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The desperate pandering of Tucker Carlson

The Dominion-Fox lawsuit puts the lie to Tucker Carlson’s January 6 revisionist history.

Tucker Carlson speaks during the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) Feszt on August 7, 2021 in Esztergom, Hungary.
Tucker Carlson speaks during the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) Feszt on August 7, 2021, in Esztergom, Hungary.
Janos Kummer/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait.”

“I hate him passionately.”

“We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”

Tucker Carlson sent all those texts — newly revealed as exhibits in the lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox — on January 4, 2021. (Through the discovery process, many Fox internal emails and documents were provided to Dominion, and the company’s attorneys have made them public by citing them in legal filings.)

Yet Carlson devoted his shows this week to a revisionist history of the attacks on the Capitol two days afterward, omitting Trump’s then-ongoing attempt to steal the election, portraying concerns about a stolen election as reasonable and even vindicated, and minimizing the violence that took place.

But to understand what’s going on here, it’s worth taking a closer look at the bigger narrative Carlson was trying to push this week.

The story of January 6, in Carlson’s extremely selective and misleading telling to his viewers, isn’t about how a mob whipped up by the president of the United States tried to prevent the transfer of power, or how that president tried to steal the election. It’s about how Democrats and the media were mean to Trump supporters.

The story is also about how he, Tucker Carlson, would never do something like that. He loves you, Trump supporters. He respects you. Pay no attention to those texts behind the curtain about how he disdains and disbelieves Donald Trump. He is your loyal champion against your enemies. So please — don’t change the channel.

How to imply you believe the 2020 election was stolen without outright saying it

A core problem faced by conservative commentators trying to appeal to a Trump-supporting audience is that much of that audience fervently believes the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and those commentators generally do not.

So Carlson and others have attempted to thread the needle by advancing a narrative that the election was in some abstract sense rigged or unfair — without outright endorsing the claim that votes were stolen.

Back in November 2020, while discussing Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani’s election fraud conspiracy theories with fellow Fox host Laura Ingraham, Carlson said, “It’s unbelievably offensive to me. Our viewers are good people and they believe it.” And Carlson eventually took apart Powell and her most egregious claims on air. The texts also show that Carlson viewed Trump’s conduct after the election as irresponsible.

On Monday’s show, though, Carlson opened by saying the January 6 protesters “believed that the election in which they had just voted had been unfairly conducted — and they were right. In retrospect, 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.”

This language seems crafted to leave the impression that Carlson agrees with Trump that Democrats stole the 2020 election — but he didn’t outright say that. He just said the election was in some unspecified sense a “grave betrayal of American democracy.”

Furthermore, as Aaron Blake writes at the Washington Post, Carlson has in recent months made innuendos that it is somehow self-evidently implausible that “senile hermit” Joe Biden got 81 million votes “without even campaigning.” The obvious explanation for this, if one is even necessary, is that a whole lot of voters really “hate” Trump “passionately” — just as Carlson does. But Carlson apparently wants to assure viewers that it’s reasonable for them to think the election was stolen — and that he, Tucker Carlson, is on their side — so he doesn’t mention that possibility.

Other conservative commentators seeking to appeal to a Trump-supporting audience, like Mollie Hemingway, have pandered by claiming the 2020 election was “rigged” in some broader sense — by Big Tech censoring stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop, or by states expanding mail-in voting during the pandemic.

But Hunter Biden’s laptop was in fact covered in the press before the election, and Twitter and Facebook quickly lifted their short-lived limits on a New York Post story about it. And mail-in voting policies appear to have little impact on partisan election outcomes, since voters adapt to different rules.

Again, these claims are a way commentators can signal to the Trump faithful that they’re on their side without endorsing the totally kooky stuff or libeling anyone.

What all this omits from the narrative is that, well, Donald Trump actually tried to steal the election! He worked feverishly to try to get state officials and members of Congress to change the outcome after Election Day, and he hoped the crowd assembled on January 6 would aid him in that effort. But this is inconvenient for Carlson to dwell on, so he doesn’t dwell on it.

Carlson’s January 6 narrative is that the real story is how Democrats and the media were mean to Trump supporters

Carlson’s impetus for revisiting the January 6 attack was that Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had provided him access to thousands of hours of previously unreleased footage. “As a whole, the video record does not support the claim that January 6 was an insurrection,” Carlson said. “In fact, it demolishes that claim.”

Somewhat oddly, Carlson actually did show footage of Trump supporters violently clashing with police officers. But his argument was just that they were unrepresentative and that the “overwhelming majority” were “peaceful.” It’s all a bit silly. There were scenes that seemed silly and nonthreatening that day, and there were scenes of menacing violence — and not just a few — as has long been known.

Carlson visited various other subplots of the events of that day, but didn’t really advance the facts further. For instance, he pointed out that after being pepper-sprayed, Officer Brian Sicknick recovered and went back into the fray, implying that meant that those who attacked him didn’t really cause his death. Sicknick collapsed that night after the Capitol was cleared, was hospitalized, and died at the hospital on the night of January 7, after having had two strokes. The facts about all this have been clear for nearly two years.

But in a sense, engaging on the facts is pointless because what Carlson really wants is to tell Trump supporters a story in which they are the true victims, wrongly maligned by the dastardly Democrats and mainstream media. It is this sense of grievance he’s trying to tap into. That’s why he raked Ted Cruz over the coals last year for saying a “violent terrorist attack” occurred on January 6.

Carlson may not love Trump — but he loves Trump’s voters, and he desperately wants them to love him, too. So this is how he’s chosen to try and keep their love — to profess to them that they’re great people, that their doubts about the election are reasonable, and that he’s on their side against those nasty liberals.

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