It’s been almost a decade since Tucker Carlson stood in front of a crowd of conservatives and told them they should be doing a better job of telling the truth.
It was February 2009, and Carlson, fresh from his canceled MSNBC debate show, Tucker, took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference and delivered a speech that stunned many in attendance. “If you create a news organization whose primary objective is not to deliver accurate news, you will fail,” he said. He pointed to The New York Times as a competitor they should be emulating. “It’s a paper that actually cares about accuracy,” he said. “Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions.” The audience booed him.
It was Carlson’s equivalent of Bob Dylan going electric at Newport. He dared to be unpopular with his own crowd, explaining that they, and by extension he, could do better. In that moment, it looked as if he was reinventing himself as a conservative champion of facts over punditry.
Whether he has fulfilled that promise depends on whom you ask. Less than a year after his infamous speech, he co-founded the conservative website The Daily Caller and was hired by Fox News, first as a contributor and eventually, in late 2016, as host of his own prime-time show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, which has since become one of the network’s ratings juggernauts. Next to Sean Hannity, Carlson is the face of Fox News and the target—and instigator—of seemingly endless controversy.
Over the past year alone, Carlson has managed to say so many divisive and antagonistic things it has been difficult to keep up. He has challenged diversity (“How, precisely, is diversity our strength?”), accused Nike of trying to “destroy our society” with its Colin Kaepernick ads and questioned the need for feminism (“The patriarchy is gone. Women are winning. Men are failing”). He frequently says things that are downright jaw-dropping in their comical audacity. “I actually hate litter,” he said in August, “which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration.” In his worldview, colleges are “literally destroying the country,” Mexico is a nation “controlled by the conquistadors,” hate speech is a “made-up category designed to gut the First Amendment” and terrorism is a “largely immigrant phenomenon.”
The anti-Carlson vitriol comes from both sides. He has been called “racist” by The Washington Post, “hate-filled” by Esquire (a former employer of his) and a perpetrator of “fringe shit” by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. On the right, he has sparked outrage from former Fox News host Bob Beckel, who this summer tweeted, “What the f*ck has happened to you?” at Carlson. The network’s former military analyst and retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters has compared Carlson to a prostitute, and Weekly Standard co-founder Bill Kristol, who once called Carlson a “great young reporter,” asserted that his show represents a viewpoint “close now to racism.”
There was a time when becoming a great reporter was Carlson’s only aspiration. The son of Richard Carlson, an investigative journalist (among other jobs, including U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles), Tucker grew up in an affluent neighborhood in San Diego with a younger brother, Buckley. Their biological mother left when Tucker was just six, and his father remarried a few years later, to an heiress of the Swanson frozen-food empire.
Carlson tied the knot with his high school sweetheart and went on to become an acclaimed political writer in the 1990s, notably penning a 1999 Talk magazine profile of George W. Bush in which he describes the future president making jokes about a death-row inmate pleading for her life. (Bush denied Carlson’s account.) He dabbled in TV, making appearances on cable news but insisting he never took it seriously as a medium. He held off until 2000, when CNN hired him to co-host The Spin Room and then Crossfire, the latter program causing The Daily Show host Jon Stewart to accuse Carlson of “hurting America” in a standoff that now holds a place in the annals of television.
The late columnist Christopher Hitchens, an early admirer of Carlson’s writing, said in a 2007 interview, “I do remember telling Tucker I wish he wouldn’t give up writing for TV. And I hope he sometimes hears the distant, hollow echo of my voice. Tucker, don’t doooo that.” Perhaps finally hearing Hitchens’s voice, Carlson has returned to writing with his new book, Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class Is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution, which takes on economic inequality, environmentalists, Facebook, the Clintons, feminists, First Amendment deniers and, of course, elites.
We sent Contributing Editor Eric Spitznagel, who last interviewed Michael Shannon for us, to meet with Carlson in Washington, D.C. He reports: “Conversing with Tucker is a weird dance. I kept wondering if I should be challenging him more. But what good would come of that? Carlson’s entire job is defending his ideas, mostly by talking over anyone who disagrees with him. When I pushed back, his voice rose an octave—‘Of course I think that! Why wouldn’t I think that?’ he said at one point—and it felt like we were slipping into theater. I’d learn as much about Carlson this way as I would if I sat down with a classically trained actor, threw a Shakespeare script on the table and asked for a performance. So I focused on questions about who he is. We already know what he believes; what’s more interesting is how he got here.
“Carlson invited me to Fox News’s Washington, D.C. studio for a live taping of his show. I sat in a corner and watched him introduce segments such as ‘The Extreme Left’ and ‘Antifa Exposed,’ angrily making his case to an otherwise empty room. During commercial breaks he was all smiles, listening to the Grateful Dead—his favorite—and making wisecracks that had nothing to do with politics.
