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Tucker Carlson’s bizarro-Jan. 6 hearings aim to indict the government

Video of John Eastman, a former Trump lawyer, is displayed on-screen during the fourth hearing by the House Jan. 6 committee on June 21 in Washington. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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What Tucker Carlson hopes to do is not complicated.

Since Joe Biden was inaugurated as president, the Fox News host has cast his administration as actively hostile to the political right in broad, often racially focused terms. On Jan. 20, 2021, the day of the inauguration, Carlson chose to focus on Biden’s denunciation of white nationalist and domestic extremism, casting it as a condemnation of any Republican.

“There’s a new regime in power, and they seem to be planning to accelerate things dramatically,” Carlson warned. “They’re getting the FBI and the Pentagon involved in this hunt for people who may criticize them. That’s a very big change, and you should understand what it’s really about.”

Biden was responding in large part to the riot at the Capitol two weeks before, of course — and Carlson was reacting in response, identifying the dangerous element in the country as the government. He has continued to do so over the course of Biden’s term in office, and particularly as it pertains to the riot itself. Carlson has consistently woven a conspiratorial narrative about government officials leveraging state power against innocent Americans. It’s easy to lose sight of how often Carlson makes false or debunked claims; when I cobbled together a cursory list in January, it included 13 items just in the past few years largely centered on the idea that the government or the elites who control it are the enemy.

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But, again: it’s when the subject is that Capitol riot that Carlson really flies free. Since the House select committee investigating the day’s violence began holding public hearings to detail its evidence, Carlson has created a sort of bizarro-world alternative, giving airtime to conspiracy theorists focused on casting doubt on the government and interviewing individuals who have been a target of the committee’s probe.

On the day of the first such hearing earlier this month, one scheduled for prime time, Fox News chose not to air the committee’s work. Instead, Carlson hosted his show as normal. And by “as normal,” I mean in terms of content, as well. While viewers on the major broadcast networks and Fox’s competitors were hearing the first articulation of how the riot unfolded and how President Donald Trump contributed to the day’s violence, Carlson’s viewers were hearing broad diminishments of the committee’s work. Worse, they were hearing long-debunked and unfounded conspiracy theories about the involvement of federal agents in stoking the day’s violence, including from a former Trump administration official whose ties to white nationalists led to his leaving his position.

Carlson wasn’t simply ignoring the hearing. He was holding a hearing of his own, in which he presented unsubstantiated allegations about how the real danger from the riot was the government response.

In a hearing last week, the House committee focused on the role of a former Justice Department official named Jeffrey Clark in attempting to upend the leadership of the department to aid Trump’s election-fraud snipe hunt. It aired footage of Clark’s refusal to answer questions and included testimonial and documentary evidence showing how Clark went behind his superiors’ backs as Trump contemplated making him acting attorney general.

So, of course, Carlson’s bizarro hearing during his show that evening featured an interview with none other than Jeffrey Clark. The focus of the conversation was not the allegations made by the committee, something neither Carlson or Clark had any interest in adjudicating. Instead it was how Clark had been targeted by federal investigators, his home searched by law enforcement officers armed with a warrant. These, Clark said, were “Stasi-like” tactics — though Carlson preferred to describe them as “Stalinist,” since that shifted the blame to political leaders, not simply the police.

Clark was no doubt happy to find an ally willing to let him complain about being a focus of the government’s investigation, but that may have obscured that Carlson was using him. Carlson isn’t interested in Clark’s situation. He’s interested in having his viewers see Clark as just another White male Republican whom the Biden regime is trying to silence and punish — a view that demands treating Clark’s actual transgressions as incidental or unimportant.

On Monday night, it was John Eastman’s turn. The former Trump attorney appeared on Carlson’s show in the wake of news reports that his cellphone had been seized by federal investigators. Eastman’s role in Trump’s effort to seize a second term in office is well-established, involving promotion of a strategy to have Vice President Mike Pence simply dismiss submitted electoral votes and having state legislators bolster Trump slates on flimsy pretexts. Eastman worked hard to help Trump reject the will of the electorate and encouraged a focus on Pence that led directly to the threat the vice president faced on that day.

Or, as Carlson’s bizarro-hearing posited Monday night, Eastman is the real victim of all of this.

“They’re forcing those of us that, you know, don’t bow the knee to the Biden administration,” Eastman breathlessly asserted, “to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to protect our constitutional rights and those of our clients!” He offered a URL for people to contribute to his legal costs.

Carlson, of course, made this about his viewers, saying at one point that “it’s just another reminder to anyone who didn’t vote for Joe Biden to erase your texts and emails every single day. And that is a sincere piece of advice I hope everyone follows.” After all, this isn’t about Eastman very obviously trying to challenge the pattern of transferring power after a democratic election. It’s about how Biden wants to lock up a guy in Kansas who’s watching Fox News in prime time and sharing “Let’s go, Brandon” memes on Facebook. This Carlson again described as “Stalinist.”

(As for Eastman’s actual legal claims, allow law professor Orin Kerr to evaluate them.)

This is how it goes. Carlson’s goal is to offer a counterweight to the House committee’s work, to present testimony that casts that investigation as the real threat to America and to Americans. He doesn’t need to offer much to accomplish that goal, of course; his audience is already primed to believe his thesis and needs little evidence for it to be reinforced. Carlson’s bizarro version of adjudicating the Capitol riot has far lower evidentiary standards, which suits his needs just fine.

Incidentally, Carlson is taping his show from Brazil this week. He’ll interview the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, someone whose indifference to liberal democracy will seem very familiar to longtime Carlson viewers.