Sloppy Riot Revisionism At Fox
It’s been a bad couple of days for Tucker Carlson... although maybe not inside his own bubble. I wonder how Trump is going to process all the hate directed his way from his old comrade in arms. Presumably they’ll all just chalk it up to “fake news” from the mainstream media. Charlie Sykes, though, waxed positively poetic this morning: “Oh my, the planets of bullshit have aligned marvelously, haven’t they? Even as we get another juicy document drop from the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News, Tucker Carlson— in partnership with Kevin McCarthy— continued his attempt to ret-con the attack on the Capitol. What we are left with is a bouillabaisse of duplicity, deceit, and deception in a rich broth of hypocrisy.”
John Bresnahan, Andrew Desiderio and Jake Sherman used their joint platform at Punchbowl to focus on the (totally predictable) split between McCarthy and McConnell over the embarrassing Fox messiness. McCarthy, of course, defended his decision to give Carlson “access to 41,000 hours of security camera video footage from the Jan. 6 insurrection. Carlson used that access to present a completely false claim that the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters– an unprecedented effort to block the certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory– was a largely peaceful protest. When pressed by reporters over his decision to allow Carlson to use the videos in such a fashion, McCarthy defended it: ‘I said at the very beginning– transparency. What I wanted to produce for everyone was exactly what I said so people could look at it and see what went on that day.’”
On the other hand, McConnell made a show of siding “with the U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger in upbraiding Carlson and Fox News. During the weekly Senate GOP press conference, McConnell held up a copy of a memo that Manger sent to his officers on Tuesday criticizing Carlson’s show. McConnell backed Manger: ‘It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict [Jan. 6] in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here in the Capitol thinks.’… McConnell has largely tried to keep Jan. 6 in the rearview mirror, recognizing that it’s generally pretty bad for Republicans when it’s in the headlines. When McConnell was asked about the issue while the Jan. 6 select committee was publicizing its findings, he routinely declined to give any substantive response… McCarthy world won’t directly concede this, but the California Republican has long had a rocky relationship with Carlson. Some allies saw McCarthy’s decision to give Carlson access to the Jan. 6 videos as a peace offering of sorts with the powerful cable news host. Yet the controversy over the Jan. 6 videos is also playing out as Fox and Carlson face an enormous P.R. disaster thanks to Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against the cable network. Internal Fox communications released as part of the lawsuit repeatedly show Carlson other Fox hosts disparaging Trump and admitting his claims of a stolen election were false. ‘I hate him passionately,’ Carlson said of Trump in a Jan. 4, 2021, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday. ‘We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights.’”
Yesterday, Atlantic columnist David Graham noted that Carlson thinks his viewers are stupid, which is “not new, though his first swing at spinning unseen footage of the January 6 insurrection provides a fresh test of just how credulous they are. The notable news from Carlson’s Fox News show Monday is not the video itself, which is similarly stale, but the crystallization of a Trumpist narrative about the assault on the Capitol that portrays it not as a disaster, nor as an unfortunate but minor event, but as a triumph to be celebrated… At least in what Carlson has shown so far, nothing emerges that changes the known narrative of the day, but Carlson is a talented propagandist, so it’s morbidly interesting to see how he approaches it. Carlson can’t erase the images that everyone has seen of chaos and destruction, so he tries to recontextualize it. ‘The first you thing you notice is how many people entered the Capitol Building,’ Carlson says. ‘A small percentage of them were hooligans.’ Showing clips of the Capitol’s interlopers lining up or righting overturned furniture, he intones, in his inimitable smug, incredulous voice, ‘They were peaceful, orderly, and meek. They were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers.’ Even allowing for Carlson’s point that many of those on tape are not engaging in active vandalism, this is an odd description of people who broke through a cordon of hundreds of police to trespass and disrupt a constitutional proceeding. Equally strange is his insistence that they were ‘people who believe in the system,’ given that they were interfering with the system. (Many of them likely did sincerely believe lies about election fraud— lies fed to them by, among others, Tucker Carlson.)”
On the one hand, this is all ridiculous. Look at all the hallways they didn’t smear feces on and statues they didn’t deface! is not an especially good argument. On the other, it fits with a longstanding Trump approach of demanding his supporters believe him rather than their lying eyes. When word first emerged of the phone call in which he tried to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to aid his reelection campaign, Trump first tried to bury the incident; when that proved impossible, he began insisting that the call “was perfect.” He later used the same description for a call in which he tried to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” him votes to defeat Joe Biden in that state in the 2020 election.
But it has taken longer to land on that tactic for January 6, in part because what happened was so appalling and so well-recorded—not only by news and surveillance cameras, but also by the rioters themselves, many of whom gleefully filmed themselves or took selfies or posted about their exploits on social media. Hundreds of them have been convicted and sentenced for crimes committed that day.
