A collective of Republican activists, lawmakers, and media figures led by President Donald Trump—with an assist from slow-to-act social media platforms—created the toxic stew that erupted into violence and chaos on Wednesday.
The attempted coup perpetrated by pro-Trump, domestic terrorists at the United States Capitol on Wednesday may have taken some lawmakers, pundits, and members of the media by surprise, but it shouldn’t have: The very right-wing extremists who stormed the halls of Congress gleefully told the internet what they would do in the weeks since Election Day.
But the armed insurrection that left four people dead isn’t just the result of two months of conspiracy theory-fueled anger. Instead, it represents the natural conclusion of more than 25 years of growing right-wing extremism in the United States, turbocharged by a massive right-wing media disinformation machine and four years of having one of their own in the White House.
For his entire term, President Donald Trump has cozied up to right-wing extremists and white nationalists. He called them “very fine people” after they murdered a peaceful protester in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. He told the far-right Proud Boy movement to “stand back and stand by,” during a 2020 presidential debate. And in a since-deleted video posted on Wednesday, he told the angry mob that made members of Congress fear for their lives that he loved them.
“We love you, you’re very special,” Trump said.
They love him too. And buoyed by Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost the 2020 election to President-elect Joe Biden, his lies about non-existent voter fraud, embrace of toxic conspiracy theories, and calls for them to “stop the steal,” they reported for duty on Wednesday, cloaked in Trump flags and Make America Great Again hats as they attempted to block the certification of Biden’s electoral college victory.
Planning an Insurrection in Plain Sight
Their plan was not an impromptu one. Beginning on Nov. 4, just one day after Election Day, hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters flocked to “Stop the Steal” Facebook groups to discuss their response to what Trump was telling them was a fraudulent election—a claim that has been widely debunked and laughed out of dozens of courts across the country.
Facebook took decisive steps to shut down many of these groups, pushing organizers to newer, fringe social media platforms, including Gab and Parler. From there, Trump supporters organized Wednesday’s event over the course of weeks, making clear that thousands of them would descend on Washington, DC on Jan. 6 to “save America.”
They were egged on by Trump himself, who on Dec. 18 tweeted: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
He issued similar tweets several more times in the coming days, even using the “StopTheSteal!” rhetoric. The president’s legal team even warned of “disruption” and possible “injury” to the nation in a December court filing asking the Supreme Court to overturn Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania.
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In their planning, many of Trump’s supporters made clear they were ready to get violent, if needed. BuzzFeed News reported that in an interaction in early January, a user on the far-right website TheDonald asked, “What if Congress ignores the evidence?”
“Storm the Capitol,” one person replied. “You’re fucking right we do,” another added.
“ARMED WITH RIFLE, HANDGUN, 2 KNIVES AND AS MUCH AMMO AS YOU CAN CARRY,” another post on the website read.
Another commenter urged other members of the community to “Bring the wood, build the gallows outside congress, be mentally prepared to pull them out and string em up… have to send the world a strong message.”
Richard Barnett, a self-proclaimed “white nationalist” who stormed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and was photographed sitting with his feet up on her desk on Wednesday, wrote on Facebook in late December that he was willing to die a violent death.
Barnett wrote that he “came into this world kicking and screaming, covered in someone else’s blood,” according to the Washington Post “I’m not afraid to go out the same way,” he added.
The post included a selfie showing a rifle strapped to his chest. These types of posts popped up across platforms and discussions were often accompanied by photographs of firearms. Many of the extremists discussed bringing firearms, even though it would mean knowingly violating Washington DC’s strict gun laws.
“All this bullshit about not bringing guns to D.C. needs to stop,” read one post from TheDonald on Tuesday, according to BuzzFeed News. “This is America. Fuck D.C. it’s in the Constitution. Bring your goddamn guns.”
“I’m thinking it will be literal war on that day,” said another user, according to the Daily Beast. “Where we’ll storm offices and physically remove and even kill all the D.C. traitors and reclaim the country.”
Advance Democracy, a nonprofit research organization, found that posts on various social media platforms signaled the threat of violence in the days preceding Wednesday’s insurrection. “On TheDonald, more than 50% of the top posts on January 4, 2021, about the January 6th Electoral College certification featured unmoderated calls for violence in the top five responses,” the organization found.
Like many others who were at the Capitol on Wednesday, Barnett had ties to the debunked QAnon conspiracy theory, which baselessly claims that a shadowy cabal of Satan-worshipping, global elites are running a child, sex-trafficking ring and attempting to take down Trump. Others who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday included Jake Angeli, a so-called “QAnon Shaman” known for his painted face and horned hat, and Tim Gionet, a neo-Nazi conspiracy theorist who goes by the moniker “Baked Alaska.”
The Seditious Allies in the White House and Congress
But these extremists, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists weren’t just acting alone in their efforts to overturn the election results. Not only did President Trump feed them a steady diet of lies and disinformation about the election, so too did right-wing media outlets like Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News. Wednesday’s riots were also promoted by high-profile right-wing activists like Ali Alexander, a lead organizer of Wednesday’s event, Trump ally and attorney Lin Wood, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
These extremists also found willing allies in the halls of Congress, where self-proclaimed “constitutionalist conservative” Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri and more than 100 House Republicans embraced efforts to overturn the election result without any evidence—both before and after Wednesday’s siege—in betrayal of their sworn duty to uphold the Constitution.
This collective of activists, lawmakers, and media figures—with an assist from slow-to-act social media platforms—created the toxic stew that erupted into violence and chaos at the Capitol.
“The attack was the natural byproduct of months’ worth of post-election conspiracy theories and incitements to act on those beliefs, often coming from the highest Republican political powers in the nation,” Jared Holt, a domestic extremism expert wrote in GenMag on Thursday. “Since the election was called for President-Elect Biden, President Trump and his allies in politics and media have perpetuated falsehoods alleging that the democratic process was compromised by nefarious forces. Whether these claims were made for political gain, they animated extremists and offered them justification for radical actions.”
