Q&A: My conversation with Tucker Carlson

by Rush Limbaugh in the Limbaugh Letter, January 2017

It was a pleasure to speak with the host of Fox News' hot new show, "Tucker Carlson Tonight", whose storied journalism career includes co-founding The Daily Caller, co-hosting "The Spin Room" and "Crossfire", and doing battle for conservatism on many news programs.

RUSH: Hey, Tucker. How are you, sir?

CARLSON: Mr. Limbaugh. How are you doing?

RUSH: Great to meet you. I'm glad you had time for this. I want to start with you on "Crossfire". I happened to be watching the show [in 2004] when Jon Stewart came on. It looked like you were prepared to have a good time with him, but he tore into "Crossfire" as the epitome of what was wrong with media and television. Can you tell me what went through your mind when that happened, and what your thoughts have been since as you have gone on to your careers? Who was your leftist counterpart on that show?

CARLSON: It was Paul Begala.

RUSH: Ah, that's right.

CARLSON: I knew Jon Stewart before he came on the show, and I always thought he was politically misguided but smart and funny. So I was not expecting that. I was blindsided by it. I didn't understand his critique then, and 12 years later, I honestly don't understand it any better now. I thought his point was that we were sucking up to politicians. Of my manifold sins, I've never done that. I am just not temperamentally suited to sucking up to politicians. So I thought that was a dumb critique.

Then he went on to say we were hurting America or something, which I'm willing to believe. I worked at CNN at the time, so I don't think we were a net benefit to America, by definition [laughs], but I thought he was overstating our influence a little. I don't really know what that was about. I've never figured it out. He was more popular than I was at the time, so he was recorded as "winning" the debate, because typically the more popular guy is seen as the winner, no matter what he says. But I didn't think he made a very good case for anything on the merits.

RUSH: I'll tell you what I remember about it, and I've watched not just you and him, but of course the evolution of all the opinion media. What I took from it was that he was basically saying the never-ending argument and the never-solved argument -- these are my words, not his and it's my memory, so I could be all wet on this -- basically accomplished nothing, that it was the equivalent of verbal fisticuffs, and was actually retarding the process of coming together and solving things.

Of course, he had his own show, and with his allegations against you guys, even though he didn't say it, he was casting himself as a better host, with a better program, and more useful, more relevant. But what I remember most about it was how the media glommed onto that and gave him "Atta boy" after "Atta boy", just ripping the debate-show format to shreds. It had an impact. "Crossfire" did eventually fade away after that.

CARLSON: Yes.

RUSH: But I think Stewart ended up being much more divisive than you or "Crossfire" could ever hope to be, due to how exclusionary and distorting he was, and how small his audience was. He barely had a million people at his peak, and yet the buzz around the show was that "everybody" watched it. Here's my reason for asking. You have been at the forefront of a number of evolutionary changes in media, including the show you have right now. I'm not overstating this, but there is nothing new in cable news anymore -- except what you're doing.

CARLSON: Well, thanks!

RUSH: Every show has the intent of presenting debate, but you actually do -- and you do it so effectively that I wonder how long it is going to be before Liberals figure out they are toast before they even appear, and refuse your invitation? Because you are making mincemeat out of them every night. Now, maybe they don't know that.

CARLSON: It's funny. The thing about Stewart that has always bothered me was he wad in effect making an argument, not just against me, which is obviously legitimate, or making the argument that I'm a jerk, well yeah, I think that's a fair critique -- but he was making and argument against debate.

RUSH: Right.

CARLSON: I think debate is essential, and not just the kind of fake Potemkin debate you see on TV, where you have on smart guy and then they bring on someone with a facial twitch to get ceremonially beaten up. I mean an actual debate between peers, people who can represent their side legitimately, and may the best man win. I believe in that.

I think it's really important for people to see that, in order to see that, in order ro understand what the issues are and what side is right. And I think it's an honorable way to conduct yourself. Plus, I enjoy it. And Stewart was basically saying, "I makes me uncomfortable, the rest of us don't want to hear it, we just want to hear people we agree with repeat our views back at us in more articulate form and cheer, and we call the other side names," I'm just not satified by that.

