Lies, Damn Lies, and Tucker Carlson

It should be obvious that this guy’s pants are on fire. But his audience doesn’t care

A photo of Tucker Carlson speaking in Arizona on December 2023.
Brian Cahn / ZUMA Press Wire / Alamy

Right before he was fired from Fox News last spring, the prime-time host Tucker Carlson was set to release a documentary called O, Canada! The trailer seemed to unironically suggest that the country needs to be liberated (read: invaded by the United States) to save it from the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This move would, Tucker implied, accord with the US “official policy” of opposing oppressive dictatorships. The marketing for the documentary included Soviet-style graphics of Trudeau. “What if tyranny arrived right next door?” Tucker asked in the trailer. “And what would our government do in response?”

It wouldn’t have taken Tucker, or his team, much digging to uncover the fact that Trudeau is the leader of a politically centrist minority government within a parliamentary system. For all his many faults and political missteps, Trudeau isn’t a communist dictator worthy of a ground offensive by the US military. (And, by the way, Canada fares better than the US on human and economic freedom scales in rankings by think tanks like the Freedom House and the conservative-leaning Cato and Fraser institutes. The US doesn’t even crack the top twenty! Hmmm, should Canada do the liberating?)

Yesterday, Tucker decided to invade Canada himself, an assault that primarily involved two Alberta speaking events: the one in Calgary headlined a discussion with Premier Danielle Smith in front of an audience of more than 4,000 people, and an Edmonton event, which reportedly had twice as many people. The second show, which I attended, had Premier Smith provide a glowing introduction of Tucker. The premier started with a few anti–renewable energy jokes (which got a big laugh from the nearly full stadium) and rants about the evils of cancel culture (big cheers) and woke politics (big cheers). Shortly after, enter Tucker (standing ovation).

His speech, which was followed by a discussion with Conrad Black and Jordan Peterson, was little more than a string of Trudeau jokes, misleading assertions about Canada’s medical assistance in dying policy, and attacks on trans identity as a movement to “ritually humiliate you.” Throughout the event, there were frequent references to the importance of truth: “These are the stakes, this is the truth, I’m going to stand on the truth.” Coming from a person who has built a career on twisting reality, it felt like satire.

It’s probably best we stop thinking of Tucker Carlson as a journalist or even a public intellectual offering evidence-informed hot takes on current events. Tucker is a vibe. A far-right totem. A flag to be saluted.

Tucker’s largely fact-free pontifications have covered (and heightened) every polarizing and hot-button issue you can think of. And he presents his conclusions as if they are truisms supported by reams of evidence and coherent analysis. It would be simply absurd, his rhetorical strategy invites us to conclude, to disagree with his patently obvious deductions and permanently furrowed brow.

But many of Tucker’s musings can’t even be categorized as fringe perspectives worthy of a smidge of grudging consideration. They are wrong in the way that saying the Earth is flat is wrong. Given the breadth of his truth-twisting oeuvre, it can be a challenge to select highlights from his career. This is, after all, a guy that has called transgender people “a cancer on the country,” continues to platform and celebrate the hate-monger Alex Jones, suggested that the majority of individuals involved in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol “were orderly and meek” “sightseers,” and recommended men tan their testicles to boost their testosterone (don’t do this).

But it’s important to get a sense of how Tucker’s truth-o-meter is calibrated. So let’s consider the degree to which a few of Tucker’s infamous takes fit with reality.

The Tucker take: White supremacy is “a hoax.”

Reality: Hate crimes continue to rise. From 1999 to 2018, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the US increased over 100 percent. The Anti-Defamation League estimated that white supremacy was connected to over 80 percent of extremism-related murders and mass shootings in the US in 2022. White supremacy rhetoric on the internet and in popular culture has contributed to a polarized political discourse. And, obviously, it has a grave impact on the mental health and well-being of those groups it targets. Also, Tucker lives in a country that has a long history of white supremacy, including civil war.

The Tucker take: COVID-19 vaccines “didn’t work.”

Reality: Studies have clearly demonstrated the vaccines—that 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine scientific success story—saved millions of lives and reduced hospitalizations and the burden on health care systems. Vaccines may have also potentially lowered the risk of developing, and the severity of, long COVID. Sure, complain about details surrounding the rollout, the inequitable distribution, and the political posturing associated with the vaccines, but they very obviously “worked” (a.k.a.: saving human lives and reducing human suffering).

The Tucker take: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is tied to the existence of secret US biolabs.

Reality: There is no evidence that the US has or funds secret biolabs in Ukraine. On the contrary, this is a good example of how Tucker can normalize a fringe conspiracy theory and transform it into a policy talking point, echoed by media both in the US and Russia. Indeed, after the invasion of Ukraine, Tucker and Fox News have—according to the New York Times—increasingly been referenced by the Russian media. I wonder why.

The Tucker take: White men “creat[ed] civilization.”

Reality: Okay, this one doesn’t even deserve a reality-adjusting debunk. Let’s just say: nope.