“A few hours earlier, Carlson and I had a pre-show lunch at Bistro Bis, one of his regular haunts, a few blocks from Capitol Hill. He was charming and gregarious, with a big laugh that filled the restaurant. He talked as though he were late for a bus: Every sentence out of his mouth was delivered with an ‘I’ve just got to make this one more point before I go’ urgency. He ate stinky cheese—that’s the way he ordered it: ‘Give me a plate of your stinkiest cheese’—and laughed at how writing a book encourages the unhealthiest habits. ‘Give me another Twix bar,’ shouted the former smoker and current nicotine-gum enthusiast. ‘I’m on deadline!’”
How many packs of nicotine gum did it take to finish the new book?
Incalculable. I’ve been on lozenges as well as the gum.
What’s the difference?
[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Reaches into a pocket and empties several packages of gum and lozenges onto the table] You can’t use the lozenges on television because you get white foam around your mouth, and they tend to make your voice hoarse. But the beauty of the lozenge is it’s an extremely efficient means of delivery. If it’s a two-milligram lozenge, you’re definitely getting two milligrams. None of it’s escaping.
You get your gun and lozenges from overseas?
I get it from New Zealand, yeah. Because it’s not child-proof. [Pops a piece of gum into his mouth.] It has an undertone of saddle leather and thyme.
You talk about nicotine gum like some people talk about wine.
I love it. I’m not going to pretend to go to the doctor a ton, but last year I got appendicitis and wound up in the hospital for a couple of days. Since I had medical authorities around me who I’d already paid for, I asked about nicotine. The doctors I spoke to—I don’t know if they were actually doctors, they might have been orderlies. But whatever they were, they told me there’s no evidence that nicotine is itself that bad for you. It’s the other products in the tobacco.
Have you ever tried to quit the gum?
Nothing good. I started smoking when I was 14, and I’ve used nicotine in some form ever since. I’m about to be 50. That’s a long time. Well, about four years ago, one of my daughters decided that it was weak and unparental to be addicted to something, so she started lobbying for me to quit. So I did it. It took me a week, I went to Maine and fished all day. But it had all kinds of consequences. I became physically enormous. I probably gained thirty pounds in like a day and a half. I also became narcoleptic. So we’re dealing with some pretty significant metabolic issues at this point.
Were you falling asleep at work?
I fell asleep in the middle of a show. Dead asleep during a commercial break. I was just like, “I’m going to take a quick nap for three minutes.”
That sounded reasonable in your brain?
Fatigue is a narcotic. If you’ve ever read accounts of climbers on Everest, they’ll be in the middle of a blizzard and think, ‘You know what? I’m just going to take a quick nap here.’ It was that kind of thing. You’re not rational when you’re that tired. I humiliated myself live on television, and my wife said, “This is unconventional medical advice, but I’m suggesting you go back on nicotine.”
Do you have a pack of cigarettes stashed somewhere, in case of an emergency?
I have one in my office. It’s a pack of Dunhills, given to me by Hunter S. Thompson just a few weeks before he died. I had this long, amazing dinner with him and Sean Penn in a restaurant in New Orleans.
It’s hard to imagine you dining with Hunter Thompson, much less Sean Penn. Isn’t Penn, you know, super liberal?
Believe it or not, I actually like Sean Penn. He’s interesting. He smoked quite a few that night. He’s going to wind up in the emphysema ward, that guy. Anyway, Hunter was wearing a medallion, almost like an Al Sharpton medallion. He didn’t talk a lot at dinner, but when I got up from the table to leave, he hugged me so hard the medallion pressed into me and really hurt. Then he gave me the Dunhills and stared at me intensely. I knew he was going to die.
I did! I could just tell. It was bizarre. There was only one cigarette in the pack, and I still have it today. Obviously I’d never smoke it.
Under what circumstances would you start smoking again?
I had a cigarette on election night back in 2016. I bummed one off of one of Megyn Kelly’s producers at, like, one in the morning. We were all at headquarters on Sixth Avenue and there was all this drama going on, all this tension on the set. It was just one of those moments when you need to step outside for a minute. It was a Camel Light, and I took the filter off. It didn’t taste very good, honestly.
The election may have been shocking enough to make you smoke, but what do you make of Trump today?
Trump is the greatest thing ever, because he short-circuits people’s brains and they become all brainstem: “Whatever Trump is for, I’m against!” The reason I think I do a pretty good show is because I’m the only person in America who’s not that interested in Trump. My book that just came out I think mentions Trump three times. I know Trump well. I think he has good qualities and bad qualities. I think he’s funny, I think he’s pretty brave, I think he’s got good instincts, I think he’s disorganized, I think he’s got terrible taste in staff. There are a lot of problems with Trump. But in the end, I don’t think he’s the most compelling figure in world history. What’s more interesting is why people would elect Trump.
Has there been an explanation you agree with?
The explanations we’ve been force-fed by everybody are so dumb, they’re clearly a cover for the truth. “All his supporters are racist!”—that kind of thing. Of course it’s nonsense. The real reason is because the fundamentals in the country are completely out of whack.
How are they out of whack?
Markets are supposed to reflect productivity and profits, right? I made this much last year, and on the basis of that metric, you decide how much my company is worth. That’s just basic economics, and it has been discarded completely in favor of the Amazon model, based on promises and “I’ve got a good story to tell.” The root of it is Fed policy. It’s the federal government, under President Obama, deciding to avoid economic reality by flooding the system with cheap dollars. The long-term effect is obviously economic collapse, but in the short term it dramatically exacerbates economic inequality, so only people above a certain threshold can participate in the bounty. In other words, it makes a small number incredibly rich.
