Tucker Carlson, Propagandist and Authoritarian Enforcer
Carlson is setting himself up to be the Minister of Popular Enlightenment of the new Republican political order
Last week, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) appeared on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show to apologize for calling Jan. 6 a "violent terrorist attack," a comment that contradicts Republicans’ false narratives of the event as a patriotic act or a "legitimate protest" at Joe Biden stealing the 2020 election.
Carlson treated Cruz with disdain, interrupting him and refusing to accept his explanations for his transgression, even when Cruz reminded Carlson of his heroic role backing up the thousands massed at the Capitol to "defend this country" by "standing on the Senate floor objecting to the election results..." You could see the dismay in Cruz's eyes as he realized that his Senatorial credentials gave him no status in Carlson's world.
As the GOP's push toward authoritarianism accelerates, Carlson's influence is expanding. Already the star of the top show on Fox, which is the most-watched cable news network in America, he is now positioning himself as the Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda (that was Joseph Goebbels' title during Nazism) of the new Republican political order.
Carlson's not just a producer of disinformation, but also an enforcer of the Party Line. When a political culture is built on lies --a Big Lie, in particular-- questioning party dogma in public is a violation that necessitates public punishment, no matter who you are.
Cruz is a singularly unlikeable person, his arrogance leading him to tone-deaf actions like his February 2021 escape to a luxury resort in Cancún, Mexico, during a power grid crisis that left millions of Texans without heat or electricity. Many observers thus showed no sympathy for Cruz, and some even enjoyed the spectacle. "It was like watching a cat play with a mouse," wrote one columnist of Carlson's treatment of Cruz.
Cruz has always recognized when the political order is changing and acted to secure his place in it. That meant supporting former President Donald Trump, a man who had insulted Cruz’s wife when both men were running for the GOP nomination. Cruz's embrace of Trump's Big Lie about the election, which has "disgusted" many of his longtime aides, is in this tradition.
So is Cruz's pilgrimage to Carlson's show. Yet watching that exchange filled me with dread. Humiliating people on television for deviating from the Party Line is an autocratic habit. It's called "making an example," and it's a way to get people to self-censor and go along with whatever corrupt or violent action the leader engages in to keep himself in power.
Cruz's questioning a foundational element of the Big Lie, post-Jan. 6 version, and his praise for the Capitol Police that day, were so threatening that Carlson had to crush him in full public view, on prime time.
In old-school regimes, this process of authoritarian enforcement often had deadly outcomes. Both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi regularly had television broadcasts of humiliations, trials, and even executions of people who had run afoul of the state.
In Libya, some of these programs exposed alleged anti-socialist behavior or corruption, as in the “where did you get this?” trials that ended with the subject in prison and his forbidden assets expropriated by the state. Others brought people out of jail for a second trial (a sequel, in television terms). Still others punished resisters, who were labeled terrorists and accused of collusion with the CIA or the Muslim Brotherhood.
Carlson's treatment of Cruz occurred in a democracy, and Cruz was free to ignore Carlson's criticisms. That he did not do so is a testament to his unctuous nature and to the power of the illiberal political culture that has taken root in the GOP. The fear in Cruz's eyes is perhaps also an intimation of his own irrelevance, as individuals who are far more radical than he is take over and push him to the margins, with Carlson leading the charge.