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Tucker Carlson: How Framing and Enthymemes Can Persuade a Nation
by Spencer Levering

On January 6, 2021, an estimated 10,000 protesters converged in Washington, D.C. and violently fought police to invade the United States Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election (Rubin, Mallin, and Steakin). This marked the largest attack on the Capitol building since British troops invaded and burned the Capitol in 1814, making January 6 a significant event in American history (Vera). Supporters of then-President Donald Trump made up most of the crowd, insisting that Trump earned more votes than current President Joe Biden even though official counts show Biden won by more than 7 million votes (Lindsay). Even though Biden’s support outnumbered Trump’s, 74 million voters cast ballots for Donald Trump, suggesting that his ideology is supported by a large number of Americans. News about the Capitol riot spread quickly, with most mainstream news outlets covering it by the end of the day, letting Americans witness the attacks from their homes. How did Americans make sense of this event, especially the tens of millions of Trump voters who were not at the Capitol?

Eight and a half months after the January 6 riot, Tucker Carlson, host of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, aired his first large primetime segment discussing the event titled “‘Insurrection’ Day” (Carlson, What really happened). While Carlson offered light coverage of the riot on the evening of January 6, it took until September 23, 2021 for his show to dedicate an episode to the day’s events. At the time, Tucker Carlson’s show was the most-watched cable news show, raking in more than 3.3 million viewers per night (Katz). Given his far-right political opinions, many aren’t willing to listen to Tucker Carlson’s broadcasts because they have fundamental disagreements with his stances. But since Tucker Carlson Tonight airs on the largest conservative broadcast in the country and has such a large and dedicated viewership, his rhetoric is valuable to analyze because it guides the opinions of millions of Republican voters across the country. Analyzing his first episode dedicated to the events of the Capitol attack is especially important because it marks a moment where the most influential TV host in America is delivering the talking points he and his writers had been meticulously crafting for over half a year. Using the rhetorical concepts of framing and enthymeme, in this paper, I detail how Tucker Carlson purposefully misleads his audience, obscures information, and hides right-wing dog whistles in order to advance a larger conservative agenda.

To conduct this close rhetorical reading of “‘Insurrection’ Day,” I observed the episode while reading its transcript two times, employing different analytical lenses each time. During the first watch, I tried to understand the show as an outsider looking in. I noted moments where it felt like Tucker Carlson was making a persuasive argument that would appeal to Fox News’ conservative base. On my second watch, I spent more time defining these especially persuasive moments while analyzing how they function together in this single episode. What I found surprised me. After watching and reading the transcript for “‘Insurrection’ Day,” I was initially confused by Carlson’s rhetoric. As a new viewer, Carlson seemed scatterbrained, switching between different political topics frequently while occasionally losing sight of what the episode is supposed to be dedicated to: the January 6 riot. But upon rewatches and rereads of this episode, it becomes clear how this topic-changing is done purposefully. To analyze these switches and, as a result, the effectiveness of Tucker Carlson’s rhetoric, an understanding of framing is required.

For those who are unfamiliar with frames, they are, to quote linguist and philosopher George Lakoff, “mental structures that shape the way we see the world” (xv). Essentially, frames refer to the way information is presented to us and framing has a large effect on how we perceive, understand, and act on knowledge. For example, when a Chipotle employee asks if you want black or pinto beans, they’re framing the decision in a way where you must choose only one of the options, but in reality, you can decide to have both beans or no beans at all. Just like a Chipotle worker, Tucker Carlson uses frames in order to control your thought processes. In his “‘Insurrection’ Day” broadcast, Carlson uses framing in 3 distinct ways: to discredit, to scare, and to cherry-pick.

