One week later, on August 26, Fox News host Tucker Carlson sympathized with Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who killed two Wisconsin Black Lives Matter protesters and maimed another. Carlson suggested Rittenhouse felt he “had to maintain order when no one else would.”
At a glance, these provocations might appear disconnected. But they are deeply intertwined. In the span of a week, Trump and Carlson both gave the green light to extremist elements on the Right, QAnon conspiracy theorists on the one hand and armed pro-police adventurists on the other. In the process they each drew on the same bedrock narrative: that the streets of America — especially Democrat-run cities, but nowhere is safe — are teeming with lawless agents of anarchy who flout authority, terrorize innocents, and threaten civilization itself. Thus besieged, right-wing extremism of one variant or another is not really extreme at all. It is rational, even heroic and patriotic.
Trump played dumb about QAnon, though of course he’s familiar with it. Most news-literate Americans now know the broad outlines, and Trump watches more news than anybody, not to mention he’s fascinated by anything starring himself, which QAnon does. But even as he attempted to downplay both his awareness of QAnon and its fundamental lunacy, he also played up the idea that he and his administration are defending the world from total destruction at the hands of shadowy evildoers, which is at the heart of QAnon.
Trump: I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate. But I don’t know much about the movement. I have heard that it is gaining in popularity…
These are people that don’t like seeing what’s going on in places like Portland and places like Chicago and New York and other cities and states. And I’ve heard these are people that love our country and they just don’t like seeing it.
I don’t know anything about it other than they do supposedly like me, and they also would like to see problems in these areas, especially the areas that we’re talking about, go away, because there’s no reason Democrats can’t run a city, and if they can’t we will send in all of the federal, whether it’s troops or law enforcement, whatever they’d like, we’ll send them in and we’ll straighten out their problems in twenty-four hours or less.
Reporter: The crux of the theory is this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Does that sound like something you are behind?
Trump: Well I haven’t heard that. But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are, actually. We’re saving the world from a radical left that will destroy this country. And when this country is gone, the rest of the world would follow.
Naturally, QAnon supporters did not interpret these remarks as a repudiation of their worldview but instead took it as encouragement that they’re on the right track. Emboldened, they held rallies — branded as innocuous protests against “child trafficking,” with participants wearing “Child Lives Matter” T-shirts — in dozens of cities across the country last Saturday, just days after Trump’s comments.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has studiously avoided QAnon. It’s not his style. But he has aggressively promoted the bedrock narrative of nebulous but mounting chaos designed by those who consciously seek to dismantle society and carried out by their unwitting liberal foot soldiers. When the second wave of Black Lives Matter protests began, Carlson spoke about them in ominous terms, characterizing them as indiscriminately violent and charging that they constituted “a form of tyranny” and posed “a threat to every American.” Those comments are consistent with Carlson’s usual oratory, which gives the overall impression that hordes of enemy invaders — from Central American immigrants to politically-correct college students — are perpetually breaching the castle walls.
Carlson’s comments on the actions of Rittenhouse, who crossed state lines with an assault weapon to assist police with crowd control and, as he put it, “protect from the citizens,” are perfectly indicative of Carlson’s rhetoric over the course of the protests. Like Trump, Carlson implied that the police should have been more aggressive with people protesting the Kenosha, Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake:
Kenosha has devolved into anarchy because the authorities in charge of the city abandoned it. People in charge from the governor on down refused to enforce the law. They stood back and they watched Kenosha burn. So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that seventeen-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?
Police were being aggressive already: they used ample amounts of tear gas on protesters and even welcomed the assistance of armed civilians whom they perceived to be on their side. The Kenosha Police Chief’s blaming of protesters for Rittenhouse’s actions, and the Kenosha Sheriff’s recently resurfaced comments from 2018 in which he recommends locking black shoplifters and other “garbage people” up in “warehouses” until they “perish” and “completely disappear,” do not suggest a law enforcement top brass likely to accommodate Black Lives Matter protesters. But the image Carlson wants to portray is of a maliciously neglectful government that does nothing to protect innocent people while the world tears apart at the seams.
