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Tucker Carlson's Fox Nation series about Jan. 6 is slick propaganda

The Fox host uses leading questions and innuendo to advance dangerous conspiracy theories.
Image: Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson on a television screen in 2020.
Tucker Carlson's new series groundlessly suggests the federal government was secretly behind the Jan. 6 riot.Bryan Anselm / Redux file

When I sat down to watch Tucker Carlson’s new three-part series, “Patriot Purge,” I expected, or perhaps hoped for, a ridiculous documentary downplaying the Jan. 6 riot in a manner that paralleled Republican politicians’ ham-fisted attempts to trivialize and distract from the event.

What I experienced was far more concerning.

“Patriot Purge,” which began airing on Fox Nation this week, is a slickly produced piece of propaganda. It advances the conspiracy theory that the violence of Jan. 6 was an inside job by the government, perhaps in coordination with left-wing protestors, in order to manufacture a pretext for a “War on Terror 2.0.” This war, Carlson argues, involves state-sponsored persecution of what he calls “legacy Americans,” a term he has used to promote white supremacist replacement theory, and the belief that the true fabric of American society is unraveled by immigration. In other words, Carlson wants conservative white Americans to believe that “permanent Washington” is out to get them simply for being who they are.

Carlson’s theory is preposterous, but the way it’s presented is not.

Conspiracy theories and disinformation about Jan. 6 have circulated on the right since the day the riot happened. But what Carlson has is size and sophistication. He is a sly sophist and the most popular host on Fox News. He’s aired excerpts of the series for his audience of around 3 million viewers a night, and Fox Nation, the subscriber streaming service owned by Fox News Media hosting the series, has an estimated one million subscribers. With the exception of Donald Trump, Carlson has an unrivaled ability to mainstream nefarious set of ideas about Jan. 6 — a set of ideas that effectively calls for believers to consider themselves at war with the government.

Carlson’s theory is preposterous, but the way it’s presented is not. While Trump, the other most powerful white nationalist in America, is a firehose of disinformation, Carlson is a precise communicator who weaves together suggestive questions, innuendo, half-truths, misdirection, and carefully argued lies. And what he has in Jan. 6 is a ripe text for that approach to deception. That’s because social movements and protests are, by their very nature, impossible to pin down entirely. When you’re dealing with crowds of thousands of people, there will always be variation, ambiguity and gaps in the information about the identity of participants, their motives and their responsibility for any actions that take place. Carlson exploits the kinds of complex questions that swirl around any major social uprising and then uses those questions to launch an elaborate — and invalid — analogy between post-9/11 overreach and post-Jan. 6 reaction.

The story Carlson wants to tell, using cherry-picked footage and a tiny handful of participants and journalist-activists from fringe or questionable right-wing outlets, is that the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 was meant to be a completely peaceful affair that got hijacked by mysterious outsiders.

“January 6 was just, you know, mom and dad who were mad about what they saw to be an election that they thought was unfair,” Elijah Schaffer of BlazeTV says in an interview. “They were just angry and got caught up in the front lines of chaos. They thought that rioting was like a game, maybe.”

Carlson shows footage of relaxed and goofy protestors who likely had no intention of entering the U.S. Capitol and people who vocally objected to the rioting. The documentary also spends a significant amount of time profiling Ali Alexander, a “Stop the Steal” organizer who had a permit for a demonstration on the Capitol grounds and claims that he was “helpless” to redirect a crowd that he had no control over. (The documentary leaves out that Alexander’s permit did not disclose that he was organizing a “Stop the Steal” rally and instead used the name of a different group.)

To advance the idea that outsiders hijacked an otherwise peaceful event, Carlson uses a handful of eyewitness accounts to describe people who allegedly looked like left-wing activists participating in the riot. He also interviews a security analyst named J. Michael Waller — who works at an obscure think tank founded by a birther conspiracy theorist — who claims he saw a “coordinated effort” by “different cadres of agents provocateurs and other troublemakers who had a military-like precision in what was to become a storming of the Capitol.” The implication is that this was some kind of squad of professional saboteurs, either affiliated with the government or some anti-Trump organization. At another point a former military official says that she believes Jan. may have been a "false flag" operation — a covert maneuver by the government to frame innocent Trump supporters.

What worried me so much while watching this was the way that Carlson blends together truths with outrageous omissions, half-truths, somewhat plausible speculation, indefensible speculation and outright falsehoods. I could imagine someone who isn’t even a Carlson diehard getting pulled into the implications of certain claims and stepping away from the series at least a bit more suspicious of official narratives of the event.

