As John Oliver began the main segment of Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight,” he apologized in advance to the audience.
“Our main story tonight concerns, I’m sorry to say, Tucker Carlson,” Oliver said, before launching into a 25-minute takedown of the prominent Fox News personality.
Oliver explained that while he would rather not give someone like Carlson the attention he craves, the fact that Carlson’s show is frequently the most-watched primetime cable program and Carlson “has the admiration of white supremacists and the ears of millions of your relatives, coworkers, and elected officials” makes him worth discussing.
Oliver traced Carlson’s career arc, from his childhood as the heir to a TV dinner fortune to his early days as a television personality during the O.J. Simpson trial. Along the way, Oliver highlighted how Carlson learned from his predecessors, playing an early cable news clip of Carlson describing how conservative icon Pat Buchanan would respond to any criticism by claiming that the powers that be — the elites, the media, the P.C. police — were out to get him.
The main thrust of Oliver’s show was that even though Carlson frequently says he doesn’t know what “white supremacism” or “white nationalism” means, he presents a slightly refined version of white supremacist beliefs to his audience. To prove his point, throughout the show, Oliver played clips of avowed white supremacists, including former Grand Wizard David Duke, praising Carlson for making their message more palatable to mainstream audiences.
“That is the whole thing with Tucker,” the HBO host said. “He might not say Black or white, he’ll insist that he’s for ‘colorblindness.’ He’ll build in deniability by phrasing things like a question, like, ‘What does racism look like?,’ while kind of embodying the answer.”
It’s that plausible deniability, Oliver says, that makes Carlson’s rhetoric so dangerous and damaging.
“No one in their right mind would sit down, pop in their headphones, and fire up David Duke’s podcast and think, ‘Hey, I’m not a white supremacist,’” Oliver said. “But millions of people watch Tucker on TV every night, spouting well-laundered versions of pretty much the same talking points. And there is real harm in that. Because while white supremacy is clearly dangerous when promoted by self-avowed white supremacists, it can actually be even more dangerous when it isn’t.”
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