Tucker Carlson Is Completing the Work That Trump Began

There was a time when someone like Alex Jones would have been too toxic to embrace.

A photo illustration of Tucker Carlson speaking in one direction and Alex Jones behind him speaking in the opposite direction
Samuel Corum / Getty; Rich Polk / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, and the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

Earlier this week, Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson, the host of the top-rated news show on cable, rose in defense of the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

“Jones is often mocked for his flamboyance,” Carlson said, “but the truth is he has been a far better guide to reality in recent years—in other words, a far better journalist—than, say, NBC News national-security correspondent Ken Dilanian or Margaret Brennan of CBS.”

Flamboyance is a rather interesting word to apply to Jones; there are others.

Last month Jones, the host of Infowars, was found liable for damages in a defamation lawsuit brought by parents of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, whose victims included 20 young children. Jones claimed that the shooting was a “false flag” operation carried out by “crisis actors.” He mocked grieving parents, saying, “I’ve looked at it, and undoubtedly there’s a cover-up, there’s actors, they’re manipulating, they’ve been caught lying, and they were preplanning before it and rolled out with it.”

This shows a level of depravity and cruelty unusual even among right-wing conspiracists. Yet there was Carlson on Wednesday night, offering praise for Jones, whom Carlson referred to as “one of the most popular journalists on the right.” (Aaron Blake of The Washington Post has provided a useful summary of Jones’s crazed claims.)

Jones’s validation by Carlson is hardly surprising—but it is significant. Tucker Carlson, after all, is not some fringe figure; he is the most influential media personality on the right, the individual Republican lawmakers seek to impress and whom they genuflect before. (Carlson seems most impressed not by American politicians such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, but by the authoritarian leader of Hungary, Viktor Orbán.)

There was a time—and it wasn’t all that long ago—when Alex Jones would have been far too toxic and deranged a figure for any influential member of the right to embrace. No more. Jones fits right in, just as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, Madison Cawthorn, Ron Johnson, and many others do. The right wing and the Republican Party are more, not less, radical than they were when Donald Trump was president.

In praising Jones, one of the most prominent conspiracists in American politics, Carlson called him “a far better guide to reality” than mainstream journalists. This is the kind of tactic that propagandists such as Trump and Vladimir Putin have employed so well: making claims that are so brazen, so outrageous, so untrue that they are disorienting, aimed at destroying critical thinking. Such claims are not just an attack on objective truth; they are an inversion of it, turning people such as Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones into the gatekeepers of reality.

What Carlson is doing is poisonous to a free society, not just because our society can’t operate without shared public facts but also because he is inciting paranoia, which may well lead to political violence.

That’s the reason Republican leaders’ effort to portray the 2020 election as stolen and the insurrection on January 6 as justified is so significant. They aim to convince ordinary Republicans that they have been victims of what Trump has called the “crime of the century,” the greatest election fraud in history. In Trump’s words, “the real insurrection happened on November 3rd, the Presidential Election, not on January 6th—which was a day of protesting the Fake Election results.”

Carlson recently released a three-part documentary suggesting that the January 6 insurrection was a “false flag” operation, while Jones was subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Capitol attack. He reportedly helped organize the rally at the Ellipse near the White House the day of the riot; was among the group of Trump allies who met in and around a hotel near the White House the day before the riot; and spread the false narrative of a stolen election the day before the insurrection.

Time after time after time over the past half-dozen years, people who care about American democracy have underestimated a movement that is inflicting enormous harm upon it. They became his enthusiastic backers. Many other Republicans who were privately horrified by Trump looked the other way, went silent, or signed up for the ride. At every key moment, when called upon, they publicly defended Trump. They might not have liked it, but they found a way to rationalize it. It would be an affectation to deny that there are policy achievements they can point to, but they should be honest about the enormous costs that accompanied their accommodation with such a corrupt and deranged president.

A lot of Republicans I know assumed that after the Trump presidency, things would snap back. The opposite has happened. Trump is no longer president, but the damage to democracy doesn’t require his presence in office. People like Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones and a bevy of others are ready to complete the work Trump began.

They can be stopped, but who in the Republican Party is willing to stop them?