And the middle class disappears.
Exactly! That is the pivotal disaster of the past 10 years, which is never commented on. It’s all like, “You’re a racist!” Okay, fine. But do you notice that rich people are richer than they’ve ever been and everybody else is stagnating? Maybe that’s the root of our political volatility. Maybe economics plays a role.
Do you think the U.S. is getting a class system?
We’ve always had a class system, because every society is hierarchical. But our class system has always been permeable; it was designed to be. People can fall out of the upper echelons; inherited-money people often do, thanks to alcohol and cocaine. Smart, enterprising people can, of course, ascend. That’s the American dream, right? Well, that has changed. The story of the last generation is that in 2015 the country stopped being a majority middle-class country. And no one even noticed. That’s not a story compared to racism.
But both stories can be simultaneously important, right? There actually is racism in the world, in our own country. You’re not denying that, are you?
Of course not. But this is actually the story. The only way you have a democracy is with a middle-class majority. Otherwise you become, what, Venezuela? You can’t have a political system that gives every person a vote in a country where the economy excludes the majority. Because the majority will bite back. And how will they do that? It’s always the same way: through populism. Either it’s left-wing populism—Cuba, Chavez—really left-wing populism—Lenin—or it’s Donald Trump.
The pendulum could swing in either direction?
Exactly. It’s the revolt of people who are economically disenfranchised but politically enfranchised. If you’re going to have a lopsided society, with rich and poor, like in Latin America, you can’t have a democracy. What you have is an oligarchy. We have a country where a small number of people are getting richer than any group has ever become in human history. Needless to say, they’re covering their tracks. Why wouldn’t they encourage greater racial conflicts, which they’re doing, and make everything about identity? What faster way to divert attention from their own crimes, misdeeds and bad decisions than that?
Are you optimistic about the fu——
We couldn’t even get it out.
Because you have to solve for that. It’s not about all this other stuff, which is so dumb. My great frustration is the level of analysis. Because that’s what I do; I’m in the analysis business. It’s not that people disagree with me. That’s fine. What’s not okay is having the wrong conversation, or intentionally misdirecting from what matters to things that are irrelevant, which is 99 percent of what we talk about. The bottom line is the middle class is dying. That makes the country politically volatile, and volatility destroys what you want. What you want are stable, happy institutions run by stable, happy people. Volatility gives you the opposite. It destroys institutions and makes everyone crazy. Where does that volatility come from? It comes from economic inequality. That’s the story. And no one is thinking about how to fix it.
Is it true you start your day by reading the newspaper obituaries?
Isn’t that a bit morbid?
Not at all. People who brood about death are the happiest people.
Because they’ve acknowledged reality and have come to terms with it. I grew up in southern California, in La Jolla, which was this weird little affluent community where you could literally do or say anything. It was culturally liberal in the deepest sense. If you wanted to run off with your stepsister or join the circus, no one was going to judge you. The only thing you weren’t allowed to acknowledge was death. Nobody ever died in La Jolla. That was verboten. There were no funerals. People just got in their black Mercedes-Benz, drove to Palm Desert and were never heard from again. You weren’t allowed to mention death because it suggested we’re not in control of everything. “He’s dead? Really? But he didn’t smoke. He ate sensibly. I saw him eating avocados last week. He can’t be dead.”
Do you enjoy funerals?
I don’t enjoy them, but I believe in rituals. I never miss a funeral. Or a baptism or a wedding. I go to every wedding, whether I’m invited or not.
You crash weddings?
I went to a wedding recently that I wasn’t invited to. It was an old friend of mine, and I ran into his brother at the gym. He was like, “My brother is getting married next weekend.” I was like, “Really? Nobody invited me.” He said, “Oh, it’s a small family thing.” I said, “When is it?” He said, “It’s in Atlanta next Saturday at four.” I flew from D.C. to Atlanta, took a cab to the wedding, sat in the church for the ceremony and then came home.
You didn’t stay for the reception?
No, that would’ve been weird. I wasn’t invited.
Does reading obituaries feel like a form of ritual, acknowledging the end of someone’s life, even if you never knew them?
Yes. It’s respect due to a person who has passed, but it’s also a mini-biography. They tend to be nonpolitical, which I appreciate. I can’t handle sneaky editorializing right when I wake up, because I’m too sensitive. I want a story like “He died, and here’s what he did.” It’s usually stuff like “The guy who developed the eye test chart died.” It’s an acknowledgment that your time is limited. You don’t have forever. And that’s the sweetness of it.
You had a near-death experience with a plane crash, right?
Yeah. It totally changed my life.
