Tucker Carlson is utterly baffled that people would think he is rooting for Vladimir Putin and Russia in its war on Ukraine. “You know, it’s such an awful thing to say,” he said on his Fox News show Monday, after playing a clip of Congressman Eric Swalwell saying he and other Republicans were on Putin’s side. “We hesitated to play that, even—it’s very common, you hear it every day. The question is: Why are they saying that? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Gaslighting, of course, has become Carlson’s specialty. In reality, Carlson spent most of the month prior to the invasion praising Putin and echoing Russian propaganda: running down Ukraine, deriding it as a “State Department client state”—not a democracy, but “a tyranny”—and claiming that Russia just wants to keep its borders secure, everything the fault of Joe Biden. So much so that he became the hero of Russian state television, where his rants were translated and replayed, and he was praised as an astute American.
Now that the horror is hitting home, Carlson suddenly has realized that he backed the wrong horse and is scurrying hard to dig his way out. The first step in that, of course, is gaslighting his audience about what he had been saying just the week before, and blaming the war on Putin now—yet somehow it’s still all Joe Biden’s fault. Those clips have yet to appear on Russian TV.
The major tone shift occurred Friday, a day after the invasion: “It’s a tragedy, because war always is a tragedy, and the closer you get to it, the more horrifying it seems,” he said. He also squarely put the onus on Russia and Putin: “He is to blame for what we’re seeing tonight in Ukraine.”
“Vladimir Putin started this war, so whatever the context of the decision that he made, he did it,” he said. “He fired the first shots.”
It’s a sharp and complete reversal of his previous arguments. On Feb. 17, he spouted Russian propaganda in claiming that Ukraine is not a legitimate nation. He also attacked U.S. officials who provided military aid to Ukraine.
“These people are so ghoulish,” Carlson said. “Of course they’re promoting war, not to maintain the democracy that is Ukraine. Ukraine is not a democracy. It has never been a democracy in its history, and it’s not now. It’s a client state of the Biden administration.”
This narrative became a staple of Carlson’s defense of Russia’s war. On his Feb. 22 show, he again spouted Putin’s propaganda: “The point here is to defend democracy. Not that Ukraine is a democracy. It’s not a democracy. Ukraine’s president has arrested his main political opponent, he has shut down newspapers and television stations that have dared to criticize him. So in American terms, you would call Ukraine a tyranny. But Joe Biden likes Ukraine, so Putin bad, war good.”
The next day, he again dismissed Ukraine as “a State Department client state,” claiming that Democrats wanted Americans to “wholeheartedly support jumping with both feet into a highly complicated conflict in a part of Eastern Europe where we have no national interests.”
The most noteworthy part of that Feb. 22 episode, however, was how Carlson defended Putin against his “haters” by comparing him to American liberals, who he clearly saw as far more nefarious:
It might be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, ‘What is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my kids to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs?’ These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is no. Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that. So do why does permanent Washington hate him so much?
The day after the invasion began, on Feb. 24, it was more of the same. The invasion, he claimed, demonstrated that Biden was a foreign-policy failure who had promised he would keep it from happening, making Putin’s war a “humiliating defeat for Joe Biden.”
Russian state media promptly began re-airing Carlson’s rants with translated subtitles, particularly the Putin-didn’t-call-me-a-racist episode. His attacks on Ukraine’s legitimacy also received heavy play. They also replayed Carlson’s Feb. 24 interview with ex-Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who told him: "Sanctions don't work. This is the whole problem with the Biden administration: They are so focused on how do we punish Putin."
The clips became the topic of Russian TV news talk shows, where Carlson was uniformly praised. “Excellent performance,” the editor of a Russian national defense journal commented. “We can only have solidarity with this view.”
Of course, Carlson is hardly alone in spreading pro-Russian propaganda on Fox News. On Feb. 24, just before bombs began falling on Ukraine, host Laura Ingraham interviewed ex-president Donald Trump by phone, who praised Putin—“I do know him very well. We’ve had many, uh, times together. I got along with him fantastically”—and ranted at length that the invasion was Biden’s fault, and the war never would have happened if the election hadn’t been stolen from him.
Near the end of the interview, Ingraham asked Trump about the speech given earlier that day by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, describing it as “a kind of really pathetic display” and described Ukraine’s United Nations ambassador as “looking like a defeated man.”
And despite the seeming change in tone, Carlson’s “pivot” still found him ardently defending Russian propaganda, and serving as its useful tool. Angry that authorities and platform owners in the U.S., Canada, and in Europe are taking action against the Kremlin-owned American news outlet Russia Today and other agitprop producers like Sputnik—both of whom also heavily replayed his pro-Russia rants—Carlson fumed that it all constituted “moral blackmail,” gaslighting away his previous remarks: “No one in America takes pride at the sight, feels anything but revulsion at the sight, of Russian troops within Ukraine.”
Sure enough, RT promptly retweeted Carlson’s clip: “Tucker Carlson defends media freedom as Senators use their power to shut down free speech on social media—especially so-called ‘Russian propaganda.’”
As Lis Wahl, a former anchor at Russia Today, explained to The Daily Beast, the distinction between a propaganda operation like RT and what’s aired on Fox News has essentially vanished:
While the American voices Russian media uses to influence Western audiences hail from the far-left and the far-right, the poison of disinformation asymmetrically originates on the ideological right. Research has demonstrated that followers of the former president stick to hyper-partisan and conspiracy-laden sources such as Breitbart, Info Wars, and Fox News. During Trump’s election and throughout his presidency, the rightwing ecosystem grew more conspiratorial, extreme, and anti-democratic. It is during this time that Russian media and right-wing media became indistinguishable.
Today, the chief purveyors of pro-Russian disinformation in the U.S. are now on Fox News. I have warned that quite often the pro-Putin claims on Fox and RT essentially mimic each other. But much of the American public, and even many in the mainstream media, fail to realize the extent to which this disinformation has become part of the fabric of the new media landscape, and therefore, American political discourse.