It’s always tempting to dismiss the reality-inverting rants of right-wing ideologues like Tucker Carlson—even as they furiously scramble to pass culpability for the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol from the right-wing extremists who attempted to prevent the certification of the 2020 Electoral College ballots—as so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. Then, when the November 2021 election results end up with eight people who participated in those events elevated to public office as Republicans, the cold reality hits: Disinformation works.
The Jan. 6 gaslighting campaign’s toxic effects extend far beyond their ability to persuade voters that the attempted coup was merely, in Carlson’s words, a political protest that “got out of hand.” Carlson’s latest enterprise—a flashy “documentary” titled “Patriot Purge,” which posits that the Capitol insurrection actually was a “false flag” operation by the “Deep State” intended to ensnare and imprison American “patriots” simply for “disagreeing with Joe Biden”—is also, as fascism scholar Jason Stanley explained in Rolling Stone, “profoundly dangerous … because it follows a classic template of propaganda that has brought down democracies before.”
Moreover, Carlson is not just a one-man gaslighting brigade: His up-is-down narrative is being avidly adopted both by the average Fox News viewers who watch his program and by the core of right-wing extremists who are ginning themselves up for a civil war with liberal Americans and minorities. It’s also being picked up by other Trump-defending ideologues, as well as by pseudo-progressive “idiosyncratic” pundits like Glenn Greenwald.
“Patriot Purge,” a three-part propaganda “documentary,” did not air on Fox News and did not involve contributions from any journalists in its newsroom; rather, it is entirely a product of Carlson and the writers and producers of his nightly show. While Fox News did permit him to promote it on his show, it’s only available on the firewalled Fox Nation website, which has some 1 million subscribers.
The film uses so many quick-moving flash cuts, particularly when showing footage of the Jan. 6 siege, that watching it is both disorienting and headache-inducing, which may be the point: The camera only seems to slow down when Carlson or his guests are speaking, making them appear voices of calm and reason amid the videotaped chaos.
Most of all, it is an exercise in naked fearmongering. “The left is hunting the right,” a disembodied voice tells the audience, tracking them and “sticking them in the gulag, sticking them in Guantanamo Bay for American citizens.”
The series centerpiece is Carlson’s previously elucidated conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a “false flag” operation created by the “Deep State,” part of a long-term project by “global elites” to enslave Americans and crush their freedoms. But in the documentary, he tries to explore these ideas in depth, mainly by interviewing sources whose veracity is dubious at best.
Among these is the primary proponent of the “false flag” claim, an ex-Army captain named Emily Rainey who was present in the pro-Trump rally that preceded the riot, and who told Carlson that she felt compelled to resign after her involvement came under scrutiny. Rainey, in fact, had already resigned her commission over an unrelated reprimand before she traveled to D.C. for the event.
Rainey touted her background in psychological operations, telling Carlson:
RAINEY: So if that was an insurrection, it was the most poorly conducted insurrection ever.
CARLSON: If it wasn’t an insurrection, then what was it?
RAINEY: Special Operations uses the military deception tactic of a false flag abroad against the enemies of America. A false flag is any time you want to frame another group so that you can then take action against that group. It is my opinion that false flags have happened in this country. One of which may have been January 6.
The claim drew widespread rebukes for Carlson, who nonetheless has continued to double down on his conspiracist narrative. It was even debunked on Fox News: Last Friday, a “Special Report With Bret Baier” segment reporting on the ongoing congressional investigation into the insurrection featured an interview with Marc Polymeropoulos, a former veteran CIA officer. He was flatly dismissive of the “false flag” theory.
“One of the things with false flag operations as well, is sometimes it’s used by conspiracy theorists to actually hide the truth,” Polymeropoulos said. “Pretty far-fetched—in no way was January 6th a false flag operation.”
The documentary is an admixture of factually grounded material and bald-faced falsehoods and distortions, as well as carefully omitted information. At one point, Carlson interviewed a couple from Homer, Alaska, whose home was searched by the FBI in a raid after they had returned home from participating in the “Stop the Steal” rally; the woman, Marilyn Hueper, had been wrongly identified as the person who had stolen House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s laptop.
