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Tucker Carlson is making his play to be the post-Trump MAGA champion

As I was leaving the set during the commercial break, some part of the conversation continued. Carlson asked me a question: Did I think there were more Trump Republicans or more Republicans loyal to then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R)? I fell back on what polling indicated, which was that there were likely more of the latter. Carlson scoffed dismissively — and deservedly.

I’ve thought about that exchange regularly over the past four years. Carlson, a veteran of conservative media well before getting a prime-time opinion show on Fox, had a keen sense of where the Republican base was and where it was heading. Even as the Trump era unfolded, Carlson maintained a unique space in that right-wing information ecosystem, often critical of Trump, if only for short durations, and more willing than his peers to challenge Trump when given an opportunity to speak with him. Carlson has been obviously sympathetic to Trump’s positions on immigration, to sugarcoat things a bit, but he is also aware that Trump’s rhetoric on helping working people has often clashed with the president’s economic policies.

Since Trump lost his reelection bid, Fox News broadly has undergone an interesting transition. Its insistence on reporting that Trump had in fact lost pushed a number of viewers further into the right-wing muck, where One America News would tell them whatever nonsense they wanted to hear. Fox appears to be interested in chasing those viewers to some extent, rejiggering its evening lineup to create another opinion show at 7 p.m. At the outset, it will be helmed by “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade. He is not always obsequious in his interactions with Trump, but he has a demonstrated and impressive record of sycophancy to the president and his base. A solid B+, at least.

But Carlson’s position has also strengthened. After the election, Carlson announced that Fox News was “working on a project to expand the amount of reporting and analysis we do in this hour across other parts of the company.” Sure enough, Fox News’s ostensible “news” shows began picking up segments and interviews that had run the prior evening on Carlson’s program. Over the past two months, he has become a much more visible presence at the network.

During the Trump era, conservative and right-wing media have fractured into three groups. The largest is the group scrambling to demonstrate its Trumpiness to the president’s pool of millions of engaged supporters. Another group has rejected the Republican Party entirely, nestling in mainstream or even left-wing media over on-screen descriptors identifying them as former members of the right. Then there’s the third group, into which Carlson largely falls: those who responded to Trump not by embracing him but by instead largely training fire at Democrats and the actual or perceived political left. His show’s website positions itself not as a voice of the right but, instead, as being “the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness and group think.”

On Wednesday night, Carlson welcomed another member of that splinter onto his show. Fox News’s Brit Hume, unlike people such as Kilmeade, has spent the past two months offering criticisms of Trump’s crusade against the results of the election while focusing instead on attacking the media, Democrats and other members of the nebulously bounded group of “elites.”

The two were discussing the second impeachment of Trump, with Hume relegating the president to the political trash heap.

“He’s a dead duck politically,” Hume said, calling the impeachment “overkill” as a result. But he conceded that Trump had perhaps nonetheless committed an impeachable offense.

“All that stuff he said for weeks on end after the election, that he’d won it in a landslide and that it was all stolen from him and that Mike Pence had the authority — which he most certainly did not — of reversing the result at the last minute last week,” Hume said, “that was, that was utter balderdash, and he fed it into the veins of his supporters, and one could make a pretty good case that that’s part of what got them into a fever that led to last week’s events.”

Carlson largely nodded along. After all, he, too, had been critical of some of Trump’s most outrageous assertions, even helping to bury then-Trump attorney Sidney Powell’s ridiculous vote-hacking theories by noting on-air that she had no evidence to bolster her claims. Neither he nor Hume targeted the network on which they were appearing for its role in spreading many of the same false claims. Instead, ever focused, Carlson brought things back around to his real target: The Democrats didn’t even try to make the case for impeachment.

The most important part of Carlson’s commentary, though, involved both celebrating Trump’s base for its wisdom — and assuring that base that it needed a new champion. He disparaged the idea that impeaching Trump would weaken his base’s support for the president.

“Who does your average Republican voter trust more? Donald Trump or the many people who hate Donald Trump? Donald Trump or [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell? Donald Trump or CNN?” Carlson asked. “Come on. You know the answer. It’s not complicated.”

He went on to criticize the GOP for acquiescing to any fight over Trump at this point.

“At no point does it seem to have occurred to McConnell or any of these sort of geniuses clustered around him is that what’s really at stake is not the future of Donald Trump — he’s elderly and retiring next week — but instead the future of his voters. Tens of millions of them,” Carlson said. He claimed that those voters’ identification as Trump supporters would soon lead to their ostracization from American society.

But his most telling comments came later in the show.

“Why is it so hard for Republicans on the Hill, who’ve been locked in this bizarre, sadomasochistic relationship with Trump for four years, to say what’s true for a lot of people?” Carlson said. “Look, you know, Trump? Complicated, lots of views — I don’t care. He’s leaving next week.”

“What I care about are his voters,” he continued. “I care about the country, the people who voted for him for a reason that probably had nothing to do with him, but had to do with the mismanagement of the country by the people in charge of it. Where’s their defender? Sincerely?”

This is Carlson’s sweet spot: refusing to accept Trump as a monolith while advocating overtly for those who strongly support the president. It’s unfolding rhetoric like Wednesday night’s that has prompted any number of articles speculating on whether Carlson could or hopes to be the next Republican presidential nominee. Perhaps it’s just a savvy play to retain viewers. But, perhaps, it’s more calculating than that.

Ask yourself this question: Is there any recent history of a Republican firebrand, one for whom race sits at the center of politics, moving from TV to the White House? Or, put another way, are there more Carlson Republicans or more McConnell Republicans?

Come on. You know the answer. It’s not complicated.

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