The Mystery of the QAnon Shaman on January 6

Tucker Carlson wants viewers to believe he has shared new information. He hasn’t.

Two people in red caps watching Tucker Carlson's show
Brynn Anderson / AP

Updated at 2:45 pm E.T. on March 7, 2023.

That Tucker Carlson thinks his viewers are stupid is not new, though his first swing at spinning unseen footage of the January 6 insurrection provides a fresh test of just how credulous they are.

The notable news from Carlson’s show yesterday is not the video itself, which is similarly stale, but the crystallization of a Trumpist narrative about the assault on the Capitol that portrays it not as a disaster, nor as an unfortunate but minor event, but as a triumph to be celebrated.

Carlson is working from security tape released exclusively to him by Speaker Kevin McCarthy. At least in what Carlson has shown so far, nothing emerges that changes the known narrative of the day, but Carlson is a talented propagandist, so it’s morbidly interesting to see how he approaches it. Carlson can’t erase the images that everyone has seen of chaos and destruction, so he tries to recontextualize them.

“The first thing you notice is how many people entered the Capitol building,” Carlson says. “A small percentage of them were hooligans.” Showing clips of the Capitol’s interlopers lining up or righting overturned furniture, he intones, in his inimitably smug, incredulous voice, “They were peaceful, orderly, and meek. They were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers.”

Even allowing for Carlson’s point that many of those on tape are not engaging in active vandalism, this is an odd description of people who broke through a cordon of hundreds of police to trespass and disrupt a constitutional proceeding. Equally strange is his insistence that they were “people who believe in the system,” given that they were interfering with the system. (Many of them likely did sincerely believe lies about election fraud—lies fed to them by, among others, Carlson.)

Carlson zeroes in on the case of Jacob Chansley, the man in body paint and a fur-and-horn hat who is often called the QAnon Shaman. Carlson notes that while standing at the dais in the Senate, Chansley offered a prayer for Capitol Police officers, but claims that “you would never have known from the media coverage.” Awkwardly, the footage he plays to show this includes a watermark revealing its origin: It was captured by the New Yorker journalist Luke Mogelson, published within days of the riot, widely replayed by other outlets, and awarded a prestigious media prize. (Although Carlson claims a media cover-up on the footage McCarthy gave him, other organizations have in fact sued to obtain it.)

On the one hand, this is all ridiculous. Look at the hallways they didn’t smear feces on and statues they didn’t deface! is not an especially good argument. On the other, it fits with a long-standing Donald Trump approach of demanding that his supporters believe him rather than their lying eyes. When word emerged of the phone call in which he tried to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to aid his reelection campaign, Trump first tried to bury the incident; when that proved impossible, he began insisting that the call “was perfect.” He later used the same description for a call in which he tried to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” him votes to defeat Joe Biden in that state in the 2020 election.

But it has taken longer to land on that tactic for January 6, in part because what happened was so appalling and so well recorded—not only by news and surveillance cameras, but also by the rioters, many of whom gleefully filmed themselves or took selfies or posted about their exploits on social media. Hundreds of them have been convicted and sentenced for crimes committed that day.

Early on, two defenses of Trump and the riot emerged. The first was that there had been a peaceful protest and a few people got out of hand—maybe they were overexuberant, or maybe they were agents provocateurs, but in any case they did not represent MAGA or Trump’s own wishes. The second was that actually the insurgents did nothing wrong; after all, the only person shot was the demonstrator turned martyr Ashli Babbitt, killed by a Capitol Police officer. Representative Andrew Clyde of Georgia called the whole thing a “normal tourist visit,” even though he’d been filmed visibly panicked in the House chamber.

I wrote in October 2021 about how Trump, rather than trying to reconcile these defenses or choose one, had instead tried to transcend them. The problem with the first was that it required Trump to disavow many of his most devoted supporters, something he was loath to do. The problem with the second was that too many fellow Republicans were appalled by the riot to make the defense viable.

But things change. Although Trump all but endorsed the first defense in a recent, little-noticed statement, he and his allies have come to largely embrace the second. The forceful articulation by Carlson, the most powerful voice in conservative media, ratifies that. The embrace has been enabled by Trump’s rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination, who have mostly declined to criticize Trump over January 6, or even talk about it—including former Vice President Mike Pence, whom some in the crowd wanted to hang that day.

The adoption of the talking point that the riot was a good thing may intersect with potential indictments related to Trump’s attempt to overturn the election. With a legal showdown coming, the space for equivocation is shrinking, and more evidence could bolster the case for Trump’s culpability—making it even more important to reframe the riot as a positive. Much evidence shows that January 6 has been a political liability for Trump with voters overall, but past experience also shows that many of his staunchest supporters will be happy to swallow Carlson’s line, no matter how nonsensical it is.

This article previously stated that the footage was gathered by the House January 6 committee.