The revelation of panicked texts from Fox News hosts to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows during the January 6 insurrection, while not unexpected, is nonetheless extraordinary. The texts shed light on so many crucial elements of our political crisis, including the role of conservative infotainment propaganda in our democracy and the failure of both traditional media and the political establishment to respond effectively against it. Most of all, they demonstrate the degree to which, in the space of just under a year, anti-democracy insurrection has become normalized in conservative circles.
As a violent mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol, assaulting police officers and threatening the lives of members of Congress and the vice president with the express intention of stopping the certification of Joe Biden’s victory and keeping Trump as president against the will of the American people, the powers that be at Fox News went into a panic. Either unable or unwilling to reach the president they had sycophantically supported for the previous four years, they tried frantically to reach Meadows, begging him to force Trump to put a halt to it:
“Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” Ms. Ingraham wrote. “This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”
Mr. Kilmeade echoed that concern, texting Mr. Meadows: “Please, get him on TV. Destroying everything you have accomplished.”
Sean Hannity texted: “Can he make a statement? Ask people to leave the Capitol.”
Ms. Ingraham’s text came in contrast with what she said on her Fox News program in the hours after the attack, when she promoted the false theory that members of antifa were involved.
There is so much to be noted here: the cozy hand-in-glove proximity of conservative infotainment to the White House while posing as “news”; the fact that those same Fox News hosts fed their viewers the same lies that had prompted the rioters to lay siege to the Capitol in the first place; the way at least one access journalist at Punchbowl sat on and refused to report on their own texts from the time; the immediate effort by Fox News that very night to obfuscate what happened; that Meadows allegedly used his personal email, phone, and social media accounts in direct violation of the same laws that caused Trump to instigate “Lock her up” chants against Hillary Clinton for alleged minor violations of the same; the utter refusal of the president to take significant action to quell the violence on his behalf; and much more.
Yet it’s important to note, in retrospect, that conservative media leaders were in a genuine panic—not so much over the threat to our democracy and the lives of legislators, but over the consequences of the incident to the conservative movement and to Trumpism itself. Perhaps, if we are being generous, we might speculate that the texts were written in genuine concern but framed in such a way as to appeal to the president’s narcissism. The upshot, nonetheless, is the same.
At the time of the violence, they genuinely believed that the public would recoil in revulsion to what was happening, and that the conservative project under Trump would be permanently discredited as a result. The fact that this has nothappened—indeed, that the failed violent coup attempt of January 6 has become the precursor to an ongoing party-wide legal coup against democracy ever since—is terrifying.
In essence, conservative leaders got a chance to catch their breath, look coldly at the wreckage, and say to themselves, “This is fine, actually.” They had the opportunity to lie to their engaged followers that the insurrectionists were really left-wing agitators, or that they were prodded on by agents provocateurs within the “deep state,” or that the rioters were just little more than tourists and mild peaceful protesters, or that the violence was justified to “stop the steal.” The GOP base had time to normalize the episode and frame it as just another politicized event.
This is, it must be said, partly the fault of Democrats in Congress. There was a crucial delay of several days before the beginning of impeachment proceedings against Trump for his role in the failed coup. The impeachment itself was narrowly focused and did not make full or even partial use of Congress’s authority to call witnesses and conduct investigations over the events of the day, when the principals involved were still reeling in fear and toxic to their allies.
Moreover, after the inauguration, Democrats chose to prioritize a legislative agenda and Biden’s honeymoon period over an immediate pursuit of investigative committees, thereby scuttling the possibility of a Senate committee and giving the plotters ample time to plan their defense and hide behind the protection of polarized politics. This delay also enabled Trump’s miscreants time to pursue a strategy designed to run out the clock on the House investigation. They suspect, not without good reason, that there will be a GOP takeover of Congress after next year’s midterms, which would almost certainly scuttle the effort.
Now, less than a year after Fox News hosts were texting Mark Meadows in panic, the network is the home of unabashed January 6 apologias and conspiracy theories. Tucker Carlson, now the crown jewel of conservative media and the second most important movement leader behind Donald Trump himself, has produced a shamelessly deceptive and conspiracy-laden pseudo-documentary about the Capitol insurrection, with the full backing and promotion of Fox News’s new streaming service. This, in turn, has led to the resignation of at least two other conservative media personalities at Fox—both of whom in their own day were considered on the vanguard edge of the right.
With a full enough investigation, legal support for democratic accountability from the Department of Justice, and sufficient focus on this crisis in traditional media, there might yet be time to shock the conscience of Americans and let the public understand the depth of the danger that existed then and continues to exist now. This is a “Break glass in case of emergency” moment for American democracy, and it should already have spelled the end of any shred of legitimacy for Fox News and Trumpism more broadly.
It still could, if enough information is revealed. We still, for instance, do not know the degree to which Republican members of Congress knew about what would happen in advance and what had happened immediately afterward, or their level of complicity in endangering the lives of their colleagues and democracy itself. We deserve to learn the truth, and to have justice and accountability.
But time is running out. Conservatives have had the opportunity to minimize the shock and normalize or minimize the failed coup—just as they plot a successful one the next time.