A few short years ago, the idea that a prominent Republican talking head would fly out to Moscow to allow Vladimir Putin to tell his side of the story would have been the stuff of paranoid liberal fantasies, or a mid-tier SNL sketch. Sure, the American right has flirted with pro-Russia sentiment in the past, particularly under Donald Trump, but the idea that one of its golden boys – not to mention a key piece of conservative media infrastructure – would play host to a Soviet-bred authoritarian leader still seemed beyond the pale for the party of Reagan.
This Thursday, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson released a two-hour, seven-minute interview with the Russian president on his personal website and Twitter/X account. It marks the first time Putin has sat down to talk with a Western media figure since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
In the interview, Putin touched on a number of subjects, including his reluctance to engage in acts of goodwill towards the West, such as releasing jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was detained in Russia in March of last year; his admiration for Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk; his belief that peace talks with Ukraine had been sabotaged by former UK prime minister Boris Johnson; and his conviction that Ukraine is not a “real” country.
Carlson, who was fired by Fox News in April of last year, has drawn criticism for what many have interpreted as his overly pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine stance. In a video posted to Twitter/X in June of last year, he referred to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky as “rat-like”, and blamed the destruction of Kakhovka dam, which may have impacted the ability of more than 700,000 Ukrainian citizens to access clean drinking water, on Ukrainian terrorists. He has implied that the US is to blame for the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and suggested that Americans only hate Putin because they have been “trained” to.
To suggest that Tucker Carlson is a biased journalist wouldn’t be fair – he isn’t really a journalist. His job is to incite fear and loathing in the American public, not to inform them. For that reason, he’s a perfect stooge for Putin’s expansionist ambitions. As former secretary of state Hillary Clinton put it in an MSNBC interview earlier this week, Carlson is a “useful idiot” – a “puppy dog” that Putin doesn’t have any respect for, but is still good for propagandising to the most wilfully gullible members of the American public (all 74,223,975 of them).
And Putin really doesn’t have any respect for him. During one cringe-inducingly awkward moment, the Russian president openly mocked Carlson for wanting the join the CIA when he was younger. “Maybe we should thank God they didn’t let you in,” said Putin before swiftly moving on, as Tucker sat there with his trademark vacant expression, presumably trying to process whether he had just been verbally wedgied by the man he had spent the past few years siding with at the expense of his own country.
The interview is an object lesson in modern conservative US politics, and what happens when Maga Republicans take their brand of populist rhetoric and culture-war-stoking contrarianism to its obvious conclusion. And he isn’t alone. Prominent conservative talking heads like Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens and Dinesh D’Souza have gradually become more and more open in their criticism of Ukraine and admiration of Putin, while Republican lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Wendy Rogers, and a host of others – including Trump himself – are becoming more and more comfortable regurgitating Russian propaganda about the conflict. Whether this is their way of taking shots at the pro-Ukraine Biden administration, or out of genuine Russian sympathies, is irrelevant – the fact is that they are giving airtime to the kind of talking points hostile foreign state actors used to have to drop from their biplanes in leaflet form, and they’re doing it with impunity.
Tucker Carlson may not be trying to do the bidding of Vladimir Putin, or undermine his own nation to the benefit of its enemies. But it is very difficult to see how, if those were his goals, his actions would differ from what he’s been doing for the past several years – and the same is becoming true for more and more of his conservative colleagues.
Maybe for Tucker, being a “useful idiot” is the one thing keeping him from being labelled something far worse.