This was mid-October 2001. I’d gone to Pakistan for New York magazine to cover the Taliban. I was flying from Islamabad to Peshawar, on the Afghan border, to Dubai. It was right after 9/11, so everyone was paranoid about air travel. I was sitting in first class on a big Airbus, and everyone was chain-smoking Marlboros. There were clouds of cigarette smoke, but no alcohol was allowed. We stop in Peshawar, and all these randoms file in and sit on the floor of the cockpit and smoke cigarettes. It made me nervous. This was not a First World thing to do. So we took off again, and because of the bombings in Afghanistan, we had to fly the long way around, over Iran. It ended up being a four-hour flight. Around two in the morning, we’re starting to descend. All of a sudden, bam, the plane just stops.
It felt like we’d hit a building. And then the plane starts to drop. The engines rev and the plane turns sideways. It’s clear we’re crashing, no doubt about it. People are screaming. We finally touch down and bounce right off the runway. The right wing snaps off and all these sparks are coming up. Everyone knows we’re going to die.
Were you thinking, I should have lived my life differently?
Yes, that’s exactly what goes through my mind. I’m also thinking about all the ways I’ve been unfair to other people. You’d think in the face of imminent death you’d be like, This is happening, it’s inevitable, and I’m peaceful about it. I was not peaceful at all. So the plane goes into a sand dune and ends up on its side. I was the first person off. I kicked open the door, the slide came down, I ran into the darkness and immediately got picked up by guards. I was brought to a room, locked in there and then put on a British Airways flight eight hours later. It was totally bizarre.
Did you ever find out what happened to the plane?
Not immediately, but five years later, a friend of mine was having dinner with one of the directors of Airbus in London and asked about the flight. He said they believed there was an explosive device in the cargo hold. I have no idea if that’s true. The plane itself, the actual aircraft, was obviously a total loss and it’s now a dive site.
I’m sorry, what? As in scuba-diving?
Yes! It was dragged out to the sea because obviously, it’s Dubai and everything’s on the water. What’s that famous hotel there, the huge island hotel?
The Palm Atlantis?
That’s the one. You can scuba dive at that hotel and see the wreckage. The whole thing is there. You can pay to dive down and see the plane that almost killed me.
Why are they not promoting that? “See the plane that nearly killed Fox News’ Tucker Carlson?”
Right? I have no idea. It’ll be the twenty-year anniversary of the crash in a couple years, and I want to go back there and dive down to see the plane. Wouldn’t that be cool? I haven’t scuba-dived since I was a little kid, but I don’t think the plane is that deep.
Are you still traumatized by it?
Not anymore, but I was at the time. A year after it happened, I quit drinking and my wife and I had another child. We had three kids already, but both my wife and I, independently, were like, “We’re having another kid.”
Does it still make you skittish to get on a plane?
No. It makes me a total fatalist. Before that happened, I was totally convinced that the safety of any flight depended on the intensity of my hopes. Now I understand I have no control over anything.
Not just whether you die on a plane?
I control nothing! Or almost nothing. I can control what I say on TV, and I can control how I treat my wife and children. But I can’t control anything else. The second you realize that, the anxiety falls away. I could get hit by a car walking out of this restaurant. I’m not saying that in a sad way; I’m saying that in a happy way. It takes a lot off the table. All of a sudden, I didn’t care about a lot of things I used to care about. I’ve been in a pretty good mood since.
Your other near-death experience was getting ousted by CNN.
It happened here, in this restaurant, in that booth right over there. Actually, I never got fired by CNN. I just lost my show.
Did you see it coming?
I had no idea. I never say this, because it sounds like sour grapes, but I wanted to get out of Crossfire. I got an offer from Rick Kaplan [then president] at MSNBC, who was trying to make MSNBC into a rival for Fox News. The offer was more than twice what I was making at CNN. So I called Jon Klein, who was then the president at CNN, and said, “I’m leaving.” He said, “Godspeed.” I went to lunch, and when I got back, I had like 27 messages from journalists, asking “Can we get your statement on your firing?” CNN issued a statement saying I’d been canned. I’ve never been that shocked in my life. I called Klein immediately and said, “Do I have this right? The official story of CNN is that I’ve been fired?” He told me, and I quote, “It’s business.”
Wow. Like a character in The Godfather?
Exactly. A few years ago I was sitting on a plane, having just landed, and the first story I pulled up on my phone was “Jon Klein fired from CNN.” I’d made this commitment to myself that when he got fired—and I always knew he would—I would call him and say, “I know everyone is calling with their condolences, but I want to do the opposite and say how pleased I am that you’re fired. I hope this leads to years of suffering, because it’s well deserved.”
Did you do it?
I called him and he picked up, but there was this voice in my head that said, “Don’t do that.” So I hung up. I never said anything to him, even though he deserved it.
In your first book, Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, you write that a question you’re often asked by liberals is “You don’t really believe all that, do you?”
All the time. I got that last week: “You’re too smart.” Really? I’m live five hours a week. If you’re phony, people know instantly. It reveals who you really are.
Is that just you or everyone on cable news?
All of them. This is the opposite of what everyone wants to think, but most people in cable news, even those I despise—and there are a lot of those—are exactly what you think they’re like.
We spoke with Stephen Colbert a few years ago, and he told us he often warned guests about what to expect on his show in advance. He said to them, “I do the show in character, and he’s an idiot.” Do you ever—?
