But Kyle was very concerned, he said, about the way that media members and liberal elites were responding to the situation:
They’re lumping every conservative who voted for Trump in with the people who stormed the Capitol. … I think it was Joy Behar who referred to every Trump supporter as people trying to overthrow democracy by voting like that. You have Michelle Obama saying similar things.
As for the considerable number of his fellow conservatives rejecting the results of a legitimate election, Kyle didn’t approve. But he understood where they were coming from:
You have every cultural outlet in your life stacked against you … you go to a job but you can’t really talk politics to [your] co-workers because there is a good chance that one of them might say something to your boss and you might get demoted or even fired. You can’t go to college without having most of your classes consist of definitely very progressive left ideologies … You have Hollywood … [Conservatives] have the sense of, “I’m being constantly repressed, and now my election’s being stolen from me.”
The next day, in a column published in Politico, one of Kyle’s favorite pundits sounded a similar note: “Conservatives see the game,” wrote Ben Shapiro. “If you supported Trump in any way, you were at least partially culpable, the argument goes. It’s not just Trump who deserves vitriol—it’s all 74 million people who voted for him.”
At the time, we were interviewing conservatives and monitoring conservative media as part of an effort to understand the Right’s alienation from reliable sources of information. In interviews and media both, we heard this same theme again and again. Some on the right believed the “Big Lie” that the election was stolen; others did not or weren’t sure. Some contended that Trump had behaved responsibly; others disagreed. But virtually all concurred that conservatives writ large were being unfairly blamed, demonized, and ostracized for the events at the Capitol. And virtually all were quite emotional about it.
We started to wonder whether political analysts were missing the most important dynamic at work in the conservative response to January 6—and one of the defining features of contemporary conservatism. In the Trump era, the animating force of right-wing politics is often thought to be lies told by right-wing leaders—disinformation—or, alternately, a deeply rooted, ideological resistance to equality and progress among selfish and reactionary constituents. The centrality of grievance in right-wing culture is sometimes acknowledged, but still generally attributed to one of these core causes: lying leaders or an innately regressive public.
We were seeing something else. More than any factual falsehood or hostile political program, this story of social stigma and exclusion appeared to be the unifying conservative reaction to January 6. What’s more, the way the narrative that “contemptuous liberals are coming for you” was immediately and relentlessly applied to the insurrection suggests that right-wing leaders in politics and media are engaged in something more sophisticated than straightforward duping or the mere reflection of their public’s beliefs. They were spinning a story they knew would resonate with their constituents to frame January 6 in a way that precluded the possibility of truth and reconciliation in its aftermath.
Today, the conservative movement’s posture toward January 6 and the erosion of democratic norms that surround it toggles between indifference and defensiveness. Former president Trump is trying to harness the story of persecution directed against everything associated with conservatives to defend himself against a slew of indictments, telling supporters, “[T]hey’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you.” Many Republicans agree with him. These are merely current, vivid examples of the persecution narrative’s thematic centrality and emotional power. Liberal and left critics who want to take on the contemporary Right need to recognize that this storytelling is where much of conservatism’s popular loyalty and energy come from. Melodramatic tales about the conservative’s place in the world are more than accomplices to Big Lies, more than symptoms of an underlying, pathological nostalgia. They are the movement’s engine.
There was a moment in late 2016, just after a gunman walked into a Washington, DC, pizzeria to rescue children from a purported sex ring he believed Hillary Clinton operated there, and just before Trump assumed the presidency, when a new framework for understanding the American Right emerged. The terminology would evolve—“fake news” was the term of art before Trump co-opted it, then the more clinical “misinformation” and “disinformation” rose to prominence—but the general idea was clear. Factual deceptions, enabled by a lack of oversight of information, were to blame for the antidemocratic impulses of contemporary conservatism. Better curation of facts was the necessary corrective.
Fueled by this analysis, the field of disinformation studies exploded. There were fact-checking segments and research centers, and for a time, a Disinformation Governance Board under the Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security. The disinformation approach posed a challenge to what had been a prevailing philosophy of the public sphere—a technocratic populism, pushed by the tech companies, who claimed that their neutral oversight empowered everyday people while toppling elite gatekeepers. But the events of 2016 had shaken the country’s confidence that “neutral” (i.e., time-on-screen maximizing) algorithms could be adequate stewards, and even some in the tech sector took the opportunity to bolster their caretaker reputation by cracking down on strategic campaigns to spread false information. Funding flowed, attention focused, and when it came to understanding and responding to such objectionable phenomena as QAnon, COVID-19 denialism, and right-wing media, disinformation was king.
