about the prospects for political discourse in general and populism in America specifically. Carlson, who presented himself as a people’s champion during the peak of his Fox-era celebrity, now seems to be a free agent more interested in chasing engagement by any means necessary. 

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