If one were inclined to give Tucker Carlson the benefit of the doubt, it might be possible to see his record over the past year as just a matter of coincidence: His embrace of Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban. His ardent defense of Vladimir Putin. His parroting of Russian propaganda—earning replays of his segments on Russian state TV—so eagerly that he now calls the invasion of Ukraine “the war against Russia.” His insistence that the Jan. 6 insurrection wasn’t an insurrection. Maybe Tucker just seems to be constantly working to support autocratic rule while undermining democracy.
His recent embrace of outright election denialism—amplifying the widespread and utterly groundless Republican belief that Democrats stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump and intend to do so again indefinitely—should remove any doubt, though. In the past week alone on his Fox News show, Carlson has sneered that Democrats like John Fetterman and Raphael Warnock are “mentally defective candidates who can barely speak,” and that it’s “transparently absurd” that Joe Biden won 81 million votes in 2020; said skeptically that Biden somehow won “despite being senile and rarely going outside”; and told his audience to believe “their eyes and the ears” instead of official results.
The upshot of Carlson’s narrative is two-pronged: first, that Democrats can only win by enlisting the media and the Establishment to foist fraudulent candidates on the public by insisting that “the official story” is the only legitimate one while threatening “dissenters” with imprisonment; second, that Republicans are certain to “crush” Democrats in this fall’s elections. In MAGA logic, it naturally follows that if Democrats do declare victory next week, it will be illegitimate.
Creating these kinds of expectations is, in fact, a recipe for violence in any election where Democrats actually win—not just insurrectionist violence like Jan. 6, which we already know was inspired by Trump’s election denialism, but also the very real stochastic terrorism that we saw unfold this week in San Francisco, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, was brutally assaulted by a man ginned up on far-right conspiracist hate speech.
Carlson in fact insisted during his diatribes this week that there’s no such thing as stochastic terrorism—unsurprising, given his track record for inspiring it himself. He also insisted that there’s no such as hate speech.
He voiced his clear affinity for election denialism in his Oct. 26 episode, while attacking Fetterman and Warnock as supposedly fraudulent candidates who can’t possibly win. It was classic Tucker: sneering condescension laden with random lies and smears, riddled with the right-wing persecution complex, tacked onto a framework of Carlson’s trademark projection, accusing Democrats of the very behavior that Republicans (and he himself) are engaging in:
There’s something bigger going on here. Fetterman’s candidacy, like Joe Biden’s candidacy two years ago, tells us something pretty dark about the Democratic Party. What it tells us is that the Democratic Party has such contempt for the voters, and for democracy itself, and so much confidence in its ownership of the media and of Big Tech, that it no longer has to try to win your vote. Democrats can run Raphael Warnock, an aggressively anti-Christian fake Christian pastor whose wife detailed abuse allegations against him on camera—and that’s OK. It’s still good enough for a Senate seat in Georgia, because the machine keeps working. It’s not about the person. It’s about the party. It’s not about the individual, it’s about the group.
And to prove it, they can even run mentally defective candidates who can barely speak, and not only expect them to “win” [air quotes], but expect you to accept the outcome no matter how transparently absurd it is. On Nov. 9, they’ll be telling you that John Fetterman got 81 million votes in Pennsylvania and they’ll threaten to put you in jail if you don’t believe it. Why wouldn’t they do that? It worked with Joe Biden.
He then brought on his faux-progressive sidekick, Glenn Greenwald, who amped up the projection first by comparing the public acceptance of certified election results to the command of the totalitarian state George Orwell depicted in 1984, saying “he described as their final and most essential command that you are to ignore the evidence of your own eyes and ears. You can get a citizen to do that, to trust what they’re told more than what they’re seeing and hearing on their own, that is a population that you can put into extreme subservience.”
What are “they seeing and hearing on their own”? In Greenwald’s telling, it appears to be whatever smears about a doddering Joe Biden happen to be circulating. Right-wing media are apparently people’s real “eyes and ears”:
I think in some way the media almost like being this brazen. Remember when we witnessed Joe Biden, who we’ve seen in public life for 50 years, so obviously suffering cognitive decline, they decided to tell us it wasn’t really cognitive decline, that he had a stutter. A stutter that was never there before! Half the time he doesn’t know where he is, half the time he falls asleep in interviews now, and if you raise any of these things, you are told you’re a bigot about people who stutter.
