Right-wing media have spent more than two months telling audiences that November’s election was “stolen” from President Donald Trump and promoting efforts to overturn the results. They’ve presented Trump’s loss as a great injustice and as a wrong that must be righted. Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich went so far as to call Biden’s election “the most dangerous assault on the very nature of America, certainly in our lifetime, and maybe since the previous Civil War.” Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh has floated the idea of secession.
On Wednesday, that all came to a head when Trump called on his supporters to march on the Capitol -- and they listened. Months of lies and incendiary rhetoric from Trump fueled by his media allies reached its inevitable conclusion: a violent attempt to overthrow democracy.
Rather than take any accountability for how their reckless conspiracies had inspired a riotous mob to storm the Capitol, numerous right-wing media figures pounced on a different conspiracy theory that conveniently allowed conservatives to dodge responsibility: Antifa did it.
All week, conservatives have struggled to coalesce around a coherent narrative about what happened on Wednesday, especially in light of the president’s temporary suspension from his favorite social media platforms.
On one hand, a number of Trump’s most loyal backers on Fox News and elsewhere rushed to defend the insurrectionists. Tucker Carlson urged people to empathize with the perpetrators during his Wednesday show. Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum called the attack “a huge victory” for the pro-Trump forces. Meanwhile, Fox’s Bret Baier, John Roberts, Griff Jenkins, Lou Dobbs, and Mike Tobin all downplayed the afternoon’s events. Laura Ingraham and Fox contributor Katie Pavlich both compared what happened to Black Lives Matter protests.
Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka called the rioters “patriots” who “have taken over Capitol Hill.” Newsmax host Rob Schmitt justified the attack by saying that the people involved in it clearly felt “a tremendous amount of frustration” and that he believed it came from “a very, very logical place.”
As time went on, a separate and contradictory narrative emerged: Antifa did it.
“Republicans do not join protest mobs, they do not loot, and they don't riot, to the grand disappointment of many people,” said Rush Limbaugh during his Thursday show. “But a tiny minority of these protesters, and undoubtedly including some antifa Democrat-sponsored instigators, did decide to go to the Capitol to protest.” (At another point during Limbaugh’s show, he did come out with an implicit endorsement of political violence.)
Sean Hannity dipped his toe into the conspiracy theory waters during his Wednesday radio show, pointing to “reports that groups like antifa … were there to cause trouble.”
One popular source of such claims was a viral article from the right-wing Washington Times. That article, which received more than a quarter million engagements on Facebook, was promoted by a smattering of pro-Trump personalities and cited by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) during a speech on the House floor Wednesday evening. That article was debunked and later deleted by The Washington Times.
Proto-Trumpian former Alaska governor and The Masked Singer contestant Sarah Palin promoted this conspiracy theory during a Wednesday Fox News appearance in which she said, “We don’t know who all were the instigators in this, these horrible thing that happen today. I think a lot of it is the Antifa folks. I’ve been sent pictures of the same characters, whom were captured on images today storming the Capitol, as had been in protests on the other side of politics earlier in the summer.”
During an on-air report, Sinclair’s James Rosen said that the crowd of demonstrators had their “ranks likely augmented by far-left infiltrators.” Later, Rosen added, “On social media, images surfaced showing that at least some of the protesters who breached the Capitol were previously photographed earlier this year taking part in BLM and antifa actions as far away as Arizona, the very state whose Electoral College votes were being challenged when the chaos erupted.”
None of what Rosen said was based in fact. Claims of protesters who were “previously photographed earlier this year taking part in BLM and antifa actions” likely referred to Jake Angeli, who calls himself the “QAnon Shaman.” Angeli is a fairly well-known presence at pro-Trump rallies in Arizona and is certainly not “antifa.”
While it’s within the realm of possibilities that not every single person involved in the attack on the Capitol was a dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter, the people who have actually been identified certainly appear to fit that description. Many Trump supporters went so far as to livestream and photograph themselves taking part in the chaos. To float a conspiracy theory about the attack being somehow driven by leftists is not only cowardly but outright dangerous.
Antifa makes for a convenient boogeyman in this case because the term doesn't refer to a group of people so much as it describes people engaged in tactics to oppose fascism. As FBI Director Chris Wray said during a September hearing, “It’s not a group or an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology.” Placing blame on “antifa” is essentially just a way to employ the “No true Scotsman” fallacy, which is exactly what conservative media figures are doing in making arguments that no true Trump supporter would attack the Capitol.
So-called “false flag” conspiracy theories have long had a home in right-wing media.
When a Trump superfan mailed prominent Democrats explosive devices ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, conservative media rushed to accuse Democrats of sending the homemade bombs to themselves. Last summer, when the FBI thwarted a plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones called it “definitely, probably a provocateur’ed action.” Jones has also posited that the 2018 Parkland school shooting, the 2016 attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, and the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School were all false flag attacks.
While there are absolutely false flag conspiracy theories across the political spectrum, the extensive network that makes up the right-wing media infrastructure enables the conservative variants of these theories to find a larger audience. Right-wing media outlets publish content driven by a desire to make conservatives’ viewpoints seem good and liberal viewpoints seem bad, with the goal being to convince audiences that people on the right are the protagonists of reality. As it’s difficult to spin Trump supporters carrying out a terrorist attack on the Capitol to most audiences as something that good people do, it simply must be outsiders who are creating trouble. In a 2018 Washington Post article discussing the mail bombs sent to prominent Trump opponents, Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, noted that like many conspiracy theories, belief in false flags often emerges out of ideological expediency. “Even when the evidence for such attacks is clear, some people are convinced that the truth is being hidden — and prefer alternative narratives,” wrote Uscinski.
When people believe conspiracy theories, it tends to be ones that give an advantage to their own side. In this case, because the attacks appear to have been carried out by a Republican — both from the choice of targets and the evidence currently emerging — Republicans who think conspiratorially may shift responsibility from their side by imagining a conspiracy, much as conspiracy-minded gun rights supporters suggest school shootings are actually false-flag operations orchestrated by those who want to chip away at the Second Amendment.
At the moment, it’s not entirely obvious whether the assault on the Capitol is a net positive or negative for Trump in the eyes of his supporters; a YouGov poll found that 45% of Republicans approved of the attack. And that may explain the current tension in right-wing media between justifying or even praising the attack while at the same time arguing that it was actually people on the left who carried it out. Given that the mob was unsuccessful in preventing Congress from counting the electoral votes; that it led to Trump being (at least temporarily) banned from Twitter, Facebook, and Twitch; and that it has sparked talk of another round of impeachment or even his removal from office by way of the 25th Amendment, this may not be playing out as well as Trump and his supporters had anticipated.
But it certainly hasn't prompted the type of soul searching among right-wing media befitting the gravity of the events. Instead, they're dodging responsibility, engaging in whataboutism, and continuing to stoke the conspiracy theories that caused the riot in the first place -- making it more likely it might happen again.