Republicans try — but can't — distance themselves from Tucker Carlson's lies

Everyone knows Tucker Carlson lies — what matters is the GOP now blesses his Jan. 6 revisionism

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 8, 2023 6:23AM (EST)

Tucker Carlson and Kevin McCarthy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson and Kevin McCarthy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Everyone knows that Tucker Carlson is a liar. Democrats know it. Republicans know it. His audience definitely knows it. Watching him get away with telling big ol' whoppers every night is part of the thrill they get in watching him. Carlson's lawyers know it. In a 2020 lawsuit, the Fox News legal team argued in court that Carlson cannot be held liable for slander, because his audience doesn't actually believe the stuff he says. Instead, they argued, it's "non-literal commentary." (Up there with Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts" in the pantheon of Republican euphemisms for "lies.") If there was a person left in America under the mistaken impression that Carlson is anything but a proud liar, they were disabused of that notion by leaked texts showing Carlson demanding a reporter be fired for correctly stating that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election. 

"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," Carlson wrote in a text message sent just two days before the Capitol riot. In the recently released text, part of an ongoing document dump as part of the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News, Carlson went on to make this damming admission: "There isn't really an upside to Trump."

"I hate him passionately," Carlson said of the former president. 

So when Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gave Carlson exclusive access to footage from the January 6 insurrection, everyone knew exactly what would happen: Carlson, as he always does, would subject it to misleading edits in order to lie about the Capitol riot. "The Fox host's history of deceptively editing and recontextualizing video to serve his false narratives is so robust," Matthew Gertz of Media Matters writes, that McCarthy's only possible purpose in doing this was to generate propaganda celebrating the insurrection. 

For two years now, Carlson's been spinning out a contradictory narrative, claiming both that a violent insurrection was warranted, but also denying that it was a violent insurrection. The inconsistency doesn't bother his audience because they share his commitment to lying about the Capitol riot. Carlson is offering them a salad bar of deflections, a different excuse for every taste and occasion that they need to lie about January 6. In reality, however, as the just-released text messages from Carlson reveal, the Fox News host worried immediately after the insurrection that Trump "could easily destroy" the network, calling him a "demonic force."

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

With the release of the footage McCarthy gave him access to, McCarthy defended the attempt to overthrow the government by repeating the Big Lie that "the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy." But he also insisted that "these were not insurrectionists." Again with the old contradictor lies: The insurrection was justified, but also it didn't happen.


McCarthy is officially giving the GOP establishment's blessing to the Trump narrative.

Everything about this felt rote and predictable: Carlson lies and his audience pretends to believe his lies. Trump released a diatribe on Truth Social — before news of Carlson's scornful texts broke — pretending that the footage is "one of the biggest 'scoops' as a reporter in U.S. history," and demanding the release of people still serving time for participating. Even the deliberate grammatical mistakes Trump puts in his posts, so that they get spread further by liberals mocking his illiteracy, felt tired. 

The whole thing is both gross and boring, the political equivalent of roadkill on a country road. One's heart goes out to those journalists who bothered to go through the motions of carefully debunking Carlson's lies, knowing that not even his followers believe him. But Carlson's Monday show still matters, though not due to what's in the footage, or even really how Carlson spins it. What matters is the symbolism of using footage that McCarthy very showily granted him. That gesture must be understood for what it is. McCarthy is officially giving the GOP establishment's blessing to the Trump narrative.

Two years ago, the Republican party's stance was the January 6 was a bad thing. Now the GOP elite has, reluctantly or not, embraced the MAGA view: January 6 is a sacred day in their glorious war on democracy. For over a year now, Trump and his acolytes have portrayed January 6 as the MAGA Alamo and the insurrectionists as consecrated martyrs. By working hand-in-glove with Carlson to create more propaganda, McCarthy is signaling that the Republican establishment backs this effort at fascist myth-making. 

