Selcuk Acar / NurPhoto / Getty; Chip Somodevilla / Getty; The Atlantic
All around you are swirling scenes of violence—explosions in Baghdad, ISIS operatives slitting the throat of an infidel, the chaos around the U.S. Capitol on January 6. You see jarring images of blood and brutality; you hear the grating sound of screaming; you feel the rush of fear and rage.
But then a calm, sympathetic man steps forward, dressed in a button-down shirt. He explains all of it. He connects the disconnected images; he makes sense of the disturbing noises; he puts everything you have just witnessed into a single narrative. These stories are confusing, he says, because they have been staged or manipulated. None of them has ever been what they seem. Underlying them, however, is a deeper truth: Good people, honest people, true Americans, patriots, people just like you, are being cheated. Sinister forces inside the American government arranged all of this bad imagery in order to oppress you, to remove you, to eliminate you. Finally, it all makes sense.
This, in essence, is the plot and structure of Patriot Purge, a documentary produced by Tucker Carlson and Scooter Downey. The first of three parts is now airing on the streaming service Fox Nation—about which more in a moment. You already know Carlson, the man in the button-down shirt; the preppy turned propagandist who adopted extremism after his career as a moderate Republican failed; the living, breathing embodiment of the word cynic. Downey, a less familiar figure, is the director of previous documentaries, including Hoaxed, an apologia for the Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich and other denizens of the online alt-right. Hoaxed was designed to provoke feelings of danger, anger, and mistrust around “the media.” Now Patriot Purge uses the same combination of violent, rapidly changing film clips, ominous music, and earnest “witnesses” to provoke feelings of danger, anger, and mistrust around the FBI, the U.S. military, the White House, the American government as a whole.
To comprehend the full scope of the conspiracy, viewers will have to watch all three episodes. But even in the first episode, the goals of this project are already clear. The point is to describe the events of January 6 as a false-flag operation cooked up inside the deepest layers of the American deep state—and thus to cast doubt on everything that will come out of Congress’s January 6 hearings, everything revealed by every Washington Post or network-television investigation, everything turned up by the FBI. For Fox viewers, this will come as an enormous relief. For if all the disturbing facts can be ignored, then no lessons need be learned. Republicans in Congress and the Trump White House need never be blamed for their assault on the Constitution. The people who supported them need never question that support.
Equally important—and with longer-term significance—the documentary is deliberately designed to make viewers question the most important institutions in their society, the very same ones that, until now, inspired faith and belief among American conservatives. FBI agents were once good guys who produced law and order. Now they are a sinister cabal who created a fake demonstration on January 6 (a “honeypot”) with the aim of drawing in and eventually persecuting and repressing patriotic Americans. The U.S. military once consisted of heroes who fought our enemies overseas. Now the armed forces are part of the same conspiracy, as they seek to identify those same American patriots and “purge out of the military every dissenting voice.” This, someone warns, will be the “War on Terror 2.0,” the “same corrupt interests in Washington pushing the lie of domestic white terrorism.”
As an ancillary bonus, this story line will also help convince some Americans not to believe the result of the next election. If the FBI and the military can create fake scenarios, why can’t local election boards? If something as important as the assault on the Capitol can be faked, then why can’t a presidential victory? Many of those watching of course already believe that the 2020 election was stolen. This latest set of “revelations” will simply add some new spice to the conspiratorial soup they have been simmering in for years. Those who had already lost their faith in American institutions are now being taught to hate them. Those who no longer trust America’s elected or military leaders are learning to see them as existential enemies.
Curiously, Patriot Purge is not being shown on Fox News’s ordinary cable channels, but rather, again, on a separate streaming service, Fox Nation, which requires the payment of an additional fee. Perhaps that’s to earn extra money; perhaps that’s because the network feels some slight flicker of guilt about showing a documentary designed to make Americans turn against the military and the FBI. A network spokesperson already instructed one digital outlet to make clear that Fox Nation, not Fox News, would air the show. When I contacted Fox News to ask why it wasn’t broadcasting a documentary produced by and starring its most popular prime-time host, a spokesperson forwarded a February press release promising “exclusive content” from Carlson for the streaming service, but she would not answer further questions on the record. Either way, the result is that many of the people who would be most horrified by this slickly packaged, solemn-sinister production will not watch it, and thus will not understand the increase in suspicion, doubt, and fear among the people who have.
So consider this a warning, from someone who did watch it: The hatred of America and of American institutions is going to grow. It will become more mainstream and more acceptable—especially among conservatives who once thought of their country with so much faith and pride.