Recently, however, the disinformation framework for understanding the Right has gotten pushback. Far-right actors are portraying disinformation research as an anti-conservative plot, and some have engaged in intimidation and harassment campaigns. But the scrutiny comes from more sympathetic quarters as well. Some critics argue that “disinformation” seems sometimes to be defined as “a left-wing label for things that Democrats don’t like.” In Harper’s, Joseph Bernstein charged that a “Big Disinfo” complex had emerged to carry out a “technocratic negotiation between tech companies, media companies, think tanks, and universities” for the purpose of policing both bad and good information. Finally, some have pointed out how simplistic and, frankly, condescending a view that disinformation approaches can take towards audiences. Unless researchers offer broader context, Daniel Williams writes, the disinformation frame assumes that “our political adversaries are simply ignorant dupes, and with enough education and critical thinking they will come to agree with us.”
Critiques of the disinformation framework are often accompanied by a different explanation for the state of the contemporary Right, and right-wing media especially: the liars are just telling conservatives what they want to hear. They are speaking to the deep-seated resentments and values of the communities from which they come. Media scholars call this way of understanding popular news a “cultural mirror” approach. When the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News revealed that the cable news network reported credulously about Trump’s election lies, despite knowing they were false, analysts explained that Fox was merely kowtowing. In The New York Times, columnist David French captured this mentality by quoting French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
This perspective does not assume that better-curated facts, or even more persuasive arguments, will cure what ails the country. Instead, it holds that political progress can only come with the enemy’s defeat. In this account, a fundamental clash of deep cultural values and identities drives disagreements between progressives and conservatives. While this “culture war” theory is most celebrated in certain quarters of the Right, it can also be a temptation for liberals and leftists. It appeals to a hard-nosed sensibility, seemingly offering a bolder alternative to the Democratic Party’s long-favored “appeal to the moderate middle” approach.
In our view, there are meaningful merits to disinformation analysis, which doesn’t solely restrict its focus to the Right. The spread of individual falsities can be profoundly damaging, as in the case of lies about a rigged election or when the spread of false rumors fuels ethnic violence. And new digital infrastructure has indeed destabilized the regimes that once regulated public information for both good and ill. Experts working to identify and moderate the most harmful lies and threats is no cure-all—especially when they must partner with tech oligopolies to do it. But it’s an understandable approach under today’s constraints, as digital networks remain under the private control of tech giants.
Still, critics are right to argue that “disinformation” has been overextended as an explanatory tool for today’s popular conservatism. Partisans too easily cast disinformation’s net too wide, labeling ideas they find suspect or objectionable “disinformation.” The most rigorous disinformation research, meanwhile, restricts its focus to provable falsehoods and coordinated manipulation campaigns—a useful endeavor that offers far too narrow an analysis to explain the influence of right-wing leaders and media. At the same time, the culture war perspective of fundamentally clashing cultures leads to the antidemocratic conclusion that politics is war—an analysis that leads nowhere good, and, we think, is mistaken.
This exchange echoes an old debate in communication studies. One side presumes substantial, unidirectional power on the part of media institutions and public figures, and the other mostly dismisses the importance of public communication, describing mass media as a reflection of its public’s organic values. Both perspectives understate the role of media in listening to, testing, transforming, and reinforcing the deep stories that their publics draw upon to make sense of political life.
To say that right-wing leaders disseminate deep stories is not to accuse them of something nefarious. Deep stories are lenses we use to understand day-to-day events as meaningful parts of a longer arc, rather than one-off occurrences. The Right has no monopoly on such stories. One important liberal deep story of the United States, post–Civil Rights Movement, was that the country was on an arduous and bumpy but nevertheless inevitable journey toward enlightenment and equality (if this story were a movie, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s contention that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” would be the log line). Many phenomena have been understood or justified through the lens of this story—including Barack Obama’s presidency, which was presented as an important step forward on the journey.