Millions of people have been listening to Carlson and company doomsay and exaggerate threats like this for years. Many of them have been compelled by comments like his and the mythology they build to scour the internet in fear and indignation. More than a handful have navigated their way into the world of conspiracy theories and reactionary extremism, both of which encourage vigilantism.
After a while stewing in their own hatred and horror, their sense of reality warping and fraying, a number of people eventually decide to take matters into their own hands. Some chase random civilians they mistake for pedophile kidnappers with their cars or hatch plots to raid foster homes. Others patrol protests against racial injustice with AR-15s — not merely supporting but, in their minds, personally becoming the “thin blue line” between civilization and chaos.
Melting Into Air
These ideas are dangerous. In Rittenhouse’s case, they’ve resulted in two deaths. In order to combat them, we need to understand why they are gaining purchase.
The truth is the world is coming apart at the seams. For decades, the stability in many Americans’ lives has been undermined by policies and processes that grow profits for a handful of rich people and shield them from paying taxes. Constant social transformation is endemic to capitalism. But this process is accelerated and intensified by neoliberalism, which meets a weak opposition as it promotes austerity and privatization, thus removing sources of stability without much pressure to replace them with anything at all.
The result over the last half-century has been increasing volatility and alienation, an almost universal feeling of dislocation. Working-class people bear the brunt of the material processes that set into motion this kind of disintegration. But everybody inhabits this world together and everybody, no matter how rich or poor, is susceptible under these conditions to feeling untethered and paranoid. Aided by the rapid expansion of revolutionary modes of digital communication and information access, this mutual sense of confusion and suspicion — of each other, of the future — manifests in increasingly strange ways.
The coronavirus pandemic and economic shutdown are the epitome of this era so far. Millions are unemployed, nearly two hundred thousand are dead, and normal life, which didn’t feel very normal to begin with, has ground to a halt. Everything feels especially surreal and sinister, and at no time in living memory has reality itself been more contested. So it’s no wonder that the QAnon conspiracy theory has begun to rapidly radicalize people (and score political victories) during this peculiar time. Consider the case of Alpalus Slyman, who first encountered QAnon this summer and within a few weeks was livestreaming a high-speed police chase with his wife and children in the car, begging for Trump and Q to intervene on his behalf.
Likewise, it’s not surprising that this Black Lives Matter protest wave has invited far more internet-inspired vigilantism than the last one did, including the presence of Boogaloo Boys, who fall halfway between QAnon and Rittenhouse, part wild-eyed apocalyptic conspiracists and part heavily armed right-wing survivalists. Meanwhile, Rittenhouse is now being overtly celebrated as a hero by digital neo-Nazis — some deadly serious, others primarily interested in “triggering libtards” (also a hobby of Rittenhouse’s), and many suspended in between — whose ranks are swelling in this age of entropy.
The special instability and surreality of the pandemic is accelerating a kind of collective psychosis in a segment of the American right. This unraveling is being actively encouraged by mainstream right-wing leaders, who like caregivers with Munchausen syndrome by proxy are making their charges sick to keep them near.
As a result, a small but rapidly growing contingent of people believe that Trump is fighting a satanist-pedophile-deep state-Jewish-cannibal-Illuminati cabal. Meanwhile, vastly larger numbers of people believe a sanitized version of this story in which the forces of law and order are holding at bay those of BLM-antifa-Democrat-immigrant-transgender-Marxist darkness. Or, rather, they’re attempting to hold it at bay, but they need assistance, which the proud and brave will willingly provide.
None of this is inevitable. These mass delusions are contingent and rooted in economic, political, and cultural processes. And because they’re contingent, they can be abated if we set into motion new processes — ones that by design encourage stability and solidarity instead of volatility and violence.
But that’s easier said than done. Because the Right, at present, faces no serious opposition from the Left, only a hapless center that has no real alternative political vision for which it seeks to build hegemony, and whose strategy for electoral dominance is to passively absorb refugees from an increasingly unhinged right.
Until a real left opposition emerges to confront the Right, Carlson and Trump, and whoever emerges in their wake will keep Americans dreaming of apocalypse and dying to stop it, dreaming of glory and killing to attain it.