Getty / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

As early voting began in Atlanta, Georgia, last week, members of the local Security Force Three Percent, a self-styled military group composed of roughly 400 members, were smoking Marlboro 100s and waxing apocalyptic about the state of America.

“Well, I think the coronavirus is a scam, first and foremost,” declared Chris Hill, the commanding officer of the militia, who goes by the nom de guerre General BloodAgent. “Two, I think that watching all of the videos of people’s civil liberties being infringed upon—being arrested for sitting in your empty business, being arrested for sitting in your car looking at the ocean, having cops or security guards tasing women that are watching their kid play football—these are things that I would not suffer.”

The pandemic, Hill suggested, was nothing more than a government conspiracy to steal the rights of everyday Americans. Hill’s deputy, a man named Corey Wells, who goes by the title Sergeant Treeman, likened the situation in the United States to the rise of Nazism. “When Hitler took over Germany, he didn’t do it in one day. He did it over the course of time. He started taking one little right away, the next little right away, the next thing you know, you’ve got millions of Jews loaded on box cars headed to concentration camps. We’re watching that pretty much here in the United States now.”

Hill and Wells were prepared to take up arms, come what may. “Our wealth, our liberties, have been stolen from us, and it’s time that people wake up to that, smell the coffee, before it hits you across the face like an iron fist and you wake up a stranger in the land that you were born in,” Hill said. “I’m not going down like that. Not on my watch. Not on our watch.”

“This country right now is a tinder box,” Wells said. “This whole country is like California—just waiting on a spark to land in it. And when it does, it’s gonna be bad. The original Civil War has nothing on what’s coming.”

It was a sunny autumn day in Atlanta, but the sense of darkness was acute—as if Hill and Wells were living in an alternate reality, a dystopian nightmare in which the brownshirts were not just coming; they were here. I wondered aloud how such an inverted view of the world was possible, and the men explained.  

“I used to get information off of Facebook,” said Hill. “We would trade information, but Facebook signed an … internal order. They got rid of militiamen on Facebook, so I got booted off. Twitter used to be a source for information; I got booted off of Twitter. Instagram, PayPal, GoFundMe, you name it. I’m probably gonna get booted off of YouTube as well. But I don’t go to CNN. If I go to media it would be to—I like Tucker Carlson.”

Carlson, the Fox News prime-time host, was the only mainstream media figure cited by both Hill and Wells as reliable. Most other outlets, Hill believed, were “propaganda and horseshit.” To circumvent this duplicity, Wells explained, he took, “the Fox News reports, the One America News [Network]—that’s the one news source I trust—Tucker Carlson, [Sean] Hannity. You have to listen to everybody, take everything, put it in a big blender, use your common sense that the good Lord gave you, and kinda pull out the information that you feel is true.”

As I examined the litany of stories that Hill had cited as the basis for his belief that American civil liberties were being attacked—the woman being tased at the football game, the arrest of Trump supporters near the ocean, the business owners running afoul of law enforcement—I found that they were all stories that appeared on Fox News. The items may not have originated at the Fox news desk, but Fox was nonetheless playing a crucial role in mainstreaming a decidedly paranoid worldview and giving it the widest audience possible.

In September of this year, the prime-time weekday lineup of Carlson, Hannity, and Laura Ingraham surpassed all the broadcast networks—traditionally dominant in terms of sheer audience numbers—in total weekday viewership. Within the field of cable competitors (MSNBC and CNN) Hannity remains the undisputed king, and Carlson his prince; last month, they commanded the first and second largest audiences in all of cable news, averaging 4.5 million and 4.4 million viewers, respectively.

Fox News’s unique blend of xenophobia and division has always been popular and highly lucrative. But now, with the advent of COVID-19, the channel has become a marketplace for something considerably more poisonous: increasingly dystopian coverage of the country that provides fodder for radicals such as Hill and Wells to justify their apocalyptic visions. Wells was preoccupied with Hitler’s incremental infringements on liberty (“He didn’t do it in one day. He did it over the course of time. He started taking one little right away, the next little right away …”), and here, on Fox, was all the evidence he needed that Americans were witnessing the very same thing—business owners arrested, mothers tased, the list of discreet but meaningful attacks broadcast every night, across the country, a warning sign. In previous years, Fox could claim credit for Republican intransigence on immigration reform and the party’s willful denial of climate change. Today, Fox plays a significant role in stoking fear that it may be time for a second American civil war.

Precisely because Fox is considered mainstream news, it has, no less importantly, provided a link between marginalized audiences—like the Security Force Three Percenters—and the highest echelons of American power, including the president of the United States. At an NBC town hall earlier this month, Trump declined to disavow a fringe conspiracy theory that Democrats are secretly running a Satanic pedophile ring. I was reminded of this when I spoke, days later, with Hill and Wells, who at one point referred to Biden as “Pedo Joe.” The concentric circles of paranoia that once separated the most radical theorists from the most mainstream conservatives have, with the assistance of Fox, grown dramatically smaller—indeed, under President Trump they might even overlap.

While Hannity and Carlson are not directly peddling this shameful slander, Fox has undeniably poisoned a broad section of the American public through its constant drumbeat of stories promoting fear and mistrust, eroding confidence in institutions and our democracy. From a television screen tuned to Fox News, it’s not all that hard to see the brownshirts on the horizon or the pedophiles in the pizza parlor, whether you’re a self-styled militiaman—or the commander in chief.  

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.