Choose Your Own Adventure

Tucker Carlson speaks in Hollywood, Florida, on November 17, 2022. (Photo by Jason Koerner/Getty Images)

In 2009 The Onion produced a memorable spoof of inane cable-news “debates.” In one corner: A middle-class 9/11 truther convinced that the attack on the World Trade Center could only have been an inside job by George Bush’s government. In the other corner: A member of al-Qaeda trying and failing to reason with him, annoyed that his organization was being denied the credit it was due.

The clip was a goof on how those two contradictory views in the years after the attack managed to coexist uneasily in anti-American circles, especially abroad. Either 9/11 was horrific and undeserved, in which case Bush or Mossad was responsible, or it was good because America had it coming, in which case al-Qaeda was.

Or both, somehow. The path one took to arrive at a conclusion about the attack seemed less important than the destination, the idea that the United States government was in some sense culpable, morally if not directly, for terrorism perpetrated against Americans.

You could choose your own adventure about what happened on 9/11 so long as you arrived at the conclusion that Uncle Sam ultimately was to blame, one way or another.

The same dynamic is playing out on the right in the effort to rehabilitate what happened on January 6. You might think the insurrection was a justified patriotic uprising against massive electoral fraud. No justice, no peace, to borrow a phrase. Or you might think the insurrection was an impromptu sightseeing tour blown all out of proportion by the right’s critics. Or you might think it was a frame-up perpetrated by Trump’s enemies in government to discredit and disgrace him.

Or you might think all of those things simultaneously. You’re free to choose your own adventure about what happened on January 6 so long as you arrive at the conclusion that Trump and his party should bear no blame for it.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was asked what he thought of Tucker Carlson’s revisionist history of the attack, revisionism he facilitated by providing Carlson with exclusive access to Congress’ trove of video footage from that day. Two years ago, after the insurrection, he was clear as could be.

On Tuesday his clarity had faded. “I didn’t see what was aired,” Kevin McCarthy told reporters. “What I want to do exactly is give transparency to everybody and everybody can make up their own conclusion.”

Lay aside the weirdness of McCarthy giving Carlson access to the footage yet not caring enough about the “truth” of January 6 to watch Carlson’s presentation. Note instead his comment about everybody “making up their own conclusion.” That’s an example of egregious moral relativism by the leader of a party that’s supposed to despise such things, deeming it an intellectual defect of the left. And it’s aimed mainly at the right, I suspect, not at swing voters: McCarthy is nudging his constituency to think whatever they need to think about January 6 in the name of easing any lingering discomfort with what happened.

“You’re free to believe what you like,” he’s telling Republicans, knowing they’ll tailor their beliefs to the party’s advantage.

Tucker has spent just two hours so far unveiling what he’s found in the January 6 video archive but already his program has devolved into arguing in the alternative to encourage viewers to choose their own adventure. On Monday evening he sneered at the idea that the rioters were violent: “They were orderly and meek,” he claimed. “These were not insurrectionists; they were sightseers.” Then, on Tuesday, he complained that the Capitol Police weren’t prepared for what they would face that day.

Faulting D.C. cops for not anticipating the threat from meek sightseers makes no sense, but it doesn’t need to. Carlson isn’t sketching out a narrative of the insurrection, he’s offering viewers different paths to reach the conclusion that whatever happened that day shouldn’t be held against Trump, the Republican Party, or the broader right.

And amazingly, he’s doing so at a moment when America—save for those who watch only Fox News—is learning in gory detail how remote some of his private political views are from his audience’s. Shortly before Tuesday night’s show aired, the latest court documents from Dominion Voting Systems were revealed. From NBC News:

Carlson, one of Fox News’ top hosts, made it clear on Jan. 4, 2021, that he was getting fed up with Trump. In a text exchange with an unknown person, Carlson said: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait.”

“I hate him passionately. I blew up at Peter Navarro today in frustration,” he added, referring to the former Trump administration official. “I actually like Peter. But I can’t handle much more of this.”

He wrote in another text message: “That’s the last four years. 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 has never been a Renfield to Donald Trump the way Sean Hannity has, but it would surely surprise members of his audience to know that he hated Trump “passionately” during the post-election “Stop the Steal” period and saw no “upside” to him. For the rest of us, it was surreal to watch him minimize the insurrection last night on television while news of his contempt for the man who inspired it was breaking simultaneously across non-conservative media outlets. It advertised in an unusually stark way that Tucker takes an instrumentalist approach to his platform: He says what he says not because it’s true or even because he thinks it’s true but because saying it will achieve a political end he values.