But he’s doing something different.
His show was satire, sure.
And he was acting. I’m not acting at all.
But do you tell your guests, “I’m going to come after you hard, get ready?”
I don’t typically talk to guests beforehand. Sometimes our booker tells me there’s a guest who wants to come on, but he’s nervous. He thinks I’m going to pull a fast one or that I’m a mean person or alt-right or whatever. I always say, “Give me their cell and I’ll call them.” If they want to know, I’ll them exactly what I’m going to ask. I never lie. I’ll say, “These are the three questions I’m going to ask you, in this order.”
What about your interview with Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca? You were talking about whether Ivanka Trump is accountable for her dad’s presidency, and Duca looked frustrated when you asked her about something she’d written about Ariana Grande. You ended that segment by telling her to “stick to the thigh-high boots.”
Well, I was shell-shocked. This woman said things I didn’t agree with, but I didn’t think I was going to have a contentious argument with her. She made me so mad because she was so unreasonable, which made me unreasonable, and I snapped at her. That had the consequence—unintended, I can promise you—of making her famous. And then she got a college commencement address as a response to that, which was moronic. I watched the address. She’s dumber than I thought.
So you’re not bitter.
[Laughs] Listen, I should never have had her on or been mean to her. At this point it’s just stupid that it ever happened, and I’m never mentioning this person again. In general, though, the thing people always say is “You’re just a great debater.” First of all, I’m not a debater. That’s not how I think of it. I host a show every night. I don’t need to win.
It can seem like you need to win.
I don’t need to!
If it’s not a debate, what is it?
I view it as a way of clarifying what’s actually going on. And by the way, I fall short of that a lot. But that’s my ideal. And listen, I’ve had many people on who, even if I didn’t agree with them—well, here’s an example. I interviewed this vegan whose view is you should never eat meat. For me, that’s pretty easy: sad little vegan guy I can make fun of. So I tell him, “How dare you tell me what to eat! Why is that your business? Maybe I want to live on the Butterfingers diet. I have before.”
How did that work out for you?
Not well; that’s why I’m not on it anymore. Anyway, the vegan tells me, “I see what you mean, but the world champion weight-lifter right now is a vegan. I never tell anybody what to eat. I’m just telling you this works and here’s why.” I actually said to the guy on air, “I was going to be mean to you, but I kind of agree with this.”
What makes you irate with a guest?
What makes me combative is when we start having a theological conversation. Eighty percent of my left-of-center guests want to take a political conversation and make it theological. It’s not about what’s best for the country; it’s who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell.
You’re talking about liberals?
It’s the argument of “I’m a good person.” Immigration is a perfect example. It’s clear that the beneficiaries of mass low-wage immigration are rich people, because guess who washes our underwear. We have a whole new servant class we don’t need to feel guilty about because they don’t speak our language and we’re their saviors. The foreign-born worker isn’t going to complain about minimum wage, especially if he’s illegal. He’s too grateful. By the way, this isn’t an attack on immigrants. They’re really impressive, a lot of them. I’m just worried about the effect on native-born Americans, who are the people to whom our leaders have an obligation. So I’ll make that point, and I don’t think that’s a right-wing point at all.
Immigrants taking jobs from native-born Americans isn’t a right-wing point?
It’s not. In fact, it’s the point of organized labor. César Chávez made that point. This is what labor leaders have said for a hundred years. They opposed immigration for this reason. I think it’s totally defensible. You may disagree, but let’s talk about why. The response, 99 percent of the time, is “The Statue of Liberty demands that we do this and you’re immoral and a racist if you don’t.” I’m sorry, I’m not talking about my soul and whether I’m a good person or not. I don’t think I’m an especially good person, but that’s not what this is about. Aren’t we supposed to be having a rational conversation about the best next move for the country?
Did growing up near the border shape your views on immigration?
Because I grew up surrounded by Mexicans and they were all rich?
You knew only rich Mexicans?
It was a totally different dynamic. These days, when we talk about Mexicans, it’s like everybody is a starving campesino from Oaxaca. In real life, it’s a diverse country with a stratified class system and a lot of complexity. There’s a lot of racial tension within Mexico, and a lot of shades of gray. In my world as a child, a Mexican man was someone with a house in Switzerland. It was a big-time destination for ruling-class Mexicans. It’s a lot more complicated than we pretend it is.
Does it bother you when a neo-Nazi website like the Daily Stormer calls you “literally our greatest ally”?
I don’t want to get into it, because it sounds disingenuous, but I’m 49 years old and I don’t think I’ve ever met a white supremacist. I’ve been to every state at least twice. I’ve traveled a lot and talked to everyone. I talk to every Uber driver and every bartender and every lady dropping off the dry cleaning. I talk to everybody all the time. I’ve never met anyone who’s like, “I want a white ethno-state.”
Are you saying you don’t think white supremacists exist?
No. I don’t doubt they exist. But the idea that white nationalism is a mainstream position is just absurd. I’m sure there are people who will defend North Korea. I had one on my show. But let’s be real: Neither that nor white nationalism is a relevant position to the current debate. I don’t think I’m an extremist. I’m pretty moderate by temperament.
