On Monday night, though, a similar argument made its way onto the airwaves, courtesy of one of the most popular prime-time shows in cable news.
Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson decided to take his own swing at defending QAnon supporters, in a way. Like the Hawaii GOP, he didn’t promote or subscribe to the wild and baseless theory about a mass pedophile ring in the U.S. government, but he cast its adherents as victims of looming persecution, denied basic civil liberties. As with many things on his program, it boiled down to a familiar argument: The mainstream media and powerful forces are trying to silence people and control what you think — that, to use the modern parlance, they’re being “canceled.”
Such arguments are often oversimplified to the point of fallacy, and Carlson’s segment was a case in point.
The impetus for the segment was a bill proposed by Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.). In response to the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol this month, which practically coursed with QAnon fervor, Murphy wants to prevent people who subscribe to it and other such conspiracy theories from gaining federal government security clearances.
“If any Americans participated in the Capitol attack, or if they subscribe to these dangerous anti-government views of QAnon, then they have no business being entrusted with our nation’s secrets,” she said.
In Carlson’s estimation, though, this is an attempt at mind control by the federal government.
He began by arguing that such a rule would boomerang on Democrats, suggesting that their comments about the Russia investigation amounted to pushing just such a baseless anti-government conspiracy theory. This is a well-worn GOP argument these days, but it’s one that utterly ignores the very real substantiation of the Russia investigation: the extensive and often obscured ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, the central tie that even a report from the then-GOP-controlled Senate said remains obscured. Just because a conspiracy hasn’t been definitively proven doesn’t mean questions about it were on the level of QAnon.
Then Carlson turned to clips of the media supposedly overhyping the threat of QAnon.
“Listen as the geniuses explain how the single biggest threat to this country isn’t Chinese hegemony, or even the coming hyperinflation, pretty much a certainty now, which was 100 percent caused by elite mismanagement of our economy,” Carlson said in setting up the clips. “But no, let’s not talk about that. The real threat is a forbidden idea. It’s something called QAnon.”
None of the clips that followed, though, pitched QAnon as the “single biggest threat to this country” — or anything close to it. Here’s what they media figures said:
“Next, what to do about QAnon and its droves of loyal followers? Is it too little too late to bring our loved ones back to reality?”“Many of those who believe the totally unfounded conspiracies and prophecies of QAnon expected January 20th to be judgment day.”“... as far-right figures and QAnon conspiracy theorists are joined by Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen.”“QAnon is better viewed as an on-ramp to various different extremism circles.”“How many people in the country have been marinated in these conspiracy theories, QAnon craziness? It is frightening.”
All of these are rather anodyne and well-substantiated sentiments. We literally just saw what QAnon can contribute to at the U.S. Capitol, in which a woman who believed in it was shot and killed by police, and plenty of others present promoted the theory. We’re still learning just how much this has penetrated society, but we’re at the point at which such conspiracy theories have been promoted by members of Congress, state Republican officials, a former high-ranking White House official and lawyers aligned with the now-former president.
Carlson then turned to his main point: that this would be akin to the government trying to control thought.
“We’re watching a profound change taking place in American society that’s happening very fast,” Carlson said. “The stakes could not be higher. There is a clear line between democracy and tyranny, between self-government and dictatorship, and here’s what that line is: That line is your conscience. They cannot cross that.”
Carlson acknowledged that the government can make laws prohibiting certain behaviors such as murder, rape, speeding and jaywalking. But he cast this as a bridge too far.
“But no democratic government can ever tell you what to think. Your mind belongs to you. It is yours and yours alone,” he said. “Once politicians attempt to control what you believe, they are no longer politicians, they are by definition dictators. And if they succeed in controlling what you believe, you are no longer a citizen. You are not a free man. You are a slave.”
It’s an argument that would make a lot of sense if the government was considering making believing QAnon a crime, but that’s not the proposal at hand. Rather than sanction people, Murphy’s bill would merely prevent them from gaining a significant privilege — the ability to know our country’s secrets — that nobody is entitled to.
The process for gaining a security clearance is already a rigorous and extensive one that examines many facets of one’s life. You can be denied if you have financial trouble. You can be denied if you have abused prescription drugs or alcohol. You can be denied for basically anything that might suggest that you wouldn’t be trustworthy or could be compromised by enemies of the state. You can also be denied for affiliation with any group that holds anti-government views or advocates forceful action that seeks to overthrow the government or that could infringe on others’ constitutional rights.
“An individual must be of unquestioned allegiance to the United States,” the law says.
In this context, being duped by a wild conspiracy theory that alleges a massive global pedophile cabal would already seem to be a pretty big red flag. Even if adherents don’t necessarily support taking the kinds of actions that those who stormed the Capitol did, we have evidence of where these views can lead. And even setting that aside, what does it say about someone’s ability to process and parse information?
There is a valid debate about how QAnon should be dealt with, including whether we should attempt to sympathize with its adherents to some extent. Most of us probably have no idea how many people in our own lives have dabbled in it. Attaching a scarlet letter to all of them would indeed be problematic.
But casting this as another example of cancel culture is a pretty neat political trick. There are few things more valuable in politics than a persecution complex, and Carlson is masterful at helping people justify such complexes. As The Post’s Philip Bump wrote last week, he has set himself up to be a champion of the Trumpian elements of the party that some leaders are trying to cast aside.
The idea here isn’t to persecute all of them, though, or tell them “what to think.” It’s to ask valid questions about whether such people should be entitled to participate in the inner workings of our government. Regardless of whether you think that’s a good idea, it’s not mind control or making thought illegal, just like the security-clearance process doesn’t make financial problems or drinking alcohol illegal.
Indeed, if you follow Carlson’s logic, you could also say that the government is trying to control your ability to have a drink or how you spend your money. But for some reason, that’s not the argument being made.