The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tucker Carlson and the right’s embrace of Alex Jones-style politics

Infowars host Alex Jones shouts outside the House Judiciary Committee in Washington in December 2018. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Two weeks ago, Infowars founder Alex Jones lost yet another defamation suit brought by the families of victims massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School — a shooting rampage that Jones spuriously claimed was a “hoax” and a “false flag” exercise, allegations that the families said compounded their personal tragedies.

On Wednesday night, the most prominent conservative pundit in the country hailed Jones as “one of the most popular journalists on the right” and often a more reputable journalist than mainstream media figures who reported on the Russia investigation.

“Yes, journalist,” Tucker Carlson said after using that term to describe Jones. “Jones is often mocked for his flamboyance, but the truth is, he has been a far better guide to reality in recent years — in other words a far better journalist — than, say, NBC News national security correspondent Ken Dilanian or Margaret Brennan of CBS.”

It’s difficult to imagine a more ridiculous statement. It’s also difficult to imagine a better microcosm of the American right’s descent into its current post-truth era than this.

Carlson, it bears noting, is hardly the first prominent figure on the right to legitimize Jones. Donald Trump as a candidate in 2015 appeared on Jones’s show and told him: “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.” Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon praised Jones as “one of the smartest guys around on the topic of transhumanism.” U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Ohio earlier this year made a point similar to Carlson’s, saying Jones was “a far more reputable source of information than [liberal MSNBC host] Rachel Maddow.” (Vance later said he had been “kind of trolling” with the comment.) Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has appeared on Jones’s show. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) appeared on the show before saying, in 2018, that he would no longer do so.

To be clear, one can take issue with how media outlets covered a given story — even as the criticism of the media’s coverage of the Russia probe is often flimsy and overwrought (as if it all legitimized the Steele dossier and the Alfa Bank conspiracy theory). But that’s different from elevating a guy who has done the following:

During divorce proceedings a few years ago, Jones’s own lawyers said the man people saw on Infowars was “playing a character.” “He is a performance artist,” one lawyer said. Jones later denounced his own legal strategy and assured listeners that he does in fact believe this stuff.

Whichever is true, that doesn’t exactly speak to the idea that he is a serious journalist. And at least some who have aligned themselves with him have backed away.

“Upon further reflection, I think that the things that Alex Jones has said and done are so hurtful to so many people that a member of Congress should not grace that platform and legitimize it, and I would not go back,” Gaetz said in 2018.

Legitimizing Jones, though, is something that works for the likes of Carlson. The conservative movement has increasingly been defined in the Trump era by its embrace of conspiracy theories and the discounting of accepted facts for which there is actual evidence. When people believe there is no real settled truth, it favors those who can best exploit that setup, even if their track record is awful. Supporters can pick and choose what they believe is a serious claim — i.e. taking Trump “seriously rather than literally” — and legitimize even spurious claims as “just asking questions,” which has become a fixture of Carlson’s show.

It was only a few weeks ago, after all, that Carlson released what many labeled an Alex Jones-esque documentary on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, exploring the debunked idea that it was a false flag operation.

Praising Jones as a serious journalist, though, takes things to a whole new level, especially coming from the highest-rated conservative cable news host.

Like Vance, Carlson is almost certainly trolling here. The problem, as it is with Jones’s show and his supposed performance art, is that we’ve seen that many people will take it all at face value. And the public’s (and specifically the right’s) capacity for that is certainly growing — with some high-profile and deliberate assistance.