You consider yourself a moderate?
I do. But I feel I’m way out where no one else is because I see this as an economic crisis and nobody else seems to. Actually, that’s not true. You know who else does? Some people on the way-out left.
I don’t want to say, because I don’t want to admit that I talk to them. But if you were to go through my texts, which you’re not allowed to do, you would be shocked by the number of hard-left people on my text exchange.
You’re texting with Bernie Sanders? Paul Krugman? Jon Stewart?
[Laughs] God no! Let’s just say there’s a lot my hard-left friends and I don’t agree on. I’m adamantly against abortion. I think I’m the only one on television who ever talks about it. I’m definitely the only Episcopalian who feels that way. But there are things we agree on. For example, they’re not interested in the identity-politics crap, because it’s stupid. It’s for children. It’s also a dead end. Where do you think that winds up? My tribe is better than your tribe? We get Tutsis and Hutus, that’s where that goes.
What do you know about your audience? Are they hard right, somewhere in the middle or something else?
It’s hard to know. My sense is.… [pauses] I don’t know. A lot of them think, correctly, that the leadership of both parties, and the financial, cultural, intellectual and technological leadership of this country, have contempt for them.
Do you agree?
I think they’re right, 100 percent.
You said something on your show this past summer that raised some eyebrows.
Just one thing?
You said, “If you’re looking to understand what’s actually happening in this country, always assume the opposite of whatever they’re telling you on the big news stations.” Do you believe that?
I feel that way strongly.
All the big news stations are lying? All of them?
I believe that completely. It’s 100 percent true. Let me give you the Syria example: In April, we watched a cruise-missile attack on Syria based on the claim that Assad had gassed his own people. If you actually called the State Department and the Department of Defense, which people did, and asked, “Are there American inspectors on the ground? How do you know that?” the response you’d get was “Well, we don’t really know that.” Really? Because I didn’t read that in The New York Times. I read the claims of the government reported as fact. That’s a lie. Not only is that a lie, that’s a lie with real consequences. People died as a result. So no, they’re not interested in telling stories that are outside a narrowly prescribed set of themes they think are okay. Look, you know the truth, which is people feel they have a bigger obligation now—not just to the truth but to keeping the crazy right wing from taking over. If you think you have a bigger obligation to the service of a political mission, that’s not journalism; it’s something else.
But people interpreted your comment not as “Mainstream media has some bias problems” but as “Watch Fox News because everyone else is lying.”
I don’t need to make that case to Fox viewers. I’m just noticing it. I would also say that this is not some crazy idea I picked up from Twitter. I’ve been in journalism for 27 years. The people you see on television? I know them well. In some cases, I know them really well. I’ve been to their weddings. I have a tangible sense of who these people are and what their motives are. If you hear me weighing in on hydraulic fracking, you should probably disregard what I’m saying, because I’m not an engineer. But if you hear me weighing in on the state of the Washington media, I’ve been doing this my whole life, so I think I know what I’m talking about.
Do you still believe what you said in your 2009 CPAC speech, about the fact-gathering of The New York Times and how conservatives should try to do the same?
Just get the dates right; how does that sound? Just be professional about it; that’s all I was saying. My view is, these institutions are hostile to you and your interests, and will never not be. You have two choices: You can whine about that in perpetuity, or you can try to create your own thing. Why wouldn’t you? Aren’t conservatives always talking about entrepreneurship, bootstrapping, the wonders of the market? If what you say is true, the market has a vacuum and you should be able to get rich filling it. No one ever has, by the way. I don’t really know why.
Are you saying there is no conservative version of The New York Times?
No. I think things will change because there are so many smart young people, and I’m not talking about right-wingers. I mean anyone with heterodox ideas, anyone who thinks for himself. We’re in a moment of total mandatory conformity. Anyone who thinks outside the perimeters must be punished. Most people will go along with that, because most people are compliant. They don’t want any hassle. But there is some percentage of smart young people—again, I’m not talking about right-wingers; I’m talking about hard-left people too—who are like, “You know, I’m not going to obey.” You always hear people say, “I can’t believe the radicalism on the internet!” Why do you think that is? People aren’t allowed to say in public things they think are self-evidently true, so it drives them into the dark recesses of the internet.
Do you find it challenging to make sure facts are front and center on your show?
Not at all. We rarely make factual errors.
Really! Because so many people are watching and waiting for us to do that. I had a show last week, we were talking about the amendment to change the constitution of South Africa in order to take land without compensation. At one point I said, “It’s already happened,” and at another point I corrected myself, saying that it hadn’t happened, but it was imminent. I got dozens of people who were like, “You were wrong!” Yeah, but I corrected it immediately. I misspoke. Whatever. I’m not whining, I’m just saying we have to be accurate. For me, the challenge is, are we honest? That’s the challenge. That’s harder than being accurate. Accuracy is a baseline requirement. But are you really telling the truth? The real truth?
What are your thoughts about Rachel Maddow? You gave her one of her first TV gigs on your MSNBC show, right?
