There is a tiny universe of people with the power to trigger the president of the United States into upending international diplomacy and electrifying pockets of white nationalists at home and abroad.
Tucker Carlson is part of that universe. And all he has to do is stare into a camera and speak.
The Fox News host and his team put together a segment Wednesday night in which he bemoaned that a land-reform policy proposal in South Africa was sparking the murdering of white farmers in that country. It was a dubious claim at best (the so-called white land grab would also apply to black farmers, among other things). But it hit all the right notes for President Donald Trump.
Later that evening, Trump proclaimed, via Twitter, that he had asked his secretary of state to check in on the matter of “farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.” The “South African Government,” he added, “is now seizing land from white farmers.’” In case there was any confusion where he got the idea, Trump helpfully tagged his tweet with the verified handles “@TuckerCarlson” and “@FoxNews.”
To say this is not how foreign policy is traditionally made is a tremendous understatement. Trump’s missive drew the ire of not just the Anti-Defamation League but also senior South African government officials. And he did it all, it appears, without bothering to dive much further into the topic than watching that single cable-news segment that evening on TV.
The Daily Beast contacted 10 Trump associates and longtime friends, and none could recall a single time he ever privately mentioned his outrage or concern over South African internal affairs and the “killing of farmers” prior to watching Carlson’s show.
Such is the power that Carlson wields in the age of Trump. It is not a power born from a particularly close personal relationship. Carlson is not as tight with Trump as other Fox News personalities, such as Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, from whom the president has sought counsel. (Dobbs has even been put on speakerphone during multiple Oval Office meetings with Trump and senior administration officials.)
Indeed, Carlson has shunned the role of close, informal private presidential adviser. And Trump hasn’t sought it either. The president does not routinely call Carlson or invite him to the White House regularly, to gossip or seek advice.
What Carlson does possess is a similar worldview to Trump’s—mainly a nativist immigration policy and a general skepticism of foreign-policy adventurism. When Trump has deviated from those positions, the longtime conservative writer and cable mainstay has criticized him for it, most notably on the administration’s aggressive posture to the civil war in Syria.
Carlson, moreover, seems self-aware of the criticism that Fox News is there to carry this president’s water. A person close to the cable host said he is cognizant of being portrayed as a Trump loyalist and the risk of being “typecast.” He understands what that kind of mark might mean for his career after Trump is out of office, the source said.
And yet, for all that, Carlson’s show has been largely complimentary of Trump and the president has, in turn, become an even bigger fan. According to those familiar with his media consumption habits, Trump often tunes in to Tucker Carlson Tonight and has increasingly name-checked Carlson in public and on social media.
“Trump thinks Tucker is one of the sharpest minds on television—[Trump has said], ‘So smart, a thinking man’s show,’” a source close to Trump recalled. “They aren’t personally close. He’s not getting strategic advice from him directly the way he might from a Hannity. But they do chat on occasion, mostly Trump complimenting a segment here and there. He definitely likes him, and… it’s not unusual for him to be exposed to issues through Tucker’s show and others.”
The paths taken by the two men have their similarities. Both hailed from wealthy coastal urban enclaves. Both had fathers with strong local political ties. Both were sent away for high school (Trump to New York Military Academy and Carlson to St. George’s School outside Newport, Rhode Island).
Their ideological paths were quite different. Carlson made his way through the conservative media universe, first as a prominent magazine writer, then as a talking head (where he famously dueled with Jon Stewart on the now-defunct Crossfire on CNN), then as an editor (starting the website The Daily Caller), and then as a cable mainstay again (he had a show on MSNBC before his current slot on Fox News). Trump was a cosmopolitan-minded, self-identifying Democrat—who gave to and hobnobbed with Democratic politicians—before drifting toward the Republican Party (and then redefining it) in the age of Barack Obama.
Along the way, he annoyed Carlson. In a piece published on Politico in January 2016, the Fox News host wrote about a particularly memorable voicemail he had once received from the celebrity businessman.
“About 15 years ago, I said something nasty on CNN about Donald Trump’s hair,” Carlson recounted. “I can’t now remember the context, assuming there was one. In any case, Trump saw it and left a message the next day. ‘It’s true you have better hair than I do,’ Trump said matter-of-factly. ‘But I get more pussy than you do.’”
“Click,” Carlson wrote.
But over the past decade, the two have managed to reach the top echelons of their respective fields, and their mutual respect for each other has grown as well.
Carlson is aware of Trump’s interest in his show, sources say, though it’s not entirely clear if his programing is purposefully geared toward his most powerful viewer. His shows do often focus on issues of “culture” and race, as told from the perspective of the “beleaguered” white male. On Wednesday night, the frame was the same but the focus was South Africa and that country’s proposal to expropriate land from white farmers in order to address persistent apartheid-era racial disparities.
“Keep in mind our State Department right now supports race-based land seizures,” Carlson said. “We hope that policy changes.”
There is little evidence that the issue was on the administration’s radar prior to Carlson’s show. A 2016 State Department report published in early March of last year addresses the “killings of farm owners and farm laborers.” But Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador to South Africa. And the last official to service in that post, Obama appointee Patrick Gaspard, confirmed to The Daily Beast that he had never been contacted by someone from the Trump White House for his take on farmland policy in South Africa.
Where the issue has been heavily discussed is among white nationalists, who have exploited the farmland proposal and exploded it into a prominent meme.
By Wednesday evening, that had all changed. The president had watched cable news. He had then gone online, fired off a tweet, erased it after tagging the wrong Mike Pompeo account, and then sent another.
The next day, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was forced to address the topic, the first time she had done so. She declined to take a firm position on specific land-reform proposals, but said that generally “the expropriation of land without compensation... would risk sending South Africa down the wrong path.” She added that Trump and Pompeo had “certainly discussed it... some time in the last day or so,” but declined to go into detail about their conversation.
Carlson apparently wasn’t satisfied. His show had reached out to State ahead of its Thursday evening broadcast, he told viewers, and “they told us they didn’t care.”
Trump may be fond of the Fox News host, but that fondness is not always guaranteed to be returned.
“Confiscating property without compensation is fine, [State] said, because in effect, South Africa was ‘a strong democracy,’ whatever that means,” Carlson lamented. “Pretty shocking.”
—With additional reporting by Sam Stein