This morning, another Atlantic columnist, Tom Nichols, went after the clumsy McCarthy-Carlson attempt to rewrite history to fit their current, authoritarian-friendly politics. Nichols reminded his readers that when the MAGAts stormed the Capitol McCarthy said that Trump “bore responsibility for the attack. Even Lindsey Graham swore he was done with Trump. This new seriousness didn’t last. A year after the attack, most Republicans— including McCarthy— ducked a ceremony at the Capitol marking the anniversary and commemorating the lives lost. McCarthy would later be elected speaker on the say-so of a handful of extremist Republicans— some of whom openly sympathized with the 2021 insurrectionists— who made him grovel through more than a dozen rounds of voting. Insofar as other Republicans can bring themselves to even acknowledge January 6, many of them still portray it as a legitimate protest that somehow got out of hand rather than what it really was: a seditious conspiracy to attack the American system of government, instigated and encouraged by a sitting president of the United States.”
Heading into the 2022 midterms, the Republicans hoped that an attempt by their party’s leader to overthrow the constitutional order would be no impediment to regaining national power. The midterms, however, proved that Americans still care about their democracy and that they could not be swayed to trade their freedom away merely because gas prices are too high. At this point, the Republicans are barely holding the House, and Trump is leading the pack of possible GOP presidential candidates while yawping about “retribution.” Most Americans continue to think January 6 was a terrible day for the United States and that Trump bears at least some responsibility for it.
Not to worry, Republicans. McCarthy and Fox News’s resident pluto-populist Tucker Carlson are on the case. Unfortunately, it’s going about as well as you’d expect from anything that involves the words Kevin McCarthy and Tucker Carlson.
To recap the events of the past few weeks: McCarthy apparently decided that Carlson was the person who could remove the stain of January 6 from the Republican Party. Remember, once Trump was elected in 2016, the GOP was a national majority, holding the House, the Senate, the White House, most governor’s mansions, and most state legislatures across the country. Trump destroyed much of that, and his decision to run again meant that January 6 could not somehow be memory-holed. So the speaker gave the ever-perplexed Carlson access to thousands of hours of video from the attack.
The objective here was clear from the start. If the GOP is going to make a run at national power again, it must find a way to deny the reality of January 6 and neutralize the cloud of seditious stink that still clings to every Republican because of Trump and the insurrectionists. Who better than Carlson to sneer his way through a dismissal of one of the worst days in the history of the United States?
Unfortunately, the attempt to gaslight millions of people isn’t going very well. Carlson, as my colleague David Graham points out, is engaging in a “long-standing Donald Trump approach of demanding that his supporters believe him rather than their lying eyes.” But there are likely limits to that gambit even for Carlson, who is presenting as bombshells things we already knew. It is not a revelation, for example, that the “QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, walked along with Capitol cops who were trying to keep the fur-hatted weirdo calm even while he was howling in the Senate chamber. Carlson’s attempt to deny the danger of that moment is not only silly but also a gobsmackingly incompetent attempt to use footage depicting a rioter whose bizarre behavior was already well-known to the public.
It’s one thing to assume that the Fox audience isn’t very bright and will believe almost anything— I will gladly stipulate to that—but it’s another to ask them to leap across a chasm of credulity. Sedition-friendly Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, tried to capitalize on Carlson’s after-school-video special by immediately calling for a new trial for Chansley. But even Fox viewers probably know that Chansley wasn’t convicted in a trial: He loquaciously pleaded guilty and got a stiff sentence of 41 months in prison.
…[W]hen Republican members of Congress are pushing back on a major propaganda effort to help… well, to help the future fortunes of Republican members of Congress, things are not going well. You might have expected someone like Senator Mitt Romney of Utah to zing Carlson, and he did, saying the Fox host had gone “off the rails” and describing him as a radio “shock jock.” But conservative Senators Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Mike Rounds of South Dakota both criticized Carlson… Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Carlson’s presentation was “inexcusable” and, for good measure, “bullshit.”
Trump, of course, thanked both Carlson and McCarthy. Because, really, if the point was to reassure the American public about whether the GOP is still in the grip of violent seditionists, what better way to do it than to clumsily cherry-pick some video and then elicit an all-caps tirade from the leader of the Republican Party?
NBC News’ Sahil Kapur reported yesterday that Carlson falsely depicted the riot as a peaceful gathering, deceptively not showing “police and rioters engaged in hours of violent combat. Nearly 1,000 people have been charged in connection with the Capitol attack. About 140 officers were assaulted that day, and about 326 people have been charged with assaulting, resisting or impeding officers or employees, including 106 assaults that happened with deadly or dangerous weapons. About 60 people pleaded guilty to assaulting law enforcement. Two pipe bombs were also planted nearby but were not detonated… The episode presents thorny politics for McCarthy who, in releasing the video to Carlson, is reigniting a national debate over the failed insurrection that cost his party seats in the midterm election— and looms over the 2024 presidential contest as Trump leads the GOP field in pursuit of a comeback.”
And, as if on cue, Trump is already talking about pardoning the leading insurrectionists if he gets back into the White House, telling confidants that “the pardons would be for higher-level people and could come early in his time in office, effectively wiping away a multi-year effort to hold powerful people and their cohorts legally accountable for their actions during and after Trump’s first term.”