I haven't watched the show we're doing now. I hope it's good, but the one thing we're doing that's not new, it's actually old, is trying to get legitimate debates. I have had people on who are inarticulate, but that's not by design. I want to have people on who are sincerely committed to the ideas they espouse and are capable of expressing them. I actually want to hear what they have to say, not because I think I'm going to be one over them, but because I think it's more interesting.

If there's one good thing about the Trump phenomenon, maybe the best thing, is that it forced everybody to traipse up to the mental attic and reassess what they actually believe. I've had views that I've held since college and I've never been forced to think them through again. Now, because of Trump, I'm forced to think through: "Well, what do I think of markets, actually?" "Am I in favor of unfettered capitalism or not?" I always assumed I was, and maybe I will be once I finish my reassessment, but now I've had to think about it again. So it's a good moment to have debates about ideas, I think. I hope.

RUSH: That's interesting. I know this is painting broadly, but when I listen to people on the left talk about "white supremacy" as the reason they lost --

CARLSON: Ugh.

RUSH: -- or the Russians hacking the election, it's clear they believe it! I don't think the left has gotten close to confronting the problems they have, and you are exposing that.

CARLSON: Yes.

RUSH: But I wasn't commenting on the inarticulateness of your guests. Let me see if I can explain this in another way. I could be all wet in terms of how you perceive it, but as a viewer, what I watch you doing that's different -- it's not that the guests are different, it's the way you approach them. You are not, as most hosts do, debating your ideas against theirs. You are making them explain theirs and illustrating that they can't.

And you sit there with a perfect facial expression, you look puzzled, or curious, or enlightened, whichever is your genuine reaction, and they just flail. You are illustrating the vacancy of so much of what is on the left. I think you already deserve an Emmy for this, because people have been trying to do what you're doing since the advent of cable TV. You are debating them, but you're not arguing what you think versus them. You're simply exposing how there's nothing to what they think.

CARLSON: And I don't think there is.

RUSH: [Laughs]

CARLSON: When I was a kid -- and I'm 47, so I'm not that old -- Liberals, to their great credit, did two things: they stood up for the First Amendment -- maybe they didn't mean it, but at least they made noises about free speech; and they acted as a kind of counterbalance to capitalist excesses, or they said that's what they were doing. Now they don't do either one. Most of them, in their leadership, anyway, are only in the business of accumulating and wielding power. That's it. There's no kind of intellectual underpinning or justification for what they're doing.

RUSH: None.

CARLSON: This is their argument, to an extent it's an argument: "The other side is fascist, racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic. They're bad people, they're immoral, therefore give us the power and we'll do something good." I just don't think that's a legitimate position. There are lots of positions I don't agree with that are legitimate positions. I think they're wrong, but I don't think they're stupid. But that's a stupid position, and it's basically where the left finds itself today, totally tapped out, no ideas, defining itself only in opposition to people they don't even understand.

RUSH: Right. It is a new kind of stupid. But, look, let me give you an example. A recent show featured Erin Schrode, a California Democrat who once ran for Congress. This was as predictable as the sun coming up when Trump won Times's Person of the Year. She comes up with the obvious slam, "Well, Time chose Hitler, too," and accuses Trump of hate speech. You exposed that she's essentially a programmed robot.

CARLSON: Exactly.

RUSH: She repeats what she's been indoctrinated with or propagandized with and no matter what logic -- this is the key -- that you countered with, it didn't even penetrate. And it's just fun to watch, Tucker. Everybody's tried to do this, but you're the first to actually cause these people to expose themselves. Nobody has to be persuaded watching your show who these people are. They are demonstrating it themselves, and it's a real talent you have to get them to do that.

CARLSON: Well, thank you!

RUSH: I meant it when I said I wonder if they'll get wise and eventually refuse to show up, knowing they don't have a prayer with you.

CARLSON: First of all, there are a lot of people I disagree with out there, so there are a lot of people to choose from. And in exchange for having to answer questions, they get air time, and it's Fox, so there's an audience -- and I let them state their views, which I think they see as valuable. So I hope they come on. Boy, we've only been on a month. It would be bad to run out of gas this early. [Laughs]

RUSH: It's only going to grow. I'm being facetious; they don't have the sense to know they're being bested. I'm sure Ms. Schrode left thinking she'd made mincemeat of you.

CARLSON: She asked to come back on.

