Sen. Ted Cruz is facing a vicious backlash from Tucker Carlson and the right for describing the Jan. 6 assault as a “violent terrorist attack.” So on Thursday night, the Texas Republican gamely ventured into Carlson’s Fox News sanctum, where he plainly hoped to do his penance and move on.

Instead, Carlson placed Cruz in the stocks and administered a brutal whipping.

This ritual humiliation has gotten Cruz widely mocked for his submissive groveling. But this absurd saga also captures something enduring and essential about the far right’s direction in the (hopefully) post-Donald Trump era, and the hallowed place of Jan. 6 in its evolving ideological schema.

“You called this a terror attack,” Carlson sternly told Cruz. “That’s a lie. You told that lie on purpose. And I’m wondering why you did.”

After meekly admitting that he’d been “sloppy,” Cruz insisted he was referring only to those who waged “violent attacks against police officers." He frantically swore that he didn’t mean to impugn “peaceful” Trump-supporting “patriots.”

But this didn’t satisfy Carlson. The Fox host agreed that anyone who assaults police officers should “go to jail,” but added: “That person’s still not a terrorist.”

“You’re playing into the other side’s characterization,” Carlson admonished, which “allows them to define an entire population as foreign combatants.”

Herein lies the real crux of the matter. What Carlson really objects to is the depiction of the Jan. 6 rioters, and their supporters, as in some sense waging war on our country, on our political system.

Ted Cruz’s real sin

First, let’s concede that the debate over the “terrorist” label is complicated. Experts note that under federal law, “domestic terrorism” applies to illegal life-threatening acts with the apparent goal of influencing government policy. That might or might not apply here. Still, defendants are not being tried for terrorism, and many haven’t yet been convicted of the offenses for which they are charged.

But either way, Carlson’s objection is broader. The valorization and mythologizing of Jan. 6, which Carlson traffics heavily in — indeed, this led to the resignation of two Fox contributors — require erasing the degree to which it constituted a genuine effort to thwart a legitimately elected Democratic government from taking power, an effort to fundamentally subvert our constitutional arrangements.

Cruz’s real sin in Carlson’s eyes appears to be that he lent support to that broader narrative. In fact, Carlson later made this clearer, ripping into Cruz by insisting he’s helping those who “use language to distort the events of that day,” such as the word “insurrection.”

Cruz’s response to Carlson on that larger accusation really gets to the essence of this. Cruz insisted that he was merely being consistent here: He describes many leftists as “terrorists,” too!

“I used that word all in 2020 for the antifa and BLM terrorists that assaulted cops,” Cruz pleaded, referring to Black Lives Matter. But then he capitulated entirely: “I agree: It was a mistake to use that word" for Jan. 6, because it helps “Democrats and the corporate media” demonize the right as “Nazis.”

This is the landing point Carlson really wanted: Not that it’s wrong to generally call people who assault police officers “terrorists,” but that it’s wrong to call right-wingers who assault police officers “terrorists."

The latter, after all, serves those who would depict Jan. 6, and the procedural election subversion leading up to it, as at bottom an effort to overturn our political order.

In this worldview, the ones really waging war to overturn our political order are leftists and Black Lives Matter protesters, who have been endlessly depicted on Fox as posing a civilizational threat in all sorts of ways, complete with lurid imagery of cities sliding into full-scale civic collapse.

Indeed, Carlson himself has applied the T-label to such leftists. Carlson has called Black Lives Matter a “revolutionary group” and a “terrorist organization.”

The mythologizing of Jan. 6

This trope is everywhere on the right. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) recently spent days depicting Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) as a bloodthirsty terrorist. For this they were celebrated on Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast, a command center for the far-right insurgency.

Pointing this out is not meant as whataboutism. This depiction of the left as an all-powerful monolithic enemy, as a full-scale civilizational threat, is absolutely central to the right-wing project as pursued by the likes of those great warriors.

It’s the key to valorizing the underlying goals of the Jan. 6 rioters and to the mythologizing of them as heroes and patriots. It lays the foundation for treating what they call the “regime,” i.e. democratically elected Democratic governments, as illegitimate, justifying Jan. 6, corrupt procedural efforts to overturn elections, the flirtation with political violence, and who knows what future acts in response.

As long as Cruz is calling the left “terrorists” in service of this broader ideological project, he’ll remain in Carlson’s good graces. But when Cruz starts applying this label to the alleged right-wing attackers of police officers on Jan. 6, he must be disciplined severely, because he’s undermining that project.