“Remember this day forever!”
Then-President Donald Trump tweeted out the exhortation to his supporters the evening of January 6 — four hours after they breached the Capitol building, one before Twitter locked his account and wiped his tweets.
But while many were celebrating the attack, refashioned as a “second revolution” by its perpetrators, the planted seeds of a conspiracy theory had already started to sprout.
By 10:15 p.m. that night, the vines were creeping into Congress: “They were masquerading as Trump supporters and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group antifa,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said from the House floor.
The false flag theory — the idea that the insurrection was actually carried out by leftists and top Democrats looking to tar Trump’s name — has grown since then, embracing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as its predictable primary villain.
The two emotions — exultant rejoicing in embarrassing the establishment in the name of Trump, and squinty-eyed conviction that some flavor of the deep state was behind it all — are at direct odds within the MAGA community, the latter threatening to dim the insurrection’s glory.
‘False Flag’ Conspiracy Seeds
Like most Trump-world conspiracy theories, the idea of a false flag insurrection started percolating on the internet fringes, places like messaging board 4chan and Parler, the favored Twitter alternative of Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists.
A USA Today investigation found that people online were predicting that members of antifa, a decentralized protest movement against the rise of facism-turned-ubiquitous rightwing boogeyman, would infiltrate or hijack the January 6 event as far back as December. Online extremists were not shy about their intent to invade the Capitol in the weeks before the attack.
As the insurrection unfurled, antifa name-checking grew, seeping from the anonymous internet fringes to Candace Owens at “The Daily Wire” and journalist Paul Sperry, a frequent guest on Fox News.
BREAKING: Former FBI agent on the ground at U.S. Capitol just texted me and confirmed that at least 1 “bus load” of Antifa thugs infiltrated peaceful Trump demonstrators as part of a false Trump flag ops
— Paul Sperry (@paulsperry_) January 6, 2021
It was picked up by Gaetz and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) and had entered the Fox News ecosystem by the evening of Jan. 6.
Ironically, the conspiracy theory thrived in the same spaces occupied by the pro-Trumpers who were delighted by the success of the attack.
“No one should be ashamed of what happened,” said DeAnna Lorraine, a host at InfoWars, in a video she streamed the day after the insurrection from an RV on her way back to Texas from Washington D.C. “And no one should be blaming antifa for what happened. American patriots did this. And it’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing.”
She berated the faux patriots who allowed themselves to be “brainwashed” by the media into seeing the attack as anything less noble than “the spirit of 1776 emanating from all of us.”
Others shared her self-aggrandizing jubilation.
“You’ve got pissed-off patriots that are not going to accept their form of government being stolen,” said Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, to the Los Angeles Times. “We’re walking down the same exact path as the Founding Fathers.”
Chris Hill, founder of the Three Percenters, called the insurrection the “shot heard round the world,” the beginning of a “second revolution.”
Into The Mainstream
The false flag theory, though, proved tantalizing and persistent — and useful.
The Oregon Republican party was out front, writing in a resolution to condemn the House Republicans who “betrayed” Trump by voting for his impeachment that “there is growing evidence that the violence at the Capitol was a ‘false flag’ operation designed to discredit President Trump, his supporters, and all conservative Republicans; this provided the sham motivation to impeach President Trump in order to advance the Democrat goal of seizing total power, in a frightening parallel to the February 1933 burning of the German Reichstag.”
Though less blatant than the Oregon GOP’s unabashed embrace of the conspiracy theory, nationally elected Republicans quickly adopted its essence in the whataboutism that would enable them to blame the whole thing on Democrats, or at least Democratic-aligned forces. Echoes of the false flag theory ricocheted through the impeachment hearing room itself as the Senate tried Trump over the weekend: When Democrats briefly attempted to call witnesses, Republicans shot back they wanted Pelosi.
“We can start with Speaker Pelosi to answer the question as to whether or not there was credible evidence of pre-planned violence before President Trump spoke?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted. “Whether Speaker Pelosi, due to optics, refused requests by the Capitol Hill Police for additional resources like the National Guard?”
“Speaker Pelosi can testify as to whether she made a decision based on optics, based on politics, not to have additional protection of the Capitol to prevent the terrorist attack that played out,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
“The group of people that supported Trump, the hundreds of thousands of people who attended those Trump rallies, those are the people that love this country,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said in a Monday interview with Wisconsin radio station WISN. “They never would have done what happened on Jan. 6.”
The false-flag infection has spread to the House too. On Monday, House Republicans sent Pelosi a letter demanding answers about her role in the security lapses.
The pivot is trickling down to GOP voters. A Morning Consult poll put into the field February 14 and 15 found that the percent of Republicans who blame congressional Democrats or President Joe Biden for the insurrection has grown since early January, while the percent who blame Trump has shrunk.
The competing instincts to both blame Democrats and guild the date of January 6 in gold are perched on either shoulder of the MAGA entity. At least as is dribbling out into “mainstream” Republican politics, the “false flag” conspiracy theory seems to be winning.
By the first week of February, Lorraine, the InfoWars host, had abandoned her finger-wagging at fellow MAGA types who weren’t proud enough of their loyal insurrectionists.
“This plan was cooked up,” Lorraine said on the rightwing The Pete Santilli Show captured by Right Wing Watch, adding that it has “all the markings of a trap, of a false flag. A lot of us fell for it. We thought it was innocent.”
“They’re cheering on us losing our jobs or getting thrown in prison because of course, we’re domestic terrorists and we’re violent, so of course they should cheer that on,” she added. “It’s dangerous at this point. It’s unbelievable.”