Last Thursday, Tucker Carlson opened his show arguing that the U.S. government is lying and spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine. Among the supposed lies, says Carlson, is that “the Ukrainians are beating the Russians.” He isn’t duped by the Biden administration or the propagandistic media, you see, because he’s reviewed slides from the recent leak of secret intelligence documents, and they tell the real story: “Ukraine is in fact losing the war,” he said. According to one slide, “seven Ukrainians are being killed for every Russian.” The bad news for Carlson is that the genuine leaked documents show that Russians have been killed at more than twice the rate of Ukrainians. So the only question about his broadcasting the false claim is whether he knew it came from a faked version of the documents created by pro-Russian propagandists. If he didn’t know, he’s the biggest dupe of all. And if he did know, he’s something far worse.

The altered documents reportedly first appeared on the Donbass Devushka blog, a one-stop shop for all your Putin-loving needs. And, in what suggests a frightening pattern, it’s run by a former U.S. Navy noncommissioned officer named Sarah Bils, whom the Wall Street Journal describes as “the face of a network of pro-Kremlin social-media, podcasting, merchandise and fundraising accounts.” Whether Bils has serious ties to Moscow remains to be seen.

It’s hard to imagine Carlson didn’t know he was spreading pro-Russian lies, given that the fake documents were flagged as bogus by the Pentagon almost upon being found. While Tucker Carlson is many things, foolish isn’t one of them. And in the end, he knows that few of his die-hard fans will care about the veracity of the figures he cites.

The thing about much of the populist right is that they cheer politics like its professional wrestling, a fake sport where outcomes still somehow mean the world to them. It’s no accident that Donald Trump put out a series of collectable digital cards that portray him looking like a WWF heel. The mindset of the steel-cage populist can be gleaned in one of the earliest clips to go viral on the Internet. In it, a wrestling fan speaks to some of his idols at a meet-and greet event. “I want to thank each and every one of y’all for what you’ve done to your bodies,” he says through tears. “It’s still real to me, dammit!”

It doesn’t matter what the numbers actually say; seven dead Ukrainians to every dead Russian is still real to the folks who need it to be real. If you’re a steel-cage populist, you don’t care about the facts; you just need to preserve the narrative.

And this is especially true for the pro-Russia online chat-group faction, which tends to view geopolitics as something like Dungeons and Dragons. They’re gamers. If you devote the bulk of your spare time to video games and video-game culture, the world starts to look like a game. The true Russian body count is as irrelevant to them as the fact that “half-orcs” aren’t real creatures.

Carlson doesn’t ever have to fess up. His fans would probably resent it if he did, as it would mean deferring to the government as the source of truth. And if he does that, he undermines his entire crusade against the endless lies of the establishment. The only truth is the narrative: the wronged populists vs. the crooked powers that be.

There’s a line in Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld: “It was a truth without authority and therefore incontestable.” So stands the epistemology of the Tucker Carlson right.

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