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How Kevin McCarthy and Tucker Carlson Surrendered to MAGA

The problem isn’t Tucker’s show; it’s how GOP elites submit to radicals.
March 8, 2023
How Kevin McCarthy and Tucker Carlson Surrendered to MAGA
(Composite by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages)

Republican members of Congress upset with Tucker Carlson’s rewrite of January 6th as a peaceful protest should redirect their ire. It’s their colleague, GOP Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, who is giving that lie new life.

The only reason Carlson is airing these specials is because McCarthy provided him the content to produce them.

McCarthy made an affirmative decision to collaborate with Fox News, even as the company is embroiled in a billion-dollar lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems, which has exposed in granular detail how Fox’s two-faced hosts, executives, and producers brazenly air content they know is untruthful. That makes this not just a Fox problem, but a Republican party problem, too.

What McCarthy is doing for power is precisely what Fox does to retain its ratings. Unsure how to navigate in a political environment controlled mainly by former President Donald Trump, they let the most radical elements of the MAGA coalition call the shots. It’s almost as if a “demonic force” came over them all.

For Fox, that means catering to a finicky viewership that might bolt to right-wing competitors, such as Newsmax or OANN, at the first sign the network isn’t sufficiently on their side. For McCarthy, it means submitting to demands from the Marjorie Taylor Greene caucus.

McCarthy didn’t come by his decision to hand 41,000 hours of security footage to Carlson lightly. He was bullied into it.

McCarthy only agreed to release the tapes as part of his (many) concessions to House Republicans to get the votes to become speaker. Matt Gaetz confirmed to the press it was part of a “handshake deal,” and after announcing the handover of tapes, McCarthy described it as a promise kept.

McCarthy’s discomfort with the deal reveals itself in his tortured explanations.

Whenever he’s about his reasoning for releasing the tapes to Carlson, McCarthy claims only to be motivated by the need for “sunshine” and “transparency.” But McCarthy knows full well why MAGA Republicans, who unsubtly invoke the word “fedsurrection” to describe the riot, wanted the tapes and how they would be manipulated.

Gaetz, Greene, and others have been part of a slow-boil effort to create a cult following and new mythology around the “January 6th martyrs.” Donald Trump has promised to pardon the rioters if re-elected. Last week, Trump released a song—yes, really—to show solidarity with the “J6 Prison Choir.”

McCarthy pretends to be unaware of these realities, as do the Republicans who think the most objectionable elements of these efforts are confined to Carlson’s on-air segments. As A.B. Stoddard pointed out, Trump’s declared and undeclared 2024 GOP nomination challengers pretend that none of this is even happening.

Why? McCarthy and Fox are afraid of alienating all their insurrection-happy viewers, voters, and colleagues. Cross ’em, and McCarthy and Fox know that all those lovely, peaceful tourists will come after them next.

McCarthy is in such a compromised position that he probably thought giving Carlson the tapes was a better option than what he originally planned.

After Republicans took back the House in the 2022 midterms, a giddy McCarthy vowed to launch an investigation of the January 6th Committee’s work. He sent a threatening letter, warning committee members to preserve their records (which was already required) and signaled his intent to prosecute their work. The New York Times reported:

In a recent closed-door meeting of Republicans, right-wing lawmakers including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia also extracted a promise that their leaders would investigate Ms. Pelosi and the Justice Department for their treatment of defendants jailed in connection with the Jan. 6 attack.

But given how McCarthy defied subpoenas from the January 6th Committee, there was fat chance of getting much cooperation. Or, getting people to testify to the Tucker Carlson view of events under oath.

Newsflash: Some mumbles from Mitch McConnell are not going to put this to rest. If McCarthy and Fox News have learned anything the hard way, it’s that once you decide to start feeding the MAGA base, it always demands more. Alligator, bathtub. Leopard, face. Clown, flamethrower.

Need evidence? Trump called for January 6th Committee members to be tried for treason based on Carlson’s Tuesday show. MTG, in her official capacity as a member of the House oversight committee, is set to lead a congressional delegation to visit jailed rioters.

There was a time when McCarthy said Trump bore responsibility for the riot and plainly described it as a “violent attack” that was “undemocratic, un-American, and criminal.” That was before he started making deals to become speaker.

Apparently, like his friends at Fox, McCarthy thinks he can play his audience for fools. He doesn’t even try defending what Fox did with the footage he provided. He pleads ignorance instead. When grilled by reporters on Tuesday, McCarthy told them, “I don’t know what Tucker Carlson said” and that “just like all of you cover news, people who are able to interpret the way they want.”

As if there were any question how Fox would, as McCarthy put it, “interpret” the tapes.

Their “Big Three” hosts—Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham—seamlessly pivoted from promoting lies about the 2020 election to promoting lies about the January 6th insurrection to give political cover to Trump and please his fans.

They all know better. Their texts, emails, and phone calls prove that. Their now not-so-secret shame is that they’ve all collectively surrendered their livelihoods to Trump’s MAGA base and feel they must continue appeasing it to ensure their professional survival.

Embarrassing as it must be, they forge forward.

As their reward, Fox enjoys continued ratings dominance. Carlson’s first showing of the footage crushed the competition, as per usual. And McCarthy remains speaker.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.