Patriot Purge, Tucker Carlson’s new three-part series, is propaganda built around Donald Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen 2020 election and buttressed by a bizarro world, alt-right and alt-reality retelling of the January 6th insurrection. But Carlson’s message being profoundly dishonest doesn’t stop it from being profoundly dangerous: both because it contains kernels of tough truths the country has been scared to face, and because it follows a classic template of propaganda that has brought down democracies before.
The conceit of Patriot Purge is that the real “Americans” — the country’s greatest Patriots — were those who went to Washington on January 6 to join what was to be a peaceful rally protesting the supposed stealing of the 2020 US Presidential Election. They were a multi-racial group of patriotic Americans coming to the capital to voice their concerns. But then Antifa, apparently working in tandem with the FBI, disrupted the peaceful protests with agents provocateurs who urged participants into the capital building. The seditious “deep state” has in this way entrapped the country’s warriors, who are now the subject of government targeting that was honed during the War on Terror.
The message of the series is clear: a great wrong has been done. The government and media have engineered a false narrative directed in the first instance towards discrediting the patriots who seek to address it, and, ultimately, with the goal of hunting down and violently suppressing them. Our media’s complicity is demonstrated by their differential coverages of the BLM protests, which are here portrayed as senseless violent riots, and the events of January 6. The patriots are innocent Americans seeking only to preserve democracy in the face of a fraudulent election. The forces arrayed against them are almost impossibly powerful. It is a repeat of the war on terror, by the same forces who engineered it, but directed against the most representative of our citizens, the “real” Americans.
It is impossible to accept this message in total without taking it to justify violent mass action against the current government, or something like a police and military coup.
Carlson’s Patriot Purge finds a martyr for its movement in Ashli Babbitt, who was shot trying to get past a Capitol Police barrier near the House chamber. Her death, in great and gruesome detail, comprises the final shots of Part I.
Babbitt’s assigned role is familiar to anyone who has seen or studied Twentieth Century fascist propaganda. Martyrs are ideally pure and innocent, and killed in a noble attempt to defeat enemies of the nation. In fascist ideology, these enemies are communists and liberals, who are represented as subverting the will of the “true” people, whose only goal is to install their beloved leader, the true father of the nation. Honoring the memory of the martyr is to worship the leader, and give all in the quest to defeat his enemies and place him as the leader of the nation.
This series is a further contribution to the months long narrative construction of Babbitt as the Trump movement’s Horst Wessel, the Nazi stormtrooper killed in a brawl in 1930, most probably by communists (but for unclear reasons), and elevated to martyrdom status by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. In this case, the martyr is an innocent, patriotic white woman.
We find here a similar structure to some of the main origin stories of fascism – where a colonial war abroad is imported home, to be directed against the fascist movement’s domestic enemies (in this case, the war on terror is now brought home, and directed against Trump’s supporters). Here, the fascist movement is “the deep state”, and its domestic enemies, Trump’s supporters.
The unquestioned premise of this series is the “Big lie”, that the election was stolen, and that Trump won. The Big Lie structures the entire narrative here. It is only on this assumption that we should grant a movement that promulgates this lie full political legitimacy, and equal weight in government decisions and media representation. It is only on this assumption that those who promulgate this lie can be represented as innocent victims.
Key to fascist propaganda is an overwhelming sense of danger, one that threatens to make the country’s dominant majority into a powerless and endangered minority. Trump loyalists in this series appear only as targeted victims, at existential peril, without representation in. any branch of government or media. Throughout, law is represented as merely an instrument in the service of power. The series does not discuss what these attitudes have justified – the wave of laws sweeping Republican dominated state governments enabling the mass disenfranchisement of minority voters on the basis of dubious claims of fraud, the stacking of election commissions by Trump loyalists, or the nationwide targeting of educators associated with Critical Race Theory or BLM. The series does not mention the mass targeting of democratic institutions, from elections to schools, the curtailing of voting rights and speech, that are the calling card of the Trumpist Republican Party in its current fascist phase. And the series does not, of course, discuss the fearsome power of Fox News.
In the inverted world of the series, those who support the authoritarian cult of the leader, his base, are the democratic patriots. Those who seek to preserve fair elections are the fascists. Fascist propaganda is relentless projection, justified by lies. Carlson has proven to be a master in its use.
Throughout, Carlson is correct about several important matters. He is right about the dangers of mass surveillance. He is right about the moral obscenity of the war on terror, which has created an ugly toolkit that can be used to target relatively powerless American citizens. It is past time for these to be shared bipartisan assumptions. Embedding these truths within a larger framework in the service of destabilizing democracy makes it dangerous propaganda indeed.
Most of all, Carlson is right to stress the injustice of targeting the most ordinary and powerless participants in the fascist social and political movement that now dominates the Republican party. I share his view that ordinary fellow citizens who fall under the sway of propaganda should not be demonized. Our opprobrium should instead be directed at those leading the assault, billionaire politicians such as Donald Trump, his elite Ivy League trained enablers, politicians like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and, of course, wealthy and powerful mainstream media propagandists like Tucker Carlson.
Jason Stanley is Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, and the author of 5 books, most recently How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.