With Donald Trump on the sidelines, deprived of social-media amplification, the intense social and political turbulence in the United States, as it plays out on all-news TV, is different now. It is either engrossing or tedious, or quite possibly the prelude to epic, disturbing change. Take your pick.

As usual, Fox News is at the centre of things, and Tucker Carlson is the major mischief-maker. This week on Fox Nation, the streaming version of Fox News (not available in Canada), Carlson has a three-part documentary series called Patriot Purge. Portions of it are easily found online. The premise is that there’s a “true story” behind the events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. More than one of the pundits quoted in the series say the Capitol riot was a “false flag,” a deliberate misrepresentation of angry Trump supporters, who were provoked, likely by the FBI, into riotous behaviour. Carlson himself says in the program “federal agencies have a long history of ensnaring Americans in manufactured plots.”

The intended impact is clear: Further the idea that the 2020 election was stolen, Trump and his supporters were made to look bad and a cabal that includes federal agencies is preventing the truth from getting out.

As a theory it is bonkers, but at Fox Nation content is catnip to people who believe political violence is necessary to counter “the big lie” that Trump lost the election. Anyone who pays attention to Fox News and other right-wing U.S. outlets is aware of a shifting landscape in which the attack on the Capitol is considered part of a natural drift in U.S. politics and culture, and not an aberration.

Meanwhile, the other day on CNN’s Reliable Sources, host Brian Stelter opened with his longest monologue yet. He needed time because he went Nostradamus-like into the future, laying out a possible series of events leading up to the presidential election in 2024.

He suggests that what he calls “the MAGA media,” in concert with Republicans who are afraid of Trump’s scorn, and who replace election officials with Trump supporters, are laying the ground for a Trump campaign in 2024 and, maybe, violence with which Trump will get back in office.

Stelter predicts this: “Trump continues to traverse the country, holding rallies under the banner of save America, meaning America is under such dire threat that it needs to be saved from Democrats. These rallies are live on Newsmax and OAN and they are streamed all over the place. And to, quote, ‘Save America,’ red states continue to place new restrictions on voting rights, with local radio hosts and commentators providing all the rhetorical cover that’s needed. The savvy ones say it’s about voter integrity. Cruder ones say it’s about making sure real Americans are heard and illegals are not.”

He also says, “Trump’s propaganda machine so thoroughly rewrites the story of Jan. 6 that most Trump fans now say the riot was legitimate and was a virtuous attempt to right a wrong.”

What you’ve got there is a conspiracy theory, really. Stelter says right-wing media, afraid of losing the audience of fanatical Trump supporters, will further all manner of lies. And what Tucker Carlson is suggesting is that the Jan. 6 riot was either a non-event or an FBI conspiracy. Take your pick. His main aim is to suggest that there is a “war” being waged against Trump supporters and any right-wing American who is suspicious about the 2020 election.

Time was, the battle between Fox News and CNN was a matter of malicious catcalling. On-air anchors threw insults at people on the other channel.

What you’ve got now are competing visions of the state of America and what happens next. Fox News, through its main star, Carlson, is following the trajectory of suspicions about vaccinations furthering suspicions about government that in turn furthers suspicions about the 2020 election. Fox News sees Trump returning as president even if that return is anchored in violence and election manipulation. CNN sees Fox News not just as a competitor but as an enabler of conspiracy theories that undermine U.S. democracy.

It all amounts to two rival conspiracy theories doing battle. CNN’s is the more plausible, and if true, that one is the real prelude to disturbing, epic change. You can take your pick.

The Globe and Mail, November 2, 2021