On the right, there is a powerful story—let’s call it “The Shunning”—about conservatism as an identity under threat of humiliation, social stigma, and formal exclusion. Recent talk about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” are current iterations of this tale, but it has been central to conservative movements and media for decades. In the late 1980s, Rush Limbaugh had already honed a way of narrating politics as a saga pitting his listeners and their communities against what he portrayed as a liberalism that was elitist and contemptuous of ordinary Americans. His themes ran through the faux-everyman politics of George W. Bush and the rebellious motif of the Tea Party, and it is everywhere today.
Part of what makes The Shunning such a powerful story is that it transforms conservatism from a set of views one might scrutinize (and sometimes reject) into a fixed social identity. Privileged liberals are rarely depicted casting their scorn at one issue position. Rather, they are shown holding in contempt broad social groups supposedly associated with conservatism—blue-collar workers, Christians, white people, older people, people who live in rural areas. Disrespected and under attack, members of these groups are invited to find solidarity in their conservative identity, and moral support from the right-wing media that defends it.
In telling this story, conservative elites are not acting as pied pipers, leading thoughtless throngs through the street. But neither are they simply reflecting back their audiences’ consensus “cultural” values or beliefs. Sociologists Francesca Polletta and Jessica Callahan argue that deep stories “simultaneously reflect and forge a political common sense.” Stories become more believable through repetition, they write. Familiar stories shape our intuitive perceptions of the world, and we use them to make sense of our own experiences. These dynamics, we think, likely explain why Kyle’s description of his experience as a college student winds up having a pretty similar moral to the tale conservative media told about January 6.
“The central cause of January 6 was one man, former President Donald Trump,” contended the final report of the US House’s investigation of January 6. The committee marshaled a great deal of evidence that Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election did damage to American democracy, and could have done worse had a couple of butterflies fluttered in different directions. The story it tells has an appealing moral clarity, and suggests the enticing possibility that justice for the crimes of January 6 could be swift and complete.
But it’s too simple. As Jill Lepore noted in a critique of the report, in the committee’s telling, “[Trump] has no past. Neither does the nation. The rest of the country doesn’t even exist. No one dies of COVID, no one loses a job.” To note this is not to absolve Trump and his co-conspirators, but to strive for a fuller grasp of reality. Trump’s lies were not told in a vacuum, and did not hold hypnotic sway over hapless believers. Lepore implores critics to ask why Trump had so much influence.
Lies matter when they take root in fertile soil. The January 6 Report—like much of the research and public conversation about disinformation—does not take the time to consider the soil being tilled on the right today. If we look closely at what right-wing activists and institutions said around and about January 6, we find them reciting the deep story of conservative persecution time and again. This created favorable ground among the conservative public for Trump’s lies to take root before the insurrection and then, crucially, thwarted the possibility of accountability in its aftermath. Of course, all sorts of macro-conditions—from deindustrialization to pandemic trauma—set the stage for political eruption as well. But this widely shared deep story helped to shape how many people made sense of living in our historic circumstances.
Trump’s claims about the 2020 presidential election being rigged were repeated many times in popular conservative media, sometimes with a tone of credulity—a fact that garnered Dominion Voting Systems three-quarters of a billion dollars from Fox News. But the outgoing president’s allegations of foul play were not uniformly advanced or accepted as fact by the conservative press, and Trump’s efforts were stymied in part by the rejection of his claims in some prominent conservative media, including Fox News calling Arizona for Joe Biden.
The most consistent contribution of the right-wing press to Trump’s cause was the cultivation of a widespread sense among conservatives that very powerful liberals would and could conspire to thwart the democratic will of conservatives—and in fact already do so, all the time, through biased coverage, cancel culture, and the like—because they have such low regard for them.
This sense of an unfair besiegement clearly informed the way conservatives we spoke with thought about the election. As one interviewee said, “The fact that for four years the media and everybody, including the Republicans, absolutely hated Trump’s guts, absolutely loathed him, tells me that this smells. It just smells.” Feeling despised and dismissed, the conservative public was primed to see election fraud as plausible. Some tiny portion of that public then stormed the Capitol, driven in part by Trump’s lies.