RUSH: Oh, even better! She's going to study up, to to be able to come back at you. It's true, there are all kinds of people that you disagree with, and some will be competent. So I think your program will remain unpredictable, though slicing and dicing leftists is pretty much what you've become known for. You have a number of segments every night, so you've done a masterful job of making your show different, and the ratings show it. You open with a kind of mission statement, that the show is "the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and groupthink." You also say you have a distaste for elitism, which you probably know well, as a long resident of the D,C. region.

CARLSON: Yeah. [Laughs] I live among them, so yes, I do.

RUSH: On election night, you were on one of the early Fox panels before polls had closed, discussing exit polls. My impression was that you were already of the mind that Trump could win. It wasn't until later, 9 or 9:30, that Chris Wallace indicated that could happen. It wasn't just Fox. Everybody was just biding their time because they knew Hillary was going to win, no matter what the early counts were looking like. But I got the sense you didn't think that early on.

CARLSON: I did not think that. I thought the analysis was stupid from day one. I didn't know what was going to happen, but as in sports, you've got to wait for the game. These things are not decided on paper, they're decided at the actual contest. I always felt the fundamentals were with Trump because, for whatever his many deficits, and there are many, he had an economic message.

I've always assumed elections are won or lost on the economic message. I felt that the fact that Trump was breaking from Republican orthodoxy -- so starkly on a couple of these economic issues -- opened up at least the potential for some nonwhite votes, and he got those. I also thought that nobody in my neighborhood in D.C. understood the phenomenon at all. They refused to learn anything from it. The other thing I noticed was that everybody, even the non-Liberals I know, had a kind of vested interest in Hillary winning, because it would have affirmed their predictions.

RUSH: Yeah, it affirmed their predictions and their jobs.

CARLSON: Exactly.

RUSH: And their own sense of expertise. Well, what do you think now? We've had a transition in which Trump actually appears to be acting as President. What are your thoughts on it? Not just the transition, but the Cabinet picks, the way Trump is comporting himself?

CARLSON: I think some of the picks are clever and smart -- clearly the result of a lot of forethought. If you want to get an infrastructure bill through, Elaine Chao is probably a pretty smart person to have at Transportation. I think [General James] Mattis is a really interesting and impressive guy. Linda McMahon is probably another finger in the face of the press. I think some of what Trump does is designed to outrage the people in charge because he just temperamentally enjoys that -- and I do too, so good for him. What I don't know is what his position on immigration is. That's the one thing that leaves me holding my breath because I think that does matter, both for long-term demographic reasons, but also because it does affect wages at the lower end.

RUSH: Wait a minute. Now hold it. That's interesting. Immigration you're not sure of, when most people think that's a no-brainer, he's going to do what he said, build the wall, limit the people getting in. But you have doubts about that?

CARLSON: I do, because that's the issue that made the left hate him. If you strip away all the cant and all the noise, what you really get down to is the left feeling threatened because the only way they have power is by changing the population of the United States. And when you threaten that, you threaten their ability to run anything or to be relevant. So that's why they hate him.

They're not the only one who hate it. Obviously, the business community wants to keep labor costs down. That's one of their key priorities. That's what the driverless car is about. It's not about saving lives or a neat new tech innovation, it's about getting rid of drivers because they're expensive and difficult to deal with.

RUSH: Right.

CARLSON: And so whenever you challenge that, it's a very basic interest. Maintaining political power, keeping labor costs low -- boy, that unites a massive coalition of the business community and the entire American left. So to limit immigration, you're fighting both of those things. That's really tough. Really tough. How hard is it to get the infrastructure through, how hard is it to do a lot of things you talked about? Not that hard. It's very hard to limit immigration.

RUSH: The infrastructure opens another subject. Let me ask you a question. It's not a "gotcha". Your answer determines the next question. Would you describe yourself as a "movement conservative"?

CARLSON: Oh, gosh, no.

RUSH: Okay.

CARLSON: No, not at all. I mean, I'm a "movement conservative" in the sense that I've been a conservative since I was a child and I've always bought into the basic precepts, the catechism, but I live in the middle of "movement conservatism" and I can tell you they've raised billions of dollars in the last 40 years and wasted it on themselves. Meanwhile, America has become much more chaotic and poorer and more Liberal. So yeah, I don't like them.

RUSH: Now take your pick of your colleagues on Fox who are from National Review. In your estimation, would they be "movement conservatives"?