Mocking Tucker’s nonsense is very-low-hanging fruit. But that’s the point. Why does he lie? Profit? Power? To forward a particular political agenda? Maybe a combination of all of the above? We can be fairly certain, however, he is fully and cynically aware of what he is doing.

In defence of Tucker in a 2020 slander lawsuit, Fox News lawyers argued that any reasonable person would know he is full of BS and, therefore, he can’t be taken seriously. This “Tucker is obviously not telling the truth” strategy worked. As the judge concluded, Tucker’s statements “are not factual representations,” and given the “‘general tenor’ of the show,” viewers should be aware “that he is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses.”

He has openly admitted that he lies while on air. “I don’t like lying [but] I certainly do it,” Tucker said during a 2021 interview, “you know, out of weakness or whatever.”

The legal filings associated with the Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit made it pretty clear that Tucker has no problem knowingly spinning the truth. It has been reported that Tucker noted behind the scenes that the voter fraud claims—a key part of Donald Trump’s Big Lie—were “absurd” and agreed they were pushed by “reckless demagogues.” Tucker’s team knew this too. According to the New York Times, when the idea that the 2020 presidential election was stolen first started to surface, Tucker texted his producer, Alex Pfeiffer, “The software shit [i.e., the idea Dominion’s voting computers were rigged] is absurd,” and Pfeiffer responded, “I don’t think there is evidence of voter fraud that swung the election.” Meantime, on-air Tucker was musing to the world that “we don’t know how many votes were stolen on Tuesday night” and “at the highest levels, actually, our [voting] system isn’t what we thought it was.”

Not only is this a clear example of Tucker’s duplicity but it also likely contributed to his firing and the need for Fox News to fork out close to $800 million (US) to settle the Dominion lawsuit.

And this brings us to the Tucker Paradox. It should be obvious to everyone that this guy’s pants are on fire. But his audience doesn’t care and still seems to believe and to be influenced by his commentary. Studies have consistently found a correlation between Fox News consumption and the embrace of misinformation and conspiracy theories. A 2023 study, for example, explored the impact of all the popular US cable news channels on conspiratorial thinking and found “that it is only Fox News that fuels conspiracy mentality over time among its audience.” Research has also found that watching Fox News is associated with increased vaccine hesitancy (which can lead to death), the embrace of unproven therapies (ditto), decreased compliance with public health measures (ditto), and a belief in Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election (which erodes trust in democratic institutions). Indeed, in August last year, a CNN poll showed that an astounding 69 percent of Republicans still believe Biden stole the election.

What is going on? Why individuals embrace and tolerate misinformation is a complex phenomenon that continues to be researched. It involves everything from social media echo chambers to a lack of critical thinking skills to vulnerabilities created by fear, anger, mental health challenges, and/or economic stress. And, of course, ideologically fuelled confirmation biases play a significant role. We all want “our team” to win.

But given his explicit spewing of lies, how can someone like Tucker Carlson continue to be taken seriously by so many? (And, yes, this question applies to other lying-for-a-living voices.) Another 2023 study found that, over the past decade, the concept of honesty, especially for those who identify as Republican, has undergone a drastic shift, moving from the presentation of facts rooted in evidence to what the researchers call “belief speaking,” which focuses more on the apparent conviction of the speaker. With belief speaking, the facts don’t matter—especially when “alternative facts” can be manufactured—as much as the sincerity of the messenger. As Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor at the University of Bristol and co-author of the study, told me, “Anyone who can convince people of the sincerity of their beliefs may therefore be considered honest, even if what they say is false or misleading.” And Tucker certainly plays the look-how-sincere-I-am card well. That permanently furrowed brow!

Another important element is, of course, that Tucker is feeding his audience the rage-infused diet they want to consume. A recent study found that—again, especially with “U.S. Republicans who highly identify with Trump” (Tucker’s exact market)—when a topic involves sacred values and ideologically important issues, misinformation is more likely to be believed and shared. Moreover, the study found “far-right partisans were unresponsive to fact-checking and accuracy nudges.” This is because, the researchers speculate, of the “identity-affirming dimension” of the misinformation. In other words, this is the stuff our team believes, facts be damned.

Tucker is the post-truth poster boy. Let’s put that legacy to constructive use. He should remind all of us—including Canadian politicians—to be especially cautious and skeptical when we see content that plays to our emotions, preconceived beliefs, and ideological convictions.

Indeed, consorting with the likes of Tucker Carlson should be viewed as an acid test for a politician’s toleration of blatant lies, the leveraging and exploitation of division, and the celebration of rage and hate.

During one of his rambling Trudeau jokes (one of which, sigh, had the punchline “Go back to Cuba”) he asked the audience how anyone could believe the prime minister because he is “so transparently phony.” The comment was so ironic—an on-the-nose mirror accusation—that, for just a moment, I thought he was mocking his audience. Nope. These are his people. And he’s building a brand.

Timothy Caulfield
Timothy Caulfield is a professor at the University of Alberta and author of Relax: A Guide to Everyday Health Decisions with More Facts and Less Worry, published by Penguin Random House Canada in 2022.