How Tucker Carlson landed the West’s most controversial interview

As the ovation ricocheted around the convention hall in celebration of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine days earlier, a chant broke out in the rowdier corners of the room. “Putin! Putin! Putin!” attendees bellowed, pumping their fists.

It was the kind of moment you might have expected to encounter at a rally in Moscow, or Veliky Novgorod, or Grozny or Minsk. 

But this show of fealty to Mother Russia wasn’t even taking place in a country under the rule of Vladimir Putin, let alone at a rally in his honour.

The event, held in Orlando, Florida, in February 2022, was the America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), an annual meeting of US white nationalists and far-Right that’s increasingly attended by mainstream politicians. The message was clear: America first, of course – of course – but Russia just behind. 

To the part-time observer of US politics, it might have been easy to dismiss AFPAC’s reception for Vladimir Putin two years ago as a relative one-off – or at the very least a sign that only the extreme, minority edges of the country’s political Right might be embracing Vladimir Putin and approve of his actions in Ukraine.

But in the time since, the creep of  apparent admiration seems only to have spread. First across the internet, then to speaking stages. Now we have the flying visit of Tucker Carlson to Moscow so he can interview Putin himself.

Carlson and Putin met on Tuesday for a conversation that will be aired on Carlson’s website on Thursday at 6pm Eastern time (11pm GMT), as well as being posted “uncensored” by X/Twitter owner Elon Musk.

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Carlson posted a four-minute video trailing the interview on Tuesday. “Two years into a war that’s reshaping our world, most Americans are not informed,” he said, not unreasonably. “But they should know, they’re paying for much of it in ways they might not fully yet perceive.”

Most Americans, he continued, have no idea why Putin invaded Ukraine. “You’ve never heard his voice. That’s wrong. Americans have a right to know all we can about a war they’re implicated in, and we have the right to tell them about it.” 

Behind him, the nighttime skyline of Moscow glittered. He was allegedly speaking from a balcony at the city’s famous Carlton hotel, formerly the Ritz-Carlton. 

Seeming to highlight the amount of interviews conducted with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has been visited by everybody from Piers Morgan to Bear Grylls, Carlson, 54, claimed “not a single Western journalist has bothered to interview the president of the other country involved in this conflict”.

This infuriated dozens of Western journalists who have repeatedly had their interview requests rejected by the Kremlin over the past two years – a fact even the Kremlin later conceded.

But Putin decided to break his omertà with Carlson because, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, his style is different from the “one-sided” reporting of mainstream Western news media.

“When it comes to the countries of the collective West, the large network media, TV channels (and) large newspapers can in no way boast of even trying to at least look impartial in terms of coverage,” Peskov said. 

“These are all media outlets that take an exceptionally one-sided position. Of course, there is no desire to communicate with such media, and it hardly makes sense, and it is unlikely that it will be useful.”

Carlson, by contrast, is seen as almost perfectly objective. “It is in no way pro-Russian, it is not pro-Ukrainian – it is pro-American, but at least it contrasts with the position of the traditional Anglo-Saxon media.”

Carlson’s sympathetic view towards Putin and Russia, as well as his antipathy towards Zelensky and Ukraine, are hardly recent developments. In 2017, he asked, “Why is Vladimir Putin such a bad guy? He’s not Saddam Hussein, he’s not Adolf Hitler, he’s not a danger to the United States.”

Later, days before that AFPAC applause, he told viewers tuning into his Fox News show that “Ukraine is not a democracy. It’s a colony with a puppet regime essentially managed by the US State Department.”

The sentiment likely went down well in Moscow, where Putin had said much the same 24 hours earlier. 

If that wasn’t clear enough, earlier in the same month he’d beseeched his viewers to ask themselves: “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? These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is: ‘No.’ Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that.” 

The Ukraine situation, he said, was a “border issue” and little more – which is, admittedly, a handy way of minimising almost any war in history. “Democrats in Washington have told you it’s your patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a mandate. Anything less than hatred for Putin is treason.” 

If that’s true, treason abounds among the libertarian Right all over the world, but not least in the US. Putin’s appeal to the furthest reaches of the Right, including to the attendees of AFPAC, are fairly obvious: his strongman persona, his trashing of western liberalism, his dissembling of women’s rights and his persecution of LGBT people are all the stuff of extreme Right dreams.

Combine that with the dozens of sprawling online conspiracy theories relating to Zelensky and Ukraine, and Putin is suddenly a hero figure, fighting all that’s wrong with the world. 

Increasingly, however, he’s also commanded the respect of even more mainstream politicians, including one auspicious former president. Donald Trump may have condemned Putin’s actions in Ukraine, but he’s also called Putin a “genius”, “savvy” and “smart”.

Allies are even more directly approving. Marjorie Taylor Greene, his loyal and frantic acolyte in Congress, has featured prominently on Russian state television, so much so that she’s frequently accused of parroting Kremlin propaganda. 

Trump’s supporters evidently agree too: last year, a poll found that 52 per cent of “Maga” Republicans believe Vladimir Putin is a better president than Joe Biden.

It is a remarkable shift from sentiment during the Cold War, when the fear of Communism and its threats threaded through US society, or, indeed, how Ronald Reagan’s Republican supporter base viewed the Soviet Union in the 1980s; but it reflects a change in both countries.

Many Russia-watchers see Putin’s actions since returning to power in 2012 as being inspired by the original ideology of Emperor Nicholas I: orthodoxy, autocracy, nationalism. It isn’t difficult to imagine many Trump fans nodding along in agreement at those.

For most of the last decade, Carlson was the most influential voice in the US Right, via his shows on Fox News, the conservative media behemoth he climbed up, then dominated like Godzilla, after joining as a contributor in 2009.

Fiercely bright and a gifted communicator, he had the knack of making even dense policy debates accessible and inflammatory to Middle America – even if the truth was occasionally massaged to unrecognisable ends in the process. 

With his colourful bow-ties and talent for performative indignation, he became a figure of fun for the Left but an increasingly important figure for the Right, especially when a certain other television bigmouth entered the White House. As one appraisal put it, “Donald Trump had the raw power, but Carlson set the ideological agenda” during the former’s presidency.

One viral piece to camera summing up the state of America on election day in 2020 – an undeniably impressive piece of storytelling, and better than anything the Trump campaign had managed all year – made that plain. 

“God help the Democrats if Tucker Carlson ever ran for the White House. A lot of this, sadly, is accurate,” wrote Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media, the UK Left-wing news organisation, retweeting the video.

Carlson, amid calls for him to do just that and run for president one day, was removed from Fox News in 2023 for (according to one report), committing “the cardinal Fox sin of acting like he was bigger than the network he was on”. 

He went on to prove that he quite possibly is bigger: his online following has never been greater. His first online show, posted on X, post-Fox, was seen around 120 million times in two months – far more than anything cable news managed.

It seems certain that Carlson’s exclusive tête-à-tête with Putin will break that record, even if X remains largely blocked in Russia. 

Many will despise it and dismiss the interview out of hand. Some will probably see it as staged, or a set-up. But Carlson won’t mind. His audience is out there and growing still, just like Putin’s. It is a terrifying partnership.

“Why do I feel guilty like I’m betraying my country?” Carlson said, chuckling uneasily, when caught in Moscow by reporters on Wednesday. “I’m not, I love America. This is a really nice city and I don’t care.” 

He loves America, and he doesn’t care. Whatever Tucker Carlson is up to, the world will be watching.

The post How Tucker Carlson landed the West’s most controversial interview appeared first on The Telegraph.

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