Tucker’s Legacy: What His Firing Tells Us About Extremism in America

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Tucker Carlson’s firing from Fox News was a victory in the fight for sanity and the struggle against fascist politics and white supremacy. Still, questions remain about why Carlson was cut loose from the network in relation to the Dominion Voting Systems legal settlement. We know Carlson was at the forefront of fueling “Big Lie” election propaganda, resulting in the massive $788 million legal settlement between Fox and Dominion. But as The New York Times reports, Carlson’s own private use of misogynistic slurs, and efforts to keep them out of the public view, may have played a major role in his dismissal. The paper reports that “private messages sent by Mr. Carlson that had been redacted in legal filings showed him making highly offensive and crude remarks that went beyond the inflammatory, often racist comments on his prime-time show and anything disclosed in the lead-up to the trial…The discovery added pressure on the Fox leadership as it sought to find a way to avoid a trial where Mr. Carlson — not to mention so many others at the network — would be questioned about the contents of the private messages they exchanged in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.”

The Times reports that “Several people with knowledge of Fox’s discussions said the redacted messages were a catalyst for one of the most momentous decisions Fox and its leaders — the father-son team of Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch — had made in years: to sever ties with the host of their highest-rated and highly profitable prime-time program and a face of the network in the Trump era.” Put simply, Carlson had become a huge liability for the network at a time when his blatantly paranoid, racist, and misogynistic politics actively threaten the company’s public image and bottom line.

Independent of the reasons why Carlson was fired, it’s worth reflecting on just how radical his program was in its neofascist commitment to normalizing white supremacy, election propaganda, and authoritarian politics. Nowhere was this clearer than in his many defenses of the January 6 (J6) insurrectionists who sought to shut down Congressional certification of the 2020 election, complemented by Trump’s efforts to pressure Congressional and state Republicans to certify him the winner.

What follows here is a survey of some of the most incendiary themes that appeared on Carlson’s show in the wake of the failed J6 insurrection and coup attempt. According to a review of the Nexis Uni academic database, Carlson ran 131 segments on J6 in 2022 alone, and 250 segments from January 7, 2021 through the end of 2022. Carlson ran another 43 programs mentioning J6 from January 1 to April 21, 2023, for a grand total of 293 segments from January 7, 2021 through the end of his tenure at Fox News. This is an incredible amount of attention, time, and resources for Carlson to devote to an event that he claimed was being blown out of proportion by Democratic officials.

One way that Carlson sought to manipulate discourse on J6 was to portray insurrectionists and other activists who participated that day as peaceful, freedom-loving patriots. This approach was multi-pronged. One tactic Carlson employed was to distinguish between violent participants who occupied the Capitol and those who did not enter the building. For example, in one segment of his program (6/8/2022), Carlson claimed that “The people you saw outside the Capitol on January 6 were not brainwashed robots, mindlessly following their leader…These were mostly sober, middle-class people, older for the most part, small business owners from smallish towns, far from the fashionable coasts. They were mostly passionately patriotic Americans, the kind who believe in the Bill of Rights and what it says.” This is one way of describing those who went to the Capitol on J6. Another is to say that large numbers of them expressed deeply racist, white supremacist messages celebrating the confederacy and white identity, while violently seeking to undermine the results of a democratic election and to re-install a Republican president who didn’t win said election.

A second strategy Carlson employed was trying to rewrite the history of those who assaulted the Capitol. In his “Patriot Purge” special for Fox’s online streaming service, Carlson idealizes “legacy Americans” – a euphemism for white people – who he believes are under assault from immigration run amok. This prompted condemnation from critics, who took him to task for normalizing white supremacy and romanticizing J6 insurrectionists, 86 percent of whom are men and 93 percent of whom are white. Carlson’s special featured Elijah Schaffer of BlazeTV, who when interviewed claimed that “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. They were just angry and got caught up in the front lines of chaos…” Instead, the program suggests that there was 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 special suggests that Antifa-style activists may be the real culprits behind the violence, implicitly absolving Trump supporters of responsibility.

Carlson also claimed after J6 that QAnon was deeply misunderstood and suggested that those arrested following the failed insurrection were the real patriots. As he reflected about QAnon supporters on his program, “when you actually see them on camera or in jail cells, as a lot of them now are,” they “are maybe kind of confused with the wrong ideas, but they’re all kind of gentle people now waving Americans flags,” and “they like this country.” In an allusion to BLM, Carlson claimed that QAnoners are “not torching Wendy’s. They’re not looting retail stores. They’re not shooting cops. No, that’s not them, it’s the other people doing that.” This narrative was a spectacular example of propaganda and the rewriting of history, considering not only the overwhelmingly non-violent politics of BLM, but QAnon supporters’ neofascist embrace of anti-Semitism, their cultish worship of Trump, their authoritarian-fascist support for publicly executing Democrats, and their violent efforts to re-install Trump to power that culminated in J6.

If those who participated in J6 are freedom loving patriots, then the prosecutions against them must be acts of government tyranny and repression. This was a standard narrative on Carlson’s program. Carlson was granted 44,000 hours of recordings from the Capitol building on J6 by Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He selectively used this footage to present an image of the J6 insurrectionists as peaceful activists who were simply exercising their Constitutional freedoms to protest alleged voter fraud. Exploiting the recordings, he referred to the “sightseers” at the Capitol as most definitely not “insurrectionists,” insisting that “the footage does not show an insurrection or riot in progress…Instead it shows police escorting people through the building, including the now-infamous ‘QAnon Shaman.’”

This narrative represents a blatant and Orwellian perversion of reality, as should have been apparent to those who followed news coverage of the J6 insurrection in real time. But as NBC reports, Carlson chose not to show his viewers the video recordings documenting the violent attacks on 140 police officers that day, or the footage showing the “hours of violent combat” that resulted in nearly 1,000 insurrectionists being charged with federal crimes, including 106 assault charges.