Which, coincidentally, is the essence of the “choose your own adventure” strategy of political spin. Throw every argument you have at the wall and feel free to contradict yourself as often as needed so long as doing so maximizes the number of people you’re leading to the desired political conclusion.

Mainstream media bias tends to operate differently. Many observers, me included, have compared Carlson’s whitewashing of January 6 to major media’s whitewashing of riots during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. CNN’s contemptible description of what happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as “fiery but mostly peaceful” became a conservative punchline, never mind that Carlson’s spin about “sightseers” at the insurrection amounts to the same thing. Big media was offering a cynical yet coherent narrative, though: Americans shouldn’t let a few bad apples burning down buildings disenchant them with the anti-racist cause. Tucker and other right-wing voices, on the other hand, are offering a melange about January 6 ranging from “it was no big deal” to “it was Antifa” to “it was a deep-state false flag” to “actually, it was good.”

The writer John Ganz made a trenchant point this morning about the modern right’s tolerance for contradictory logic so long as it serves their interests.

Nicholas Grossman replied to Ganz by identifying a few other contradictory staples of the Trump era, such as Trump somehow being the ultimate tough guy and the ultimate victim and Trump being a supremely talented executive who’s constantly undermined by the people he chooses to hire. Those positions can’t be reconciled logically but they can be reconciled circumstantially, as political needs require. If you’ve spent years arguing that Trump is hypercompetent but that he’s also forever being blindsided and thwarted by those around him, believing that January 6 was at once justified, overblown, and a sinister ploy by political enemies is no sweat.

Fox News viewers in particular have been conditioned to be comfortable with contradiction. At most mainstream media outlets, the opinion side operates off of the information gathered by the news side. You don’t hear Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper, for instance, wildly at odds on the basics of what they’re commenting on at CNN. You do sometimes hear that at Fox. Among the new revelations in the Dominion filings are messages between reporters complaining that they were punished for telling the truth on-air about Trump’s election lies and messages between opinion hosts complaining that those reporters chose to tell the truth at all.

As recently as Tuesday night, those who tuned into Fox in the 6 p.m. ET hour found Bret Baier and Chad Pergram reminding viewers that nearly 1,000 people were arrested in connection with the insurrection, more than 100 were charged with using a deadly weapon, and more than 100 police officers were injured during the riot. Less than 24 hours earlier, Tucker Carlson was telling those same viewers that January 6 mostly involved sightseeing.

The two sides of the network have taken to counterprogramming each other, one eager to claw back a bit of respectability and the other unconcerned utterly with the concept.

How the average Fox viewer processes those contradictions is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Ganz is right that it’s a simple matter of inhabiting a fantasy in which intimations of reality, like “Biden won Arizona,” are dismissed before they can penetrate. But I wonder how many cope by arriving at a “compromise” position, that the truth is unknown. And maybe unknowable.

In 2017, on day two of the Trump administration, Sean Spicer gave the infamous press briefing in which he insisted that the crowd for his boss’ inauguration was the largest not only in American history but in world history, photographic evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. The Trump White House’s willingness to lie so brazenly, to ask its supporters to choose between the obvious truth and a more favorable political narrative, was an omen of things to come.

On the day of the press briefing, a reporter posted thoughts from an unidentified member of a prior administration on what he or she thought the purpose of Spicer’s briefing was. This part stuck with me.

“Gosh, I guess this is unknowable.”

Ganz is surely right that diehard populists, the Trump true believers, will turn on anyone who rudely challenges their fantasies with reality. Trump himself getting booed for condoning vaccination is a good example. But how many viewers aren’t diehards and watch Fox simply because they’re broadly conservative and believe—incorrectly—that the network is more apt to tell them the truth than liberal media outlets are?

How many of those people sat through hour after hour of Tucker Carlson questioning the efficacy of COVID vaccines and concluded that the truth about whether the vaccines are safe or not is … unknowable?

And how many of them then opted to play it “safe” by not getting vaccinated as a result?

