It may be hard to admit that the rise of Donald Trump really was a singular event.
Two weeks ago, a political media moment occurred that gave many observers a flashback to the Trump presidency. The CDC issues guidelines on April 27 stating that outdoor mask usage outside of close groups was no longer necessary. Many liberals and conservatives had supported this change for months due to new research about the lack of outdoor coronavirus transmission.
But Fox News host Tucker Carlson took the suggestions further. He insinuated on his 8 P.M. television show that people should call out and shame those who wore masks outdoors. He even argued that his fans should call child protective services on any parents who placed a face mask on their child. Immediately, the discourse around outdoor masks shifted. Many people took wearing them as a sign of caring about others and modeling good behavior. They defended the right to wear a mask outdoors and the right to make one’s own decision about mask-wearing, even though that particular behavior was no longer recommended by the leading public health agency in the country.
This power to reshape a political narrative, of course, used to be wielded by Donald Trump when he was the president of the United States with a sizable Twitter following. There are countless instances of Trump realigning debates over social and cultural issues with just one tweet. One of the later and most egregious examples was the discussion over reopening schools last year. Throughout the summer months, there seemed to be momentum towards opening schools in-person for the fall. Guidelines were issued and preliminary evidence from Europe showed that such re-openings could be done safely. Then Trump took a public stand last July, ordering that schools be reopened and castigating those who wanted them closed.
That announcement realigned the country. Americans had to take a stand. Many Trump critics decided to argue forcefully against reopening, not wanting to be seen as supporting Trump in general and his poorly considered reopening plan in particular. The nation’s schools remained online only in many places as a result. As of late March, only 47% of schools were open in the U.S., while countries like France have kept all of their schools open for most of the past year.
The comparisons between Carlson and Trump were inevitable. Conservative media has become nearly as important as governance to many Republicans. Poll after poll shows Republicans being more familiar with the talking points of Fox News than they are with policies that affect their lives on a daily basis. In addition, Trump is such an influential figure that commentators have been obsessed over who will eventually take his place in the Republican Party. They saw how his campaign almost single-handedly realigned American politics, and want to know if another leader can follow that example. In response, liberal groups are already replacing their “Stop Donald Trump” campaigns with “Stop Tucker Carlson” fundraising appeals.
But like every other Trump comparison, the similarities disappear with the slightest hint of scrutiny. Tucker Carlson never had a television show nearly as popular as The Apprentice. His highest-rated shows on Fox News bring in a fraction of the lowest-rated Apprentice episodes. While Donald Trump commanded headlines as far back as the mid-1970s, Carlson was a mostly unknown CNN host until signing on to longtime talk show Crossfire in 2001. Carlson’s current position is that of Trumpian provocateur, but the idea that he could win the fanatical devotion that characterizes many Trump supporters is ludicrous. If Carlson’s many predecessors, such as Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, were unable to make the leap to cultural and political dominance on Trump’s level, there is no possibility that someone like Tucker can do the same.
Political observers are understandably trying to find the next Trump, the so-called “competent Trump” who would be wicked enough to consider overthrowing democracy and strong enough to actually make it happen. But as the Carlson comparison shows, there just are not that many people with the 45th president’s pedigree. While they should continue to study recent trends such as educational polarization and the growing conservatism of Hispanic Americans, political scientists perhaps need to go back to their pre-2016 models of political leaders to understand the world after Trump. Trump was not the first populist demagogue or the first modern racist Republican. The party will not be cleansed once he leaves it. Nevertheless, his existence as a singular event is a possibility that needs to be recognized by our political media.