Hueper and her husband Paul told Carlson that they had approached the Capitol as it was under siege, and had been urged to go inside by other rioters—but had chosen not to:
PAUL HUEPER: Sure enough, you could see kind of a line snaking up. There were no police stopping anybody at all. It was like an open invitation just to walk right into the Capitol didn’t feel right. We chose not to.
MARILYN HUEPER: It felt totally like some kind of set up was being made.
CARLSON: Their instincts were right, it was a set up.
As Anne Applebaum explored thoughtfully at The Atlantic, this kind of paranoid fearmongering, particularly when broadcast as propaganda to an audience of millions, has a profoundly pernicious effect:
The point is to describe the events of January 6 as a false-flag operation cooked up inside the deepest layers of the American deep state—and thus to cast doubt on everything that will come out of Congress’s January 6 hearings, everything revealed by every Washington Post or network-television investigation, everything turned up by the FBI. For Fox viewers, this will come as an enormous relief. If all the disturbing facts can be ignored, then no lessons need be learned. Republicans in Congress and the Trump White House need never be blamed for their assault on the Constitution. The people who supported them need never question that support.
Indeed, the whole point of conspiracy theories, particularly those fueled by eliminationist politics, is to create permission for their followers—permission, mainly, to act out violently. As Jason Stanley, the author of How Fascism Works, explained, Carlson’s “documentary” follows this classic fascist blueprint:
The message of the series is clear: a great wrong has been done. The government and media have engineered a false narrative directed in the first instance towards discrediting the patriots who seek to address it, and, ultimately, with the goal of hunting down and violently suppressing them. Our media’s complicity is demonstrated by their differential coverages of the BLM protests, which are here portrayed as senseless violent riots, and the events of January 6. The patriots are innocent Americans seeking only to preserve democracy in the face of a fraudulent election. The forces arrayed against them are almost impossibly powerful. It is a repeat of the war on terror, by the same forces who engineered it, but directed against the most representative of our citizens, the “real” Americans.
It is impossible to accept this message in total without taking it to justify violent mass action against the current government, or something like a police and military coup.
In an environment in which the same right-wing “patriots” who attacked the Capitol and condoned it afterwards have been shouting for a “civil war” waged against their political opponents—and in which some of them are now wondering aloud “when do we get to use the guns” so “we can start killing these people”—this kind of propaganda is akin to throwing napalm onto a bonfire.
Carlson has been building this narrative at Fox since shortly after the insurrection itself, during the period when Fox News lost huge chunks of its audience for reporting the November 2020 and its aftermath accurately, at first. Their most popular host played a central role in drawing those viewers back into the fold by embracing the seditionist conspiracism of Trumpian politics, as well as the abandonment of basic journalistic principles (such as factual veracity) in the process.
He started out by attacking the Biden administration for focusing federal law enforcement on white nationalists and other right-wing extremists in the aftermath of the insurrection. Carlson claimed even then that liberals were intent on rounding up not just violent rioters but every conservative who voted for Trump:
Got that? Vote the wrong way and you are a jihadi. You thought you were an American citizen with rights and just a different view. But no, you’re a jihadi. And we’re going to treat you the way we did those radicals after 9/11. The way we treated Bin Laden. Get in line, pal. This is a war on terror.
… Keep in mind, they’re talking about American citizens here. They’re talking about you. But nobody seems to notice or care.
He also claimed that the First Amendment had been “effectively suspended. You can now be arrested for saying the wrong things. … Because we’re clearly living under some form of martial law at the moment.” He went on:
… You may have thought you were a decent American in good standing. Ten years ago, nobody in this country would have called your views extreme. They weren’t extreme then. You don’t think they’re extreme now, you’ve always considered yourself a pretty moderate person—live your life and get along with others. Oh ho, that’s not possible now—because the rules have changed. You are now a dangerous insurgent. You are no different from a bloodthirsty Pashtun in Helmand Province, or an ISIS terrorist in Erbil! You’re part of a guerrilla insurgency.
By late June, this narrative had metastasized into a full-blown “Deep State” conspiracy theory, straight out of something on Infowars (which in fact is where this particular theory originated). Claiming the National Security Agency was spying on him, he ranted:
The Biden administration is signaling a very real change to actual federal policy. The “War on Terror,” now ongoing for 20 years, has pivoted in its aims. The War on Terror is now being waged against American citizens, opponents of the regime.