Another important part of Carlson’s narrative about J6 is that the federal response represents a fundamental escalation and political persecution of Trump supporting Americans. Carlson referred to the J6 Congressional investigative committee as “Washington’s latest partisan inquisition” (6/6/2022), speculating that “the January 6 committee isn’t really about January 6th. It is about targeting political opponents of Joe Biden using law enforcement” (6/27/2022) and is a “propaganda” campaign “designed” “to stop Trump from running for President again” (12/21/2022). He claimed that “the defendants” who participated in J6 are being persecuted not for “anything they actually did, not crimes they committed, but instead [for] their personal beliefs, what they think,” which “are reason enough to put them behind bars” (10/25/2022). For Carlson, the federal government’s prosecuting of those who occupied the Capitol on J6 demonstrates that it’s engaged in “a massive crackdown on the most basic civil liberties…against Trump voters and conservatives more broadly” (1/6/2022).

If those involved in J6 are being targeted for political and partisan reasons – because they are Republicans and critics of the Democratic Party – then the charges against them are a serious assault on Constitutional civil liberties, including the First Amendment rights to criticize government, protest, and petition government for redress. This is precisely the message that Carlson has delivered, arguing that “the Biden administration” has “placed dozens of its political opponents in solitary for months and months and months, nonviolent protesters who didn’t hurt anyone” (4/18/2022). Such framing represents a fundamental re-envisioning of J6, with violent insurrectionists portrayed as non-violent activists who did nothing more than exercise their right to protest an allegedly manipulated election.

For Carlson and his viewers, the federal government is the real villain. It’s engaged in fraud prosecutions that serve as a thin veneer for attacking the Democratic Party’s political opponents and detractors. Even worse, the federal government might even be responsible for organizing J6! This conspiracy was received favorably by Carlson in numerous segments through innuendos that stopped short of fully claiming the government planned J6. For example, Carlson asked: “just how many FBI agents and DOJ informants were active in the crowd on January 6, and what exactly were they doing there? Why can’t we know the answer to that question?” (6/8/2022). He also implicated the J6 Congressional committee, lamenting that its members “will not explain” “how many FBI agents and assets were in the crowd that day…why are they still hiding thousands of hours of surveillance footage from within the Capitol?” (6/9/2022). These comments are reflective of a longstanding pattern for how conspiracy theorists do business. The tactic is recycled from older disinformation campaigns like the Obama-era “birther” propaganda and the baseless “Covid-19 as bioweapon” conspiracy theory. The currency of conspiracy theorists is to make their case through speculation and suggestion, rather than evidence. They are simply “asking questions” of those in power, not stating outright that they believe the government had a hand in planning J6.

Finally, Tucker Carlson should be remembered for the notorious ways that he’s mainstreamed fascist politics and ideology. He’s agreed with at least one guest explicitly calling for fascist politics in the United States. According to The New York Times, Carlson’s program ran more than 400 segments between the mid-2010s and the early 2020s that repackaged “Great Replacement” propaganda, depicting European-ancestral Americans as under assault due to the nation’s steady demographic shift away from a white-Caucasian majority. Such propaganda has long been integral to the political ideology of white supremacists and “alt-right” neofascist groups, and is embraced by many Republican officials today.

It should be no surprise that one of the pundits most responsible for mainstreaming white supremacy and neofascist ideology is resentful when critics point this out. This much was apparent on Carlson’s program and considering how he talked about J6. He made it clear that he resents references to the J6 as a violent and “racist insurrection” to shut down the 2020 election certification and to re-install Trump (9/12/2022). And he sought to redirect critical attention against the J6 insurrectionists and toward Black Lives Matter and Antifa activists, drawing a false equivalency between what happened on J6 and the BLM movement. He complained that those who “show their outrage over January 6” are “the very same people who defended mass violence by BLM and Antifa throughout the entire summer of 2020” (1/6/2022). Carlson expressed outrage at “BLM privilege” as J6 participants were being prosecuted, as if to suggest that the federal government unfairly favored BLM at the expense of J6 “patriots” (2/21/2022). This sort of language suggests Carlson is living in another reality, considering the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of BLM, with 96 percent of the protests producing no injuries to participants, police, or bystanders, and 96 percent producing no property damage. Despite Carlson’s dubious message, his rhetoric fuels a larger narrative in which rightwing Republicans and neofascist ideologues justify the J6 insurrection by imagining they are the victims in a world where racism and sexism are things of the past and white men are the real casualties of discrimination and prejudice. To Carlson, marginalized movements like BLM and Antifa, which have virtually no political power in Washington, are the ones that “set fire to a lot of American cities” and are the real “threats to our democracy” (1/6/2022). The J6 insurrectionists are the targets of government intimidation and harassment. As one of Carlson’s guests reflected: “I think about those people that are locked up and being treated like they were George Floyd rioters and looters when they were really just going to confront the politicians that they were frustrated with” (12/23/2022). Carlson agreed, claiming that this way of framing J6 and BLM is “so right” (12/23/2022).

Despite Carlson’s departure, the central problem is that Fox News has staked its reputation on fueling hate, bigotry, and authoritarian politics. Whoever replaces Carlson is likely to be as bad, and maybe worse, at a network committed to mainstreaming authoritarian “Big Lie” election propaganda and following in the footsteps of a Republican Party that’s mainlining white nationalist politics into its supporters’ veins. The legal system is only of so much value in fighting back against the party’s extremism, despite the success of the Dominion case. What’s needed is a larger discussion and recognition of the dangers inherent in a major party seeking to mainstream white nationalist, authoritarian, and violent discourses. Little is likely to change without an honest national conversation about the threat’s nature.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.