A neuroscientist explains why Tucker Carlson could become a bigger threat than Donald Trump

A neuroscientist explains why Tucker Carlson could become a bigger threat than Donald Trump
Tucker Carlson // Fox News
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To the bewilderment of many conservatives, Fox News fired Tucker Carlson from the network last month without any warning, despite hosting its most successful show.

Some have speculated that he was canned for racism and misogyny, but let’s be real — those are the kinds of things that you get promotions for at Fox News. It certainly provides a great excuse for Fox, though. While no one will likely ever know the true reason for the decision — though here are some possible explanations — the big question now is: what is next for Tucker Carlson?

Only time will tell, but more than a few outlets and experts are speculating that Carlson could run for president next year, meaning he would be challenging Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. Among the major media outlets that published articles on this possibility are The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Politico, The Hill and Insider, just to name a few.

Following the news of Carlson parting ways with Fox, ex-Republican strategist Rick Wilson said that Carlson would be a bigger threat to Trump compared to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is still the most popular, if flagging, Trump alternative. His tweet read:

"What if he runs? He's rich enough. He'd instantly have an online fundraising juggernaut second only to Trump, and perhaps surpassing him. He's polarizing, terrible, and utterly amoral…in short, better than Ron DeSantis for the base.”

Speaking to Newsweek, another Republican strategist and columnist for The Hill, John Feehery, made the same claim, arguing that: "If Tucker decided to run for president, he would be an immediate threat to Trump and to the rest of the field."

Carlson’s own words may offer the deepest insight into his willingness to seize opportunity and challenge Trump.

“I hate him passionately,” Carlson reportedly texted about Trump after the 2020 election.

“Once he’s out, he becomes incalculably less powerful, even in the minds of his supporters,” Carlson similarly texted his producer after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Some might say Carlson-for-president speculation is premature. But if we do not take this possibility seriously, we might regret it later. I say this from experience: For a whole year prior to Trump winning the presidency in 2016, I was writing articles that explained why he was a genuine threat, though at the time most “experts” believed that it was infinitely unlikely that the businessman and reality show star could win the Republican nomination, much less beat Hillary Clinton.

In January 2016, I wrote an essay titled “Donald Trump has a mental disorder that makes him a dangerous world leader” that warned about the dangers of his narcissistic personality. Then in July 2016, I published another article titled “A neuroscientist explains why Trump is winning,” yet the media remained certain that there was no chance in hell he’d win the general election. Had CNN and MSNBC realized that Trump was a real threat earlier on, they might not have broadcast footage of him around the clock for an entire year — which likely helped him far more than it hurt him. I believe Trump could’ve been stopped if his opponents were more prepared.

We can’t make that mistake again.

Trump came from entertainment, and that was his secret weapon. He didn’t know how to speak like a politician, so he instead relied on his showmanship and knack for knowing what people want to hear, which he learned from his experience in television. Carlson knows how to entertain, boost ratings and leverage the digital world far better than Trump did when he started his political career, and for that reason, he has the ability to ascend in the political world just as quickly, particularly given our tribalistic presidential primary system that often platforms provocative candidates.

Carlson is also extremely popular — far more popular among Americans on the right than Trump was when he first entered the race. A recent poll found that 16 percent of Americans would be “significantly likely” to watch any new show that Carlson hosts online or on independent media, with another 20 percent saying they’d “likely” watch it. In the week after he left Fox News, the network’s ratings fell by more than 50 percent during his old timeslot, and the general viewership fell by almost that much overall.

If we were to find ourselves in a Carlson presidency, we'd be faced with some serious media manipulation. As a seasoned TV personality for the network that has mastered fear-mongering, Carlson knows precisely how to get the right outraged and afraid. With those skills, he could stoke a new level of xenophobic, racist, bigoted sentiment in America. This would lead to increasing division in a country that is already broken due to polarization.

But crippling division and a new nationalist surge isn’t all we’d have to worry about if Carlson was a prominent political leader — his misinformation and expert ability to spin the truth to support his ideological agenda could be equally dangerous for the nation. Being critical of the government’s response to COVID-19 is one thing — there’s no denying that some massive mistakes were made not just by Trump but by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies and government officials. But Carlson went far beyond this and routinely featured guests who claimed that vaccines present a general danger to people and that they’d be better off without them. If a new virus emerged under a Carlson presidency, the results could be disastrous

Speaking of misinformation, our nation’s taste for conspiracy theories would also be amplified to new levels if Carlson acquires a more powerful and influential position, as he has a proven track record of intentionally misleading the public.

The recent Dominion voting lawsuit, which cost Fox News almost $800 million, was over the network’s insistence that the 2020 election was rigged and that large-scale voter fraud occurred — a stance that Carlson supported and advocated for over and over to millions of views (even though behind the scenes he admitted the claim was bogus).

Whether it’s denying climate change, the existence of white supremacy or the election results, it is clear that Carlson will lie to the nation without hesitation to advance his ideological agenda. If he were to acquire a position of great power, the facts-be-damned, post-truth society that America almost became under Trump could again become a reality.

If that weren’t scary enough, it seems Carlson has the support of Russia, and we know what lengths Russia and Putin will go to in order to help their political and media allies. Following Carlson's departure from Fox News, Russian TV host and Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov encouraged Carlson to run for president, telling him “You are welcome in Russia and Moscow.” Carlson’s anti-Ukraine and pro-Russian rhetoric has undoubtedly gained him support with a fascist regime that knows how to use digital warfare and disinformation campaigns to achieve political goals.

While it is uncertain what Tucker Carlson will decide to do next, we can bet that he will seek a position of greater influence and power. We should take seriously the possibility he’ll run for office because — should he decide to throw his hat in the ring — we as an electorate must be ready for a more intelligent, articulate and media-savvy version of Donald Trump.

Another possibility is that Carlson doesn’t run for president, but Trump asks him to be his vice presidential running mate. Even though text leaks indicated Carlson’s disdain for Trump, Carlson was quick to walk that back and say that he “loves Trump,” and conversely, Trump was quick to say nice things about Carlson after he was fired by Fox.

A Trump/Carlson ticket may be even more likely than Carlson challenging Trump. In fact, the British betting firm Betfair is offering 6/1 odds that Trump chooses Carlson as his vice president, which is far better than the odds they give Carlson for winning the presidential election (80/1).

I can’t think of many things that are more terrifying than a Trump/Carlson presidency. Hopefully, Carlson will disappear into the obscure world of independent right-wing media — Newsmax has effectively invited Carlson to run its operations and One America News Network has made similar come-ons — or change professions completely. Better yet, Carlson could have some kind of spiritual awakening that alters his toxic ideology, but unless someone slips LSD in his coffee, we shouldn’t hold our breath.

But all of those things are less statistically likely than him finding a position of greater influence and power. After all, he was the most popular host at the most popular news network. If there is even a small chance of a complete disaster happening, the best strategy is to be vigilant and prepared. That means thinking about the possibility that Carlson follows a path similar to Trump, and what to do about it. Doing so earlier rather than later could be what prevents it.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @BobbyAzarian.

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