Voices: Tucker Carlson’s rewriting of history exposes the looming civil war in the GOP
The one thing that motivates Mitch McConnell is power. The gain or loss of it shapes his thinking and drives his decisions. So the last few election cycles, which indicated weakening Republican electoral prospects resulting in his loss of Senate Majority Leader, certainly changed McConnell’s calculus. The problem is, most of the party hasn’t changed theirs and it’s causing fissures in the GOP. In other words, Republicans are in disarray.
There is no better indication of the deep divides within the Republican Party than their reaction to Tucker Carlson’s depiction of January 6 on Fox News. After Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) handed the Fox host over 40,000 hours of Capitol footage, Carlson aired some of the footage seeking to depict the insurrection as peaceful. This caused a firestorm not only from pro-democracy liberals but from within the GOP itself. Ultimately, this is resulting in an internal debate of whether or not the party will continue to embrace the Big Lie and Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, Mitch McConnell was asked about Tucker Carlson’s segment. McConnell held up a memo from US Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger. The memo condemned Carlson’s framing of January 6 as an "offensive and misleading" depiction that omitted the "chaos and violence" of the attack. McConnell said that letter accurately describes what he witnessed firsthand and called out Fox News by name: "It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here at the Capitol thinks."
Other high-profile GOP Senators echoed McConnell and went even further. "I think it’s bulls***," Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) said of Carlson’s depiction. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) said, "Any attempt to normalize what was a violent attack on the United States Capitol only makes it more intriguing for people to do such a thing in the future." Senator John Kennedy (R-LA), who has had no problems engaging in other GOP culture wars, said of Carlson’s segment: “I was here. It was not peaceful. It was an abomination."
This is a distinctly different approach than Speaker McCarthy and his allies like Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) have taken. Aside from handing Tucker Carlson the Capitol footage, McCarthy has taken several other steps to aid the disinformation campaign seeking to rewrite the history of January 6. In a bid to placate the MAGA Republicans in his slim majority, McCarthy has empowered extremists in his caucus to launch a pro-insurrection counter-narrative. Much like Tucker Carlson, McCarthy knows this narrative is false but pushes it anyway to appeal to his base.
Other members of House GOP leadership are touting Carlson’s framing, including chair of the House Republican Conference Rep Elise Stefanik (R-NY). Stefanik sent multiple tweets about Carlson’s broadcast, falsely saying that "The Democrats’ dishonest narrative is being demolished" and called the January 6 Committee a "sham" "witch hunt." They’re also going beyond words. House Republicans are reportedly gearing up to launch multiple new January 6 probes, including one that investigates the January 6 Committee itself. They’re overtly trying to target the one truth-seeking body that pushed back on the Big Lie.
The Republican Party’s divided reaction to Tucker Carlson’s January 6 tapes is a microcosm of the looming 2024 GOP Civil War. At the core of this debate is how much extremism the Republican Party is willing to continue to embrace. On one side we have Mitch McConnell and some other GOP Senators condemning this effort to rewrite the history of January 6 and on the other, we have McCarthy and Donald Trump embracing the pro-insurrection narrative.
McConnell is clearly taking electoral lessons from Republican losses in 2018, 2020, and 2022 and wants to move beyond overt extremism, but Trump and his clones want to turn the volume up. McConnell would much rather move back to a quieter, more polite extremism that doesn’t scream in the public’s face "I’m extreme and hate democracy!" The polite extremism is what the Republican Party was before, with their Southern Strategy. They used to at least try to put a veil on their radicalism until Newt Gingrich in the 90s changed the game and then the GOP establishment enabled Donald Trump to fully rip the mask off with his bigoted and blatantly anti-democracy campaign and presidency. McConnell wants to move on so Republicans can win elections again, but McCarthy is once again holding this back.
After the 2022 midterms, Republicans had yet another opportunity to try and close the book on Donald Trump. The vast majority of swing state candidates he endorsed lost and election deniers lost key races in battleground states. His 2024 announcement was a low-energy dud. There was a brief moment where the party was openly discussing why they should move on from Trump and his tactics. But once again, just like after January 6, Kevin McCarthy was there to revive Trump. By spending time relitigating January 6, McCarthy is essentially promoting a pro-Trump narrative that could only help him in the 2024 GOP primary.
So we have the one, smaller faction of the GOP that would like to move on from Trump and January 6. Then we have a much larger faction that would like to double down on that extremism. Which side will win? It’s more likely that the Republican base will want either Trump or a Trump clone without the baggage – someone like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis perhaps, who would be equally, if not more dangerous than Trump.
If the Republican Party wants to get serious about preventing Trump from obtaining the nomination again, they can’t make the same mistakes they made in 2016. Trump benefits from a large, splintered field of candidates that overstay their welcome. With no one alternative candidate to consolidate around, Trump could sweep the field.
If history provides us with any insight, Donald Trump would lose the presidency again if he won the GOP nomination. Because that’s what Trump does. He loses, and he brings the Republican Party down with him every time. This is precisely what Mitch McConnell would like to prevent. This isn’t about virtue or principle. This is about power. And McConnell thinks the route to regain and maintain power is a post-Trump GOP. When it comes to McCarthy, it’s unclear if he’s thinking that long-term at all or if he’s just too consumed in the day-to-day management of his divided caucus to see the forest for the trees.
Regardless of what happens, 2024 will be consequential. The stakes are high. We’re still very far off and anything can happen so it’s unclear exactly how it will play out. But one thing is for certain: once again, democracy will be on the ballot.