The first images we saw from the Capitol on January 6, 2021, were more surreal than chilling. After breaking through a series of barricades and busting through doors and windows, a flood of people, many wearing red Make America Great Again caps and carrying flags adorned with slogans that told you who they supported (“Trump 2020: Keep America Great”) and what they were there to do (“Stop the Steal”) found themselves right in the heart of the temple of American democracy. They hugged each other and took selfies. They gawked like tourists, only they had forcibly entered the Capitol by injuring several overwhelmed and undermanned police officers. These smiling people had arrived to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
Soon after, we had other images from that day: of police officers being tased and brutally beaten, of Confederate battle flags waving in the halls, of terrified congressmen and staffers huddling in the House chamber, many convinced they were about to die. There were several stories of the rioters coming within mere feet and split seconds of encountering—and perhaps killing—members of Congress. That the people who broke into the Capitol, even the smiling ones taking photos, were there to disrupt American democracy was never in doubt. But in the hours and days that followed it became clearer just how close they came—and how far they were willing to go to accomplish that aim.
Those first images have always been the foundation of the counternarrative that emerged on the right: The people who broke into the Capitol were nonviolent, they were good people, they simply cared too much about the integrity of America’s voting laws (after months of being lied to that they had been violated). Onto those images, Trump sympathizers projected further fantastical details straight out of the fever swamps: The violence was stoked by outsiders, antifa agitators, or anti-Trump law enforcement figures operating on orders from the deep state.
Soon, as more and more of those who violently entered the Capitol, beat police officers, and—again—tried to stop the certification of the 2020 election were arrested, tried, and imprisoned, another narrative took hold: This was not just political theater but something more sinister. Democrats and their allies were using the riot as a pretext to jail and oppress their political opponents. Eventually, a strange narrative arose: The riot simultaneously didn’t happen and was also righteous.
On Monday, Tucker Carlson, Fox News’s star anchor, made perhaps the most prominent entry into the right’s counternarrative on January 6. Armed with tens of thousands of hours of footage from January 6—which were supplied to him by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy for the purpose of creating a Riefenstahl-ish spectacle for Fox’s audience—Carlson released the first part in a series purporting to uncover the truth of what really happened on January 6. A day later, he followed up in familiar, Carlson-ish fashion, by denouncing his critics who fairly accused him of whitewashing one of the darkest days in American history.
The result is pathetic. It is especially feeble given the trove of text messages from Carlson that were recently uncovered as part of a lawsuit brought against Fox News that reveals that the prime-time host has never even believed any of the 2020 conspiracy theories and has been lying to his audience for years. A batch released on Tuesday revealed that Carlson had said he “hated” Trump “passionately.” Nevertheless, Carlson’s warped video collage is now an important piece of the far right’s canon of lore. January 6 is no longer an awkward moment when the full implication of Trump’s corruption manifested itself; something that demands harboring some measure of shame or regret. January 6 is a seminal part of the new right’s mythos. Going forward, every Republican with an actual shot at winning the presidency will embrace this narrative and honor its alleged martyrs. (This could prove to be especially daunting for presidential aspirant Mike Pence.)
Much of Carlson’s narrative aligns with the one the right has been spinning for the last two years. The Fox News host insists that only a “small percentage” of the Capitol rioters “were hooligans.” Rather, they were conscientious sightseers, not only orderly marching through the Capitol corridors but fixing items and furniture that had been left askew by those who had preceded them. “They were peaceful, orderly, and meek. They were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers.”
Carlson singles out Jacob Chansley, also known as “the QAnon Shaman,” in an attempt to paint him as a martyr. Decked in red, white, and blue face paint, carrying a spear, and wearing a bison horn headdress, Chansley was arguably the most recognized rioter: He is currently serving a more than three-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to one count of “obstruction of an official proceeding”—that is to say, stopping the electoral vote from being certified.
Carlson shows Chansley praying for the Capitol Police officers, some of whom escorted him through the building. The way he recasts these images is a particularly misleading and sinister move from Carlson, a master of the dark arts. It is an attempt to give credence to the notion that the riot itself was an “op” meant to discredit Trump and his supporters by implying that the police were in on it the whole time.
In fact, it has been well established from the very beginning that Capitol Police were so overwhelmed that they were unable to gain control of the chaotic unfolding situation and were, in many cases, relegated to simply accompanying rioters. Carlson implies that his footage should exonerate Chansley. Alas, it did not: Chansley’s attorneys had access to this footage via discovery; much of it was already publicly available and his public defender noted that he did not take part in any of the violence at the Capitol, something that appears to be true. It doesn’t matter: The same video footage shows that Chansley is clearly guilty of the thing to which he pleaded guilty, obstructing an official proceeding.
Carlson badly wants to depict the January 6 rioters as innocent and nonviolent. More than that, he is also intent on making the case that they were correct. “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.”
Again, Carlson’s use of “no honest person” is hilarious, given what we know from his text messages. But ultimately Carlson is making two cases simultaneously that don’t quite fit together. The protesters themselves were well behaved and nonviolent, but also they were righteous and had every right to be in the Capitol because they were protesting a legitimate injustice.
The fact that not every rioter was violent that day is hardly relevant; no one has contended so, and many of those who were present inside the Capitol that day have received light sentences as a result. Some of the people who entered the Capitol were violent. People died as a result. Many people were injured. These casualties were among the consequences of an attempt to violently overthrow the United States government. The grievances of the rioters, moreover, were based on lies. Lies that Carlson has admitted he does not believe. The 2020 election was not stolen, and Carlson knows it. He just can’t let his viewers know.