Carlson’s demagoguery about January 6 isn’t ultimately about telling true believers what they want to hear. It’s about convincing right-wingers who aren’t sure what to think that what happened at the insurrection is, at a minimum, debatable. It’s a matter of dispute and always will be. The truth is unknowable.

It’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that the point of conservative media writ large is to render uncomfortable information unknowable. Typically that’s done via extreme gatekeeping: As of last week, just four of the top 26 most popular conservative platforms had covered the Dominion revelations about Fox News. (A few reproduced wire stories about the matter.) The right’s media industry is an all but vacuum-sealed “safe space” for the most tender of snowflakes, as Jonah Goldberg rightly says.

But when a story is too big to be gatekept and reeeeeeeeally bad for the right and comes packaged with mountains of damning video evidence, as January 6 was, it needs to be dealt with. And the way to deal with it is to muddy the waters however you can. If you can’t convince people that the insurrection was good or an Antifa psy op or a deep-state set-up or a product of the negligence of Capitol Police, you can at least cast doubt on a few cherry-picked claims made by their ideological enemies and leave them to deduce that the truth of what happened is opaque. Who were those guys in red MAGA hats waving “Trump 2020” banners and beating cops with flagpoles? Did they decide to go sightseeing at the Capitol and just happen to do so on a day when Congress was certifying a presidential election?

Who can say?

“The facts are unknowable and therefore must remain forever in dispute” is just another path in the “choose your own adventure” decision tree that leads to concluding that it’s unfair to fault Trump and the Republican Party for the insurrection. Not coincidentally, House Republicans are now planning “multiple probes” of January 6 “including looking into the Democratic-led select committee’s actions from the last Congress, the security failures from that day and potentially even the treatment of January 6 defendants.” None of those probes will upend the terrible facts of what happened that day but they’ll all serve the basic narrative that we still don’t know the full truth. And we can probably never know it

We on the right don’t even know if we should still be talking about it, in fact:

Is January 6 still in the news because the Trump-hating liberal media won’t let it go or is it still in the news because Trump-hating conservative Tucker Carlson and his fellow travelers in right-wing media and the House GOP keep trying to spin it in the right’s favor?

Who can say? The truth is unknowable.

I’ll leave you with two uncharacteristically upbeat points.

One is that even if Fox News ends up not having to pay Dominion damages, it will pay for what it’s done in other ways. After sifting through the latest round of Dominion filings, Amanda Carpenter wondered astutely why any reporter who takes their profession seriously would want to work for the network now, knowing that they’ll be punished if they upset the Republican base by doing their job too diligently. I don’t think any would; regular readers know where I stand on the question of Fox’s future. It will crawl on, but it can and will grow only more propagandistic over time. Its days of being taken semi-seriously as a news organization are ending, including by the Trump-worshiping populist right.

The other point is that the electoral backlash potential to all of this nonsense remains high. Tom Nichols, another guy not known for sunny takes, sees trouble ahead for Republicans at The Atlantic.

Heading into the 2022 midterms, the Republicans hoped that an attempt by their party’s leader to overthrow the constitutional order would be no impediment to regaining national power. The midterms, however, proved that Americans still care about their democracy and that they could not be swayed to trade their freedom away merely because gas prices are too high. At this point, the Republicans are barely holding the House, and Trump is leading the pack of possible GOP presidential candidates while yawping about “retribution.” Most Americans continue to think January 6 was a terrible day for the United States and that Trump bears at least some responsibility for it.

As counterintuitive as it might be, perhaps the best thing for American democracy would be for Carlson to keep bumbling his way through more January 6 footage and to keep images of the insurrection in front of millions of viewers for as long as possible. If that’s how McCarthy and Carlson intend to restore the image of the GOP as a normal political party, who are any of us to argue with such public-relations geniuses?

Nichols published that this morning. By midafternoon, news was breaking that Marjorie Taylor Greene intends to lead a congressional delegation to visit prisoners jailed for their crimes on January 6. Trying to convince Americans that the full truth about the insurrection will never be known is one thing, trying to convince them that the droogs who smashed up the Capitol to try to overturn a national election are sympathetic political prisoners is quite another. A party led by someone with good sense would steer hurriedly in the other direction; instead the leader of the Republican Party is calling for members of the January 6 committee to be tried for treason. These imbeciles can’t get out of their own way. It’s the only good thing about them.

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