It was mere hours after a mob spurred on by the “stop the steal” lies of former President Donald Trump had attacked the U.S. Capitol, and already new lies were taking hold in the nearby streets.
The police had pushed the few dozen remaining protesters off the Capitol grounds, but some continued to hurl threats and obscenities at a line of officers in riot gear. “Traitors get the rope,” a man shouted. “Wait until we come back with rifles.”
Only yards away, though, others were spinning fictions about what they had just witnessed, even joined.
“They’re calling us violent Trump mobs,” bemoaned a woman shortly before 8 p.m.
“That’s because antifa came here dressed as Trump supporters and started all this,” added one of the men she was speaking with.
Another man chimed in to say that he had been inside the Capitol and that it had been peaceful. “We didn’t do a thing,” he said. “We were there for the Constitution — to make sure democracy was followed.”
Soon, that instant rewriting of history coursed from the street to online chat rooms to social media and, in the case of the antifa conspiracy theory, to Laura Ingraham’s prime-time program on Fox News.
Over the past year, that same self-nourishing loop — connecting the extremely online Trumpian grassroots to close Trump allies with national soapboxes and finally to the former president himself, plotting his comeback from Palm Beach, Florida, exile — has circulated a furious array of rumor, innuendo, partial facts and outright lies to fill the right-wing media with alternative narratives of the first interruption in the peaceful transfer of power in American history.
By Thursday’s anniversary of the violence that has been connected to at least seven deaths and left some 150 police officers injured, it was an article of faith among vast swaths of conservative Americans that the riot was just “one day in January,” in the words of former Vice President Mike Pence, whose life was directly threatened. For the half of Republicans who now believe the rioters were at the Capitol to “protect democracy,” according to the latest ABC News/Ipsos poll, any talk of Jan. 6 as a singularly violent episode in American democracy would likely be taken as liberal, mainstream-media claptrap.
“Jan. 6 barely rates as a footnote,” Tucker Carlson told his Fox News viewers Thursday night. “Really not a lot happened that day if you think about it.” He called the event “just a riot — maybe just barely.”
The reimagining of Jan. 6 has not so much evolved as it has splintered into rival, but often complementary, false narratives with a common goal: to shift blame away from Trump, his supporters and a Republican Party maneuvering to win back control of government. The riot was a “false flag” operation by antifa, the loose left-wing collective; the FBI planted agents to stir up the crowd; the protesters were mere “tourists” wrongfully accused by a Democratic-led Justice Department and vilified by a biased mainstream media; police officers recounting their injuries and trauma were “crisis actors.”
Carlson has emerged as a leading proponent of Jan. 6 revisionism, most prominently with his three-part “Patriot Purge” series. Carried on the Fox Nation streaming service, it amplified a debunked “false flag” conspiracy theory that the FBI had instigated the violence as a pretext to lock away peaceful but concerned Americans because of their political views, creating a class of patriot martyrs. On Thursday night, he aired excerpts from “Patriot Purge” on his prime-time show, spreading those conspiracy theories to one of the largest audiences on cable television.
Carlson’s relentless promotion of the series — and silence from Fox News management — prompted two longtime conservative contributors at the network to quit in protest and contributed to the exit of Chris Wallace, the longtime news anchor. In fact, “Patriot Purge” was the apotheosis of a yearlong shift in the way Fox News stars refer to the Capitol attack. Although the network’s commentators allow that mob violence is wrong, they often pivot to asking why Black Lives Matter protests did not prompt similarly sharp criticism from Democrats.
Then there are podcasts like that of Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser who faces contempt charges for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the House committee investigating the riot. (In seeking his testimony, congressional investigators cited Bannon’s interactions with Trump and other key players in the effort to dispute the election results as his podcast generously featured false voter fraud theories; Trump pardoned Bannon, hours before leaving office, for unrelated fraud charges.) Even as Bannon acknowledges “things happened” Jan. 6 that “did cross the line,” his “War Room” podcast provides a popular stage for people promoting Jan. 6 conspiracy theories or portraying those arrested as political prisoners.
On Thursday, Bannon used his podcast to showcase what he called “counterprogramming” to the somber ceremonies commemorating the day in Washington. His featured guests were the Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida, who portrayed the events of Jan. 6 as “a fedsurrection, not an insurrection,” now being used “against a patriotic, pro-America, God-fearing America First movement all over this great land.”
In a hallmark of the times, what many Americans are willing to believe about Jan. 6 — a day thoroughly documented in real time by journalists, participants and cable TV and reconstructed in the hundreds of cases being assembled by federal prosecutors — is determined by their politics, not by the facts. And amid a seemingly never-ending pandemic marked by confusing public health messaging and government mandates, these fictional and conspiratorial accounts of the riot carry an obvious appeal, especially for Trump supporters alienated from mainstream institutions after his tumultuous presidency and election loss.
“When I talk to folks on my side of the aisle, they’ll have a litany saying, ‘They lied to us here and flip-flopped on this,’” said Sean Spicer, Trump’s former press secretary who now hosts a show on Newsmax. “There’s such a belief that the mainstream media and most of our major institutions are not looking out for people anymore.” He added, “So when someone throws out a conspiracy, it’s, ‘Why not? That’s equally plausible.’”