The subject of January 6 now elicits eye rolls among many conservatives, and it can be easy to forget that in their immediate wake, the attacks appeared to be very unpopular among both conservative news media and conservative news consumers. Leading figures in conservative media renounced the actions of the rioters. But their emotional energies were invested elsewhere: in fueling suspicion that the attacks were being used by liberals to smear all conservatives, deny them equal access to speech platforms, and deprive them of basic constitutional rights.
On the night of January 6, 2021, on what was then Fox News’s most highly rated show, Tucker Carlson gave an impassioned monologue declaring, “When thousands of your countrymen storm the Capitol Building, you don’t have to like it. We don’t. You can be horrified by the violence, and as we said, and we’ll say it again, we are horrified. It’s wrong.” But the central point of his monologue was to assure viewers that their political enemies were ultimately at fault for the attack. Carlson painted a dire picture of the desperation that must have driven rioters to the Capitol; in his recounting, they felt sincere disbelief in the election’s results while finding themselves being called “crazy” and their voices silenced by the likes of Twitter and government “leaders.” Carlson warned his viewers that the attack on the Capitol “will be used by the people taking power to justify stripping you of the rights you were born with as an American: your right to speak without being censored, your right to assemble, to not be spied upon, to make a living, to defend your family, most critically.” In the plaintive finale of his opening, Carlson directly told viewers that this “sad, chaotic day” is “not your fault. It is their fault.” While he left the identity of this “their” implicit, it was evident that those truly deserving of blame for the attacks were liberal elites who had dismissed conservatives’ grievances.
Those same liberal elites, many conservative commentators warned, would put the January 6 attacks to political use, as a pretext for disparaging the moral integrity of all conservatives and further justifying their exclusion from normal politics. Laura Ingraham began her regular program on January 6, 2021, assessing the damage the attacks might do to the “MAGA” movement, saying they would “only serve to make the lives of MAGA supporters more difficult.” On the one-year anniversary of the attacks, Ben Shapiro said, “for the Democrats and for the media […] if you would ever consider voting for Trump, or if you would ever consider voting for any other Republican, you were complicit in the actions of January 6th.”
In interviews we conducted with conservative news consumers in the days and months following the attacks, we heard similar themes and fears that liberal elites would try to smear all conservatives by associating them with the rioters. “Every conservative is a Trump supporter, and every conservative needs to be put in a box and never heard from again because everything they’re going to say is in support of somebody who incited an insurrection,” said a manager at a retail store.
These fears and the warnings that fueled them were mostly not “disinformation”—they were too vague to be provably false, and of course there are liberals who view conservatives, on the whole, as backwards and ignorant. There are some who would like to restrict their expression. But this focus seems wholly out of proportion to the effect it has on individual lives. The Shunning has been foregrounded so that one small slice of American political life is now understood by much of the conservative movement as the key to the whole. It became the story of January 6 on the right.
The upshot of all this was that January 6 took on a particular meaning in the memories of many conservatives. Republicans’ defensiveness of Trump hardened in the months following the attack. We started to hear some of this in our interviews, and it showed up in polls. Efforts to investigate the event or acknowledge the national trauma were interpreted through a lens that made them look like attempts to discredit conservatives generally. The chance for truth and reconciliation was foreclosed.
Was this inevitable? Maybe. The Shunning clearly has strategic value for conservative elites and emotional resonance with many conservative audiences. But other familiar and emotionally powerful stories were available for understanding January 6. It could have been a tale of treasonous betrayal—not just of the country, but of the conservative movement—by Donald Trump. Political allegiances, and the deep stories that underpin them, can and do change. After 9/11, when George W. Bush was a revered figure on the American Right, it would have been hard to imagine someone winning cheers by attacking him in a Republican debate, as Trump did in 2016.
Deep stories are iterative. Their existence depends on repetition. They can evolve and even transform in this process; the cultural work that partisan pundits perform is to constantly interpret new events and occurrences in ways that fit with their preferred deep stories, making adjustments when necessary. Right-wing media’s coverage of January 6 can be helpfully understood in this light: a disturbing event that might have shaken partisan loyalties was defused and repurposed when it was folded into a familiar narrative with a particular view of the world.