Certainly, there was a slow ramp-up to this moment, especially as a number of Republican leaders were genuinely rattled by the insurrection and Trump's willingness to get them killed in his bid to retain power illegally. But there was also a certain inevitability to the GOP embrace of January 6. Trump, after all, feels everything he does is magnificence defined, and so of course he's proud of inciting an insurrection. Plus, as witnesses like former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson told the January 6 committee, Trump's ego was bolstered by seeing thousands of people willing to risk imprisonment or injury on his behalf. Republicans always fall in line with Trump, so coming around, however reluctantly, to his vainglorious view of the insurrection was inevitable. 

The message their voters will get is that the new party line is tacit support of the insurrection. 

Carlson's narrative, as David Graham of the Atlantic writes, is that "the insurgents did nothing wrong" and that "the riot was a good thing." At this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the view that January 6 was a great day was dramatically reinforced. A CPAC vigil was held in honor of the people imprisoned for their crimes that day, with conference-goers chanting "hero" as their names were read aloud. The mother of Ashli Babbitt, who was shot during the riot to stop a mob from running down fleeing members of Congress, received a hero's welcome. 

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

Trump, always ready to escalate in the most shameless way possible, lent his voice to a group of insurrectionists who recorded a song portraying themselves as patriots and martyrs. 

As David Siders and Meridith McGraw at Politico reported Monday, "Republican presidential candidates may feel pressure from corners of the base to talk about Jan. 6 in positive terms." Republicans are also keenly aware that most Americans still view the attack, correctly, as an act of domestic terrorism. So they try to square that circle by avoiding the topic altogether. This gives Trump a sharp advantage in the primary because he's not afraid of the topic. In fact, he's eager to talk up the supposed injustice of holding seditionists accountable for their behavior. 

To be certain, not everyone in the GOP elite is as happy as McCarthy to play along with the Trumpian story about the great-and-glorious insurrection. As Manu Raju of CNN reported, two Republican senators — Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mitt Romney of Utah — were willing to criticize Carlson openly. Notably, one is from a swing state and the other has been the one Republican willing to stand up to Trump throughout his tenure. Most other Republican senators Raju spoke with, however, tried to have it both ways, by sidestepping the question of whether Carlson's lies are wrong while congratulating themselves for stating the obvious, which is that the insurrection was bad. 

Senators have to win statewide office, which tends to push politicians in a more moderate direction. The heavy MAGA field in the 2022 midterms cost Republicans a number of Senate seats they otherwise could have won, which no doubt is shaping these responses. Still, what's most remarkable is not that they'll disagree with Carlson, but how mealy-mouthed most of them are about it, especially since they were all there and in very real danger that day. The reaction, so far, has been far from a "GOP backlash," as the Washington Post described it. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has previously been one of the most outspoken Republicans resisting Trump's adulation of the insurrection. But even he has grown soft, unable to muster more condemnatory language than "mistake" to describe Carlson's lies. 

McConnell knows this is no "mistake," but a very deliberate act of blatant propaganda. He has always sensed which way the wind is blowing in his party. 

As the Politico piece shows, most Republicans who are trying to appeal to a broader audience want January 6 to disappear down the memory hole. But it shouldn't be a surprise that Trump and Carlson would like to relitigate it and rewrite it as MAGA's Alamo. Both subsist on chaos and division, drawing their popularity and power from lifting up the grievances of Republican voters who think they should win every election, even those they lose.

What is a little surprising is that McCarthy has so firmly sided with the forces who want to keep talking about — and frankly revering — the insurrection. He may be paying off a debt to the MAGA forces that finally allowed him to be Speaker. He may agree with Trump's increasingly bold embrace of fascism and the violence that will likely be necessary to enforce it. He may just be an idiot. But regardless of McCarthy's reasons, his move should be understood for what it is: A blessing of January 6 from the GOP establishment. There's likely no going back now for the rest of the party. They'll either be completely on board with this view or get even quieter about their disagreements. Either way, the message their voters will get is that the new party line is tacit support of the insurrection. 

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.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Donald Trump January 6 Kevin Mccarthy Tucker Carlson