The surface-level facts of what happened on Jan. 6, 2021 are not very complicated. Trump hosted a well-attended rally in Washington, D.C. to stoke anger over Congress certifying the results of the previous November’s election. After weeks of telling his supporters that the election had been stolen, he gave a speech near the White House where he told his supporters to “fight like hell” and said he expected them to head to the Capitol. Some of them did, and some of them were already there, and together the two groups coalesced into a mob that broke into the building, resulting in five deaths and dozens of injuries.
In realty, this is all indisputable, but the American right-wing has been, at best, distantly orbiting reality for a while now, and over the past year conservative media, politicians, and everyday Americans have methodically constructed an alternate history of what happened on Jan. 6, one in which a deadly attempt to overthrow American democracy either wasn’t that big of a deal, or it was a big deal but it was perpetrated by a combination of left-wing activists, federal law enforcement, and Democratic politicians — anyone but Trump and his supporters, really.
These alternative facts, to borrow a phrase from the early days of the Trump administration, are immutable in the eyes of their adherents. The lack of evidence supporting them is entirely irrelevant. In a way, it’s the whole point, allowing believers to transmute “what happened” as they see fit, tailoring it to elude any inconvenient actual facts that may arise. As long as they keep their claims vague and difficult to disprove unequivocally — can we ever be totally sure absolutely nothing untoward took place during the 2020 election? — they’re as good as facts. Authenticating details can be added or discarded as necessary.
“Conspiracy theories are powerful because they introduce premises that prevent evidence-based falsification,” Dolores Albarracín, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who studies conspiracy theories, tells Rolling Stone. “For a realistic style of thinking, if there is no evidence for a belief, the lack of evidence invalidates the belief. Conspiracy theories undermine this logic and make it so that lack of evidence or evidence to the contrary proves the belief.”
Here are some of the most dangerous beliefs that have calcified under this premise in the year since the attack on the Capitol.
Antifa was to blame
The pictures, video, and testimony from defendants arrested for breaking into the Capitol don’t lie: The mob was made up almost entirely of Trump supporters. The idea that members of antifa infiltrated the crowd to start causing mayhem was pushed early on by a right-wing media apparatus desperate to deflect blame from the president and his supporters.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham did it on the day of the riot, suggesting that “antifa supporters” may have been responsible for the violence. Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends also expressed disbelief that Trump supporters were behind the violence. “I do not know Trump supporters that have ever demonstrated violence that I know of in a big situation,” he said on Jan. 6.
The House committee investigating the attack revealed in December that both Ingraham and Kilmeade the same day texted Chief of Staff Mark Meadows urging him to get the president to call off the violence. The text, along with a similar pleas from Sean Hannity, imply that Trump would have been able to influence the violent mob. This certainly wouldn’t have been the case if the violent mob were, in fact, made up of members of antifa.
Republican politicians pushed the unfounded claim, too. Rep. Matt Gaetz took to the House floor on the morning of Jan. 7 to claim that some of the people who breached the Capitol “were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.” He cited a
Nevertheless, the baseless idea that the Trump supporters vandalizing the Capitol and attacking law enforcement weren’t really Trump supporters slowly festered into orthodoxy among conservatives, and a go-to defense from members of the MAGA movement asked how they can possibly what happened on Jan. 6. He cited a since debunked and corrected Washington Times article, noting that he didn’t know “if the reports are true.” He made the claim anyway, as did Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who tweeted on Jan. 6 that the riot “has all the hallmarks of Antifa provocation.” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told Lou Dobbs that “there is some indication that fascist antifa elements were involved, that they embedded themselves in the Trump protests.” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) later said that “fake Trump protesters” were responsible for the violence.
The list goes on, and despite a total lack of evidence, the belief that left-wing agitators were responsible for the attack became orthodoxy among Trump supporters, and a go-to defense for anyone trying to defend Trump or Republicans in the wake of the insurrection.
The insurrection was peaceful
It’s hard to parse how a siege that left five dead and dozens upon dozens of law enforcement officers injured could be framed as a peaceful protest, but it was.
It started immediately, too. Fox News anchors were tripping over themselves to describe the in-progress riot as peaceful. “It’s not like it’s a siege, it doesn’t seem. It seems like they are protesting,” said Bret Baier, one of the network’s relatively respectable news anchors. Another one, Martha MacCallum, said the riot “remains peaceful,” adding that it was a “huge victory” for the protesters. Griff Jenkins, who was on the scene, echoed this sentiment. “It has been peaceful, everything we have seen so far has been nothing but peaceful, but they are definitely fired up,” he said. “The chants I heard the most today was, ‘Fight for Trump.’ That is what many feel they are doing here, protesting, we will see where the day goes.”
These comments may have been made before the full extent of the violence was understood, but the idea that the mob was made up people who were simply protesting persisted throughout right-wing media and among Republicans in Congress.
The most shameless promoter of the idea that the riot was no big deal was Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), who said in May that while some were violent, many walked through the Capitol “in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures.” He then likened the deadly siege that left the Capitol ransacked to “a normal tourist visit.”
Photos from inside the Capitol show a panic-stricken Clyde helping barricade the doors of the House chamber and taking cover behind an officer with a gun drawn and aimed at the barricaded door as rioters tried to muscle their way inside.
Downplaying or outright ignoring the violence at the Capitol helped lay the groundwork for some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories and, eventually, the idea that Jan. 6 was a good thing and the insurrectionists were righteous patriots demonized by the liberal media. The hundreds of rioters who were arrested for their role in the attack became “political prisoners” who were being unjustly punished by a Justice Department run by Democrats. There are of course countless photos and video of rioters clad in MAGA gear vandalizing the Capitol and assaulting law enforcement officers, but, as far as the right-winger conspiracy theorists are concerned, that’s beside the point.
The riot was a false flag orchestrated by the FBI
Sure, antifa infiltrated the crowd of peaceful Trump supporters and started wreaking havoc, but did you also know that the entire siege was a false flag operation orchestrated by the FBI? It took a little longer for right-wing media to come around to the idea that the whole thing was a Deep State conspiracy, but that’s where it is now.
The most notable pusher of the FBI theory is Tucker Carlson, who in November released a documentary on Fox Nation teasing that the riot was a “false flag” and a “plot against the people.” The documentary features Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter who was fired in 2018 after he appeared on a panel with a white nationalist. PolitiFact credits Beattie with originating the false flag idea, citing a purely speculative article published in June by his Revolver News website. Carlson seized on the idea two days later, and even invited Beattie onto his show to push it on multiple occasions, according to The Washington Post.
Conspiracy theorists in Congress like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz soon jumped on the idea, which was spreading like wildfire through right-wing circles. It made its way to Trump himself in December, when he co-signed the idea during an appearance on Candace Owens’ podcast. “Right, it seems like that,” Trump said after Owens posited that FBI informants urged people to storm the Capitol. “And you have BLM and you had antifa people. I have very little doubt about that and they were antagonizing and they were agitating.”
Trump didn’t incite anything
The most important part of all of this, and every other bad thing that happens in this country as a result of the former president, is that Trump bears no responsibility. In reality, Trump was the tip of the spear of disinformation about the election results and spent the months preceding the riot riling up anger in his supporters. He promoted Jan. 6 in December and told supporters: “Be there, will be wild!” Once they’d arrived, Trump told supporters at the rally to “fight like hell” to reclaim the country, concluding his speech by saying he expected attendees to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. “We’re going to the Capitol,” he said. “We’re going to try to give our Republicans, the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help, we’re going to try to give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
Trump’s rhetoric is indisputable. So is its impact. Many of the defendants on trial for their role in the riots have pointed their finger at Trump. “Trump called us,” rioter Danny Rodrigues told investigators in March. “Trump called us to D.C. If he’s the commander in chief and the leader of our country, then he’s calling for help. I thought he was calling for help. I thought we were doing the right thing.”
So too have the Capitol Police officers who have sued Trump for physical and emotional damages, the latest lawsuits coming on Tuesday. So too has Sandra Garza, the partner of Brian Sicknick, the officer who died after engaging rioters during the attack. Garza says both she and Sicknick supporter Trump before the attack. No longer. “I hold Donald Trump 100 percent responsible for what happened on Jan. 6,” she told PBS this week. “I think he needs to be in prison.”
The texts Ingraham, Hannity, and Kilmeade sent to Meadows on Jan. 6 suggest they believed Trump had something to do with it, too, and at the very least that the rioters were beholden to him. It would be sacrilege, however, for any of them, or anyone else on Fox News or another outlet down the right-wing media food chain, to broadcast that Trump was culpable. He sat and watched the riot unfold on television, something the Jan. 6 committee says it has first-hand evidence of, hearing pleas to intervene from Don Jr. and Ivanka and whomever else, and doing nothing.
It wasn’t his fault, though. It was the Democrats.
“The American people deserve to know the truth that Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility as Speaker of the House for the tragedy that occurred on Jan. 6,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said in July. “Rather than providing [the Capitol Police] with the support and resources they needed and they deserved, she prioritized her partisan, political optics over their safety,” the number-three Republican in the House added of the House speaker. The number-one Republican in the House agreed. “If there is a responsibility for this Capitol, on this side, it rests with the Speaker,” said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
The 2020 election was stolen
The biggest lie of them all, the whopper that fueled the plan to overturn the election results, that brought Trump and thousands of his supporters to the Ellipse as Congress certified those results, and that inspired many of those supporters to then storm the Capitol in an unprecedented effort to subvert democratic process, is that the election the incumbent president lost by 74 Electoral College votes, over seven millions actual votes, and over four percentage points was somehow stolen. There is not evidence that anything resembling significant fraud occurred, despite audits, lawsuits, and the desperate efforts of Trump and his cronies to uncover something — anything — to suggest the vote was rigged.
The problem is that millions of Americans simply don’t care about the absence of evidence. They wanted Trump to win, Trump is telling them he did win, Republicans who know better aren’t correcting him, and so they’ve joined the Stop the Steal party. They’ve bought all the merchandise, they’ve memorized the talking points beaten into the discourse by everyone from Trump to right-wing YouTube hosts, and they’re calling for an authoritarian takeover of the United States to avenge a Democratic coup that never happened.
The party has grown bigger than most could have imagined, and by proxy has absorbed mainstream conservatives. An ABC/Ipsos poll released this week found that a whopping 71 percent of Republicans believe Trump was the rightful winner of the election. Another from the University of Massachusetts found 71 percent of Republicans believe Biden’s election was illegitimate. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll put the number at 58 percent, but it’s hardly encouraging that a simple rather than overwhelming majority of one of the nation’s two major parties has bought into what might be the most outlandish, pernicious conspiracy theory in American history. Unfortunately, such is the state of things in the United States in 2022.
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