Revisiting the Rhetorical Sleaze of the Right-Wing Conspiracy Theorists
by Neil H. Buchanan
Proving that I still have untapped reserves of naive hope still flowing somewhere inside my soul, I experienced a brief moment of excitement earlier this week when I saw reports that Russia's state media propagandists are aggressively pushing content from Tucker Carlson's nightly "60 minutes Hate" on Fox. "It is essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson," flatly stated a memo from the Kremlin, as reported in Mother Jones. That memo, by the way, is titled: "For Media and Commentators (recommendations for coverage of events as of 03.03)."
At that moment, I was transported to a time and place where that kind of report would have mattered. I honestly imagined Carlson's viewers becoming outraged, finally seeing that their man was the worst kind of traitor. Within a few moments, however, I came to my senses. Not only would this come to nothing, but it would not matter in Fox-land even for a moment. No sponsors would flee, even temporarily. No half-apology would be issued. Certainly nothing like what happened when Carlson's colleague Laura Ingraham attacked one of the Parkland shooting survivors, which at the time seemed like the possible end of her primetime career. (No such luck.)
I had, I suppose, pictured something like the climactic scene in the film "Don't Look Up," when a guy in the MAGA-type rally crowd looks up and sees the meteor coming toward him and says: "They lied to us!" In real life, what we saw instead this week was everyone saying: "Yeah, whatever." Even the non-Fox media that briefly pushed the story could not maintain the fiction that it would have any impact on the world.
This passing moment, in which I almost believed in Santa Claus once again, has caused me to think about the nature of populist lying, rhetoric, and the impenetrable nature of hardened belief systems. This is hardly new, but it is important occasionally to look up in wonder at how impossible it has become to get America's hard-right true believers to believe anything that they do not want to believe.
It is not as though Carlson's viewers had not had reason to give up on him long before now. Jon Stewart's infamous demolition of Carlson happened sixteen years ago, and the formerly bow-tied blowhard (where “formerly” modifies “bow-tied” but most definitely not “blowhard”) has only become more unhinged ever since. Moreover, he is simply an asshole. He called General Mark Milley "a stupid ... pig," for example, and in his most recent derangement, Carlson's mockery of a State Department official was cloned from Donald Trump's cruel ridiculing of a disabled reporter. We correctly refer to these guys as bullies, but there are times when their affect is so similar to high school taunting that it is creepy.
The problem is that conspiracy-driven thinking eventually consumes itself. No amount of independent reporting, for example, can stop Trump's supporters from believing that the election was stolen. What about the lack of any evidence on Trump's side? Well, that just proves the evil genius of his enemies, who have carried out the perfect crime and hidden all of the evidence (probably by killing true patriots).
Not that the story has to be consistent. Arguing in the alternative is all the rage with the Trump crowd, as the January 6 attack is simultaneously described as a peaceful tourist visit and an FBI/antifa operation. So dealing with the Mother Jones report about Carlson is quite easy: It is both untrue and true, a smear made up by the Radical Left to harm a true hero and proof that Carlson is speaking the truth.
This is why it is such a tragedy that people looked the other way -- or, in the case of most of the non-Fox press, played games of false equivalence -- while the hermetic seal was forming around the right-wing mindset. Once people are gone, they are truly gone. And trying to engage honestly with their false claims is an invitation to disaster, because taking time to disprove anything simply results in the lies getting airtime, while the hucksters change the subject or simply declare victory.
That was Trump's move back when he was pushing the birther conspiracy. I recall being in an airport when that theory finally blew up, with definitive evidence having been produced of Barack Obama's birth in the United States. I shook my head when CNN decided to interview Trump, wondering why they thought he was worth the time. Of course, he claimed that the evidence was fake, that "you wouldn't believe what my people are finding," and all that. But what truly blew my mind was when Trump -- confronted directly with the facts -- said that he was "so proud of what we've done." Somehow, it was supposed to be a win that he had gotten people to "ask questions."
Apparently, Carlson took note of Trump's methods, as his entire stock in trade is to "just ask questions" that he then uses to make claims that he denies are claims at all. And his questions invariably add up to an insane argument. It reminds me of nothing so much as the scene in "Animal House" -- a movie that did not age well, but never mind -- where the character Otter responds to (true) allegations of academic cheating by saying this:
But you can't hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we're not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America.
"Just asking questions" is thus not a new strategy, so even Carlson's signature move is hardly a breakthrough tactical insight on his part. He asks questions and then rejects the answers. Consider his treatment of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is of course being attacked from the right for being presumptively unqualified. Can she prove that she is qualified?
Take a moment here to consider that Carlson had to use family money to get into the only college that would accept him, and whose academic credentials are thin at best. For him to attack anyone as an intellectual poseur is rich, about as rich as Eric and Don Jr. (or Matt Gaetz, whose father paved his way in Florida politics) attacking Hunter Biden for being given unearned advantages in life.
Nonetheless, there was Carlson a week or so ago insisting that the black woman who had impressed everyone at every step of her career must release her LSAT scores. Many people noted that this was not even thinly veiled racism, because no one ever asked to see the LSAT scores of Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, or others. But conservatives respond that "it's liberals' fault that everyone assumes that blacks benefited from affirmative action!" If Judge Jackson has to jump through that hoop, the argument goes, that is only because people "reasonably wonder" whether non-White people were handed things on a silver platter.
Every aspect of that line of argument is wrong, dishonest, and frankly disgusting. And as I noted, many people saw the racism for what it is. I did not, however, see anyone make the further point that there is no way for Judge Jackson to win that argument with facts.
Imagine, after all, that she produces a document showing that she earned whatever the top score was when she took the LSAT. "The transcript was faked!"
What if the transcript is validated? "Someone -- probably George Soros -- paid someone to take the LSAT for her."
A video shows up, showing the young Ketanji Brown walking into the testing room, sitting and taking the exam, and leaving? "She had an earpiece feeding her the answers!"
Close-ups prove that that did not happen? "She filled out the wrong answers, but Hugo Chavez's computers changed her score!"
Further close-ups demonstrate that she filled out the right answers? "She was given the answers in advance!"