Fox News' support for violent right-wing vigilantism is as horrifying as it was inevitable

The network has been building to this moment for years

Tucker Carlson with Fox News logo

Citation Molly Butler/Media Matters | Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons

Amid a quasi-fascist rant Wednesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson responded to murder charges against a pro-Trump teenager who crossed state lines and shot to death two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by asking, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Several other Fox personalities have similarly downplayed or seemingly excused the deadly Tuesday night confrontation. 

Fox’s turn toward advocating violent right-wing vigilantism is a horrifying but natural evolution for the network. Its personalities have spent the last several months recklessly issuing dire warnings to their viewers, telling them that their lives are in jeopardy from racial justice protesters and that the Democratic leaders of cities facing civil unrest are refusing to protect them. This fearmongering has repeatedly inspired President Donald Trump, an avid Fox viewer, to dump more fuel on the fires.

The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor forced a national reckoning on race and policing that continues to this day. For months, protesters in cities across the country have marched to call for an end to systemic racism and police brutality. The movement has spurred corporate changes and government reforms, even as protests have at times been marred by looting, property damage, and violent confrontations with law enforcement personnel, often escalated by their use of violent tactics.

Throughout this period, Fox has been laser-focused on finding instances of violence, blaming them on the protesters, and castigating Democratic mayors and governors for failing to stop them. The network has bombarded its viewers -- including the president -- with images of burning buildings and civil unrest. At times using weeks-old footage and other misinformation tactics, Fox personalities have inflated the scope of the damage to depict a nation on the brink, denouncing the supposed threat posed by “antifa" agitators, Black Lives Matter activists, and statue-toppling vigilantes -- even demanding that violent protesters be treated as “domestic terrorists.” And they have sought to use that demagoguery to shore up Trump’s faltering campaign, warning that civilization itself will be on the ballot in November. 

Carlson has led the charge. He has described the protests as an “ancient battle” between “normal people” and “thugs.” He has claimed that the protesters are engaged in “the destruction of our cities and our history” and are “trying to topple our political system.” And he has called for protest leaders to be labeled “domestic terrorists,” arrested, and paraded “in front of cameras like MS-13.” Moreover, he has denounced Republican leaders who he believes have been overly supportive of the protests, while repeatedly demanding that Trump take a harder line against them.

At one point, his program even predicted a rise in vigilantism. On Carlson’s June 4 broadcast, former CIA officer Bryan Dean Wright denounced Democrats for supporting protests while opposing the use of the National Guard or military to put them down. “What does that leave, Tucker? Let me tell you what it leaves. Vigilante justice,” he concluded. “That’s exactly right,” Carlson responded. Wright added, “It's you and me and everybody watching this program arming ourselves. Is that how we run a republic? No sir, it is not, and you do not want a country that goes there.”

Carlson’s venom has cost him more of his shrinking base of advertisers, but in fact it's what Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch want from him -- he apparently retains their support.

The president, whose administration is heavily influenced by Carlson’s show, has been watching. He has triggered escalating violence by trying to push Fox’s narratives for his own political benefit, first with angry Fox live tweets lashing out at protesters and the Democratic officeholders he claimed were coddling them, then with a speech at Mount Rushmore attacking “the violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats,” and finally with a “law and order” strategy that went around those officeholders by sending heavily armed federal paramilitaries into an American city. 

All week long, that dire portrait of the country has been at the center of the Republican National Convention. Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who became a Fox News cause celebre but were charged with a felony weapons count after pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters earlier this year, spoke on Tuesday night. “Make no mistake: No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America,” Patricia McCloskey told the convention. In his own speech the following evening, Vice President Mike Pence pushed the same message. “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” he warned

This isn’t the first time that Fox has sought to help Republicans to political victory by warning their viewers that Democratic victories could lead to a threat to their safety. As the midterm elections approached in 2018, the network’s commentators began claiming that “the average citizen, if you're on the right, should be concerned and in danger” because Democrats had “normalized violence in America.” A few weeks later, a Trump superfan started mailing bombs to prominent Democrats and journalists. 

On Tuesday, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha spurred protests inflected with violence, Carlson again raised the temperature, telling his audience, “Joe Biden's voters really are a threat to you and your family.” That’s a sick statement, but one entirely in line with what his network has been pumping out for months. If you believe what he was saying, you very well might decide that the best response is to arm yourself, drive to a protest in a nearby city, and go looking for trouble. And if you do, there’s no telling what might happen next.