The reason MAGA-loving Republicans lie so obviously and remorselessly is really pretty simple: It works.
The two most brazen falsehoods they keep repeating to justify the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection—“the election was stolen” and “antifa did it”—are in fact widely believed by Republican Donald Trump voters, over 70% of whom ardently believe the first claim, and some 58% of whom lap up the latter lie as well.
And as far as they’re concerned, that’s all that matters: They have a narrative for Trump supporters to tell themselves and each other. Because that’s really the only audience for their lies that matters to them. Who cares if the rest of the world knows it’s all bullshit? In their alternative universe, the only thing of consequence is undying support for Trump.
Indeed, the two lies contradict each other narratively speaking: If the election was stolen, why would antifa want to invade the Capitol? But logical consistency is meaningless in their alternative universe. What matters most is muddying the waters so they can evade consequences for their innate violence, mainly by resorting to the hoary rhetorical manipulation of claiming that critics are “waving the bloody shirt.”
The New York Times examined this week how the “antifa did it” lie was generated and then spread. It began, as the story documented, even while the Capitol invasion was under way, thanks mainly to a bogus story in the Washington Times that was corrected about 24 hours later—more than enough time for the lie to get on its horse and gallop around the world a couple of times. The usual suspects for right-wing disinformation—Gateway Pundit Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and Laura Ingraham—all had helpers among Republican elected officials, notably congressmen Matt Gaetz of Florida and Mo Brooks of Alabama, as well as Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.
The piece accurately captures the dynamic: The lies are all eventually debunked and many of their progenitors wind up recanting and correcting, but by then the lies have already circulated widely and have been eagerly adopted as accurate by people who never see the often subdued corrections that follow. Moreover, on social media, the original sensational lies attract huge audiences and are widely shared while the mostly meat-and-potatoes corrections get only a fraction of their audiences.
While some have backed away from the claims, others have doubled down—notably Johnson, who asserted once again that antifa was responsible for the violence during a Senate hearing last week. Johnson, reading from an account by J. Michael Waller in The Federalist, claimed the “great majority” of protesters had a “jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor.” He blamed the deadly violence on “plainclothes militants, agent provocateurs, fake Trump protesters, and a disciplined uniformed column of attackers.”
The “antifa did it” theorists, including Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas, have turned to the particular claim that an African American man they linked to Black Lives Matter (BLM), John H. Sullivan of Utah, played a central role in the insurrection.
There’s just one problem with this story: It has, once again, been thoroughly debunked. Sullivan, as The Washington Post reported in detail, is a man who initially attempted to organize BLM protests in Utah outside of the existing African American protest community. In short order, a person was shot during one of his events and then Proud Boys began showing up to support his protests. Among BLM activists, he was widely regarded as a duplicitous “double agent.” His last organized protest of the summer was a pro-gun rights rally featuring large numbers of far-right militiamen, including Oath Keepers.
The Times story, as analyst J.J. McNabb adroitly observes, also overlooks a central aspect of the narrative: The radical right actually began building it on social media well before the Jan. 6 insurrection. First, conspiracy theorists began circulating rumors that antifa would disguise themselves as Trump supporters for the Jan. 6 rally, but would be identifiable by the backward MAGA hats they intended to wear. Then, Proud Boys began talking among themselves about arriving in disguise at the Jan. 6 event dressed up in antifa-style “black bloc” gear.
The latter idea had real logistical flaws since other Proud Boys might mistake the disguised participants for the real thing and assault them. The strategy the Proud Boys eventually settled on for Jan. 6 was to eschew their usual black polos and red MAGA hats for ordinary street clothes, instead adopting orange armbands as their group identifier.
Many of those same Proud Boys are now under arrest and awaiting trial for their roles in the insurrection. Indeed, as the indictments have mounted and the evidence provided by investigators has been introduced, it’s become abundantly clear that the Jan. 6 crowd was a combination of militant right-wing extremists who planned to invade the Capitol and perhaps to take hostages, and a rabid mob of older Trump supporters who believed they were participating in a patriotic “revolution” that day. Most of them, in fact, are insulted by the attempt to give antifa credit for what they believe was their good work.
Conservatives—and their supposed ideology of “personal responsibility”—in fact have a long and colorful history of gaslighting the media and the public with narratives that turn reality on its head, bullies into victims, and victims into bullies. It’s how they can look the public in the eye and tell them without blinking that last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were much worse than the Capitol siege. As Laura says, Republicans’ lies are all easily disproved: The reason they need so many of them is just to keep the public discourse flooded with them.