Tucker Carlson has become the classic ‘ugly’ American

SAN DIEGO — As a Latino opinion writer, I’ve had lots of people attack me by weaponizing the word “American.”

A reader once scolded me for “writing like a Mexican” and told me to “write like an American.” After a column where I described my love affair with this country, another reader sniped that my being American was “a technicality.” And, on many occasions, I’ve been informed by people that I’m not “a real American.”

Such lovely folks.

And such bold talk from people whose roots in this country may not actually be as deep as mine. Three of my four grandparents were born in the United States; and, in the case of a couple of them, so were their grandparents.

Besides, if we’re going to start questioning each other’s American identity, Latinos should be the ones checking paperwork. Since America isn’t really one country but actually two continents (North and South), it’s fair to say that the original “Americanos” had brown skin.

This is a concept that I don’t think Tucker Carlson has the intellectual juice to grasp.

I’ve known Carlson for about 20 years, and I’ve always liked him. He’s a great writer who has, over the years, also become really good on television. He has suffered setbacks and been fired by CNN and MSNBC. Yet he persevered and worked hard to get to where he is now — the host of Fox News’ primetime show “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

In the late 1990s, sporting his then-trademark bow-tie, Carlson was a political moderate. On most issues — including immigration — he was fair and thoughtful.

In October 1997, Carlson wrote an essay criticizing the anti-immigrant group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which — as Carlson noted — had been called “racist” because of its affiliation with organizations pushing eugenics. Carlson pointed out that FAIR had also shown hostility toward Hispanics, who Executive Director Dan Stein had suggested engage in “competitive breeding.” As Carlson put it, all of this left behind “an unpleasant odor.”

The Southern California native hosts a cable television show that leaves a stench of its own.

Carlson enthusiastically serves his constituents. If you’re an unemployed white male living down the block from an abandoned factory in a Rust Belt state who thinks the Democrats sold you out, the union didn’t protect your job, whites are discriminated against, and you could have gone to the Ivy League if a Mexican-American hadn’t unfairly taken your spot, then his show could be must-see TV.

No matter how sad your life has become, Carlson will make you feel better by teaching you to look down on others. That is Carlson’s shtick these days, and we ought not take it too seriously.

But recently, the host crossed a line when he savagely bullied a guest — and, like some of my readers, used the word “American” as a weapon.

I know about guests. I’ve spent the last 25 years hosting radio shows. One of the first rules is to always be polite and professional to people you bring on the air. They give up their time, and get nothing in return. Besides, it’s not hard to beat up guests since the host usually knows what they’re going to say in advance. Producers typically gather that information in a pre-interview call. The least a host can do is show his guests some respect.

Yet Carlson was extremely disrespectful when he invited Cesar Vargas — an undocumented immigrant and lawyer — onto his show, and then continually mocked and insulted him.

The topic was supposed to be the decision by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to warn residents of a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But when Vargas had the temerity to disagree with Carlson, the host got personal — and nasty, repeatedly questioning his guest’s intelligence.

That’s weird. White men argue about politics on television all day long, but they don’t often call each other dumb.

Carlson told Vargas: “I know you say you’re a lawyer.” Then this: “I don’t want to check your bar license.” Then this: “I’m not allowing you to teach American history on my show because you’d fail the course.” And finally, he told Vargas — who dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen — “I’m an American and you’re not. I don’t think you should become a citizen. No offense or anything. I’d be happy to have dinner with you.”

Dinner? Yeah right. As if anyone who dined with the Fox News host could, these days, keep their food down.

Carlson was correct about one thing. He is an American all right — the ugly kind.