Grainy images flash across the screen to a screeching soundtrack that sounds like it was ripped from a horror movie: a prisoner in Abu Ghraib being dragged on a leash, naked detainees being mocked by American military personnel, the sign at Guantanamo Bay prison. A disembodied voice tells viewers, “The left is hunting the right,” tracking them and “sticking them in the gulag, sticking them in Guantanamo Bay for American citizens.”
It's important to note at the start that this is only different from the January 6th false flag conspiracy theories aired on Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight in form. The Patriot Purge torture-porn fiasco is essentially Carlson’s repackaging months of his InfoWars-style misrepresentation and conspiracy-mongering. Now, instead of banal cable news aesthetics, there are close camera interviews, lens flares, overwhelming graphic imagery of crimes committed in the war on terror, and a sound effect budget big enough to make Michael Bay jealous.
But put aside the theatrics. Just like Carlson's Fox News show, this series is hellbent on hammering in one conclusion to the viewer: Those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were righteous patriots, and in order to silence them, the media and criminal justice system have unleashed a domestic war on terror that they will use to target you, the viewer.
At the structural core of this messaging is the conspiracy theory that the January 6 capitol riot was an intentional setup by one of various parties in order to justify the persecution of conservatives as domestic terrorists and as punishment for supporting President Donald Trump. Carlson's team interviewed Emily Rainey, a former psychological operations officer who led a large group of people to the Stop the Steal rally. Rainey cited her experience in psychological operations to claim the attack could be a “false flag.”
This crackdown against conservatives is the visual and narrative core of the series. Blockbuster claims about the presence of FBI informants, and interviews with Stop the Steal organizers attempting to rebuild their career, come off as an afterthought in the face of hatchet-job gore montages. The special is full of comparisons of a modern “purge aimed at legacy Americans” to seemingly any kind of torture porn imagery Fox News could find in its archives. Viewers are treated to montages of waterboarding, terrorist attacks, an ISIS beheading, drone strikes, and even comparisons of the arrest of January 6 rioters to de-Baathification in Iraq.
Despite their initial absurdism, these comparisons have a sinister motive. As explained by Jason Stanley in Rolling Stone, the series is essentially a piece of propaganda designed to instill in the viewer a sense of persecution by an illegitimate government seeking to hold power through illegitimate means:
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.
The power of Fox and Carlson is evident in the way Patriot Purge was constructed and presented to the public. Despite soft attempts to distance itself from the special, Fox -- and Carlson -- promoted Patriot Purge, using it as a focal point to drive subscriptions to the network’s streaming service. Fox News and the Murdochs are centering their financial future around Carlson, using him to ensnare a new dedicated paying viewership that insulates them from financial accountability should cable companies seek to hold them accountable for the bile they inject into the public discourse on a nightly basis.
Carlson is feeding viewers an alternative version of the January 6 attack that aligns with the conspiratorial, reality-averse worldview he primes his viewer for every night. Carlson’s deadly conspiracy-mongering has the full endorsement of the network, and his agenda-setting power within Republican politics means the deranged claims of Patriot Purge cannot be dismissed as cheap propaganda. Much like with Carlson’s reality distortion around vaccinations, immigration, education, and race, the consequences of consistently producing content intended to terrorize audiences into action are real. Those consequences are not shouldered by Carlson, or his network, but by their viewers, whose lives can be upended by the lies sold to them by Fox News in the name of ratings, and now, subscribers.