On a cold December night in 1950, red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy spent a charity dinner at Washington’s Sulgrave Club trading insults with liberal journalist Drew Pearson. McCarthy had attacked Pearson on the floor of the Senate, calling for a boycott of his radio show. Pearson had attacked McCarthy on air and in his newspaper column, accusing the senator of lying about communist infiltration of the American government. McCarthy had recklessly accused the State Department of harboring hundreds of communists, sparking a massive investigation and an ongoing purge. After dinner, the two ran into each other in the cloakroom and their conflict turned physical. McCarthy kneed Pearson in the groin, and Sen. Richard Nixon had to pull McCarthy off Pearson.
After the fight, McCarthy’s Republican colleagues congratulated him for taking down a liberal. Pearson sued McCarthy, claiming injury, and for months McCarthy publicly accused Pearson of communist sympathies.
Then things got weird.
Pearson soon extended their feud into the realm of science-fiction flying saucer stories and, in so doing, set up a symbolic, supernatural dimension to ideological battles still playing out on cable TV today. That strange mix of McCarthyism and UFOs continues to poison the History Channel and Fox News, a Trojan horse hiding political radicalization under silly alien stories. It sounds funny until you realize that the QAnon conspiracy theory—involving Donald Trump, space aliens, and cannibal pedophiles, among other absurdities—believed by many of the Capitol insurrectionists is founded on exactly this same mix of political propaganda and pseudoscience. And that is by design.
It started out innocently enough. Pearson portrayed himself in the 1951 flying saucer movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the movie, the government panics when an alien with leftist ideas lands on Earth. Audiences got to see Pearson play the anti-McCarthy, the voice of reason, calm and sane in the face of panic. In response to the movie, McCarthy called Pearson a “communist tool.” But anti-communist conservatives didn’t just hate the movie because Pearson was in it. The Day the Earth Stood Still told the story of an extraterrestrial who descends to Earth, displays nearly supernatural power, dies at the hands of soldiers, and is resurrected. Before his ascension back to the heavens, he talks about space as a paradise of pure reason, ruled over by impassive robots unhappy about Earth’s nuclear weapons. He gives humans a choice: live in peace or be destroyed.
One newspaper, missing the Christ allegory in the story, fretted that the film gave aid and comfort to leftists and communists. The film’s director, Robert Wise, admitted that he intended a leftist message. “What we were saying is that the United States and other nations would have to give up some measure of sovereignty if world peace was ever to be achieved,” he told Cinefantastique in 1976.
Conservatives by far preferred the other flying saucer movie of 1951, The Thing From Another World. That movie featured a monstrous alien imbued with all the traits they associated with communism: a lack of emotion, a lack of normal sexual interests, and a boundless desire to destroy. Only the fallible but plucky everyman heroes of the U.S. Air Force could stop such evil, over the objections of a fey, vaguely effeminate scientist that even Time magazine thought was “suggestively costumed like a Russian.”
In the movie’s telling, communism, intellectualism, and effeminacy were all the same thing—and alien to red-blooded, all-American men. The film depicts its scientist as overreaching, reckless, and willing to sacrifice safety and security to cater to a monster from beyond. Producer Howard Hawks had infused the film with both anti-science and anti-communist ideas then popular to make the movie feel contemporary. And in contemporary opinion, as Joe McCarthy said, being “a Communist or a cocksucker” was almost the same thing. According to historian David K. Johnson, author of The Lavender Scare, more gay Americans suffered under McCarthyism than were accused of communism, under the perversely circular belief that communist agents could blackmail homosexuals into treason for fear of the U.S. government’s own policies of oppression.
The popularity of The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World preserved Red Scare ideas long after they had burned themselves out in government, and the two mirror-image movies helped make UFOs a repository of discarded McCarthy-era political conspiracies and 1950s anxieties about masculinity and sexuality. We’re still dealing with that legacy today. All the same themes are still there, but everything is jumbled up and remixed—and that isn’t a coincidence.
When McCarthyism faded, its troubling undercurrents of emasculation and homophobia found a foothold in science fiction and its pseudoscientific love child, UFOs. “They’re taking my semen!” one alleged alien abductee screamed under hypnosis in a recording made by abduction researcher John Mack in the 1990s. “They have control over my genitals! … They have a cup over my cock!” The stories changed over the decades, but the 1950s anxiety about living up to a certain type of patriotic masculinity remained. As political scientist Michael K. Barkun, an expert on right-wing conspiracy movements, noted, this was no coincidence. In the 1980s and 1990s, right-wing extremists made a concerted effort to use interest in UFOs to lure disaffected white men into what Barkun called “a culture of conspiracy.” Come for the aliens, be a man, and stay for the racism, homophobia, and misogyny.
