A Trump industrial complex of politicians hungry for power and conservative media stars chasing profit is spinning a history-defying alternative reality that is putting truth and democracy on the line yet again.
A flurry of new developments on Tuesday exposed the nexus between the political fortunes of ex-President Donald Trump, the speakership of Kevin McCarthy and Fox News, showing who really holds power in a Republican Party controlled by its most extreme elements.
- In a new outburst of falsehoods on Tuesday night, Tucker Carlson – the face of Fox News – cherry picked more excerpts of US Capitol security footage from the January 6, 2021, insurrection, in a fresh bid to blur the truth of that day of infamy in which Trump’s mob, incited by his fury, stormed the building.
- McCarthy, who gave Carlson exclusive access to the tapes, despite the Fox host’s disproven conspiracy theories about the insurrection, told CNN’s Manu Raju that he had no regrets – even though a group of Republican senators sharply criticized the decision. The California Republican’s comments only exposed his apparent political motivation to appease the extremists he needed to narrowly win the speakership in January and on whom his fragile hold on power depends.
- A fresh dump of behind-the-scenes emails and texts from the defamation suit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox showed how the network’s top leaders knew claims of voter fraud by Trump and his acolytes were false. But the trove also showed how top talent and executives, including Rupert Murdoch, feared that telling their audience the truth would drive viewers away.
- This all happened in the wake of Trump’s weekend vow to win back the White House and to launch a new presidency of “retribution” against his enemies. Critics often complain that the media takes the ex-president’s demagoguery too literally. But Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2024, has already proven he is ready to incite violence as a tool of political power. And if he tops the Republican ticket again, he will be one step away from the White House.
These disclosures and new attacks on truth are not simply isolated events in the perpetually volatile politics on the right. They are all interlinked, rooted in a common effort to stoke extremism and political turmoil in pursuit of personal political power or wealth.
The most influential and vocal leaders of the “Make America Great Again” movement are in fact engaged in an endless effort to hide the truth from their most faithful followers.
These figures are united in a willingness to give the grassroots conservative base, already primed by Trump’s lies, what it wants to hear – whether it is voter fraud conspiracies in the 2020 election or that the riot at the Capitol did not take place. Election deniers’ continued sway in deep red parts of the country means there is still a strong constituency for such messages. But the poor performance of many such midterm candidates in swing states last fall suggests some voters usually open to voting Republican lack a true political home.
Still, the political and monetary power of Trump’s conspiracy theory machine means US democracy, which barely survived under his first assault in 2020, is likely to face another extreme test over the next two years as he mounts his third White House bid.
It is hard to draw any other conclusion when Carlson – who has millions of viewers and the power to make the speaker of the House dance to his tune – as recently as Monday evening offered this completely false conclusion about the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency: “In retrospect, it is clear that the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy.”
Ben Ginsberg, a long-time Republican election lawyer, drew an analogy between Carlson’s latest effort to hide the truth of the insurrection and Fox’s earlier efforts to promote conspiracies about the 2020 election to please its viewers – even though documents released from the Dominion suit show that the opinion hosts who fanned them didn’t believe them.
Speaking to CNN’s Erin Burnett, Ginsberg pointed to a “crass decision” that showed that “Fox was worried that if they told the truth that it would be financially damaging, if not ruinous to them, and by spreading the falsehoods, they were appealing to their audience and making money.” He also said the same calculation “plays into the Dominion lawsuit, but it also plays into the later reputational issues and what they have been saying about the elections.”
It is still to early to know whether the Fox case will go to trial, whether other evidence unearthed in the discovery process will be exculpatory or to know the full picture of the case.
But Ginsberg pointed out a core weakness in the network’s defense when he said: “There is still no credible evidence there was any fraud that could have possibly overturned the results of the election.”
McCarthy’s power play
McCarthy’s decision to hand access to the tapes to Carlson, who has a long record of conspiracy theories about January 6, 2021, reinforced an impression that he is seeking to discredit the findings of the bipartisan House select committee that investigated the insurrection when the chamber was under Democratic control over the last two years.
And yet, in the wake of the mob assault on the Capitol, McCarthy had said Trump “bears responsibility.” McCarthy’s decision to hand over the footage to Carlson in an apparent bid to obscure the truth of the insurrection contrasts with his own views in the days after the riot, CNN’s KFile reported Tuesday. “They scaled walls,” McCarthy told KERN radio in his Bakersfield, California, area district. “They brought ropes. A couple of protesters died because they scaled. And when you have the inaugural, there was scaffolding. They were scaling the scaffolding. They, they overtook the place.”
McCarthy told CNN’s Raju that his decision to release the footage was an act of “transparency” – even though no journalists other than Carlson got to see it. A GOP source told CNN’s Melanie Zanona last month that he gave an undertaking to do so to Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the holdouts who threatened his bid to become speaker, but the apparent deal did not specify that Carlson should get the material. (McCarthy told reporters Tuesday that the footage would be released to all media organizations, but did not say when.)
McCarthy’s move will likely reinvigorate the January 6 conspiracy theories of the radical members of the House GOP, who will decide whether he stays in power in the long term. And he’s once again rewarding his political patron, Trump.
But the extraordinary spectacle of a House speaker, who is next in line to the presidency behind Vice President Kamala Harris, subjugating his own power to a conservative television personality who has sometimes criticized him was a revealing moment. McCarthy has long been said to be under the sway of extremist elements in his party like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. But it’s increasingly clear that is only half right – he’s one of them.
Republican senators balk at false depictions of what happened on January 6
McCarthy’s decision to release the tapes led US Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger to bemoan Carlson’s program, which he said was “filled with offensive and misleading conclusions about the January 6 attacks.” The family of Brian Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer who died the day after he was assaulted in the insurrection, condemned the Fox star for arguing that the footage proved the violence wasn’t to blame. “Leave us the hell alone and instead of spreading more lies from Supreme Leader Trump, why don’t you focus on real news?” the family statement said. Senate Democratic Majority leader Chuck Schumer lashed out at Carlson before Tuesday’s second helping of tapes, over one of the “most shameful hours we have ever seen on cable television.”
But the most intriguing reaction came from a group of Republican senators, many of whom had been on Capitol Hill on January 6 as the crowd Trump incited smashed its way into the Capitol.
“I thought it was an insurrection at that time. I still think it was an insurrection today,” South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds told CNN’s Raju. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis described the Carlson narrative as “bullsh*t.” And in a striking moment, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Fox made a mistake by depicting what happened in a way that conflicted with US law enforcement accounts.
“With regard to the presentation on Fox News last night, I want to associate myself entirely with the opinion of the chief of the Capitol police about what happened on January 6,” McConnell told reporters as he held up a copy of Manger’s statement.
The Republican reaction was not universal among senators but it did reflect the personal experiences of many of the lawmakers and staff in the Capitol on that terrifying day more than two years ago. It also appeared to reflect some early polls that show GOP appetite for Trump waning. Many Republican voters share Trump’s antipathy for establishment elites, the media and Washington. But there’s evidence some of them also fear he can’t win a general election again – and would like to move on from the former president.
But at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington last weekend, Trump gave a preview of a second term that would likely contain the same serial lying and incitement in which he traded after the 2020 election – and which McCarthy and Carlson are trying to whitewash and appease.
“I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” Trump said.