The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As two Fox contributors quit over Tucker Carlson, an alarming truth is revealed

Fox News host Tucker Carlson. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It is fitting that two Fox News contributors have severed their ties with the network over Tucker Carlson’s glorification of Jan. 6 at exactly the moment when more than 150 scholars are sounding a loud, clanging alarm about the future of our democracy.

Because these two stories are unsettlingly related. Both should rivet our attention on the increasing flirtation among large swaths of the right with political violence, and on the role that the right’s campaign to delegitimize our political system is playing in it.

The two contributors — conservative writers Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg — quit Fox to protest Carlson’s online special “Patriot Purge.” As Ben Smith of the New York Times reports, they objected to its depiction of an alternate history of Jan. 6 as a “false flag” designed to create a pretext to persecute conservatives.

This is being widely seen as the latest sign that the right’s institutions are purging themselves of the few remaining conservatives who are hostile to Donald Trump and his movement, and what this says about how much the Trump era has transformed the conservative firmament.

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What’s more interesting is why this was the final straw for the two Trump critics. Hayes told the Times he was alarmed by Carlson’s propagandistic recasting of federal prosecutions of the rioters as a “domestic war on terror” against the right.

Specifically, Hayes noted that he was disturbed by Carlson’s comparison of Jan. 6 defendants to terrorism suspects tortured by the United States, and his suggestion that “half the country is going to be subject to this kind of treatment.” Hayes said this is “truly dangerous":

Mr. Hayes said he’d been particularly disturbed recently when a man at a conference of the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA asked its leader, “When do we get to use the guns?”

In a follow-up statement, Hayes and Goldberg cited a quote from Carlson’s video — “the left is hunting the right” — and noted that this rhetoric could prompt Americans to act on it. They added: “This is what actually happened on January 6, 2021.”

Some liberals have scoffed that Hayes and Goldberg are unreliable allies who should have recognized Fox’s toxicity long ago and have taken other unforgivable positions over the years. But liberals should want the existence of a center-right that is fundamentally for the baseline of respecting democratic outcomes and institutions, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, even if we disagree with them about everything else.

What’s more, this moment could prove useful, by prompting a renewed focus on the right’s flirtation with political violence, whose manifestations are everywhere. As a good roundup from Steve Benen demonstrates, these include far-right members of Congress openly fantasizing about killing Democrats, and a refusal of GOP leaders to impose accountability for it. News organizations have published searing examinations of the right’s descent into this abyss and GOP complicity with it.

But a true reckoning requires more than just observing this trend. It also requires reflecting on the instrumental nature of propaganda like that coming from Carlson. Much of the discussion treats the possibility of violence as a mere incidental byproduct of that propaganda, depicting it merely as conspiracy-theorizing-for-profit getting out of control. But this isn’t quite right.

The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (Video: The Washington Post)

Instead, let’s note that this bundle of propagandistic devices — the suggestions that our system is incapable of rendering trustworthy or legitimate outcomes, that the Jan. 6 rioters’ underlying cause was just, that they are persecuted political prisoners, and that this reflects broader scorched-earth warfare the left is waging on conservatives via our institutions — has a purpose.

This isn’t to say the propaganda is a deliberate effort to incite violence. The point is broader: It’s that all this appears designed to lay the justificatory foundation for efforts to resist or subvert legitimate democratic outcomes by any means necessary or available in the future.

That is what creates the risk of sparking more violence. That is what is so dangerous about what we’re seeing now.

Which brings us to a new letter signed by dozens of scholars. They warn that attacks on the “legitimacy of America’s elections” and, importantly, the use of this as justification to lay the groundwork to subvert democratic outcomes later, has grown to a crisis point.

This “represents a clear and present threat to the future of electoral democracy in the United States,” they warn, adding: “The history of other crisis-ridden democracies tells us this threat cannot be wished away. It must be promptly and forthrightly confronted.”

The connection of this truth to the turbulence at Fox also must be confronted.

“We know from the collapse of numerous democracies that when major political parties start tolerating and even endorsing violence, you frequently wind up in a spiral,” political scientist Lee Drutman, who organized the letter, told me.

“Violence is the alternative to politics in democracies,” Drutman continued. “By endorsing violence, parties are effectively saying that democracy doesn’t work. That road leads to authoritarianism.”

“We’ve seen that road traveled into a ditch in numerous democracies,” Drutman said. “We seem to be making that mistake again.”

We should appreciate the decision by Hayes and Goldberg to quit Fox News. If anything, we need more public displays of alarm about this clear and present danger. It isn’t going away.