CARLSON: The very definition of.

RUSH: So here's the question on infrastructure. I have been judged to be a "movement conservative" by a bunch of conservative bloggers who now think I have sold out, simply because I did not oppose Trump, ever. That's it. I'm no longer worthwhile to carry the conservative banner, in their view.

CARLSON: Right.

RUSH: Trump is talking about infrastructure. So did Obama. Obama's infrastructure led to nothing. We had $800 billion and it went to unions, basically, and ended up back in Democrat Party campaign coffers.

CARLSON: Right.

RUSH: Trump's infrastructure, if he follows through on it, means he'll rebuild airports, rebuild roads, fix bridges. He's talking a trillion dollars, and we don't have a trillion dollars. He's either got to print it, or get it from somewhere else in the budget, or he's got to tax it. If he does that, will you have a philosophical problem with him? Will it be considered a sellout by the people who supported him, who don't think he is the kind of President who would do exactly what Obama did? What are conservatives going to do if Trump follows through on his promise?

CARLSON: I think the first thing conservatives need to do is recognize that their economic plans failed. The only thing I care about is maintaining a vibrant, prosperous, self-respecting middle class that is stable, has self-control, and a measure of dignity, because without a vibrant middle class, you can't sustain a democracy, or for that matter a market economy. If your middle class falls apart, and no one get married before having kids, and everyone is addicted and is on disability and has bad tattoos, you cannot have a functioning democracy. Period.

So all I care about is fixing that. That's all I care about. That's why I'm opposed to mass immigration, that's why I'm abandoning some of my economic views. If he fixes that, everything will be worth it. If he doesn't, we're in trouble. We're going to get a serious demagogue, we're going to wind up with Hugo Chavez.

RUSH: So even if he does go find a trillion dollars somewhere but does accomplish the revitalization of the middle class, you'll be happy?

CARLSON: I don't care if he steals a billion dollars from Canada at gunpoint, I really don't, I just want him to fix that key problem, because I can see where we're going. Why is Venezuela so screwed up? Because it was a democracy in which the bulk of people were disenfranchised from the economic gains, from the spoils. So you had a huge restive middle class, resentful, and in the end they went for a demagogue. Not a low-grade demagogue, a real one. That always happens, it's the same cycle in every country, so you have to fix the problem. And by the way, I'm not interested in theories for their own sake. Why would I be? I'm not in college. I no longer smoke marijuana.

RUSH: [Laughs]

CARLSON: A perfect theory is just not that interesting at all.

RUSH: So, in your mind the argument over big government versus small government is over. Big government won and so the question becomes what do you do with it?

CARLSON: That's exactly right. Big government won because that's what people want and in the end, in a democratic republic such as ours, you can't ignore the desire of the majority for very long. You can't. So it won. I wish it hadn't, but it did. So the only question is, what do you do now? But trust me, if the middle class feels like this is rigged and all the income gains are going to the top 1 percent, it's done for.

Look at the latest polling on the respective Parties' support of markets. Republicans support unfettered markets at a lower rate than Democrats do. I never thought I'd live to see that. But it's a pure reflection of the demographics of the Parties. The Republican Party is now a middle-class party. The leadership didn't want it to be a middle-class party, but it is. They don't think libertarian economics have worked for them, and they're right.

RUSH: You know what facinates me about this election? Going into it, the great fear was a Trump landslide loss that sets up the Democrat Party in perpetual power for as long as anybody can foresee. Multiple lifetimes.

CARLSON: Yeah.

RUSH: Nobody really focused on the fact that they were losing thousands of seats -- federal, state, governors, state legislatures, mayors, dogcatchers -- in the midterms. Now Trump wins, he's got the Supreme Court, and it's the Democrats who appear out of the picture for as far as the eye can see. They are not even a national party. It was right in front of our faces but the concept of Trump winning was so improbable that nobody took the analysis farther. So now Trump has won. What worries you? I know you said immigration. Is there anything else?

CARLSON: Yes.

RUSH: What is it?

