The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Thank you, Kevin McCarthy and Tucker Carlson

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
4 min

Certain political leaders inspire grudging respect or even fear from their opponents, but let’s face it: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is not among them. His latest political gambit, a ham-handed attempt to rewrite the history of the Capitol insurrection in collaboration with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, was not just a spectacular faceplant. It turned out to be a service to all of us.

When McCarthy granted Carlson exclusive access last month to thousands of hours of raw surveillance footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, he insisted that deputizing one of the most repugnant conservative news-media figures was merely in the interest of “transparency.”

There was no doubt that Carlson, who has relentlessly propagated absurd conspiracy theories about Jan. 6, would cherry-pick footage to try to exonerate the rioters — and by extension, President Donald Trump and everyone in the Republican Party who has defended and excused what happened that day.

Which is exactly what Carlson did. He aired calmer moments from the hours-long riot to make the laughable claim that it was mostly a peaceful protest carried out by concerned citizens exercising their right to make their opinions heard.

Anderson Cooper, Stephen Colbert and Marlon Wayans used their late-night TV platforms to criticize Fox News host Tucker Carlson over Jan. 6 coverage. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Carlson is a skilled propagandist, but this was a remarkably amateurish attempt to convince people to ignore everything they’ve seen before, including multiple videos already viewed by millions in which Trump supporters smashed windows, assaulted police officers and rampaged through the halls of Congress shouting for blood.

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He seems to have forgotten that effective propaganda requires at least a veneer of plausibility, so its targets can be convinced they’re taking in accurate information and coming to their own reasonable conclusions. None of us wants to think we’re dupes.

But the logical howler at the heart of Carlson’s presentation was impossible for all but the most deluded Trump devotees to ignore. Displaying snippets of video in which the Jan. 6 rioters were momentarily calm is the equivalent of a murder suspect saying, “Why aren’t we talking about all the people I didn’t kill?”

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. As influential as Carlson is on the right, the first installment of his revisionist version of Jan. 6 was met with a torrent of condemnation — much of it from Republicans.

At a news conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) prominently associated himself with U.S. Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger’s dismissal of Carlson’s narrative as “offensive and misleading.” Sen. Kevin Cramer (N.D.) called it “just a lie.” Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.) said “I think it’s bulls--t.” Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) called it “dangerous and disgusting.” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (Tex.) mocked Carlson’s “silly” effort to “convince people that nothing bad happened.”

The last time so many Republicans condemned something that appeared on Fox News, it was when the network accurately called Arizona for Joe Biden on election night in 2020.

Let’s summarize what the McCarthy-Carlson collaboration produced. First, it put Jan. 6 back on the top of the news agenda, reminding everyone of Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his 2020 defeat, the violent reaction of his radical supporters and the craven response of Republican politicians who fed deranged conspiracy theories to their base to save their own political skins.

More important, it created an opportunity to revisit the actual events of that day. Some people watched Carlson’s fantasy depiction of Jan. 6 as a peaceful protest where Trump supporters strolled into the Capitol and took selfies while “milling around.” But a much larger audience likely saw multiple news reports on TV, newspapers and the internet in which both journalists and Republican leaders reiterated the ugly truth about that day’s attack on democracy.

The episode has also further discredited Fox News as it reels from extraordinary revelations showing network executives and personalities privately acknowledging in emails and texts that claims of a stolen election were preposterous even as they amplified those claims on the air. It’s long been argued that Fox News is in no real sense a news organization but is instead a propaganda machine that advances the interests of the Republican Party. That’s never been more clear than it is today.

McCarthy probably thought it was shrewd to give Carlson access to the surveillance footage. Instead, his decision helped reinforce an accurate understanding of Jan. 6, undermined the status of the right’s most important media outlet and reminded the electorate of the rotten core at the heart of the GOP. It’s quite an accomplishment.