After cycling through a series of responses that included cheering on the attack and making baseless claims of left-wing infiltration, the conservative movement seems to have decided to move on and pretend this whole thing never happened. It’s in the past! Mistakes were made, but there’s no need to discuss it further! Surely, it was just a one-time thing!
Unfortunately, it’s quite obvious that the Capitol insurrection wasn’t just a one-off event that can be shrugged off and buried. Threats remain: More than three weeks after the attack, Capitol Police arrested a West Virginia man carrying an unlicensed gun, 20 rounds of ammunition, and “Stop the Steal paperwork.” Another armed man from Texas was recently arrested near the White House. A California Trump supporter was caught stockpiling pipe bombs, and the Department of Homeland Security issued a terrorism advisory warning that “some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence.”
It’s no accident that so many people on the right are ready to take up arms against prominent Democrats. Conspiratorial thinking and disinformation fuels this right-wing rage.
Right-wing media have a sordid history of bombarding audiences with conspiracy theories and incendiary language -- only to act shocked or annoyed when something goes wrong.
The January 6 insurrection is far from the only recent example of right-wing violence that was egged on by conservative news outlets, which then tried to distance themselves in the aftermath. Whether discussing the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting in 2012, the 2015 Charleston church shooting in South Carolina, the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the 2018 shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, the 2018 spree of mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats, the 2019 massacre inside an El Paso Walmart, or any number of other examples, it’s impossible to view these events as taking place in a vacuum.
One clear example of right-wing media-driven violence occurred on November 27, 2015, when self-proclaimed “warrior for the babies” Robert Lewis Dear opened fire on a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, killing three and injuring nine. Dear was motivated, in part, by the false belief that the health care provider sold “baby parts,” which was a common trope in conservative media at the time.
Between July 14 and November 26, 2015, Fox News and Fox Business mentioned the phrase “baby parts” or “parts of babies” 83 times on air. And the debunked claim that Planned Parenthood “sells the body parts of aborted fetuses” originated with a series of deceptively edited videos by the right-wing Center for Medical Progress.
After the shooting, conservative media and anti-choice groups took steps to deny they played any role in inciting violence -- all while continuing to wrongly insist, as then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said during his November 30, 2015, show, that “Planned Parenthood is in the baby body parts business.”
Ultimately, Dear is responsible for his own actions, but conservative outlets’ defensiveness and complete unwillingness to rethink the way their stories are framed or fact-checked shows that, at best, they are indifferent to the violence that may follow.
For instance, in 2009, O’Reilly spent months demonizing Dr. George Tiller, repeatedly referring to him as “Tiller the baby killer” and mentioning him dozens of times. Then Tiller was shot and killed by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. O’Reilly responded to Tiller’s death by denouncing “pro-abortion zealots and Fox News haters” who criticized his coverage, defending his editorial decisions by saying, “Every single thing we said about Tiller was true.”
More than six years after the doctor's murder, O’Reilly once again justified his Tiller segments -- this time, in response to Dear’s anti-abortion rampage.
There are no repercussions for right-wing media commentators who feed narratives that inspire violence. Yes, O’Reilly eventually lost his Fox News show, but it wasn’t because he fed violent narratives. In fact, the network continues to provide a platform for similar violent narratives based around right-wing grievances to air in prime time.
It’s easy to see the role conservative media played in working audiences into a frothy, violent rage about the election. January 6 is a perfect case study.
Take, for example, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight. Since the election, the show’s eponymous host has manipulated his audience through lies and scaremongering about the threat Democrats posed to the country.
On November 5, Carlson hosted a Republican election observer who was asked to leave a Philadelphia voting location for repeatedly breaking the rules. Carlson treated this situation as possible evidence of fraud. On November 9, Carlson said that if our government doesn’t entertain baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud, it will be a “dictatorship.” By November 20, Carlson was rewriting the history of more than four years of “Lock her up!” chants.
TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): You'll notice that Giuliani has not called for the White House to round up and imprison its political opponents. He never will call for that. Republicans generally don't call for that, in fact they never do. “Republicans are fascists!" The New York Times tells us. What a hack newspaper. But who's eager to shoot the prisoners? It's not right-wingers, it's the other side, and it always is the other side. Always.
On November 23, Carlson used his platform to proclaim that “the 2020 presidential election was not fair” and that “no honest person would claim that it was fair.” During his January 4 show, Carlson argued that the election was “rigg[ed]” in Joe Biden’s favor. “All of these power centers worked tirelessly from the day Biden got the nomination until the first Tuesday in November to bypass voters and get Joe Biden to the White House,” he said, implicating “big business, Wall Street, the defense establishment, pharma, the permanent bureaucracy in Washington and above all, Silicon Valley.”
