The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fox News hosts grew alarmed about Jan. 6 — after feeding the ‘big lie’ themselves

Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. (AP)

As rioters incited by Donald Trump attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham grew very, very alarmed.

“The president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” Ingraham texted to Mark Meadows, then the White House chief of staff. “This is hurting all of us.”

“Can he make a statement, ask people to leave the Capitol,” Hannity texted. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) read the texts aloud to the select committee examining Jan. 6 on Monday night.

The Fox hosts, you see, immediately grasped the true nature of the threat the riot posed. In addition to whatever genuine alarm they felt for the country, they surely recognized that it would demonstrate what people undermining faith in the 2020 election had wrought.

People, that is, like Ingraham and Hannity. Both of them, it turns out, did exactly this in the run-up to Jan. 6.

Which illustrates a larger point: If you’re going to cast doubt on our elections as an organizing and galvanizing tool, you probably shouldn’t be surprised when people decide they must act on those lies.

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Meadows turned the texts from Hannity and Ingraham over to the committee before refusing to cooperate. Those and other documents obtained by the committee show that numerous people close to Trump frantically urged him to call off the rioters.

Trump refused for some time to do so, and even reportedly took pleasure in the spectacle as he watched it on TV. This again illustrates the depraved and insurrectionist intent behind Trump’s incitement effort.

But to these Fox hosts, graphic depictions of that true intent — embodied in the rioters’ feral hunt for lawmakers to violently disrupt the election’s official conclusion — are just a bit too revelatory.

“Please get him on TV, destroying everything you’ve accomplished,” Fox’s Brian Kilmeade texted to Meadows.

Before all this took place and triggered such alarm among Hannity and Ingraham, they personally fed exactly the sort of “beliefs” that incited it. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy documented, just after the election, Hannity devoted “large chunks” of a program to undermining public faith in its outcome.

“Do you trust what happened in this election?” Hannity asked his audience. “Do you believe this was a free and fair election?” Hannity raged that “every American” should be “angry” and “outraged.”

Ingraham, for her part, asked just after the election: “Is the fix already in?” She cited “unverified dumps of votes.” More broadly, Media Matters documented an extraordinary range of hyperbolic, unhinged and outright false claims on Fox about the election in its aftermath.

Importantly, much of this content trafficked heavily in hallucinatory conspiracy theories about the election that involved everything from Democrats to the “deep state” to George Soros.

Lying about our elections isn’t tantamount to endorsing violence in response. But telling people they’re being tyrannized by an all-powerful, multi-tentacled leftist enemy that wields our democratic processes as illegitimate instruments of subjugation can lead quickly to the thought that the only recourse is to take matters into one’s own hands, outside those processes.

We have an intellectual framework for grappling with the deeper currents on the right we’re seeing here. Writer John Ganz suggests that lies about our election are a “myth,” in that they are not intended to empirically describe what actually happened, but rather to focus political energy and galvanize political action.

Indeed, you can’t watch the ranting of Hannity, Ingraham and Tucker Carlson without immediately understanding its nakedly instrumental features. Carlson’s Jan. 6 propaganda alt-narrative video, which suggests virtuous conservatives are getting “hunted” by the left and getting tyrannized by federal jackboots, prompted two Fox contributors to depart, precisely because it shows Fox forging deeper into the wielding of disinformation to rally political action.

Or take Stephen K. Bannon. He regularly declares on his podcast that the current “regime” (which includes everyone from the left to rigidly centrist Democrats) is illegitimate. This justifies his own defiance of the lawful investigation into an effort to overturn U.S. democracy and acts as a rallying point for his far-right insurgency. Bannon is only offering a cruder, more explicit version of what that Fox trio serves up regularly.

It goes deeper still. Historian Sam Tanenhaus notes that this use of term “regime” is widely emanating from a new breed of right-wing thinkers writing in this genre. It links “the mob and the intellectuals"; that is, it’s a device to co-opt and rally the mob against a new cast of enemies.

The depiction of this leftist menace is sometimes all-encompassing, reaching deep into many other institutions of American life, as Damon Linker explains. The function of this story, or myth, Linker notes, is to “create a permission structure for future action.”

The coin of the realm when it comes to this permission structure is “threat inflation about the left,” Linker writes. He continues: “So what exactly is the American right giving itself permission to do? Whatever it takes to defeat its mortal enemy.”

In other words, anything goes in response. Hannity and Ingraham may not like what the rioters revealed, but they are among its most prominent authors.