The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stolen elections live on at Fox News, via Tucker Carlson

Even as Fox faces legal jeopardy over airing such claims, he gestures toward a broad conspiracy without delving into details. Over and over again.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson appears at the National Review Institute’s Ideas Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in D.C. in March 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
7 min

Fox News’s apparently proactive decision to credulously air bogus claims of a stolen 2020 election has put it in a degree of legal and financial jeopardy rarely seen by a major media organization.

Tucker Carlson’s response? To ramp up the talk of a stolen election.

Carlson’s show on Monday night featured the debut of Jan. 6, 2021, security footage that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) controversially decided to give to him first. But before he got to the footage, Carlson declared without evidence — almost as an aside — that those assembled on Jan. 6 were righteously upset because the 2020 election had, indeed, been compromised.

“The protesters were angry: They believed that the election they had just voted in had been unfairly conducted. And they were right,” Carlson said. “In retrospect, it is clear the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy. Given the facts that have since emerged about that election, no honest person can deny it.”

Carlson added of those who regard Jan. 6 as a grave assault on democracy: “The real crime, they will tell you again and again, is not what happened on Election Day 2020. The real crime is what happened two months later, on January 6th.”

The flourish was characteristic of Carlson’s show: Gesturing toward a broad conspiracy without backing it up with any real facts — all while stating that anyone who disagrees must be lying. It was also amorphous and nonspecific enough to give Carlson plausible deniability that he was talking about things like mass voter fraud or voting machines (vs., say, the mail balloting processes that some on the right have cast as “unfair”). But the thrust was clear.

And that thrust has been clear for a while now. While other Fox hosts have shied away from such talk as Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit has progressed, it does live on at Fox. And mostly on Carlson’s show, where the powerful, highest-rated host combines a large degree of editorial independence with a willingness to air thinly constructed conspiracy theories.

Even the night of Feb. 16, mere hours after the first Dominion court filing laid out how Fox hosts and executives knew better about the stolen-election claims the network aired, Carlson served up some innuendo to his audience.

“There are so many unanswered questions — some of them lingering,” Carlson said, again at the top of his show. “How, for example, did senile hermit Joe Biden get 15 million more votes than his former boss, rock star, crowd-surfer Barack Obama? Results like that would seem to defy the laws of known physics and qualify instead as a miracle.”

That “miracle” appears far less miraculous with even a few minutes of research. The 2020 election had the highest turnout of any U.S. election in more than a century, in large part because of expanded mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic but also apparently because of Donald Trump’s highly polarizing presidency.

Carlson’s comparison was between Biden’s raw-vote total and Obama’s in 2012, with the votes for the Democratic nominee rising to 81 million from 66 million. But that increase from one election to another pales in comparison to Trump’s own raw-vote increase between his first campaign in 2016 and 2020, when he got 11 million more votes just four years later, despite losing.

It’s not the first time Carlson has suggestively pointed to the supposed implausibility of Biden’s performance vs. Obama’s.

In the course of downplaying the Jan. 6 insurrection, Carlson in October cited how “defendants are being sentenced to prison because they’re not exactly sure how it is that Joe Biden got 15 million more votes than Barack Obama did.”

That same month, he sarcastically mocked critics of the stolen-election claims: “He got 81 million, without even campaigning. From his basement in Delaware, he got 81 million votes. Shut up! You have to believe that, or else you’re an insurrectionist.”

The “15 million more votes” talking point was popular on Fox and elsewhere in the election-denying movement between Election Day 2020 and Jan. 6. But on Carlson’s show, it’s still held out there as somehow irreconcilable.

And it’s not the only way in which Carlson has gestured toward stolen elections.

While Fox generally shied away from promoting the claims by Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (R) that her 2022 election was stolen, Carlson claimed there was no way she would lose without shenanigans being involved.

Before the election, he pointed to Lake’s opponent, then-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), acknowledging that some voters were mistakenly sent ballots with only federal races because of a database error.

“So how does Katie Hobbs plan to win? Well this week, Hobbs, who is again the secretary of state of Arizona, in charge of elections, announced that thousands of voters mistakenly received a ballot that had only federal races on it,” Carlson said.

Despite Carlson’s highly suggestive effort to link the problem to Hobbs’s prospects, he acknowledged that “there is no proof this was deliberate.” But then he added shortly thereafter: “If it is fair, Kari Lake is going to win.” Carlson cited polls showing Lake ahead; in fact, the race routinely polled as very tight and within the margin of error.

Around the same time, Carlson also mentioned Biden’s supposedly falling asleep while answering a question about running again in 2024.

“Only a guy who was supremely confident in the effectiveness of voter fraud could do something like that, because like, he’s not even trying,” Carlson asserted.

Then, the next month, Carlson tied together claims about 2020 and 2022.

“When vote counting was paused in various places on election night 2020, how shocked were you really when Joe Biden won?” he said. “When a huge percentage of polling places in Arizona reported serious problems on Election Day, malfunctioning equipment, printers that were somehow out of ink, were you really stunned when Blake Masters and Kari Lake lost? We doubt you were, because you’re getting used to how this really works.”

But then, just as he had a few weeks before, Carlson assured viewers that he wasn’t actually alleging fraud despite clearly suggesting the system might have been rigged.

“Can we call it voter fraud?” he added. “No, we can’t. We don’t have the evidence.”

He’s not saying; he’s just saying.

Carlson’s segments are more careful than Fox was on Dominion. His allegations don’t spotlight supposed culprits or often offer any real specifics. And he’ll couch them as lacking evidence even while drawing pretty firm conclusions. It’s not so much pointing to actual evidence of fraud as suggesting that the results are simply implausible (even when they can be explained), and occasionally suggesting that Democrats rely on fraud or irregularities.

But Carlson’s decision to carry this mantle is remarkable, considering what we’ve just learned from the Dominion lawsuit. Carlson was among those at Fox internally deriding the allegations made by Trump’s legal team and Trump’s allies. On Nov. 5, he responded to a colleague who suggested that some of those involved in asserting that the election was stolen were “reckless demagogues,” by saying, “Of course they are. We’re not going to follow them.

He would later run a lengthy segment undercutting Trump lawyer Sidney Powell’s claims, noting that she had declined to provide any real evidence to support them.

The day before Jan. 6, Fox’s highest-ranking executives spoke about prime-time hosts’ uniting to say something to the effect of “the election is over and Joe Biden won,” according to the Dominion filing. Fox chief executive Suzanne Scott told a colleague that “I told Rupert [Murdoch] that privately they are all there,” but she worried about how viewers would react.

Ultimately, no such united front was presented. And, today, Carlson is ramping up his efforts to suggest that his audience should continue believing that our elections are being stolen.