To start, let’s analyze how Tucker discredits others with frames. Before even mentioning the January 6 attack, the broadcast begins with Carlson referencing the 1971 bombing of the Capitol by the far-left group Weather Underground. By starting the entire discussion of January 6 with talk of leftist political violence, he discredits the actions of January 6 rioters by making them appear as civil compared to Weather Underground, or the “Marxist group” that “planned to overthrow the U.S. government,” as Tucker puts it. In sections of his broadcast, Tucker Carlson includes clips from other mainstream news networks that feature high-profile Democratic leaders, news anchors from NBC, CNN, and MSNBC, and a slew of other left-wing pundits describing January 6. However, after these clips play, Carlson disparages these figures, calling them shameless and liars multiple times. Even before the clips are shown, Tucker is framing and preparing the audience to be highly skeptical of what they’re about to see. He prologued a montage of NBC, CNN, and MSNBC clips by explaining how “the media” distorts history, singled out a pundit by calling him “a guy who writes popular histories for airport bookstores,” and bluntly calls the montage “lies.” In doing this, Tucker is framing people associated with the Democratic Party as people who shouldn’t be trusted, making it easier for viewers to distrust the institution of the Democratic Party entirely. All of these examples highlight how subtle framing to discredit can be.

Outside of discrediting individuals and groups, Tucker Carlson also uses framing to alter the amount of fear his audience feels. Carlson has a habit of describing ordinary occurrences in a scary way. For example, when he reads excerpts from a report by the Department of Justice explaining that they won’t release security footage from inside of the Capitol for security reasons, Tucker employs an exaggerated tone of voice to make reasonable security decisions sound like a tyrannical government cover-up. Later, while trying to argue that the mainstream media is lying to everyone, Tucker Carlson explains, “…when they keep beating you over the head with the same talking point again and again and again, beware … when all of them are using exactly the same line, maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe it’s coordinated.” To fearful Fox News viewers, this sounds like there’s a media conspiracy that’s trying to brainwash the population. But once you peel back the scary tone Carlson uses and see what he’s actually saying, you realize that Tucker Carlson is just describing the concept of news. Media pundits repeat talking points because they’re all reporting on the same stories, not because they’re receiving commands from an evil overlord. Without proper framing, this argument lacks strength because it isn’t actually an argument, it’s a definition. But since Tucker frames the idea in a certain way, it causes viewers to perceive what he’s saying as evidence that a left-wing conspiracy is going to destroy the United States. While framing can be used to increase fear levels, it can also be used to decrease fear. A 2022 study by Purdue University and University of Utah scholars analyzed the vocabulary used by mainstream news outlets in the aftermath of the January 6 attack and how different news outlets described the event in different ways (Zulli, Coe, and Isaacs). What they found was that in the days following January 6, every mainstream outlet besides Fox News used harsh language to describe the event (e.g., riot, attack, terrorism). Fox News, however, employed softer language to describe the situation (e.g., protest, march, Americans). Tucker Carlson himself uses this softened language to reference January 6, calling those at the Capitol protesters, Americans, and even tourists. Carlson even puts “insurrection” in quotes in the segment’s title to mock other news outlets’ usage of the word. By doing this, it makes Tucker’s audience subconsciously accept the opinions of the January 6 protesters. This framing allows television viewers to side with criminals. Carlson makes one criminal in particular very favorable: Jacob Chansley, also known as the QAnon Shaman. Chansley gained national notoriety for being seen at the Capitol donning no shirt, red, white, and blue face paint, a coonskin cap with Viking horns, and a spear with an American flag tied to it (Rabinowitz and Polantz). Tucker Carlson generously frames video of Chansley as “the Chewbacca guy” while claiming he’s an “al-Qaeda operative” with an ironic tone, and says he looks “more like a confused street performer than a dangerous terrorist.” All of this framing causes viewers to perceive the most memorable man at the Capitol on January 6 as a lost, loveable guy who doesn’t know any better. And if Tucker can convince his audience that this man did nothing wrong, who’s to say he can’t do that for every Capitol protester?