At the end of a brief history of advertising, the critic Raymond Williams makes a bracing claim: modern advertising shows that society is not very materialistic. Contrary to the common notion that the ads we constantly encounter indicate a crassly consumerist culture, Williams contends, “It is impossible to look at modern advertising without realizing that the material object being sold is never enough.”
We learn nothing from the typical advertisement about the stitching of Nikes or the taste of a Coke. As Don Draper understood, ads tend to fixate on the fulfillment of desires that cannot, in fact, be satiated by consumer goods—longings for admiration, love, sexual bliss, communal warmth, self-empowerment. If we were indeed a society that cared deeply about things, Williams writes, “Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young at heart, or neighborly.”
A careful examination of today’s right-wing discourse suggests something similar: right-wing audiences are not reactionary enough for the purposes of conservative elites. Right-wing values and policy positions are insufficient to engage, much less mobilize, groups drawn to right-wing media. So, Fox News et al. don’t focus on tax cuts or specific abortion restrictions. Instead, they spin a rousing story that, like advertising, taps into currents of fantasy and desire. In this narrative world, conservatives’ political allegiance bestows them with dignity, self-respect, and communal belonging. It also offers audiences a cathartic rebellion against the powerful forces of the world presumed to see them and their communities as pieces of shit.
As we’ve seen, this story of The Shunning helped neutralize concerns that rank-and-file conservatives may have developed about January 6. At the same time, the memory of January 6 makes The Shunning all the more alluring. If the acts carried out in the name of the Right are as abhorrent as liberals say—murderous, treasonous, and undemocratic—then the implications for the moral integrity of even casual or partial Trump supporters could be devastating. One’s loved ones, one’s whole community, could be mired in shame. Unbearable! Better to hold tight to the deep story, indulge in the defenses it justifies, and understand an indictment of the former president for his actions leading to January 6 as “an attack on people like me.” The situation places us in a difficult bind. January 6 has heightened the contradictions. It has made The Shunning more true—or at least more potent as a myth with hooks in reality. When elements of the Right embrace violence and brazenly try to destroy democratic institutions, their opponents see them as genuine threats to democracy’s existence. Such movements deserve no fair hearing in the public square nor presumption of democratic goodwill, and their violent vanguards may need to be met with force and imprisonment. This bolsters the Right’s fears of being banished to illegitimacy.
Is there a way out of this spiral? The Shunning is not a provably false assertion of fact, and as such cannot be fact-checked or moderated away; what’s more, the cold technocratic tone of disinformation research fails to grapple with the profound emotional pull of the Right’s warnings of social disgrace. And if the Left—the actual Left, not the caricature in the Right’s imagination—goes all in on the culture war approach of condemning conservatives as an innately reactionary lot, the furies only get hotter.
Still, our belief is that deep stories have been and can be countered. Our hope is that this one can. Doing so will entail telling new stories that the target audience finds resonant and emotionally compelling, or capturing an existing story and redirecting it. Material conditions make this difficult for contemporary left and liberal movements. American media markets no longer incentivize the pursuit of broad cross-partisan audiences. Today, if you are part of a community profiled as conservative, you might occasionally encounter a left-wing perspective, but you are unlikely to hear nonconservative voices speaking directly to you and claiming to care about your community and your interests. To change this, left-leaning movements need to develop the social connections and invest in the media infrastructures required to spread compelling counternarratives.
These stories need to offer many of the same sweet promises the Right offers now—for dignity, self-respect, and belonging. This cultural work is a different sort of democratic persuasion than we are accustomed to seeing. But a close look at the aftermath of January 6 makes clear that pursuing debaters’ points or attempting split-the-difference policy proposals misunderstands the driving force of the Right. Conservatism’s deep stories hold the movement together and propel it forward. That’s why it is critical to look unflinchingly and study their emotional power: not just to understand them, but also to challenge them creatively and furiously.
Anthony Nadler is an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College. He is the author of Making the News Popular: Mobilizing U.S. News Audiences (2016) and co-editor of News on the Right: Studying Conservative News Cultures (2021).
Doron Taussig is an assistant professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College, and the author of What We Mean by the American Dream: Stories We Tell About Meritocracy (2021).
Featured image: Oscar Bluemner. Death, 1926. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Helen Hayes Smith. si.edu, CC0. Accessed August 14, 2023.
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