To watch (and trust) Carlson’s show during that two-month period was to come away with the belief that Biden was not the legitimate winner -- and if and when he took office, America would cease to exist in any recognizable form. On November 24, Carlson started warning of the incoming Biden administration as a sort of existential threat to the America his audience knows and loves. Department of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas would, according to Carlson, transform the U.S. into “a different country overnight.” On December 15, Carlson invoked billionaire philanthropist George Soros. “Soros is trying to change the United States,” read an on-screen chyron as Carlson said Soros was “part of the reason” that “so many people are being robbed, raped, and killed in American cities right now.”
Carlson was far from the only one leading his audience in this way, but he makes for an interesting example as he’s someone who tends to be treated with a level of seriousness from many people working in mainstream media. There’s a sense that Carlson is a man who knows exactly what he’s doing — and he does.
No, Carlson never explicitly instructs his audience to commit crimes. Like Trump, Carlson tends to take a Will no one rid me of these meddlesome Democrats? approach to sowing anger and fear. If you were one of his many loyal viewers, it stands to reason that you could watch Carlson’s show and conclude that you had to do something.
Carlson’s rhetoric, like that of so much of the right, was irresponsible. Unfortunately, it’s only gotten worse since the insurrection.
Even after the insurrection, Carlson continued to loudly argue that if Democrats were allowed to take power, they would seek to strip people of the “right to speak without being censored, your right to assemble, to not be spied upon, to make a living, to defend your family, most critically.” America was “in peril” because Democrats were on the verge of controlling two branches of the federal government for at least the next two years. Show after show, Carlson defended the lies that incited pro-Trump mob violence — and even the violence itself.
Carlson has continued to baselessly float conspiracy theories about Democrats waging “an actual war, a war on our own people” as a way to “root out” Trump supporters. Carlson warned his listeners that the newly inaugurated Biden administration would target them in a “war on white supremacists.” On January 29, Carlson claimed that Democrats had “declared war” on Republicans. “Not, by the way, a metaphorical war, but an actual one, with soldiers and paramilitary law enforcement, and the world's most powerful intelligence agencies.”
Carlson, like much of the right-wing media ecosystem, refuses to tone down his rhetoric. In fact, when looking at the broader trend within the conservative press, it seems as though the overall tone has only gotten more incendiary since January 6. Fox host Laura Ingraham has gone on TV to defend the violent anti-government group the Oath Keepers. Newsmax has also defended the Oath Keepers on air and has already started laying the groundwork for Republicans to claim that the 2024 election will be illegitimate if Trump is made to face consequences for his actions. Sinclair continues to push lies about voter fraud, as does One America News. Fox News host Sean Hannity blames Democrats for inciting the insurrection.
The message being sent by right-wing media is clear: If you love America, you need to do something about it.
It’s not surprising that the right has resorted to violence following Republicans electoral failures.
Words matter. The entire purpose of opinion journalism is to persuade an audience to believe something or take a certain action, and that’s what right-wing media do. In November, Carlson argued that it was “demonstrably insane” to worry about white supremacist violence. He was wrong, and there’s plenty of data to back this up.
In June 2020, the Center for Strategic & International Studies published a report warning of the possibility of U.S.-based terrorist threats. According to the CSIS brief, between January 1, 1994, and May 8, 2020, right-wing terrorist attacks have been responsible for 335 deaths compared to 22 deaths associated with left-wing terrorism. At 3,086 deaths, religious extremism accounted for the largest number of casualties, though 2,977 of those victims came from 9/11.
Our data suggest that right-wing extremists pose the most significant terrorism threat to the United States, based on annual terrorist events and fatalities. Over the next year, the threat of terrorism in the United States will likely increase based on several factors, such as the November 2020 presidential election and the response to the Covid-19 crisis. These factors are not the cause of terrorism, but they are events and developments likely to fuel anger and be co-opted by a small minority of extremists as a pretext for violence.
First, the November 2020 presidential election will likely be a significant source of anger and polarization that increases the possibility of terrorism. Some—though not all—far-right extremists associate themselves with President Trump and may resort to violence before or after the election. As U.S. Department of Justice documents have highlighted, some far-right extremists have referred to themselves as “Trumpenkriegers”—or “fighters for Trump.” If President Trump loses the election, some extremists may use violence because they believe—however incorrectly—that there was fraud or that the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden will undermine their extremist objectives.
A long-simmering rage on the right reached its boiling point on January 6, but a look at the months leading up to the insurrection shows just how much conservative media had been doing to prime audiences for action. Infowars host Alex Jones urged his viewers to carry guns on them to counter Black Lives Matter protesters in June. Hannity said that “it sounds like” Black Lives Matter wants to form “militias” and patrol neighborhoods. Ingraham said in July that if Biden won in November, “the Democrats and their rioters allies will turn their sights on you.” By August, right-wing media were openly defending vigilante violence after a gunman shot and killed protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon cheered on Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in September. In November, right-wing media outlets were lauding a group of Trump supporters who tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road.
With massive influence comes the moral obligation to use that influence responsibly. Unfortunately, the right-wing media landscape is filled with commentators who seem to have zero interest in that. Instead, the goal seems to be to keep their audiences in a perpetual state of rage. It’s unhealthy for their audiences, and it’s unhealthy for democracy.