In order to display the reality he wants to convey, Tucker Carlson must cherry-pick the reality that he shows his audience. Carlson’s show expertly cherry-picks video footage from inside of the Capitol during the insurrection. When Tucker introduces the QAnon Shaman, he does so by showing a video of him and another protester standing by themselves in the Senate chamber exchanging small talk with a Capitol Police officer. Whenever his broadcast decides to show footage of Trump-supporting rioters in the Capitol, Carlson plays a couple of minutes of them aimlessly wandering the halls, looking like they’re in a shopping mall. Instead of showing video of Trump supporters breaking down windows, crushing Capitol Police into corners, and threatening violence against Democrats, Tucker deliberately cherry-picks footage that frames the January 6 rioters as calm, peaceful protesters. In fact, the only time Carlson shows violent footage is to highlight three rioters wearing all-black tactical gear breaking a window to enter the Capitol in order to insinuate that they’re federal agents. Interestingly, that video clip cuts before you see anyone else follow the three “federal agents,” potentially cutting off footage of other Trump-supporting rioters entering after them. Framing cherry-picked video the way Tucker Carlson does on his broadcast is incredibly powerful rhetorically. It allows him to say that he’s showing footage of reality, but because Tucker’s only showing the moments he wants his audience to see, he misleads his audience into a false reality that he can then craft an argument around. Whenever Tucker Carlson frames his arguments, whether it’s to discredit, scare, or cherry-pick, he does it to ultimately craft a defendable position that he and all of his viewers can use in their arguments.

Tucker Carlson uses framing to ensure his audience is in a certain state of mind, but how does he deliver conservative talking points to his viewers? Throughout “‘Insurrection’ Day,” Tucker accomplishes this through his use of the enthymeme. Enthymemes, for those unfamiliar with the concept, are essentially arguments that happen between the lines. They require the listener to fill in gaps of knowledge in order to complete the argument the speaker is making. For example, if you were arguing about where to eat lunch and your friend said, “We should eat at Taco Bell because I’m craving a burrito,” enthymemes could help fill in valuable information about what the speaker is looking to get out of this argument. Since the speaker emphasized their desire for a burrito, you can assume that the location the burrito is from doesn’t matter. This allows the listener to suggest going to Chipotle since one person can get the burrito they crave and the other can get the food they find tasty. Enthymemes allow speakers to conceal their true motives, potentially causing dangerous rhetoric to be masked as something more normal. Research conducted by a scholar at Gonzaga University analyzed how Donald Trump used enthymemes in his communications (Hayes). The researcher determined that Trump frequently smuggled misogyny, racism, and classism into his tweets and speeches. Since Donald Trump was infamous for his love of Fox News, it isn’t a stretch to think that Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson gave him enthymemes to use in his own life.

While Tucker Carlson himself smuggling far-right opinions into everyday life is relatively new, a good comparison can be made with a group that has a much longer presence in America: white supremacists. Since white supremacy fell out of mainstream popularity in America centuries ago, followers of its ideology have developed highly-effective rhetoric in order to grow their underground presence. White supremacists have taken a liking to Tucker’s broadcasts because of his ability to communicate white supremacist talking points through enthymemes. The founder of Stormfront, the internet’s oldest and largest white supremacist website, James Allsup, a political commentator who attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, have all gone on record saying they watch and rewatch Tucker Carlson Tonight to further develop their own rhetoric (“Tucker Carlson: Last Week Tonight” 00:21:11-00:23:03). Since Tucker Carlson has mastered the enthymeme, it’s worthwhile to analyze how he uses them to discuss the January 6 attack.

In order to complete his arguments, Tucker Carlson frequently utilizes enthymemes. For example, when discussing how the media conceals “leftist” violence, he suddenly brings up how “there are still a lot of Americans who think a right-winger killed JFK.” To Fox News outsiders, invoking the John F. Kennedy assassination seems confusing and irrelevant. But that event has spawned countless conspiracy theories, and it looks like Tucker Carlson is trying to cash in on it. Research from the University of Pennsylvania discovered that conservative media viewers were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories (Romer and Jamieson). So when Tucker mentions the JFK assassination, he is using an enthymeme to secretly tell his viewers to see January 6 as a conspiracy too. To Fox News viewers, if the media was effective at covering up details about a presidential assassination, then they could easily twist the protest at the Capitol to fit their narratives. At the end of the segment, Tucker Carlson bombards viewers with a flurry of enthymematic arguments about the McCloskey family, the Covington kids, George Floyd, and Hunter Biden’s laptop. While average Americans may not be familiar with all of these stories, they all have special significance to Fox News coverage. To Fox viewers, the McCloskeys (Halon) and the Covington kids (Marshall) were people unjustifiably labeled as white supremacists, George Floyd’s death was caused by a drug overdose (Carlson, George Floyd), and Hunter Biden’s laptop is the largest foreign intelligence scandal in decades (Turley). When Tucker says these names, he’s making viewers remember times when other news sources “lied,” causing them to distrust other news sources. When Tucker says an enthymematic topic, it lets viewers fill in the gaps and feel like they’ve come to their own conclusion. In reality, the conclusions they reach aren’t their own, they’re the conclusions Tucker Carlson and Fox News want them to come to.

