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Tucker Carlson’s newly re-imagined Jan. 6 coverage is just a long con

If you ask Carlson whether the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, the answer will depend on who is listening.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy gave Fox News star Tucker Carlson and his team access to more than 40,000 hours of security footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol, and the result Carlson produced this week was precisely as we expected: a hodgepodge of glaring factual inaccuracies, distortions, misrepresentations, glaring omissions and sloppy logic, bound together in service of Carlson’s incendiary conspiracy theory that Democrats and journalists deliberately exaggerated the attack as a pretext to hurt people like his viewers. 

The programs also reveal that if you ask Carlson whether the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, the answer will depend on who is listening.

In private, Carlson apparently recognized that Trump and his closest allies were lying in the immediate aftermath of the election when they claimed that widespread fraud had rigged the result against the sitting president. 

Messages revealed in February through Dominion Voting System’s $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox show that Carlson “agreed that ‘there wasn’t enough fraud to change the outcome’ of the election,” and that he complained to a colleague about needing to cover Trump’s election fraud claims. Texting with fellow prime-time host Laura Ingraham, he bemoaned the “unbelievably offensive” lies he argued Trump’s lawyers were telling about the election, but concluded, “Our viewers are good people, and they believe it.”

Yet on Carlson’s program, with an average of more than 3 million viewers tuning in, it’s a different story. With his ratings and paycheck on the line, Carlson tells the audience what it wants to hear — that Trump’s re-election was stolen from him. On the very night the filing was released, Carlson claimed that President Joe Biden’s vote total “would seem to defy the laws of known physics.” The following week, he claimed that Biden “took power in an election so sketchy that many Americans don’t believe it was even real.” 

Monday’s salvo was the most significant yet, because Carlson used the lie that the 2020 election had been stolen to justify the actions of the mob of Trump supporters that descended on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“The protesters were angry. They believed that the election they had just voted in had been unfairly conducted. And they were right,” Carlson said. “In retrospect, it is clear the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy. Given the facts that have since emerged about that election, no honest person can deny it.” 

Carlson isn’t exactly telling his audience that massive election fraud cost the former president the election — he has adopted Trump’s incendiary language while redefining its meaning. Two weeks after Election Day 2020, he declared the election “rigged” because “the media openly colluded with the Democratic nominees." In another monologue just two days before the insurrection, he said that “virtually every power center on Earth” had opposed Trump, including corporate America, the federal bureaucracy and the major social media platforms. “If that’s not rigging an election, there’s no meaning to that phrase,” he added. This tactic grants him some plausible deniability from being lumped in with the likes of cranks such as former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, while still preserving his credibility with his viewers, who hear him parroting Trump’s rhetoric. 

Carlson spent much of the rest of that show and the next day’s show airing and discussing security footage he claimed supported his alternate narrative about Jan. 6. According to the story Carlson has been telling for two years and reiterated on Monday, “the overwhelming majority” of the Trump supporters present at the Capitol were “orderly and meek,” and only a “small percentage” of the people present at the Capitol were “hooligans” who “committed vandalism” — perhaps because they were encouraged to do so by federal agents provocateur.

Carlson’s argument that the election really was stolen is essential to his narrative. It allows him to present the rioters as righteous people who, at most, got carried away and “committed vandalism,” but have been ultimately vindicated — “they were right” and “no honest person can deny it.”

The reality, as Carlson’s messages in the Dominion filings reveal, is that the rioters were duped by powerful people they had trusted, who were lying to them for their own profit and power. 

They were lied to by Trump, who spent months telegraphing that he planned to contest an election defeat with false claims of voter fraud, and then did so. They were lied to by Trump’s lawyers, who conjured up bizarre conspiracy theories they claimed proved he was right. They were lied to by McCarthy, who said on Fox the night after Election Day, “President Trump won this election. Everyone who is listening, do not be quiet, do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.” 

And they were lied to by Carlson and his colleagues, who, the Dominion filings show, promoted the election fraud drivel whether or not they actually believed it. And the blood was still drying on the floors of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when Carlson started lying to them again, telling them that the rioters had legitimate concerns and were being abused by the Democrats.

The alternative to reality that Carlson laid out has proved persuasive to the GOP base. Roughly 60% of Republicans say the 2020 election was stolen from Trump; a similar percentage say “legitimate protest” is an accurate description of the events of Jan. 6. GOP presidential candidates have gone silent on the violent insurrection as their voters rallied behind 1/6 trutherism. And the party’s institutionalization of election fraud lies has brought Carlson-favored election deniers such as former Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake ever closer to the levers of power.

But Carlson’s narrative is ultimately a crock. He is trying to rewrite history to remove his own culpability — and that of Trump and the Republican Party that stood by him — for their role in inciting the mob with election fraud lies. And that’s apparently what the House Republican leader wants as well.