Law enforcement agencies are rounding up suspected rioters, combing through social media evidence, and uncovering the true depth of the plot to overtake the Capitol and stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election.
The story is getting bigger every day. But there is also a concerted effort underway, all across the pro-Trump media landscape, to make it smaller.
Far-right personalities are trying to minimize the Capitol attack and divert blame away from President Trump. There are even some strands of full-fledged 1/6 denialism, something akin to the 9/11 “truther” movement that has festered on the internet for nearly 20 years.
CNN’s Ed Lavandera interviewed pro-Trump protesters in Texas six days after the domestic terror attack and reported that “the conspiracy theories are running rampant.”
One of the Trump supporters, Ryan Wolfe, told Lavandera, “I believe that either foreign intelligence officers or local militant groups incited the conflict.”
Another Trump fan, Darrell Fliflet, said “I feel it was people like Antifa, Black Lives Matter, who infilitrated the crowd, that caused the problems.”
The Antifa narrative, designed to exculpate the Trump supporters who ransacked the Capitol – and also exonerate Trump for encouraging them – has been debunked, yet it persists. Another denialist narrative aims to downplay the severity of the attack, even as new evidence to the contrary emerges every day.
One America News, a cable channel led by Robert Herring, who says Trump is the best president of his lifetime, has sanitized the violence by referring to the riot as “the Capitol Hill incident” more than fifteen times this week.
One of the most laughable narratives has to do with the timeline of the attack. Raheem Kassam, a former Breitbart editor who now leads a far-right website called The National Pulse, has advanced an argument that the rioters couldn’t have possibly attended or heard Trump’s speech earlier in the afternoon.
The argument is full of holes, but Kassam was given airtime on both Newsmax and One America News to promote it anyway. One America News re-aired his claims at least sixteen times, according to a search of the media monitoring service TVEyes.
“Without a teleportation device, it is impossible for somebody to have been at the president’s speech and then at the Capitol,” Kassam claimed on OAN. His so-called evidence: Some protesters were already at the Capitol while Trump was still speaking about a mile and a half away.
But many reporters said they saw some rallygoers leave early to walk to the Capitol, and others listened to portions of the speech on their phones.
Some initial security barricades were overrun while Trump was still speaking, but a much bigger crowd descended on the Capitol after he urged rallygoers to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Trump’s speech ended at 1:11 p.m. and the doors to the Capitol were breached shortly after 2 p.m., according to timelines compiled by news outlets. That’s more than enough time to walk a mile and a half.
Furthermore, Trump had been spreading lies about the election for more than two months, so his lies at the rally were only one factor in the insurrection. But Kassam argued that “what we have to do is treat these two events as completely separate events.”
The timeline theory has been picked up by Trump aides like Jason Miller, who said on Fox News Wednesday night, “the bad actors started going into the violence and destruction even before President Trump finished speaking.”
While that is technically true, it does not let Trump off the hook. It’s all part of a propaganda strategy to divert attention and culpability away from Trump and his supporters.
Greg Kelly, the highest-rated host on Newsmax, pushed the same notion on Wednesday night. He said there is “overwhelming” evidence that Trump “did nothing wrong” on the day of the attack.
Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who studies political misinformation and conspiracy theories, said these are instances of “motivated interpretations” by Republicans.
“Antifa blaming is relatively rare outside the extreme fringe,” he said. “What I’ve seen much more of is an effort to minimize the severity of what happened and/or the role of Trump and other elite conservatives.”
In other words, when the facts are hard to deny, partisans choose to downplay them instead.
On One America News, for example, Kassam was billed as an “eyewitness” to the riot. He said “it was nothing like” a war zone and described just a “very small crowd” of troublemakers, which is belied by the video evidence.
Video evidence contradicts the Antifa narrative, too. Numerous staunch supporters of Trump have been identified in videos of the riot. Yet recent headlines on Gateway Pundit, a resolutely pro-Trump website, have included multiple references to Antifa.
One article quoted a Trump-aligned journalist saying that “Antifa clearly led the attack. That was utterly obvious.”
The article also said matter-of-factly that “Trump supporters do not hate cops.”
There is ample demand for this supply of denialist content. A host on OAN who has also worked with the Trump campaign’s legal team posted a video of people pouring into the Capitol and blamed the police: “Capitol police open doors for the protestors. They stand aside and invite them inside.”
The officers were grossly outnumbered, but the host’s tweet gained nearly 50,000 retweets and 75,000 likes.
The Antifa blame game started within hours of the riot and gained significant traction on Fox News, with host Laura Ingraham saying “they were likely not all Trump supporters” and her guests speculating about Antifa’s role.
During Wednesday’s impeachment debate, the House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy urged a stop to the conspiracy theorizing about left-wing infiltrators.
“Some say the riots were caused by Antifa,” McCarthy said. “There is absolutely no evidence of that, and conservatives should be the first to say so.”
Yet the false idea keeps spreading and spreading, like a new lie layered on top of the old lies about the election.
“I have to admit I’m kinda shocked by the people reaching out to me epistemically convinced that last week was an Antifa operation,” conservative radio host Erick Erickson tweeted Thursday morning. “They have found Rumble videos to confirm for them exactly what they want to hear and do not trust the FBI or even the GOP to tell them the truth.”