After analyzing the “‘Insurrection’ Day” segment from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, it has become clear why Tucker Carlson is one of the most-watched newsmen in the country. Through his usage of framing and enthymemes, Tucker crafts intricate arguments that discredit other news sources, strike fear into his viewers, and portray a false reality while weaving in dangerous ideologies that perpetuate Republican ideals. This combination of factors keeps viewers glued to their screens night after night and makes Tucker Carlson a prominent news figure in America. Looking toward the future, scholars should dedicate more time to analyzing the rhetoric of prominent conservative broadcasters like Carlson. Few scholarly studies have been conducted to understand how the most watched newsman in the nation makes his arguments. In my opinion, this lack of analysis needs to be filled because understanding how millions of Americans get their news every day is crucial to creating a more united country and advancing society for the betterment of everyone. As time goes on, we should develop a better framework to help the average American spot rhetorical concepts in action to defend against expert propagandists like Tucker Carlson.

Works Cited

Carlson, Tucker. “Tucker Carlson: Everything the media didn’t tell you about the death of George Floyd.” Fox News, 11 March 2021,

Carlson, Tucker. “Tucker: What really happened on Jan 6.” Fox News, 24 September 2021,

Halon, Yael. “Armed St. Louis homeowner speaks out: ‘When I saw that mob … I thought that we would be overrun in a second’.” Fox News, 30 June 2020,

Hayes, Tracey J. “Trump’s Digital Rhetoric of Hate: The Use of Enthymemes in Creating Division.” Journal of Hate Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 5 October 2021, pp. 14-34. Doi: 10.33972/jhs.196.

Katz, A.J. “Sept. ‘21 Cable News Ranker: Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Five, Hannity are Top 3 for the Month.” Adweek Network, 29 September 2021,

Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.

Lindsay, James M. “The 2020 Election by the Numbers.” The Water’s Edge, Council on Foreign Relations, 15 December 2020,

Marshall, Leslie. “Covington students are still kids – Why did so many adults ignore that in their rush to condemn them?” Fox News, 22 January 2019,

Rabinowitz, Hannah and Polantz, Katelyn. “‘QAnon Shaman’ Jacob Chansley sentenced to 41 months in prison for role in US Capitol riot.” CNN, 17 November 2021,

Romer, Daniel and Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. “Conspiratorial thinking, selective exposure to conservative media, and response to COVID-19 in the US.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 291, December 2021, doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2021.114480.

Rubin, Olivia, et al. “7 hours, 700 arrests, 1 year later: The Jan. 6 Capitol attack, by the numbers.” ABC7NY, 6 January 2022,

“Tucker Carlson: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).” YouTube, uploaded by LastWeekTonight, 15 March 2021,

Turley, Jonathan. “MSNBC analyst who mocked Hunter Biden laptop story rewarded with a White House role. What a surprise.” Fox News, 30 August 2022,

Vera, Amir. “There have been other attacks at the US Capitol before this week.” CNN, 7 January 2021,

Zulli, Diana, et al. “News Framing in the Aftermath of the January 6 Attacks on the U.S. Capitol: An Analysis of Labels, Definitional Uncertainty, and Contextualization.” American Behavioral Scientist, 11 May 2022, doi: 10.1177/00027642221096333.

Spencer Levering is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh. He is double majoring in communications and psychology with a certificate in digital media and will graduate in Spring 2025. At Pitt, Spencer is a staff writer for The Pitt News and plays the double bass in Pitt’s Symphony Orchestra. In his free time, Spencer enjoys solving crossword puzzles and being with his family.

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