Tucker Carlson and Elon Musk have more in common than you might think — and it isn’t just the fact that they shared two hours of giggling bromance(opens in a new tab) on Fox News in what turned out to be Carlson’s last major interview before he was fired. In many ways, they’ve been living parallel lives, from the heights of privilege to the lows of troll-baiting outrage.
Both men are on the elder side of Gen X (Carlson was born in 1969, Musk in 1971). Both watched their multimillionaire dads (Dick Carlson(opens in a new tab), journalist and diplomat, and Errol Musk(opens in a new tab), part owner of the emerald mine his son would later deny existed) enter politics. Both are members of the wealthy elite (Carlson, who was paid $6 million a year and is reportedly sitting on more than $30 million(opens in a new tab), increased his net worth in 2022 – something that the billionaire Musk, who tanked Tesla stock and halved the value of Twitter(opens in a new tab), cannot claim).
Both are facing a reckoning over prominent lawsuits from women; Musk from a flight attendant who says the Tesla CEO exposed himself and bought her silence(opens in a new tab), Carlson from his former producer, Abby Grossberg, who alleges discrimination(opens in a new tab) in the form of sexist and antisemitic comments.
But the crucial point of Musk-Carlson comparison is this: Over the last six years, both men adopted Trump-like tactics. Both remade themselves as toxic populists. Both would come to be defined by outright lies and unapologetic cruelty. Both promoted conspiracy theories and nurtured conspiracy theorists. Both seemed untouchable, cultivating an air of invincibility within their right-wing filter bubbles.
And now both appear to be imploding at the same time. If Musk wasn’t concerned before that his unpopular Twitter Blue scheme imperils the company he just bought, or that he’s blown up his reputation for nothing, Carlson’s firing should certainly give him pause. The right-wing outrage machine that Musk joined has no job security and a tendency to consume its own (see also Dan Bongino, who parted ways with Fox News(opens in a new tab) last week). There’s always another grifter waiting in the wings.
Congratulations, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. You played yourselves.
When Carlson replaced the populist Fox News firebrand Bill O’Reilly in 2017, he was seen as a relatively staid choice(opens in a new tab), an old-school-if-humorless conservative commentator, most famous for having his bow tie and his performative outrage mocked by Jon Stewart(opens in a new tab). Certainly no one suspected he would become the Kremlin’s “essential” U.S. TV figure(opens in a new tab), that he would create “what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news(opens in a new tab),” or that he would run cover for an actual coup attempt(opens in a new tab).
Musk’s rightward drift happened more slowly over the last three years; the former darling of environmentalists is on record as voting for the Democratic candidates for president in 2012, 2016 and 2020. He joined Trump’s advisory council in 2017, but left when Trump quit the Paris Agreement(opens in a new tab). The Musk tilt towards Trumpian trolling and lies seems to have begun in 2018, the year of the “pedo guy” and the “funding secured at $420” tweets — both of which led to trials that Musk ultimately won, but that a more rational CEO might have avoided in the first place.
Musk tweeted “take the red pill” in 2020, and by 2022 the former EV hero was calling for increased fossil fuel production(opens in a new tab) while proposing an unpopular Kremlin-backed peace plan that would hand over much of Ukraine to Russia. He bought Twitter with a major assist from Saudi money(opens in a new tab), and the row over which media Twitter accounts should count as “state-funded” ultimately led Musk to remove the label from clear propaganda outfits like Russia’s RT and Sputnik, as well as China’s Xinhua. Russian tweets accusing the CIA of masterminding 9/11 are now being seen by 33 percent more users(opens in a new tab) after Musk removed other restrictions on these accounts. Meanwhile, the self-described “free speech absolutist” appears to be working with the Modi government in India to ban tweets critical of its authoritarian leader(opens in a new tab).
Since Musk bought Twitter, there’s been little daylight between him and Carlson on the conspiracy theory front. Carlson’s fact-free rants about Dr. Anthony Fauci(opens in a new tab) found their echo in Musk’s tweet calling for Fauci to be prosecuted(opens in a new tab) for unspecified crimes. Musk’s tweets about declining birth rates are dog whistles(opens in a new tab) at a slightly higher pitch than Tucker Carlson’s outright embrace of Great Replacement theory(opens in a new tab), a white supremacist trope. When Musk ranted about “the woke mind virus”(opens in a new tab) that is allegedly destroying civilization, it could easily have been a Carlson monologue(opens in a new tab).