Adherents have built up characters to support their claims that antifa infiltrators or federal agents were the ones who whipped up the mob, in some instances doing so as events were unfolding in Washington. One is a man named Ray Epps, a Trump supporter who was captured on video the night of Jan. 5 urging his compatriots to “go into the Capitol” the next day.
Some in the crowd responded approvingly: “Let’s go!” rings out one reply.
“Peacefully,” Epps said, just before others began chanting, “Fed, Fed, Fed!” at the man, who at age 60 stood out in the far-younger crowd.
Epps, who lives in Queen Creek, Arizona, where he owns Rocking R Farms and the Knotty Barn, a wedding and event venue, according to PolitiFact, appears in another video taken the next day. He is seen yelling to a crowd, “OK, folks, spread the word! As soon as the president is done speaking, we go to the Capitol. The Capitol is this direction.”
Both moments went largely unnoticed until June 17, when a poster on the online message board 4chan put up the video of Epps from Jan. 5, writing, “This Fed was caught on camera encouraging the crowd to raid the Capitol on the next day.”
The anonymous poster added, “Who is this man?”
Another person then identified him as Epps. Soon after, the video and Epps’ name were posted in a Twitter thread, and a new conspiracy theory began its journey into the Republican mainstream.
Four months later, on Oct. 21, the video was being shown during a congressional hearing. There, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., used it to question Attorney General Merrick Garland about whether federal agents had acted as agitators on Jan. 6.
Within days, stories about Epps began appearing on websites like Revolver News, which ran an article, “Meet Ray Epps: The Fed-Protected Provocateur Who Appears to Have Led the Very First 1/6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol.” The Epps story gained further promotion on far-right cable network One America News — portrayed by correspondent Chanel Rion as evidence of “the FBI’s possible involvement inciting an invasion of the Capitol” — and, far more widely, in Carlson’s “Patriot Purge.”
To date, no evidence has emerged linking Epps to the FBI or any other government agency. In fact, his known connections are decidedly anti-government: In 2011, Epps served as the president of the Arizona Oath Keepers, the largest chapter of the militia group whose members were among the mob that attacked the Capitol, although it is not clear if he remains a member of the group.
Yet in the days leading up to Thursday’s anniversary, and on the anniversary itself, the speculation around Epps only seemed to snowball, amplified on countless social media posts, on Bannon’s podcast — part of a possibly “massive false flag operation,” as his website put it — and on Carlson’s prime-time show on Fox News on Wednesday and again on Thursday. “Is this guy going to be charged? Where is he?” Carlson asked. “It’s a legitimate question, why won’t they answer it?”
Even overwhelming evidence debunking the conspiracy theories is often dismissed as just more fakery, keeping them in the feedback loop in seeming perpetuity.
Assertions of fact — that the riot was conducted by Trump supporters based on lies about the election he legitimately lost — are met with accusations of dishonesty or even disloyalty.
In a recent appearance on Sean Hannity’s prime-time Fox News show, Geraldo Rivera spoke of “a riot that was unleashed, incited and inspired by the president of the United States which targeted American democracy.”
He quickly received a verbal lashing from another guest, popular right-wing radio host Dan Bongino. “The backstabbing of the president you are engaging in is really disgusting, and it’s really vile that you pretend to be this guy’s friend,” Bongino said.
For many in the right-wing mediasphere, no debunking authority is high enough to be believed; in some cases, in fact, the higher-ranking the person, the greater the distrust.
In March, FBI Director Christopher Wray — initially appointed by Trump — dismissed notions that antifa was behind the riot, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee that his agency had not uncovered “any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to antifa in connection with the 6th.”
One America News reported his testimony with this on-screen headline: “FBI ‘Can’t Find Proof’ of Antifa Involvement in Jan. 6th Protests, Despite Mountains of Video Evidence.”
Members of the House select committee investigating the events of the day have been tracking the false narratives carefully, knowing that these threaten to undercut their final report. The members working on the investigation, including Republicans, believe they can bring some Republicans around to the truth with hard facts and obvious evidence.
But even their strongest effort so far to cut through all the revisionism, the public testimony of Capitol Police officers who came under fierce attack while trying to stave off the mob, was chewed up and spit out as illegitimate. Some of the most gripping testimony came from Officer Michael Fanone, who described suffering a heart attack and brain injury after the mob shocked him with his own Taser and beat him unconscious.
“Too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist or that hell wasn’t actually that bad,” Fanone said in July during one of several emotional moments on the stand.
That night on Fox News, Ingraham told viewers that she was granting Fanone a mock award for “best performance in an action role.”
Star Newsmax host Greg Kelly — son of the former New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly — later portrayed Fanone as “one of those cops, those ‘crisis actors,’ whatever they were, they stood up and they tried to besmirch anybody who ever voted for Donald Trump.”
Kelly was revisiting Fanone’s testimony last month while reporting that he had signed on with CNN as an on-air contributor. Questioning Fanone’s account, including about his own injuries, Kelly said, “I just hope they took away his gun and his badge because he doesn’t deserve them.” The headline on the screen read, “Fake Cop Becomes Fake News.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]