The text that sent FOX to the negotiating table and Tucker Carlson to the unemployment line has produced two reactions. The first is just silly; the second is dangerously naïve.
A little after 4:00 am on January 7, 2021—that is, a few hours after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol—Carlson sent the following text to one of his producers:
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching video of people fighting on the street in Washington. A group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid and started pounding the living shit out of him. It was three against one, at least. Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight. Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it. Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be. The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it. I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?
If news reports are to be believed, the Board of Directors at FOX was so distressed by this text, which they had not previously seen, that they decided to fire Carlson and settle the Dominion lawsuit. They also retained outside counsel to investigate the matter, though news accounts have not said what the firm would investigate or whether that inquiry outlasted Carlson.
The first and most common reaction to Carlson’s text is faux shock. Writers are aghast, and suppose that FOX was too, that Carlson would reveal himself as a racist, or at the very least to traffic in ludicrous pro-white stereotypes (“It’s not how white men fight”).
I have a hard time taking this reaction seriously. It’s not as if Carlson had been presenting himself these many years as anti-racist and that the text revealed some hitherto unknown sentiment. In fact, many people have used his text as an occasion to gather evidence of his longstanding support for white nationalism, and as Phillip Bump of The Washington Post pointed out, it’s hard to believe the FOX Board would oust Carlson simply because he expressed in private the same view he had long expressed on the air.
What about the second reaction? Some have suggested that the most shocking aspect of Carlson’s text was that he caught himself celebrating the violence: “I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it.” This “bloodlust” has been denounced as “an explicit embrace and enthusiasm for violence,” a denunciation presumably meant to imply that no civilized person—which is to say, no one “like us”—would revel at the sight of savagery.
This has it exactly wrong. Writers who don’t know better suppose that normal people would recoil from the taste in Carlson’s mouth. But the crowds at Trump rallies shouting, “LOCK HER UP! LOCK HER UP!” were not choking on the taste of something vomitous. They were reveling in the taste of something ambrosial. Here’s the hard truth: Shared brutality is sweet. That’s what makes it so universally seductive. Being part of an angry mob is joyously addictive.
But more pitilessly than any drug, this particular addiction—the celebration of another’s brutalization—destroys a part of us that may never be repaired. It sunders the already weak bonds that tie us to the rest of humanity, setting us adrift from each other.
That is why the most important part of Carlson’s text was not his casual racism or that he was “rooting for the mob against the man.” The part that mattered was his epiphany, coming from “somewhere deep in his brain,” that the taste in his mouth was poison.
Yet though his insight is exactly right, Carlson drew the wrong lesson from it. He worried that celebrating violence meant he was “no better” than the “Antifa kid.” But he needn’t have worried: he is no better, just as he is no worse. None of us is. We are the “Antifa kid,” just as we are the “Trump guys.”
All of us could root for the mob against the man. If the celebration of brutality felt horrible, people wouldn’t do it. But they do, over and over, since time immemorial. They not only root for the mob; they join it. Defend it. Justify it. Ordinary people, which is to say, people no different from those reading (and writing) this essay. As I have long insisted, one way to tell the history of the world is as a series of mass atrocities committed by “normal people.” Like it or not, the violence Carlson saw and celebrated is part of who we are.
When we pretend this “bloodlust” is only the province of monsters, we falsely reassure ourselves that it could never happen to “us” and claim a moral superiority that we do not deserve. We imagine “we” are not like “them,” which reinforces the Manichean mindset that helps create the very behavior we abhor.
Worse, when we render cruelty alien, we deny the social process that allows it to emerge and flourish, a process that the social psychologist Donald G. Dutton warns is no different today “than it was in the eleventh century: define an enemy, accuse that enemy of horrible actions or the potential for the same, generate fear and a sense of a just cause, and accuse those who do not fall into line of heresy or a lack of patriotism.”
By spitting out the poison, Carlson thinks he has safely placed himself above “the Antifa creep”—the monster—and shown that he is not like them. By attacking Carlson for tasting the poison, his critics think they have safely placed themselves above him—the monster—and shown that they are not like him.
And as everyone drifts farther apart, the evil we think we see in each other looms ever larger, until it is all we discern.