This wasn’t the first time Republicans have defended outrageous lies and behavior from Trump, despite ample evidence of the danger he poses to the nation. For years, most Republican lawmakers have tolerated, if not explicitly endorsed a rising tide of conspiracy theories, disinformation, extremism, and hatred.
They tolerated his embrace of the QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories, which have led to several deaths. They tolerated his heinous comments about women during the 2016 campaign, in which he said he could “grab ‘em by the pussy.” They tolerated him when he called Mexicans “rapists” and spread baseless conspiracy theories about migrants at the Southern border. They shrugged him off when he mocked people with disabilities, enacted his Muslim ban, called reporters the “enemy of the people,” attacked Black Lives Matters protesters as “thugs,” and decried African nations as “shithole countries.”
They tolerated all of that, all while doing little to address the actual threat of right-wing extremism.
The Rise of Deadly Right-Wing Terrorists in America
Anti-hate groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and others have noted that the threat of right-wing extremism has been growing for more than 25 years, with the seeds of it dating back to the militia movement of the 1990s and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people.
Between January 1, 1994 and May 8, 2020, right-wing extremists and American white supremacists killed at least 329 people in violent attacks, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a centrist think tank. In contrast, anti-fascists, or “antifa,” who for years have been demonized by Republicans, killed exactly zero people during that span.
A more recent report from the CSIS found that white supremacist groups were responsible for 41 of 61 “terrorist plots and attacks” in the first eight months of 2020, or 67%, compared to only 20% for far-left groups. Of the five lethal domestic terror attacks this year, one was linked to a “far-right extremist,” another to an “anti-feminist,” two to the Boogaloo movement, an anti-government group dedicated to inciting a race war, and one to an anti-fascist activist.
Organizations ranging from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the ADL to the Center for Investigative Reporting have all concluded that right-wing extremists and white supremacists present a far greater deadly threat to Americans than anti-fascists or “far-left” protesters. Despite this overwhelming consensus, a DHS whistleblower claimed in September that Trump administration officials actively buried intelligence showing that right-wing and white supremacist groups presented a more violent threat to the US than antifa, Black Lives Matter, and other social justice movements.
In doing so, Trump officials simply followed the blueprint set by Obama-era Republicans in Congress, who grew so offended at an intelligence report showing that right-wing extremism was on the rise after the 2008 election that they successfully pressured then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to suppress the report and halt future work related to right-wing extremism.
Put simply: Republican politicians stood by as the spectre of right-wing extremism grew ever more present, which played no small part in Trump’s election in the first place. And then once he took office, they watched—and in some cases, helped—Trump pour even more gasoline on the existing flames of division, turning them into roaring fires that on Wednesday exploded into an inferno.
“It is the culmination of more than five years of hatred, trolling, violent harassment and conspiracy theorizing that has moved from the internet’s underbelly to the White House and back again,” Charlie Warzel, a New York Times writer who covers the internet, wrote on Wednesday. “For years now, professional grifters, trolls, true believers and political opportunists have sowed conspiratorial lies, creating intricate and dangerous alternate realities. We are now witnessing the reaping.”
Despite Fatal Capitol Attack, Republicans Keep Lying
Those alternate realities are already rearing their ugly heads once again. While much of the mainstream media and many lawmakers quickly condemned Wednesday’s attempted coup and have rightly pinpointed Trump and his allies as being responsible, conservative media figures, activists, and even congressmen are already doing the work of spinning disinformation and lies.
Greg Kelly, the top-rated host on Newsmax, stated that “These people don’t look like Trump supporters. Trump supporters don’t do these things.”
Fox News Host Sean Hannity also questioned whether the people storming the Capitol were truly Trump supporters, saying “those who truly support President Trump … do not support those that commit acts of violence.”
This refrain appeared over and over again across Fox News, with hosts Laura Ingraham, Brian Kilmeade, and Tucker Carlson all calling into question whether the rioters were actually Trump supporters, even though they posted about their intentions for weeks beforehand and took photographs and video of themselves after breaching the Capitol.
Rather than acknowledge basic reality, these conservative hosts instead claimed the pro-Trump mob were “infiltrated” by outside “agitators,” and alluded to already-debunked stories alleging that members of antifa were somehow involved.
Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama also jumped on that train on Thursday, spouting baseless conspiracy theories on Twitter.
“Please, don’t be like #FakeNewsMedia, don’t rush to judgment on assault on Capitol. Wait for investigation,” Brooks tweeted. “All may not be (and likely is not) what appears. Evidence growing that fascist ANTIFA orchestrated Capitol attack with clever mob control tactics.”
These attempts to find a scapegoat or claim the attack was a “false flag” operation could be sadly effective, given the digital and media echo chambers that most Americans now live in. There are already signs that it’s working.
But in truth, they represent just the latest effort by Republican politicians and their allies to deny the reality of what millions of Americans saw with their own eyes on Wednesday: The President of the United States effectively endorsed an attempted coup to try and cling to power.
The extremist right may have failed this time, but that doesn’t mean they will in the future. Unless Democrats and American voters hold Trump and fellow Republican lawmakers accountable, unless tech platforms take greater steps to crack down on disinformation and conspiracy theories, unless right-wing media companies face consequences for their propaganda, and unless those who stormed the Capitol face accountability, there’s no guarantee the next coup attempt won’t succeed.
“Next time, we come back with rifles,” one Trump supporter yelled at police after the riot.
Holt, the domestic extremism expert, made a similar point in GenMag. “If the lessons learned do not match the severity of their actions,” he wrote, “next time will be worse.”
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