CARLSON: I think it's really worrisome that power has migrated in the past ten years to the Executive. Here's why. Congress is the most democratic of all institutions. It's the most responsive to the public, and yet it has given up its Constitutional prerogatives -- to authorize war, for example, or to oversee the Federal Reserve, or any of the meaningful things that have happened in the last ten years that have taken place outside of Congress. When was the last time Congress passed a law that affects business, other than Dodd-Frank? All Washington decrees that affect business are coming out of the courts or the agencies or from the Oval Office in the form of Executive Orders. So the White House has way more power than it ought to have, and I'm afraid that if Trump gets into a stalemate with Congress, he will do what Obama has done, and he'll probably do it even more: just kind of run the entire country from the Executive Branch. We're giving up something in that. I think it's really dangerous.

RUSH: The Republicans in Congress laid down for Obama. I believe they did because they were paralyzed by his race. They were fearful.

CARLSON: Of course.

RUSH: So are they going to lay down if Trump exhibits Obama-ism and starts writing Executive Orders left and right, if Trump does what the Republicans want done? Are they going to surrender their power like they have continued to? I'm talking about separation-of-powers power. Or are they going to let Trump run with it? They've opened a door here. Obama expanded Executive powers, Republicans didn't stop it. Once executives get power, they don't willingly give it away, as you just pointed out. So what are Republicans going to do vis-a-vis Trump as things go forward? Do you see this Congress going along with him, or opposing him, in general?

CARLSON: I think they will make unhappy noises and let it happen, as they always do. They did it with Bush. They made noises about his foreign policy but they basically let it unfold unimpeded. Obama, they laid down as you said. They will do the same for Trump, not because they agree. They resent it. But here is the bottom line, they're cowards. The one thing bad leaders have in common is they never want to make a decision, because making a decision means going on the record and taking responsibility. They don't want to do that. So it's always a lot easier than it should be to get Congress to give up its powers to the President, no matter who the President is. Because in the end, if it's really controversial, they don't want to weigh in.

RUSH: Will the media adapt to Trump, or will they continue to rely on their old political playbook and treat Trump the way they have for the last year and a half, and continue to get snookered? Will their objective be to get Trump thrown out of office, to facilitate any impeachment move the Democrats might try? Or is Trump going to continue to run rings around them with his tweets? Where are they? Because they seem homeless to me.

CARLSON: I think the media are over, as we've understood them. I think everybody is The New Yorker now. They're all just playing to a small niche audience of readers or viewers who agree with them. I don't think there's a national media anymore.

RUSH: How did that happen? Is that because of Trump, or have they just imploded?

CARLSON: I think Trump forced the issue. They hate Trump not because he's right wing -- he's not right wing in any sense.

RUSH: No.

CARLSON: They hate him because he's from totally outside their worlds. Completely. He's a threat to the establishment and they are part of the establishment.

RUSH: They can't stop him. Every avenue they've always used to take people out -- failed with Trump. They don't know what to do with him.

CARLSON: Exactly. So that's why it's over. If you're going to kill the king, you'd better kill the king. But they pulled out every stop, pulling off the mask and becoming partisan operatives working on behalf of Hillary Clinton, and they failed. So where does that leave them? I don't think they understand this yet, but I think for NBC News, ABC, The Washington Post, The New York Times -- it's all over. They don't speak for America, they don't report on behalf of America. That will really become clear in their ratings and circulations, I think soon. So basically we're going to see a huge growth of niche media. Which is fine. Maybe that's good or maybe it's bad, but the old business model just ended, in my opinion.

RUSH: I think it's great. I think it's fabulous. I think it's one more enemy out of the way. One last question, on your show. I know you've got years and years of experience on TV, but is this show taking more time, and prep and assembly, than you thought it would?

CARLSON: Oh, man. You do hours a day by yourself, so I don't need to tell you. Yes, it takes a surprising amount, yes. Especially if you're interviewing people who are likely to whip around and hurt you live. You've got to be prepared for that.

RUSH: [Laughs]

CARLSON: I have been humiliated before on the air. You go after someone and you don't know that much about the topic or the person, you can really get hurt. So yes, it takes all day for sure.

RUSH: Look, thanks for your time. Congratulations on your show and your format because it really is kickass.

CARLSON: Man, that was like the nicest conversation I've had in a long time. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

RUSH: It's deserving of all the attention it's getting, because it is different -- and nobady has done "different" on cable TV in I don't know how long, so kudos to you.

CARLSON: Thank you!

RUSH: You bet, bye. [Laughs] Sounds like he was surprised I'm a nice guy.