With United States aid to Ukraine stranded in a political no-man's-land by the far-right wing of the Republican Party, their biggest news media celebrity was dispatched to Russia to make the case for why American conservatives should support the invader.
On February 8th, former Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson released his interview with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. It was obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with his career that it would not be an actual journalistic interview, but rather just an opportunity for Putin to spread whatever propagandistic message he thought would be most useful to him. It likely did not go as smoothly as planned from either side, but not for lack of trying. However, Tucker is just one more in a long chain of Western enablers of Kremlin dictators, with 1933 Holodomor enabler Walter Duranty notable among them.
In the days leading up to the meeting, Carlson was a media sensation in the aggressor state, with his every stop at a grocery store covered with breathless fascination. That he shares a name with the main character of a Swedish cartoon that became wildly popular in the Soviet Union, Karlson-on-the-Roof, featured frequently.
Then came the interview, which Tucker was clearly unprepared for. He began with a leading question meant to get Putin to say that Russia attacked Ukraine out of self-defense, and was met with a deluge of ultra-nationalist pseudo-history that laid out the case for why the existence of the Ukrainian state is a historical aberration. The idea of Ukrainian peoplehood is a conspiracy by Poles and Austrians to weaken Russia, Putin said The Russian leader also made the case for why Hitler was correct in invading the “uncooperative” Poland, just as Russia is doing to Ukraine. It was not so much an interview as a one-sided rant with Putin bulldozing over the American’s questions.
What led Tucker Carlson to that disaster? He portrayed his trip as a way to show Americans the real Russian viewpoint, but was it? Putin has given the same rant several times before, including in an essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in the July before the full-scale invasion. Or the time when he said that Ukraine was invented by Vladimir Lenin.
Both Tucker Carlson and Walter Duranty saw in Russia a model of an idealized society which they lied and cheated their way into making real.
To get to the root of it, Carlson’s career has been as an avid self-promoter with a knack for positioning himself as a go-to voice on hot-button issues. He also routinely finds himself in conflict with managers and coworkers. He got his Big Break by volunteering himself as an expert on the murder trial of former American football player OJ Simpson, something that he self-admittedly was not an expert in, but saw his chance to insert himself as a talking head for the first time.
Tucker moved around cable news until landing at Fox News, where he staked out a position as the voice of the American far-right and was instrumental in the spread of far-right ideas into the mainstream. He banded around far-right talking points as damaging as the “white genocide” conspiracy theory to as frivolous as changing the design of candy mascots.
With the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, this worldview began to encompass support for Russia as well. In the lead-up to the invasion, Carlson stated, “Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? I’m serious. Why do I care? Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.”
Tucker and his comrades cast Russia in the role of the defender of conservative social values against advances in equal rights. As they see it, it is a country that protects the misogyny, homophobia, and general boorishness they hold dear, and really they yearn for the opportunity to be as repressive as Putin is. As long as we are digging into history, Putin picked up the mantle of Tsar Nicholas I, the “Gendarme of Europe,” who mobilized against the spread of 19th-century liberalism and the “Springtime of Nations.”
Tucker Carlson, with his spot at the top of the TV ratings for cable news, became Putin’s #1 cheerleader in the United States, spreading such falsehoods as Ukraine building bioweapons and banning Orthodox Christianity. He tried and failed to steer the Putin interview more in this direction on several occasions, most blatantly when asking Putin to define what it means to be an Orthodox nation. The experienced, conservative culture warrior would have preferred to hear something about traditional families but instead was met with a metaphysical argument for Russian nationalism without any talking points to bite down on or even anything specifically about religion.
The effectiveness of his Russia advocacy took a hit after being fired from Fox in July 2023 for being a magnet for defamation and sexual harassment lawsuits and, more broadly, being unpleasant to everyone he worked with and for. The internal communications that were made public by those lawsuits were also a PR nightmare. But, going independent only made him even more lost in conspiracy theory and pro-Russian political extremism.
Tucker Carlson is far from the first or the last of Moscow’s fellow travelers and useful idiots. Ukrainians often compare Carlson to Walter Duranty, who served as Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Times from 1922 to 1936. His tenure covered the period from the aftermath of the Russian Civil War to the total political consolidation under Joseph Stalin.
His coverage of the Holodomor, or lack thereof, was the lowlight of his career in the USSR. While he acknowledged that there were food shortages in certain regions, he systematically denied and covered up the true extent of the hunger-genocide. Even when he showed that he was fully aware of it and was actually supportive of its aims. Part of this cover-up was slandering the work of the Times reporter Gareth Jones, who went deep into the Ukrainian countryside to uncover the depth of the engineered famine.
Duranty returned to Moscow as a reporter covering the show trials of the Great Purge of 1938. Sympathetically, of course.
Interestingly, unlike many other Stalin defenders, Duranty was not even a communist. He would have fit in better with the modern crop of pro-Russian sycophants with more varied and esoteric politics. He was no true believer in the worker’s paradise, but instead of a racialist idea of Russian autocratic collectivism uncorrupted by the West. A culture apart, the mysterious Russian soul that fits into Putin’s description of his concept of Orthodoxy.
Both Tucker Carlson and Walter Duranty saw in Russia a model of an idealized society which they lied and cheated their way into making real. Those idealized societies both required a price in blood to build that they were willing to watch others pay. Both made themselves into mouthpieces for tyrants. Ultimately, both returned to America rather than live in their Russian paradise. Oddly enough, specifically to Florida.
With all that said, there are also many points of divergence between Duranty and Carlson.
Duranty was a long-term resident of Moscow who embedded himself into the political culture he ran propaganda for. Carlson was flown in for a few days and was, quite frankly, out of his depth.
Duranty understood the Stalinist party line and tailored his own propaganda to fit theirs. Carlson tried in vain to get Putin’s propaganda to be more in line with his own, and was utterly confounded by actually encountering the Putinist party line despite having two years to become passably familiar with it.
Duranty was, in his time, though that is different now, a respected Pulitzer-winning writer who used his reputation to attack and bury the work of better journalists, including but not limited to Gareth Jones. Carlson was cast out into the professional wilderness, albeit a lucrative one, and was never regarded as a reporter in the first place.
However, there is one more commonality between the two propagandists. The New York Times current Moscow Bureau Chief Anton Troianovski, the heir to Duranty’s seat, has chosen to continue his legacy. After Putin laid out his argument for why Ukraine has no right to exist and that the Russian Orthodox soul can never be divided, Mr. Troianovski decided that the story was instead, “Putin Calls on U.S. to ‘Negotiate’ on Ukraine in Tucker Carlson Interview.”
History should be listened to when it rhymes.
Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine