Paul Waldman of the Washington Post shows how the FOX “personalities” lied to their audience because they were afraid the audience would go to other sites that fed the audience’s hunger for conspiracy theories. The FOX talking heads created the monster, and now they are owned by the monster. All of this is especially interesting because Dominion Voting Systems is suing FOX and others for libel, and the FOX statements show that they knew their on-air statements were lies.

On screen, Fox News personalities paint a world of clear heroes and villains, where conservatives are always strong and right and liberals are weak and wrong. But the extraordinary private communications revealed in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox show who they really are. Panicked over Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, those same hosts, and the executives who run the network, cowered in abject terror.

They feared the same monster that keeps House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) up at night, the monster that conservative media and Republican politicians created: base voters who are deluded, angry and vengeful.

McCarthy has sought to appease the beast by granting exclusive access to 44,000 hours of surveillance footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection to Fox News host Tucker Carlson. But with each capitulation, McCarthy and Fox News only make the monster stronger.

To see how, begin with the Dominion lawsuit. The company, which makes election software and voting machines, alleges that Fox defamed its business by repeatedly claiming that its systems were used to steal the 2020 presidential election. To win this kind of case against a news organization, a plaintiff must show that the organization acted with “actual malice” — that it said things it knew were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Mistakes alone are not enough.

Emails and texts sent in the days after the election appear to show exactly that. On air, Fox was spreading lies about supposed election fraud and bringing on guests without concern for their credibility, including Rudy Giuliani and GOP lawyer Sidney Powell. Meanwhile, Fox’s stars and executives privately belittled those same people and the claims they were making.

“Sidney Powell is lying,” Carlson wrote in one email. Giuliani was “acting like an insane person,” host Sean Hannity declared.

At the same time, Fox News tried to suppress the truth. Reporters for the organization who corrected false claims were reprimanded and threatened. One reporter who fact-checked Powell and Giuliani was told by her boss that executives were not happy about it and that she should do a better job of “respecting our audience.” When Fox truthfully reported Joe Biden’s victory, Carlson texted his producer: “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real.” When another reporter fact-checked a Trump tweet spreading lies about stolen votes, Carlson demanded that the reporter be fired.

These documents make clear not only that Fox News stars and executives think their audience is a bunch of half-wits but also that they live in fear that the audience will turn on them unless they tell viewers exactly what they want to hear regardless of the facts.

Who taught that audience to believe conspiracy theories and to assume that any unwelcome information must be a sinister lie? Fox News, of course.

Now consider Jan. 6. McCarthy knows the facts. The Capitol insurrection wasn’t a false-flag operation by antifa or the FBI. Indeed, McCarthy initially blasted Trump for his role in stirring the rioters and dismissed conspiracy theories. So why has he given exclusive access to surveillance footage to Carlson, the constant purveyor of conspiracy theories?

There’s no mystery. Carlson’s producers will comb through endless pixels to find images with which to mislead viewers: to convince them that the riot wasn’t so bad or that Trump’s supporters weren’t to blame or that the whole thing was a setup.

That will only further convince Carlson’s audience to deny the truth about Jan. 6, and punish any Republican officeholder who disagrees. As for McCarthy, will this exercise help him by making it more likely that Republicans will reinforce his thin House majority in the next election — or take the Senate or the White House? Quite the opposite. It only makes it more likely that voters will view his party as extremists and loons who are far more interested in the obsessions of a spectacularly unpopular ex-president than in the genuine problems the country faces.

Like the trembling dissemblers of Fox News, McCarthy must feel that he has no choice: Feed the beast or be eaten by it. Winning the future is an idea they cannot latch on to because they are so frantic to survive one more day.

Republican elites are not powerless. They helped make this mess and could nudge their base back toward reality if they chose. But they’re too afraid to try.