Fox News' desperate distraction circus: Anything to have viewers ignore the January 6 hearings

Could the January 6 hearings be enough to prick the consciences of Trump voters? Fox News clearly fears so

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 22, 2022 1:04PM (EDT)

Tucker Carlson (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Expectations for this year's January 6 committee hearings may have started out low, but by the eighth and final night of summer hearings, both media and viewers had grown accustomed to each hearing being two-plus hours of shocking revelations. Thursday night's hearing, which covered Donald Trump's actions the day of the Capitol insurrection, did not disappoint. As Heather "Digby" Parton recounts, the committee painted a vivid picture of Trump spending hours reveling in the violence he had knowingly unleashed on the Capitol, while making threatening calls to Republican senators, demanding the White House. 

Of course, as the months since have shown, he probably didn't need to use violence. Now that they're safe again, nearly all of those Republicans who were furious over the riot have come right back around to kissing Trump's rear. Worse, many of them are helping him plan for the next, more well-organized coup. Some, like Sen. Josh "Running Man" Hawley of Missouri, are in this because they unsubtly long for a fascist state. Others, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, seem less enthused about Trump, but clearly feel like keeping their own power means playing nice with Trump, who still has a Svengali-like hold over the GOP base. 

But what if Trump's power over the Republican base started to wobble, even just a little bit?

The GOP is already an unpopular minority party that only has real power because of the anti-majoritarian tilt of electoral institutions. The party's ability to hold onto power, much less win (or get it close enough to steal) in 2024 depends all too often on razor-thin margins of victory in swing states and gerrymandered districts. If even 1-2% of reliable Republican voters got cold feet about the authoritarian tilt of the party, it could dramatically alter the GOP's future. That's true even if those voters didn't vote for Democrats, but instead just skipped voting. 

It may seem like an impossible dream, but clearly Fox News is worried about this possibility. 

The best way to keep Trump voters from feeling pangs of conscience over his violent methods is to remind them of why they backed him in the first place

On the last night of the hearings, while other networks piped the broadcast directly to American TVs, Fox instead embraced a distract-and-spin strategy meant to keep their viewers from even feeling tempted to engage with the actual evidence of Trump's villainy. The network exuded a palpable fear that some of their people might actually listen, learn and change their minds. So network producers pulled out all of the stops to keep that from happening. 

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John Whitehouse, the news director of Media Matters, took on the thankless task of tweeting side-by-side comparisons of the Fox News programming and the live hearing. The strategy is as predictable as it is depressing.

Tucker Carlson spent his primetime hour opening a firehose of grievance programming, geared directly at stimulating the sexual jealousies, racism, and intellectual resentments of the Fox News audience. Things kicked off with a "why do those stupid medical scientists think they know more about viruses than me?" tantrum:

Followed by the "Freebird" of right-wing grievance: "How dare those stupid sluts have sex with men who aren't me" whining. 

Carlson also hit the racism hard, with segments about how the world outside of the Fox News viewer's suburban lawn is a violent hellhole caused by racial diversity. Whatever it takes to keep the lizard brains activated, drowning out any desire to think critically or engage with real evidence.

Sean Hannity, meanwhile, embraced a different tactic, acknowledging the hearings but trying to discredit them. 

Trump himself got involved, having an extended meltdown on his lame "Truth Social" network, mostly with misogynist vitriol aimed at Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former White House aide Sarah Matthews, who testified against him. It was a blended approach: Trying to discredit the hearings, but within a framework of misogynist whining to endear him to his fellow woman-haters. 

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This content is, of course, all irrelevant noise built on a foundation of lies. It's the purpose of it that is so fascinating: To convince viewers to stay as far as possible away from absorbing the information offered by the January 6 committee. Clearly, the Fox News producers are worried that even a small amount of attention paid to the facts will stoke doubts in their viewers and weaken their resolve to keep supporting Trump. 

Should they be worried? From one perspective, the answer is a big, fat no. After all, as the committee demonstrated last night, Republican members of Congress were directly threatened by Trump's violence, were afraid for their lives, and begged him to stop. If people he nearly killed can handle the cognitive dissonance to stay by his side, certainly voters who are at a physical remove can. 

And certainly, the past six years suggest Trump voters are plenty aware that he's a sociopathic monster. That's why they like him. They're motivated by the same thing that causes Republican politicians to stick by Trump: They want power, no matter what the cost, and think that Trump is the vehicle to get it. They don't "believe" the Big Lie, so much as embrace it as a way to achieve the overall goal, which is for their tribe to control all the reins of power, democracy be damned. For most Trump voters, Fox News exists mostly as a rationalization-generator more than a source of genuine confusion. They could, after all, change the channel — but they don't. 

Still, even if most Trump voters are immovable in their faith, as the numbers show, all you need is a couple of percentage points to change their minds and it would dramatically undermine the GOP hold on power.

If Trump and his main propagandists are this worried about losing support, maybe that's a sign of hope for the rest of the country. 

There are voters like former Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone, who voted for Trump in 2016 but, having endured the violence of January 6, are now outspoken critics. Polling shows that while most Republican voters are steadfast in love with Trump, the hearings really are rattling the consciences of a small percentage. However quietly, some small number of Republicans are wondering if it's really worth it to keep on the path of fascism, just to retain political power? 

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In light of that, it's interesting to look back at Carlson and Hannity's different approaches to convincing viewers to bury doubts and stay the course.

Carlson's projectile vomiting of racism, misogyny, homophobia and general resentment towards intellectuals is classic fascist propaganda, of course. But the context layers on another, implicit argument: Trump's violence and attempts to destroy democracy may be uncomfortable, but it's necessary to achieve the right's political goals of forced childbirth, undermining science, and enforcing strict race and gender hierarchies. 

Hannity, on the other hand, seems more interested in trying to bamboozle his audience, by muddying the waters around the facts of January 6. Or, more cynically, he's just offering up a bunch of talking points for his audience to repeat so they can justify their predetermined conclusion that they don't care about January 6. 

Carlson's always been the smarter one, so I'd bet on his strategy more.

Again, Republican voters have never been particularly confused about who Trump is. As the committee members argued strenuously Thursday night, Trump lacks character. But that's not news to his voters, so much as a selling point. Trump revels in his villainy and his supporters cheer the most loudly at his rallies when he's insulting or bullying people. They view his sociopathy as a weapon they can use against their perceived enemies. So the best way to keep them from feeling pangs of conscience over his violent methods is to remind them of why they backed him in the first place: They want him to oppress people they don't like — even if it means violence. 

It remains to be seen how much impact the January 6 hearings will have. Most Trump voters know Trump did it, they know why he did it, and they approve. The hope is that just enough of them start to feel things have gone too far. I tend to be skeptical about that, but it gives me pause to watch Fox News and Trump spin as hard as they can. If Trump and his main propagandists are this worried about losing support, maybe that's a sign of hope for the rest of the country. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Capitol Riot Commentary Donald Trump January 6 Committee Sean Hannity Tucker Carlson