Tucker Carlson is very effective at setting the rightwing agenda, telling them what to think about and framing how to understand politics. Ever wonder how he does it? Ever wonder why contrary facts do not seem to penetrate, but only further reinforce the narrative he conveys?
The answers are in the study of conspiracy rhetoric and propaganda with insights from cognitive science.
Tucker Carlson is nothing new. We’ve seen demagogues emerge in democratic societies many times before. That’s allowed scholars to understand their communication strategies over time and under different conditions.
What follows is, first, an explanation of how propaganda works, when effectively deployed by the likes of Carlson. And second, a clip-by-clip analysis of a recent segment on Carlson’s show.
The Propaganda Playbook
Propaganda is a type of communication built for warfare. It is communication as a kind of force, a weapon in itself. War propaganda typically focuses on us versus them, emotional appeals, conspiracy and other tactics designed to erode the confidence of the enemy or build the confidence of one’s own side.
But we don’t find these propaganda tactics used just during warfare. We find them being used daily on social media and cable news and other media that work on the metrics of attention and engagement. Propaganda is great at getting our attention, but it’s terrible for democracy.
I teach classes on effective and ethical communication and lately I’ve been teaching my students how to recognize propaganda when they see it. These tactics are effective in warfare, I explain, and fundamentally unethical in daily life. They amount to “influence without consent,” denying our ability to think critically. Politics is not warfare.
Edward Bernays was an early advocate for mass propaganda, developing propaganda strategies for the United States during World War I and continuing to lead the development of the “science of propaganda” throughout the 20th century. He explained the goals of different kinds of war propaganda in 1942:
“propaganda of enlightenment” would get true facts to the people and army of the enemy;
“propaganda of despair” would break down the morale of the enemy by showing impending death, disaster, and defeat;
“propaganda of hope” would give the enemy a picture of their happy future once they give up;
“particularist propaganda” would divide the enemy by pitting their factions against each other; and
“revolutionary propaganda” would break down the government of the enemy from within.
Notice that all of these strategies target the enemy with a goal to end the war.
Because propaganda is a tool of warfare it relies on “us versus them” polarization rhetoric. When propaganda is deployed against “us” during warfare the goal is to unify our side against the enemy. To do this, propaganda often relies upon fear appeals to demonize the “them” and scare the “us” into maintaining a warlike footing.
We’ve known since Aristotle that emotional appeals are persuasive. We know, especially, that fear appeals work. Media effects scholars have explained that strong emotions like outrage and fear can be elicited through media content, can be contagious, and can misinform our understanding of threats like violence and crime.
From cognitive science we learn how these kinds of appeals work against our body’s basic physiology, denying our ability to reason about media content. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman an “amygdala hijack” is when the body’s natural responses to fear “hijacks” the rational part of the brain. In response to perceived danger the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol flood the brain, hijacking the amygdala and preventing critical thinking.
Propagandists often use appeals to conspiracy as a fear appeal and an “amygdala hijack” strategy. As I’ve explained elsewhere, conspiracy theory is an incredibly effective, but unethical, strategy. Conspiracy is premised on a self-confirming or circular reasoning. Conspiracy argument is “self-sealing” in that objections are quickly covered up by the logic of the conspiracy. That means that conspiracy cannot be disproven.
If you deny the plot, the conspiracist accuses you of a cover-up, of trying to suppress the truth or free speech. If you deny the facts, the conspiracist says “they won’t tell you the truth” or “they suppress the evidence.”
Like a tire that covers up the hole when you run over a nail so you can keep driving, the conspiracy cannot be punctured. There is no fact or truth that can penetrate the conspiracy theory, the logic of conspiracy covers it up.
A Section-by-Section Analysis of Tucker Carlson, June 16, 2021
One recent example from Carlson, Fox News’ popular opinion host, shows how polarization, fear appeals, and conspiracy work together toward denying his audience’s ability to think critically about his messages. Carlson’s segment is a masterclass in how conspiracy theories work. Analyzing it in detail shows why his fringe conspiracy has dominated the news for the past week, and why much of that news coverage will have no effect on his main audience.
First, Carlson activates his audience’s fight, flight, or freeze response by telling the story of a supposedly racially motivated shooting spree in which an African-American man targeted white men. He uses evocative language that puts his viewer in the place of the person shot, reaffirming they are in real danger, “these were crimes of viciousness motivated by race hate. They’re not unique in this country — not by a long shot.”
But Carlson says that it’s not the shooter’s fault, it’s actually a reasonable response to what political leaders have done: focus on race to divide us. “If you really believed what the Democratic Party and BLM were telling you — that white males are intentionally destroying the world — you might be motivated to hurt someone. Why wouldn’t you?” He also signals that survival of the country is at stake: “A multi-racial country can only survive if it self-consciously deemphasizes race.” These general principles in his lede allow him to segue into the real topic: the government — “the regime,” as he describes it — is punishing “political dissent.”
Note also how Carlson gives his audience permission. It is the other side’s fault for “picking at the wound, America’s wound” of racial divisions. He adds that government leaders “are working hard to divide us into warring camps.” The permission slip narrative also weaves together with Carlson’s prior framing. In March, a guest explained, “The right is going to pick a fascist … if we are going to be all treated like criminals and all subject to every single law while antifa, Black Lives Matter guys go free.” Carlson responded, “That’s so well put, and you’re absolutely right. We’re moving toward actual extremism because they’re undermining the system that kept extremism at bay.”
