House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has reportedly shared over 40,000 hours of U.S. Capitol surveillance footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. If you thought the right’s attitude toward Jan. 6 was worrisome before, it’s likely about to get worse. Carlson is the most influential MAGA-aligned pundit in the country, and he can use this footage to do huge damage to public memory of one of the most brazen strikes against democracy in American history.
McCarthy turning over the footage to Carlson tells us a great deal about the ongoing evolution of the right in the direction of authoritarianism.
Axios reported Monday that McCarthy’s office has been sharing a huge trove of raw video footage with Carlson since early February, and excerpts from the footage are expected to air in the coming weeks. Carlson appears to have admitted to the arrangement through his statement to Axios. “If there was ever a question that’s in the public’s interest to know, it’s what actually happened on January 6. By definition, this video will reveal it. It’s impossible for me to understand why any honest person would be bothered by that,” Carlson said.
The problem is that Carlson is not an honest person.
In 2021, the Fox News host aired a “documentary” series about Jan. 6 which peddled false and preposterous claims that Jan. 6 was an inside job by the federal government designed to serve as a pretext for surveillance and repression of the right. As I wrote at the time, the documentary was absurd, but Carlson’s story-telling tactics were clever. He exploited gaps in public knowledge, cherry-picked footage and speculated wildly based on any data points that ran counter to prevailing narratives about the riot. He also used dubious expert testimonials to buttress his claims, such as when he aired a security analyst implying, inaccurately, that organized movement among the protesters was a telltale sign of agents provocateurs. While Carlson never presented proof of his theories, he, like most effective conspiracy theorists, exploited ambiguity to try to confuse his audience and delegitimize mainstream accounts of events.
Carlson’s capacity to cast doubt on Jan. 6 narratives could be on the brink of becoming quite a lot stronger. He may be able to accurately say that he has access to footage that no other media outlet in the country has. That, in turn, will give his claims about having the “real” story of what happened on Jan. 6 extra weight among right-wing audiences. He could also develop an even stronger capacity to confuse, mislead and manufacture false claims about what happened that day because it could be harder for other media outlets to contextualize or fact-check many claims he makes. In other words, Carlson’s authoritarian disinformation operation may have just become a lot stronger. The cumulative effect of Carlson’s access could very well further strengthen his overall authority among right-wing audiences. He could lord it over any competitor that he’s obtained something nobody else has.
McCarthy turning over the footage to Carlson tells us a great deal about the ongoing evolution of the right in the direction of authoritarianism. McCarthy has pledged to hold a Republican version of the Jan. 6 hearings, which would blame security failures at the Capitol for the crisis and inevitably downplay the organized nature of the event. That would be bad enough: Minimizing then-President Donald Trump’s and the militant right’s role in engineering the riot reduces our ability to guard against something similar happening in the future, and it allows the GOP to bury its head in the sand about its coup-hungry wing. But Carlson can take things further. He now has the capacity to mainstream far-fetched ideas that don’t just downplay the real culprits, but instead create new villains.
At first it was concerning when the GOP wanted to move on quickly from Trump’s role in Jan. 6. Those days now look relatively innocent. These days, the speaker of the House wants to obliterate the public’s understanding of what even happened on that day.