We saw this on display on Jan. 6. We told you a couple of weeks ago, based on language in publicly available indictments, that the FBI clearly had foreknowledge of the riot at the Capitol that day. The agents we spoke to this weekend confirmed that is true. Quote: “The FBI had sources in that crowd—confidential sources, snitches. That’s 100% certain.”
In reality, as we explored in detail, Carlson’s “report” on the involvement of FBI operatives in the Jan. 6 riot was predicated on a risible and obvious misunderstanding of how the federal government’s informant and cooperating-witness programs function. It also was based on an up-is-down characterization of the relationship of the FBI to those “snitches”: Yes, it’s 100% certain that Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs, one of those informants, was in the crowd; it’s also certain that he was informing the FBI directly not about the activities of the Proud Boys, but rather of their leftist nemeses, antifa and BLM.
Carlson’s main source for that piece, white nationalist Darren Beattie, also figures prominently in “Patriot Purge.” Seizing credulously on a story in the far-right webzine Revolver by Beattie headlined, “Unindicted Co-Conspirators in 1/6 Cases Raise Disturbing Questions of Federal Foreknowledge,” Carlson hosted a long interview with Beattie on Fox, claiming the article demonstrated that “the FBI was organizing the riots of January 6.”
Carlson told his audience:
But strangely, some of the key people who participated on January 6 have not been charged. Look at the documents; the government calls those people unindicted co-conspirators. What does that mean? Well, it means that in potentially every single case they were FBI operatives. Really? In the Capitol on January 6?
Media Matters’ Matt Gertz pointedly observed: “In fact, this theory, which rests on the premise that ‘unindicted co-conspirators’ are by definition ‘FBI operatives,’ collapses with the slightest scrutiny, and suggests that Carlson either a) lacks a basic understanding of federal investigations or b) thinks his viewers are rubes. Aaron Blake of The Washington Post explained further: “Legal experts say the government literally cannot name an undercover agent as an unindicted co-conspirator.”
Carlson further emphasized his utter miscomprehension (though probably deliberate) of the federal legal system when he went on to suggest that one of the unindicted coconspirators was actually an FBI operative—when in fact that person was the wife of one of the indicted insurrectionists, a woman who had entered a cooperative agreement with the government. But in Carlson’s alternative universe, simple facts simply don’t matter.
As Jason Stanley observes, the larger structure of Carlson’s narrative happens to neatly replicate the basic architecture of fascist propaganda, including his insistence on elevating slain insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt into a patriotic martyr figure—just as Hitler’s Nazi Party did with Horst Wessel in 1920s Germany. It embraces Trump’s Big Lie—the claim that he was cheated out of re-election by massive vote fraud—as an essential truth, and builds its narrative on that foundation: “It is only on this assumption that those who promulgate this lie can be represented as innocent victims,” Stanley notes.
This kind of gaslighting propaganda, as we already have seen, has real-world consequences. Most of all, it is profoundly antidemocratic, polluting the national discourse with deliberate disinformation and making it impossible for the public to tell up from down and right from wrong. It’s a deluge of bullshit intended to so profoundly muddy the discourse that baldfaced liars can readily con their gullible marks, which is why Carlson at one point asserted that “so many people are lying at such high volume about the 2020 election, it’s hard to know exactly what happened.” It is a recipe for authoritarianism.
As Applebaum explains:
Equally important—and with longer-term significance—the documentary is deliberately designed to make viewers question the most important institutions in their society, the very same ones that, until now, inspired faith and belief among American conservatives. FBI agents were once good guys who produced law and order. Now they are a sinister cabal who created a fake demonstration on January 6 (a “honeypot”) with the aim of drawing in and eventually persecuting and repressing patriotic Americans. The U.S. military once consisted of heroes who fought our enemies overseas. Now the armed forces are part of the same conspiracy, as they seek to identify those same American patriots and “purge out of the military every dissenting voice.” This, someone warns, will be the “War on Terror 2.0,” the “same corrupt interests in Washington pushing the lie of domestic white terrorism.”
Republicans have already begun to valorize the Jan. 6 insurrectionists; within the year, as this narrative continues to sink into the public discourse, Carlson and his fellow gaslighters will be celebrating their actions as patriotic defenders of the American republic (which is how most of the indicted Jan. 6 insurrectionists already see themselves). It won’t be shocking to hear “Free the 1/6ers” become a GOP talking point.