It is completely reasonable to believe that some of the protestors who rallied in Washington on Jan. 6 had no intention of engaging in violence or entering the Capitol, and the footage of some people objecting to it or calling for restraint — even within the Capitol — doesn’t seem questionable. It’s plausible that some organizers really didn’t anticipate things getting out of hand the way they did. It’s not unheard of for counter-protestors to try to sabotage a movement by provoking violence, and there is a well-established history of American law enforcement embedding undercover in protests or encouraging illicit behavior among militants.

There is, perhaps most notably, virtually no mention of Trump throughout the documentary.

But Carlson of course is in the business of shameless misdirection. There is, perhaps most notably, virtually no mention of Trump throughout the documentary. The former president famously invited the protestors to have a “wild” rally in Washington on his behalf, based on the false premise that the election had been stolen. At that rally, he used the words “fight” or “fighting” 20 times and told his followers to “show strength” on his behalf; he sent his supporters off to march to the Capitol building with this farewell: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

And while surely not every organizer or participant expected or desired violence, there’s plenty of readily available evidence that many in fact planned on it. That’s to say nothing of the fact that there’s an abundance of video footage showing protestors armed with weapons brutally assaulting police officers, vandalizing the Capitol, and chanting threats like “hang Mike Pence.”

Waller’s analysis of agents provocateurs based on the appearance of observing tightly organized movement among some protestors is not just wild speculation — it’s willfully obtuse. It is widely known that the protests were packed with right-wing anti-government militia made up of former law enforcement and military officers, and that some actively trained to infiltrate the Capitol in an organized manner. It's also not uncommon at protests across the political spectrum for some demonstrators to practice specific formations in advance; it is by no means a mark of undercover government agents.

Carlson’s one specific identification of an outside "agitator" encouraging violence — a term that’s impossible to defend given the very nature of that protest — is described as a left-wing activist; in reality he's a completely ideologically idiosyncratic and controversial figure who seems to make enemies across the political spectrum for causing chaos at all kinds of demonstrations.

Over and over again, Carlson deploys classic conspiracy theory reasoning, using one or two examples of something that seemingly defies the mainstream narrative about Jan. 6 and then uses that to try to discredit the idea that any of it could be true. And Carlson exploits gaps in knowledge — we probably won’t ever know the identity of every person involved in planning and participating in Jan. 6 — to furnish explosive and speculative claims with no evidence. Meanwhile the evidence we do have based on video footage, online correspondence, and surveillance used to track down participants, while incomplete, adds up to the rather logical reality that the Jan. 6 riot was in fact packed with right-wing citizens, activists and extremists that had been beckoned there by Trump. The possibility that some FBI informants could’ve been involved doesn’t change that overwhelming reality.

Remarkably, as the documentary proceeds, the claims become even more absurd. Carlson contends over and over again that the federal government is treating Jan. 6 suspects the way it treated 9/11 suspects. Like so much of what he posits in the documentary, it’s an extraordinary claim which requires extraordinary evidence, but instead we’re merely given misleading anecdotes, speculation and lies. I would not doubt for a second that the FBI is exploiting its power inappropriately in order to surveil and arrest people who are suspected of ties to Jan. 6, and some of the stories of suspects being roughed up or inaccurately accused sound entirely plausible.

But unfortunately that's standard fare in America; for any of it to be comparable to 9/11 would require events like the passage of new counterrrorism and surveillance legislation like the PATRIOT Act, the crafting of new legal architecture for detaining and torturing suspects, or institutionalizing widespread profiling that restricts activities like flying. Carlson gets his interviewees to talk about a "Guantanamo Bay for American citizens" but provides no names, no statistics, and no details. Instead he makes non-falsifiable claims about things happening in the shadows, while the evidence we have suggests that most Jan. 6 defendants are being treated far, far better than suspects picked up after 9/11. And while 9/11 turned Muslims into second class citizens, Jan. 6 rallygoers are successfully using their affiliation with it to win political office.

Carlson's disinformation project is in some ways more worrisome than Trump's. Trump is devoted to destroying the idea of a shared reality and subordinating truth to his ego and White House aspirations. Carlson, by contrast, seems to really want to architect a movement with a worldview, and fuel it with rage.

While Carlson offers a perfunctory comment in the final seconds of his series that implies that violence is not an appropriate response to the story he’s telling, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that that’s precisely what his narrative is calling for. The story he sells the whole time is that the government is waging a war on its own citizens — and it only makes sense that a believer would feel compelled to fight back.