Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the new podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
At a news conference held in the hours after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, a man asked then-Gov. Deval Patrick whether the attacks had been carried out by the US government as part of a plot to clamp down on civil liberties. The governor, who had spent the day scrambling to respond to the crisis and begin coordinating the search for the perpetrators, dismissed the question with a quick “no.”
The man who asked whether the horrific bombing was “another false flag staged attacks” was Dan Bidondi, a radio host for Alex Jones’s InfoWars. At the time, InfoWars was considered a far-right crackpot site with little relevance to US politics, the Westboro Baptist Church of right-wing media: seizing on people’s worst moments of grief and pain to thrust their own obscene, inhumane politics into the spotlight.
While Jones still remains on the fringes of US politics, the InfoWars approach has since then become part of the mainstream right. In the two months since the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, conservatives in media and Congress have sought to rewrite the events of the day. As new reports from the New York Times and Washington Post show, much of the right has embraced the conspiracy theory that the insurrection was a false-flag event, an effort by undercover anti-fascists to smear and discredit the Trump administration and the movement that supports it. While that is not remotely true, it has quickly become an article of faith, evidence that the InfoWars-ification of the right is nearly complete.
The efforts to propagate a false narrative of January 6 began even as the insurrection was still in process. As I wrote at the time, Todd Herman, the guest host for the Rush Limbaugh Show, immediately began processing news of the violence and disorder as evidence that leftists had infiltrated the crowd. “It’s probably not Trump supporters who would do that,” he told his audience. “Antifa, BLM, that’s what they do.”
A few hours later on the floor of the House, Rep. Matt Gaetz repeated the lie that some of the rioters were “masquerading as Trump supporters and in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group Antifa.” In testimony on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray underscored that the Antifa conspiracy was false, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee, “We have not, to date, seen any evidence of anarchist violence extremists or people subscribing to Antifa in connection to the 6th.”
Though a number of conservatives (including high-profile ones like Sen. Mitch McConnell) reject the false-flag conspiracy, it has been trumpeted by enough well-known figures – from Reps. Paul Gosar and Mo Brooks to Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity – that half of Republicans in a January survey said that Antifa activists were responsible for the Capitol insurrection, even though almost every single one of the nearly 300 rioters who have been arrested are open Trump supporters. The Oregon Republican Party recently passed a resolution stating, “The violence at the Capitol was a ‘false flag’ operation designed to discredit Republican Trump, his supporters, and all conservative Republicans.”
The idea of false flag conspiracies, once isolated to InfoWars broadcasts and internet message boards, has been creeping into the Republican mainstream over the past several years. They began to break through in 2018, when someone began sending bombs to prominent Democratic leaders, including Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder. Jacob Wohl, who runs the conspiracy and hoax site Gateway Pundit, tweeted out that the stories about the bombs “are false flags, carefully planned for the midterms.”
That conspiracy quickly filtered out on Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, and then Fox News and talk radio. Lou Dobbs, the pro-Trump host on Fox Business, tweeted (and deleted), “Fake News—Fake Bombs. Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery?” Geraldo Rivera and guests on “Fox & Friends” also repeated the false flag conspiracy on air.