This is how the age-old “waving the bloody shirt” trope has always worked: Invert reality on its head, claiming innocence of violent intent, shifting the blame for violence onto the victims, always taking the rhetorical offensive. Thus, the bullies become victims, and the victims bullies. So far, it has worked every time.
As Stanley observes:
In the inverted world of the series, those who support the authoritarian cult of the leader, his base, are the democratic patriots. Those who seek to preserve fair elections are the fascists. Fascist propaganda is relentless projection, justified by lies. Carlson has proven to be a master in its use.
Carlson’s gaslighting narrative is readily spreading. It’s being picked up particularly among ostensibly mainstream conservative pundits who have embraced Trumpism, notably in the orbit of the right-wing Claremont Institute, a think tank that has published screeds embracing neofascist politics in the name of defending the ex-president. A recent piece in Imprimus, the magazine of Hillsdale College (closely associated with Claremont), by Roger Kimball headlined “The January 6 Insurrection Hoax,” agrees with Carlson that it was merely “a political protest that ‘got out of hand.’” Kimball also asserts that the Big Lie is factual, and that “every honest person knows that the 2020 election was tainted.”
Kimball also cites “the liberal commentator” Greenwald, who indeed has been leading the gaslight parade claiming that Jan. 6 wasn’t an insurrection. Greenwald and others are part of a faction of pseudo-progressives who Carlson likes to invite onto his show to burnish his far-right narratives with their “idiosyncratic” hot takes, which inevitably are just slightly retooled right-wing talking points.
Greenwald’s primary narrative is that the Biden administration is undertaking “a new War on Terror.” In a recent column on Substack, he asserted that “at least some of the 1/6 protesters have been placed on” a federal no-fly list, without providing any evidence that this is the case. At one point, the administration was considering taking such a step, but there is no sign that it has actually done so. The only Jan. 6 protester who has claimed he was placed on a no-fly list is white nationalist “Groyper” leader Nicholas Fuentes, whose claim was demolished when it emerged that he actually had been banned by Southwest Airlines after he had created a scene aboard one of their planes and then suggested on his podcast that he’d like to kill a flight attendant. (If there actually is a no-fly list, it likely is the one shared by airlines naming unruly passengers who cause flight delays and threaten their employees.)
The Biden administration, in fact, has so far not recommended any new legislation to deal with the rising white-nationalist threat, and instead is pursuing a strategy emphasizing a serious focus on enforcing laws currently on the books (though the plan does contain some troubling elements). Unlike the post-9/11 Bush administration, Biden has not declared “war on terror” and proffered draconian measures undermining civil rights; nor, unlike the post-9/11 right, have liberals declared all Republicans identical to the far-right extremists who attacked the Capitol; rather, that would be right-wing pundits like Carlson who have done so.
That hasn’t prevented Greenwald from continuing to claim that there’s a new “War on Terror” under way. Claiming that “the same repressive climate that arose after 9/11 has prevailed,” he lamely adds: “Even without enactment of a new law, there is no doubt that a second War on Terror, this one domestic, has begun and is growing, all in the name of the 1/6 ‘Insurrection’ and with little dissent or even public debate.”
Gaslighting narratives like this are not merely disinformation or the amalgamations of unmitigated bullshit that typify right-wing discourse now; rather, they are attempts to persuade the public, a la Charles Boyer, that it didn’t see what it watched unfold on Jan. 6 in Washington, or later watched in full and frightening detail in that definitive video investigation by the New York Times.; that what it witnessed was just some good patriotic folk who got justly irate at a stolen election, rather than the attempt by a violent, armed mob to lynch members of Congress and prevent the peaceful transfer of power from a defeated president to his successor, one of the hallmarks of the stability of American democratic institutions, that we all saw that day.
The intent is to get people to distrust their senses, to disbelieve factual reality, to turn that reality on its head, thereby driving a wedge between the True Believers and the rest of the world, planted in reality. It is a recipe for cultist authoritarianism—in this case, the Trumpist kind.
As Anne Applebaum sagely concludes:
So consider this a warning, from someone who did watch it: The hatred of America and of American institutions is going to grow. It will become more mainstream and more acceptable—especially among conservatives who once thought of their country with so much faith and pride.