KELLY: The right is going to pick a fascist within 10 to 20 years —
CARLSON: Right. That's right.
KELLY: — Because they're not going to be the only one — the only ones on the outs. pic.twitter.com/n1NwnwUTsR
— Brendan Karet 🚮 (@bad_takes) March 26, 2021
Carlson has activated his audience’s flight or fight response; he has their attention, but they don’t have their reason. Now he deploys his conspiracy narrative.
Carlson starts with a statement from the “thoroughly craven” Attorney General about the threat of violent extremism motivated by white supremacy. “But Merrick Garland lied about that. He, like most people you see on television, wants you to believe and wants history to record, that January 6th was an attempted insurrection by white supremacist revolutionaries bent on taking over this country.”
That’s the general principle (the major premise), what follows are examples to provide an accumulation to support that major premise as the conclusion. Yes, it’s circular.
Carlson explains that we know that government is after you because January 6th had nothing to do with race, but was about using force “to arrest, imprison, and otherwise crush anyone who leads opposition to Joe Biden’s government.” “We’re living through the transformation of a formerly democratic republic into something else,” warns Carlson. “We’re looking at growing authoritarianism.” (The reference to “formerly” is not in Fox News’ near verbatim writeup of the segment.)
Then he plays video of Russian President Vladimir Putin making remarks to prove this: “Did you order the assassination of the woman who walked into the Congress and who was shot and killed by a policeman? Do you know that 450 individuals were arrested after entering the Congress? And they didn’t go there to steal a laptop. They came with political demands.” Carlson bookends the video —by aligning him and his audience with Putin. Before playing the video of Putin, Carlson says, “Vladimir Putin knows authoritarian systems very well, and he sees clearly what is happening in this country.” After playing the clip, the Fox News host remarks of Putin’s rhetoric, “honestly, those are fair questions.” Then (remember, their flight/fight response is active) Carlson asks, “are anonymous federal agents now allowed to kill unarmed women who protest the regime? That’s OK now? No, it’s not ok. It will never be ok.”
Again, there is danger–you will be shot, they shot an unarmed woman! This allows him to repeat Putin’s appeal to hypocrisy (tu quoque the dominant appeal of our broken public sphere that erodes trust) as his own position: “so many Biden voters who torched federal buildings” are “walking free.” He’s making a false comparison, including, between threatening the lives of members of Congress and threatening buildings, but his audience won’t notice that error in reasoning, their amygdala has been hijacked. Remember, he has told his audience that they’re in danger, there is a plot, the regime officials are hypocrites.
From there he invokes a series of conspiracy questions about the supposed January 6th plot: “Why is the Biden administration preventing us from knowing?” “What could possibly be the reason,” he asks. These questions activate the conspiracy frame. What follows cannot be disproven because, of course, the conspiracy exists, aren’t you in danger? Don’t you feel scared?
All this tees up his FBI plot story, which is already proven by his major premise (they’re trying to “suppress political dissent”). He uses the language of conspiracy, makes coincidence appear to be a pattern, misrepresenting reality, using hedging words for plausible deniability.
Carlson uses the language of conspiracy: “strangely,” “potentially,” “apparently,” “almost certainly.” He asks his audience, “why is that?” and then assures them, “you know why.” The Fox chyron sums it up for the viewer, “IT’S A TACTIC THE FBI HAS BEEN USING FOR YEARS.”
Carlson reinforces the danger to his audience by comparing what he claims the FBI has done in the past to the threat he claims there is against political dissent by invoking the PATRIOT Act and how it was used to violate civil liberties in the name of protecting the US from foreign terror threats. Carlson flips how the audience will hear comparisons made by US officials and commentators between the attack on Sept. 11 and the attack on Jan. 6. It’s not the attack that’s being compared, he says, it’s the use of law enforcement power.
“If you’re wondering why they’re always comparing January 6 to 9/11, there’s your answer. They’re using the same tactics. And a lot of us missed this the first time around. … We didn’t see the obvious.”
Now the government says that WE are the threats, claims Carlson. They’re going to PATRIOT Act US! “If you empower the government to violate civil liberties in pursuit of a foreign terror organization, and there are foreign terror organizations, it’s just a matter of time before ambitious politicians use those same mechanisms to suppress political dissent. And that’s what we’re seeing now. We should have seen it earlier.”
“That should really worry you,” Carlson says. They might even “round up” sitting members of Congress? The “DULY DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED?” Anyone who “oppose[s] the regime” is a threat because they’re punishing political dissent. “Even Vladimir Putin is not doing that!” And “no one noticed” a former FBI official openly calling for this on television!!
Carlson tells his audience that the January 6th insurrection was about legitimate “political dissent” and any attempt to punish the insurrectionists amounts to authoritarianism, which should scare them. And it does. Carlson hijacks his audience’s ability to think critically with fear appeals, then uses the language of conspiracy to tell them that they should be scared and they can trust no one but him to tell them the truth.
In his closing remark, he gives the audience an easy way of not having to worry about all the details and how they don’t align with reality. “This is crazy, and we should resist it.”
It’s an old strategy—highly effective, and profoundly unethical.
Propaganda’s very nature is undemocratic because it influences us without our consent; it is also one of the means used to achieve fascist ends. As philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno wrote in their 1944 book Dialectic of Enlightenment, “propaganda manipulates people; when it cries ‘freedom’ it contradicts itself. Deceit and propaganda are inseparable. A community in which the leader and his followers come to terms through propaganda—whatever the merits of its content—is a community of lies.”