What came next was no surprise.
On any given night, viewers of the highest-rated show in the history of cable news, Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, might find themselves treated to its namesake host discussing flying saucers and space aliens alongside election conspiracies and GOP talking points. Praise for former President Donald Trump, excuses for those involved in the Capitol assault, and criticism of racial and sexual minorities can sit seamlessly beside occasional interviews featuring UFO “experts” pleading conspiracy. Recent segments found Carlson speculating that an art installation in Utah was the work of space aliens and interviewing a reporter from the Washington Examiner about whether UFOs can also travel underwater like submarines. The most recent aired in January. Most outside the right-wing bubble treat his UFO segments as a joke. They’re not.
Carlson is often described as a rebel and a rogue, a sort of right-wing prep-school James Dean who lived twice as long and accomplished half as much. Flying saucers are part of his midlife rebel act. He argued in November that UFO conspiracy theories and his political analysis are inseparable. “We literally do UFO segments,” he said on-air, “not because we’re crazy or had even been interested in the subject but because there is evidence that UFOs are real and everyone lies about it.” That “everyone,” of course, is the Deep State, the federal bureaucracy, and Democrats—enemies of conservatives for other reasons, too. “They’re children posing as authorities, and when they’re caught, they lie and then they blame you for it. We see that every day.”
But consider whom Carlson considers authorities. Carlson appeared in 2019 on the History Channel series Ancient Aliens—the show where unqualified amateurs baselessly speculate that aliens engineered our DNA, manipulate our minds, and control human history—to say he was “starting to believe” that the U.S. government harbors UFO wreckage. Clearly, Ancient Aliens is the kind of quality truth-telling Carlson respects.
Cable TV dresses up space aliens in he-man drag, making the subtext into text, the way Carlson’s tough talk and aggressive posturing playact a child’s idea of manliness. Just look at the hypermasculine aesthetics of cable alien shows, whose audience is predominantly older and male. It’s all blocky graphics, dark and metallic colors, and gravelly narration—just like Fox News. The underqualified stars of Ancient Aliens like Giorgio Tsoukalos and David Childress cosplay in khakis and fedoras and describe themselves as “real-life” Indiana Joneses. Sister show The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch sends men in paramilitary gear to patrol Utah for ghosts and ETs. A third show from the same producers, The Curse of Oak Island, presents outlandish historical conspiracies as an excuse for middle-age white men to bond.
Why is this dangerous? In September, a judge found that no reasonable viewer would mistake Carlson’s program for factual. But that is a generous assumption. A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that news consumers cannot reliably distinguish between fact and opinion. And just as Barkun warned more than a decade ago, UFO conspiracy theories serve as a vector of radicalization.
Viewers become curious, start searching online, and discover a constellation of right-wing extremism. Whether it’s YouTube’s algorithms directing conspiracy fans to ever-more-extreme content, UFO researchers embracing QAnon-style conspiracies online, or Ancient Aliens star Erich von Däniken putting racist and transphobic comments in his books, the jocular cable UFO conversation is the smiling face of a nasty underbelly. Former Ancient Aliens star David Wilcock started an online spiritual movement combining QAnon, UFOs, and Donald Trump for his more than 450,000 YouTube subscribers. A onetime Oak Island treasure hunter became a Republican “expert witness” for the Georgia state Legislature hunting nonexistent voter fraud, sparking a rebuke from the Georgia secretary of state’s office. (There are some notable exceptions: Tsoukalos is an outspoken liberal, and Democratic operative John Podesta has also appeared on Ancient Aliens.) Fashion designer and artist Dylan Louis Monroe mapped the overlap between History Channel and QAnon conspiracy theories and displayed his flow charts both at the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens AlienCon and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met bizarrely and dangerously hailed such images as “a powerful and proactive stance” against corruption in politics and media. They’re now QAnon icons, guides to the occult history of America, available on T-shirts and other merch.
In short, most people don’t treat the paranormal fringe seriously, so poisonous attitudes can seep in where mainstream journalists and scholars aren’t looking until they erupt onto the national stage. And erupt they did on Jan. 6. Many in the mob that breached the Capitol wore shirts promoting QAnon conspiracies. One of the most visible insurrectionists, Jacob Anthony Chansley, who goes by the name Jake Angeli, mounted the Senate dais shirtless in a horned headdress. He posted a video to YouTube before the company shut down his channel in which he relayed his “secret” history of the world, complete with space aliens and Egyptian pyramids, even citing History Channel regulars like author Graham Hancock by name.
It’s a far cry from when Drew Pearson thought flying saucers could symbolize hope that McCarthyism might end. Talking heads are still in bed with space aliens, but it’s not hope TV’s angry UFO buffs are selling.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.