The lead item in Politico's signature morning newsletter asked if a certain public figure was "losing his mind." His rants made him seem ever "more unhinged." Then again, they might be theatrical, a way to "keep you guessing as to whether he's just putting you on."
Those words, or their rough equivalents, were used scores of times to describe Donald Trump.
But they were written last Tuesday about Tucker Carlson. And they settled the matter: He's the new Trump. Not Ron DeSantis. Not Josh Hawley. Not Rick Scott. Certainly not Ted Cruz.
Those other men are vying merely for Trump's political mantle, with the occasional side trip to Cancún.
Carlson is seizing Trump's theatrical mantle as well.
Moving to fill the empty space created by Trump's ejection from the White House, his banishment from social media and his petulant quasi-hibernation, Carlson is triggering the libs like Trump triggered the libs. He's animating the pundits like Trump animated the pundits.
Case in point: Carlson's endlessly denounced, exhaustively parsed jeremiad against masks on his Fox News show Monday night.
"Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid at Walmart," Carlson railed. "Call the police immediately. Contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you're looking at is abuse. It's child abuse."
What lunatic hyperbole. What ludicrous histrionics. And what timing. Carlson shares Trump's knack for that — for figuring out precisely when, for maximum effect, to pour salt into a civic wound.
And it was helpfully succinct and tidily packaged so that other commentators could tee off on it.
Just 2 1/2 weeks earlier, another of Carlson's soliloquies — in which he peddled the far-right paranoia about a Democratic Party scheme to have dark-skinned invaders from developing countries supplant white Christian Americans — became its own news story.
It was hardly his first lament about immigration, and he had dabbled in the "great replacement theory" before. But this time it was more honed. "Every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter," he fumed. "I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate."
He made voters sound like Mazdas and America like a car lot.
Like Trump, he has decided that virality is its own reward. And he's being amply rewarded.
To give him attention is to play into his hands, but to do the opposite is to play ostrich. In April, his show drew an average nightly audience of about 3 million viewers, making him the most-watched of any cable news host. His outbursts, no matter how ugly, are relevant.
The amount of real estate Carlson occupies in political newsletters seems to have grown in proportion to the amount that Trump has lost. (That's my own replacement theory.) And it proves we need not just villains but also certain kinds of villains: ones whose unabashed smugness, cruelty and sense of superiority allow us to return fire unsparingly and work out our own rage. Carlson, again like Trump, is cathartic.
Trump's métier wasn't politics. It was performance. Carlson gets that. Disingenuously pressing buttons might well be a ratings boon. To keep people guessing is to keep people tuned in.
I'm not saying he's Trump's doppelgänger. He's neither orange nor ostentatious enough. He can be as verbally dexterous as Trump is oratorically incontinent, as brimming with information as Trump is barren of it. Carlson reminds you of a prep school debate team captain all puffed up at his lectern. Trump reminds you of a puffy reality-show ham — what he was before he rode that escalator downward, a harbinger of the country's trajectory under him.
Both barge through the contradictions of being both populists and plutocrats. Both pretend to be bad boys while living like good old boys. Both market bullying as bravery.
The New York Times