I did. I really like Rachel Maddow. She’s an ideologue. That’s not an attack on her at all. Rachel is sincere. She doesn’t say things she doesn’t believe, and she’s not playing a role. The biggest compliment I can give her, and it’s heartfelt, is that Rachel does her own thing. She doesn’t have a lot of contact with MSNBC management, as far as I understand. I don’t think she likes them, and I don’t think they like her. I could be wrong. But my sense is that Rachel does the show that she wants to do.
As opposed to?
Almost every other person on TV news. When you watch Rachel Maddow’s lead, it may or may not bear a resemblance to what The New York Times led with. Most TV hosts and producers don’t really know what’s going on. They follow the lead of somebody else. But the ones who are successful, who you remember, whether you love them or hate them, are deciding for themselves what the news is. That’s why we’re paid.
You get paid to decide what the news is? Are you sure that’s true?
It’s absolutely true. What’s our job? Our job is to decide what’s important and why. Fox has never, in the two years I’ve had the show, said, “You can’t do that.” I have pure editorial control. So does Rachel Maddow. You can tell.
You used to work at CNN. Were you ever told what you could or couldn’t say?
It may be different now, but when I was there, there were network-wide mandatory directives. I’m sure Anderson Cooper can basically do what he wants, but there is an internal “this is what we’re covering today” mandate. Fox has never been like that. No one has ever told me what to do.
You once said you stay relaxed when doing the show by imagining that only your wife is watching. Does she watch every night, and if so, does she give you feedback?
She watches all the time, but we don’t talk about work or about politics. Actually, that’s starting to change. Since our last child, our fourth child, left home, we’ll talk about politics occasionally.
She knows how you argue. Can you win any argument ever again?
I never argue with my wife.
Of course not. Argue with my wife? Why would anybody argue with their wife? What would you get out of it? Do you win? [laughs] What does final victory look like? Just describe that to me. Does she put all four paws in the air and say, “You’re absolutely right.” What’s the payoff? Is there a psychic victory? But I can honestly say that we have identical views on almost everything.
Your mom left when you were young. Did you have any interest in tracking her down?
Not really. I would just sum it up by saying she was a woman who left her two children for a foreign country and never came back. Probably there were some other things going on. It’s not typical. I mean, most mothers, no matter how incompetent or drunk, don’t leave their children. They’re just hard-wired not to. There are exceptions, obviously—I grew up with one—but it’s unusual behavior.
That absence is not something you just get over.
It defined my childhood. [pauses] You know, the funny thing about that, and one of the reasons I’ve never talked about it, is there’s no winning. Either you lie and say, “I’m so wounded by that.” Or you tell the truth and sound like a sociopath. In my case, the truth is my childhood wasn’t that bad. It was actually pretty fun. I love my dad. Losing my mom was sad, I guess. My parents got divorced because my mom was a nutcase. Boo-hoo, poor me. But my dad got remarried to a wonderful woman, my stepmom, whom I love. I always worried I was suppressing all this rage. I used to say to my girlfriend, now wife, “What am I going to do if she ever reappears?” Then I actually did get the call, and it turned out she was living in remote France, in the Pyrénées mountains, working as a sculptor.
Who found her?
My aunt, a woman I hadn’t talked to since 1977. She called me and said, “Your mother’s dying.” That didn’t even make sense to me. “My mother? Who’s my mother?” And she said, “Your mother. You know, my sister.”
What was she dying from?
Lung cancer. From smoking, actually. This was several years ago. I hadn’t heard her voice since she left when I was six. So my aunt said, “She’s dying and she’s going to be gone soon. You’ve got to go visit her.” I thought about it, and I said, “No, I don’t think I do.”
You had nothing you needed to say to her?
Not particularly. After that phone call, I went home and had dinner and went to bed and slept fine. It didn’t really have a big effect on me. I guess it had been so long, and time goes by. I don’t think I’m shallow. I care what people think, or at least the people I love. But I was over it, I guess. I said to my wife, “Remember how I used to say I was going to fall apart, that it would all come rushing back? It didn’t.” I felt sorry for her. I wasn’t mad at her anymore. It was just kind of sad, this woman dying alone in a foreign country. I guess it was her country by the time she died.
If she wanted to see her boys again, maybe she could’ve made the call?
Exactly. And by the way, that made it easier. That’s one of the reasons I never talk about it ever, because the truth is a lot more complicated than the way it sounds. It sounds so traumatic, but you know what’s actually traumatic? When both parents are in the same house fighting with each other, and one is an incorrigible alcoholic and it’s like a Eugene O’Neill play. You know what I mean? They torture you over twenty years, and one kid escapes into the priesthood and the other becomes an alcoholic himself. I didn’t have anything like that. I had a lunatic parent who left town and never bothered me again. That’s so much better than the childhoods of 50% of the people I know.
You’re still close with your dad?
Very close. I’ve never had a conversation with him where he didn’t say “I love you” at the end.
What’s the best piece of advice your dad ever gave you?
