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 gospel.
“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.”
It’s a fancy way of saying that conspiracy theories about Jan. 6 are here to stay. Below is a breakdown of how right-wing media and conservative politicians planted some of the most pernicious among them in the minds of millions.
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. Ingraham tweeted that Trump should call off the rioters, but also suggested that “antifa supporters” may have been responsible for the violence. Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends a day later 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, tempering his acknowledgement that Trump supporters were involved.
The House committee investigating the attack revealed in December that both Ingraham and Kilmeade on Jan. 6 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.
Republican politicians pushed the unfounded claim, too. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) 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 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.” Mike Tobin, Fox News’ on-the-ground protest correspondent, even said that “aside from the things that were broken getting into the Capitol … they say there is no vandalism.”
These comments may have been made before the full extent of the violence was understood, but the fact that this initial softening of what actually happened was being done by Fox News’ news side in addition to its propaganda-spewing primetime anchors was crucial in laying the groundwork for conspiracies to take hold, as Angelo Carusone, CEO of the media watchdog group Media Matters, explained to Rolling Stone.
“The idea that people like Brett Baier were starting to question this or downplay it was, to me, the real fulcrum point,” he says. “They softened the ground early on, and I really think that that part is very significant. It’s not that I think that the right-wing fever swamps in the rest of the right-wing media would not have done what they did. They certainly would have. But that audience is always going to be lost. It’s the second, third, and fourth rings within the conservative circles that really define where the lines and the boundaries are in Republican politics and then in the larger conversation.”
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 may have been 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.
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 has been 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.
The mainstreaming of the idea that the FBI orchestrated the riot epitomized how quick conspiracy theories could bubble up from the fringes and find their place in national conservative media. “There was this cauldron in the fever swamps churning out plausible alternatives,” say Carusone. “It was antifa. This was a setup. This was the FBI. This was a false flag. You beat that drum that enough and you get from the fever swamps to Steve Bannon’s program to then Tucker Carlson and Fox News’ documentary about Jan. 6. There’s a straight line between the primary and principle promoter of that conspiracy theory about the about the FBI and the infiltration, and Tucker’s documentary.”
Conspiracy theorists in Congress like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz quickly followed Carlson in pushing the false flag theory, which then spread like wildfire through right-wing circles in the ensuing months. 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.
It wasn’t always like this, though. Carusone, who has been tracking right-wing media misinformation for years, remembers how back in 2009 the only real examples of right-wing media pushing reckless conspiracy theories were Glenn Beck talking about FEMA death camps and Obama hacking into GM’s OnStar system. “It was such a big deal when it happened that I remember it a decade later,” he says. “But it’s happening multiple times a day now. The audience has more kinetic energy and they’re scraping increasingly what used to be the fringes to keep that cauldron swirling.”