There’s a lot of overlap between Carlson’s guests and Musk’s Twitter pen pals. Both chat with rightwing figures known for stretching the truth, such as Tom Fitton, Andy Ngo, and “Libs of TikTok” founder Chaya Raichik – who is, like Carlson(opens in a new tab) and Musk(opens in a new tab), a noted transphobe(opens in a new tab).
The more they focused on throwing red meat to their followers, the less Carlson and Musk seemed to care about what was actually true. Both suffered setbacks outside the MAGA echo chamber when they tried to launch stories that were highly misleading and selectively edited. Musk’s so-called Twitter Files, which he has now said everyone needs to “move on” from, came before Carlson’s laughable attempt to spin footage from the January 6 insurrection(opens in a new tab), which led Musk to declare his support for the QAnon shaman.
As with Trump, the cynicism behind both operations was out in the open if you cared to look. Carlson’s text messages, unearthed in the Dominion voting systems lawsuit that may have helped lead to his firing, reveal that he didn’t believe the company narrative of a stolen election(opens in a new tab). He seems to have promoted it entirely out of fear that his viewers would flee Fox for Newsmax. In Musk’s text messages, revealed courtesy of a Twitter shareholder lawsuit, we can see friends urge him to buy the company so he can play “the delicate game of letting right wingers back on Twitter” after they violated the rules, and to place a “Blake Masters type” in charge of enforcement — referencing an Arizona politician who promoted the election Big Lie.
None of this mattered to their millions of supporters, of course. For the roughly 3 million who watched Carlson on a regular night, and for the weird nerds(opens in a new tab) who jump into Musk’s replies to defend him against valid criticism, the pair can do no wrong.
Part of the appeal, as with Trump, was that they could not be constrained by any of the guardrails of a functioning society. Musk often thumbs his nose at the SEC(opens in a new tab) and other federal regulators, and shows no sign of abiding by his Twitter poll that told him to step down as CEO. Carlson was a law unto himself at Fox News, so popular with the base that Rupert Murdoch — who parted ways with his latest fiancée reportedly because she believed Carlson was a “messenger from God”(opens in a new tab) — could apparently do nothing about his star’s lurch into fever-dream territory.
But now Murdoch has blindsided Carlson(opens in a new tab), right in the middle of his contract renegotiation. Trump, Carlson’s supposed hero whom he can’t actually stand, has been indicted in New York, and likely faces another indictment(opens in a new tab) in Georgia. Jury selection in his rape trial has begun(opens in a new tab). Consequences may arrive slowly, but they are arriving — a fact that Musk would do well to remember as he faces down a massive FTC investigation(opens in a new tab) and an ongoing exodus of advertisers(opens in a new tab), who still represent Twitter’s only real source of revenue.
To be sure, this isn’t the end of the road for either Carlson or Musk. Carlson can follow his outrage-merchant predecessors Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, who made a comfortable living on their own media platforms after leaving Fox. He could, like Trump, found his own social media network. He could even, as has often been suggested, run for president. Musk doesn’t have a boss like Carlson did; taking Twitter private and firing the board means he can continue to ignore critics and regulators for as long as he wants to keep shoveling his billions into paying its overhead.
But the case can be made that both of these men have peaked. Look at Carlson’s predecessors; Beck and O’Reilly have their diehard fans but also languish in relative obscurity, failing to “own the libs” who can safely ignore them. Trump gets some mainstream attention via Truth Social, but not nearly the same amount as when he used to tweet. Carlson knows that running a campaign isn’t the same as ranting on TV for a few hours on weeknights, especially not if he dares go up against Trump.
Musk is in a similar bind. He tried to “own the libs” by making journalists and celebrities pay for blue checkmarks; few took the bait. The checkmark, now that it means “this user pays $8 a month” rather than “this user is who they say they are,” is all but worthless. Prioritizing blue check accounts in tweet replies have made them largely unreadable, further devaluing the service. Musk can look into the future and see an array of negative headlines from trials and investigations (not just into Twitter, or his actions with the flight attendant, but also into Neuralink and all the animals it allegedly killed(opens in a new tab)).
If Carlson grabbed the Trump-style megaphone in 2017, and Musk did the same in 2018, and their downfalls are on the same schedule, then Musk has another year before his moment of reckoning arrives. He could learn from Carlson’s hubris and spend that year making a product that appeals to its biggest users, or maybe even step down in favor of a less divisive CEO like he promised. But it has never been clearer that a conspiracy theorizing, anti-woke crusading, outrage-generating strategy has a limited life span.