I was going to write a whole book of advice he gave me. He’s a legitimate genius. He was against direct statements of advice, any directives at all. Every Saturday during our childhoods, from first grade until I went to boarding school, he would take my brother and me to the movies. We’d always load up on popcorn and Milk Duds, massive Cokes and 7-UPs. I’d always have to take a leak by the end of the movie, and my father would corral us away from the bathrooms and say, “No, wait.” We would walk out to the parking lot, and the three of us would take a leak on the tires of a station wagon.
I’m not joking! This happened! Every single time! And one week, my brother said, “Pop, why are we doing this? Why can’t we use the bathroom?” My father says, and I quote, “Never lose touch with your inner dog, boys.”
Your dad might be a legit genius.
He’s a genius. What he was saying was—and he did say this explicitly to us later—the overwhelming majority of bad decisions come not from following your gut but from ignoring it. You already know the right decision most of the time. A dog doesn’t have any problem making good decisions in his own interests, because it’s baked in. Humans get off track by ignoring those instincts. So if you think, just for example, that someone’s lying to you, or that they’re a menace to you, trust that instinct. Don’t overthink it. Don’t over-analyze it. My father used to say, if somebody isn’t right, you can smell it.
Do you make a lot of decisions with your nose?
Absolutely. I sniff everything before I put it in my mouth. Everything. One hundred percent. I’m not embarrassed of it. My kids mock me, but I can identify all four of them by smell.
Yes I can! Yes I can! I sniff my kids every time I see them. I always kiss them on the head and sniff them. I like and dislike people primarily based on smell. Why would I ignore that? I think we all have the power to do that. I mean obviously, it doesn’t apply to complex real estate transactions. I’m not saying you can run a hedge fund based on instinct. But you can probably make a lot of good decisions based on instinct. The question is, are you willing to? Are you willing to quell the voices that are leading you in other directions? My father’s commandment was, “Ignore them.” Just because everybody says something doesn’t mean it’s true. Large groups of people are capable of irrational behavior.
What are your dad’s politics?
He isn’t political. He’s never been. He was always an intellectual, a book-a-day guy, an intense-ideas guy. But he doesn’t talk like an intellectual at all. He doesn’t use any of the buzzwords. He never said things like “Well, that’s problematic.” [Mock-screams.] Oh shut the fuck up! The word “problematic” always felt to me like a marker for ignorance.
You talk to him often?
We have lunch every Friday.
What do you talk about?
What don’t we talk about? It’s not like when you see somebody you haven’t talked to in years. My whole world hasn’t changed all that much. I married my high school girlfriend, and my business partner is my college roommate. I keep the circle small. If I love something, I don’t give up on it. I go to only one restaurant. I would be very easy to assassinate.
Do you talk to your brother?
Every day. We live next to each other. We share a house in Maine. We live there together all summer. He and my wife are extremely close friends. We’re like in the same family, basically. We have five dogs between us, and even the dogs are close.
Dogs seem to be a recurring theme for you.
I really believe in dogs. I’ve spent very few nights without a spaniel next to me.
Does your dad watch your show?
Does he comment on it, tell you what he thinks?
He texts me continually throughout the show. Every night.
Do you respond to the texts?
I respond in every commercial break. To every single text.
Can you give us an example of what he texts you?
It’s all deep and apocalyptic. My father served in the Marine Corps. He’s a deeply profane man.
Just one thing? Can you share one thing?
Fine. [Reads from his phone.] “We’ll sit on the porch someday, watching the lights and the smoke in the distance.” [Laughs.] It goes on from there. [Continues reading his texts, laughing.] He’s not a shallow man, I’ll tell you that.
You’ve lived in D.C. since you were 21?
Fifteen. We moved to the District in 1985, when my dad went to work for the government.
Will you ever leave?
Never. I’ll never leave Washington. I love it too much. I’ve never not loved it.
But you talk about how phony it is on your show.
Oh, I object to it on all kinds of abstract levels, but as a practical matter, it’s a great city to live in. The pomposity and high self-regard are almost unbearable, but the good news is our neighborhood is stable. It’s totally crime-free, everyone’s nice, we’ve got full employment, all the kids are above average, the restaurants are improving. It’s 1965 America, before the riots. And it’s not political here; that’s the other thing. It’s so political that it’s nonpolitical.
What does that mean?
I had dinner last night with my wife and two other couples. They’re our neighbors and we’ve known them most of our lives. All four of them are liberal Democrats. One of them is a well-known Democratic political consultant. They obviously know my views, but I would never have a political argument with them. It wouldn’t enter my mind.
Politics never comes up?
Oh it comes up. But only in a clinical way. We’ve had all these primaries in different states yesterday, and of course the people at the table knew a lot of the people running, because it’s Washington. But they were like, “What do you think is going to happen in Florida?” It’s never acrimonious. People don’t take it this personally, because it’s by nature a bipartisan city.
Is it easier because it’s face-to-face and this is your neighbor? Nobody is going to start screaming, “You’re a Nazi!”
Of course not. Because both of you know the other person isn’t a Nazi. If the tree in your yard is overhanging into your neighbor’s yard and you pay to have it pruned, that goes a long way to making him understand that political differences aren’t definitive. They don’t have to be moral differences. This is all just politics.
[This story originally published, in a slightly different form, in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of Playboy.][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]