Of course, Biden’s lifelong stutter has been thoroughly documented both in old videos and by family and friends. Raising things like this may or may not make you a bigot, but they do make you a liar. But for Greenwald and Carlson, an ugly smear suffices as “alternative information” if it suits their predilections.
Another of Carlson’s predilections—misgendering transgender people while mocking them with a frat-boy mien—cropped up on his Oct. 29 show, but the point was to encourage election denialism. Once again, as he’s done before, his target was the first transgender four-star admiral, Rachel Levine, the Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary of health.
Carlson called her “a man dressed up like a woman, in makeup and purple glasses wearing some kind of admiral’s uniform pretending to be the assistant secretary of health, when he looks like a candidate for an imminent heart attack himself. So the whole outfit is a riot. It’s like a Halloween costume some clever drunk college student dreamed up: ‘This year I’m going as an obese transvestite health admiral.’ You’d laugh if you saw him at a party.”
The point, though, was not just to leer like a drunken pledge at Levine, but to then characterize the entire Biden presidency as fraudulent and illegitimate:
But the Biden administration can’t allow you to laugh at Rachel Levine. Or at [press secretary] Karine Jean-Pierre or Kamala Harris [both Black women] or any of the other transparently absurd figures that are pretending to run our country. Or even for that matter Biden himself, who somehow they tell you got, quote, 81 million votes, despite being senile and rarely going outside.
On Monday, Carlson went all-in while simultaneously discussing the attack on Paul Pelosi and Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. He was particularly perturbed by suggestions that he and his fellow right-wing pundits who have spent the past eight years demonizing Nancy Pelosi might have played a role:
In the wake of that, unfortunately you no longer can really have free speech. They’re telling you this is an example of ‘stochastic terrorism,’ which is a completely meaningless phrase that emerged like a virus out of the university to infect our public discourse or more precisely to suppress our public discourse. Reuters has reported that, we’re quoting, ‘terrorism and extremism experts believe it could be an example of the growing threat of so-called stochastic terrorism, in which sometimes unstable individuals are inspired to violence by hate speech.’
Of course, stochastic terrorism is a perfectly meaningful phrase, and it happens to come up a lot in the context of the vicious smears of their political targets launched by Carlson and his Fox News colleagues—especially because it’s easy to point to instances where the connection is clear. So Carlson naturally hopes he can render the term void, just as he does with the term “hate speech”:
Okay, what is hate speech by the way? All of a sudden everyone in the media has—sort of without explaining why—agreed that there’s this thing called hate speech, that’s real and probably actionable. They can find a billion-dollar judgement against you if you commit hate speech. But just to remind everyone watching, there’s no such thing as hate speech. Hate speech is speech people hate, usually the people in power. The truth is, all speech except speech that encourages people to imminent illegal action—like, go shoot that guy—short of that, there’s no hate speech. All of it’s allowed under the U.S. Constitution. Which is our final hope.
Since Tucker seems to need assistance, here’s a little clue: Hate speech is speech in which people are targeted for demonization and dehumanization on the basis of false smears, typically about their innate and ineluctable characteristics. It’s true that, under the First Amendment, most hate speech is constitutionally protected, unless it’s used for threats and intimidation. None of that is evidence that it doesn’t exist. It is, moreover, a common precursor to hate crimes—which are not protected in any way—which is why it’s considered toxic and worrisome.
He obviously needs some kind of help, however, because Carlson then launched into a rant completely and utterly removed from reality—claiming that liberals concerned with hate speech accuse poor right-wingers of engaging in it for any departure from their positions at all—with, of course zero supporting evidence:
But what they’re telling you is, dissenting in any way from the editorial positions of, say, the Washington Post or the Daily Beast or the Atlantic Magazine, disagreeing with those publications and the consensus they represent isn’t simply immoral, no, it’s worse than that, it’s violence. It gets people killed. That’s the stochastic terrorism. When you question, say, COVID protocols, or drag queen story hour, or the war against Russia, you are effectively smashing an 82-year-old man in the head with a hammer.
They’re making that argument. And of course they have no choice but to make that argument. Democrats are very worried about the coming elections. But they’re absolutely terrified that Elon Musk will be allowed to criticize them on Twitter.
Carlson then attempted to downplay the gravity of Musk’s retweet of the fake news story from the Santa Monica Observer, describing the article only as “about how the guy had called the man in his home ‘a friend,’” when, in fact, the article claimed that Pelosi was drunk and got into a fight with a male prostitute. Hiding that reality, however, was essential to Tucker’s thesis, namely, that calling out lies is “censorship”:
You don’t need to be far right to call it censorship, because censorship is exactly what it is. To repeat, Democrats can no longer exist or hold power without it. They need censorship. And they’re going to try to use this horrifying crime to hold onto it.
He concluded the segment by reassuring his viewers that they were about to win the midterm elections because of all this—with a bit of unintentional truth thrown in at the end:
This is too stupid. This is a lie. Voters know it’s a lie. And when Democrats get crushed in next week’s midterms, it’ll be in part because of people who live in cities and states run by liberals understand that what happened to Paul Pelosi could very well happen to them.
Yes, it’s true people who live in cities and states run by liberals understand perfectly well that what happened to Paul Pelosi—namely, that he was brutally assaulted in his home by an unhinged right-winger ginned up on the kinds of conspiracy theories and disinformation that Tucker Carlson and his Fox News cohorts constantly peddle—could very easily happen to them. It’s doubtful they will vote the way Carlson thinks, however.
But we do know what happens to Republican voters in suburban and rural areas who gullibly lap up his every word. And his open embrace of election denialism is a guarantee that the mass of conservative voters in America will not only follow in lockstep—if they weren’t already fully immersed in the denialism, as a majority of GOP candidates already are—but use Carlson’s phony rationalizations and falsehoods as justification for their inevitable violence.
You couldn’t ask for a better recipe to undermine American democracy—en route to replacing it with an autocracy—than to destroy voters’ confidence in the integrity of their election outcomes. Polling from last year already demonstrated that, for Republicans, that is a fait accompli. It showed that only 32% of Republican voters were confident that 2020 votes were counted accurately.
The chief wellspring of election denialism, of course, is Donald Trump. A recent CNN piece revealed how Trump continues to coach his endorsed candidates in embracing his phony narrative, demonstrated in a phone call he made to Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters warning him that he would “lose it all” if he “went soft” on claiming the 2020 results were fraudulent. The call, as CNN noted, “underscored how central election denial is to the GOP’s midterm efforts.”
The candidates, including incumbents, have all dutifully obeyed, sometimes by offering up variations on the narrative. In Wisconsin, for instance, Republican Senator Ron Johnson seemed to give conflicting advice—urging his supporters to use early-voting opportunities, which the denialists have claimed is where much of the vote manipulation is occurring—but then clarified that he only intended that message for rural voters.
"I would recommend early voting if you have a Republican election clerk," Johnson said during a tele-town hall, but then added: "I'm not sure I would recommend a Republican go vote in Milwaukee. I don't know about the bipartisan observation of those early votes. It might be possible."
Florida Senator Rick Scott, who chairs the Republican Senate campaign committee, actually blamed the attack on Paul Pelosi on how egregiously confidence in the voting system has been undermined—not by Republicans, but by Democrats. His advice to people who want bto stop the “horrible violence” was to participate in the denialism campaign: “Be poll watchers, so you can see that elections are going to be fair,” Scott told voters on CNN.
Election denialism is an open assault on American democracy, particularly since the denialism’s foundations are a constantly crumbling assemblage of falsehoods, distortions, and fabrications. Democracies depend on public confidence that their votes are being tallied accurately and fairly, and convincing half of the American public that this is no longer the case, on the basis of a farrago of lies, serves no other purpose than to tear the nation in two. Autocrats like Putin and Orban, for whom American democracy has long been their bane, are doubtless observing it all with broad smiles.
“It is a disease that is spreading through our political process, and its implications are very profound,” University of Minnesota politics professor Larry Jacobs warns. “This is no longer about Donald Trump. This is about the entire electoral system and what constitutes legitimate elections. All of that is now up in the air.”
Just the way Tucker’s friends like it.
The 2022 midterms are just around the corner, and you sent us a ton of fantastic questions for this week’s episode of The Downballot. Among the many topics we cover: which states are likely to report results slowly—and how will those results change over time; the House districts that look like key bellwethers for how the night might go, and which might offer surprises; why and how Democrats make the hard decisions on which races to triage; the top legislative chambers to keep an eye on; and plenty more!