Months of right-wing disinformation came to a predictable end on January 6, when a mob of Trump supporters — incited by the president and his lackeys — stormed the United States Capitol in an apparent attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The thwarted insurrection came after months of baseless right-wing voter fraud allegations aimed at sowing doubt in the validity of the election results and undermining the basic structures of American democracy.
Allegations of voter fraud were raised by the president and his allies even before the election took place, but accelerated after his November loss to President-elect Joe Biden. The president’s team has yet to present any evidence of voter fraud that stands up in a court of law. His campaign has filed 62 legal challenges challenging the election, and 61 of them have failed. Nonetheless, the president, right-wing media and several Republican lawmakers have continued to entertain outlandish conspiracy theories with no basis in reality, often dog-whistling to their most extreme supporters.
Trump’s voter fraud lies were always rooted in extremism
The most blatant appeals to those on the far-right were those aimed at the QAnon-contingent of Trump supporters. QAnon is an extremist movement centered around the conspiracy theory that a “deep state” cabal of satanic pedophiles are secretly controlling world governments.
The popular debunked conspiracy theory that Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine company, deleted votes cast for Trump originated in online QAnon communities. Despite its questionable origin, Trump and right-wing media figures pushed the Dominion conspiracy theory for weeks in the lead up to January 6.
News of Dominion-related “fraud” was shared around the clock on far-right cable news networks Newsmax and One America News. On November 12, Trump tweeted a quote from a One America News segment promoting the conspiracy theory. Fox News host Maria Bartiromo and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs gave airtime to the conspiracy theory, as well. After Dominion sent letters to major right-wing personalities threatening legal action, Fox News and Newsmax walked back their allegations. The president of the United States has yet to do the same. Most recently, Trump raised Dominion during a controversial phone call with the Georgia Secretary of State.
After championing a QAnon conspiracy theory for months, QAnon personalities were unsurprisingly among the prominent rioters on January 6. On social media, images circulated of “Q Shaman,” whose real name is Jake Angeli, standing on the Senate dais and parading around the Capitol with a megaphone. Angeli is from Arizona, where he has been a visible figure in several right-wing rallies over the last year.
Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran with ties to QAnon, was one of five individuals who died during the Capitol siege after she was shot by U.S. Capitol Police. At the time of the shooting, the 35-year-old was reportedly climbing through a broken window leading to the Speaker’s Lobby. The officer responsible for Babbitt’s death has since been placed on administrative leave. Babbitt’s final tweet references “the storm,” an important event in the QAnon mythos where Trump supposedly thwarts and imprisons his political enemies.
Other extremist groups and movements were represented at the Capitol on January 6, as well. Nick Ochs, a member of Proud Boys Hawaii, a chapter of the popular hate group, tweeted a photo of himself smoking a cigarette inside the Capitol. White nationalist Tim Gionet, known online as “Baked Alaska,” livestreamed for around 20 minutes inside the building. Gionet also attended the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Richard Barnett, a man who described himself on social media as a “white nationalist,” was photographed with his feet on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Ochs and Barnett have since been arrested. The Daily Beast has reported that members of anti-government group the Oath Keepers, Neo-Nazis and several anti-choice activists were also on the Capitol grounds.
January 6 was historic, but unsurprising
Since losing the election, Trump had successfully convinced his most ardent supporters that by some mechanism — legal or extralegal — he would remain president on January 21, 2021.
Trump and his team fought to block state certifications, but each state nevertheless certified its election results. The Trump campaign also initiated dozens of legal challenges, convincing supporters that the Supreme Court would rule in favor of Trump, as the Court did in Bush v. Gore. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the only case that came before it.
Shifting the goalposts was a successful strategy for the Trump team until January 6, when the president’s supporters lost their final realistic hope. Many on the right were convinced that Vice President Mike Pence could unilaterally overturn the election when the electoral votes were counted during a joint session of Congress. In the days and hours leading up to the joint session, Trump himself pressured Pence, calling on the vice president to send the electoral votes “back to the states,” a power granted to the vice president by neither the Constitution nor federal statute. On January 6, as the president was delivering a speech before the crowd that would soon storm the Capitol, Pence announced at the joint session that he would affirm the election results for Biden, to the disappointment of Trump and his supporters.
As the joint session was in progress, Trump wrapped up his speech by encouraging his supporters to march on the Capitol. He repeated unfounded voter fraud allegations and told the crowd “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a county anymore.” He assured his supporters “you will never take back our country with weakness.” Earlier in the speech, he said that he would “never concede.” Major political figures, including former Trump administration officials, have accused the president of inciting the riot. The Justice Department is investigating “all actors” involved with the events on January 6, and hasn’t ruled out charges for the outgoing president.
Trump repeated unfounded voter fraud allegations and told the crowd “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a county anymore.”
Radicalization doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Trump’s supporters acted the way they did because they sincerely believed the claims peddled to them by Trump and right-wing media. Voter fraud lies and conspiracy theories have been debunked over and over again since the 2020 election, but most Republicans still believe them. A Quinnipiac poll from December found that 77 percent of Republicans believed widespread fraud affected the 2020 election.
It isn’t all that surprising, then, that Trump’s supporters felt they had nothing to lose. Attempts to delay state certifications or overturn the election in court had repeatedly failed. Pence “didn’t have the courage” to change the results himself. Like the president claimed, the election was stolen by the Democrats in plain sight. Of course, this isn’t true. But if your media diet consists of Newsmax, One America News and certain Fox News programs, it might as well be.
In the days preceding the January 6 coup attempt, some Republicans had even tossed around the idea that a violent insurrection was the only avenue remaining. After a lawsuit aimed at expanding Pence’s authority at the joint session was dismissed, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who filed the case, suggested that violence in the street was the only remaining remedy for the president’s supporters.
“Basically, in effect, the ruling would be ‘You’ve got to go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa and BLM,’” Rep. Gohmert said.
Pro-Trump attorney L. Lin Wood also called for violence in the week ahead of the Capitol siege, tweeting that Pence should be charged with treason and “face execution by firing squad.” Wood has filed and joined several lawsuits aimed at overturning the election results in favor of Trump.
The Trump coup attempt was only one of several instances in recent weeks of high-profile, conspiracy theory-driven violence and criminality. Police are investigating whether a man who detonated an RV in downtown Nashville, Tennessee on Christmas Day believed “5G” and “lizard people” conspiracy theories. Police are also investigating whether a Wisconsin pharmacist who left COVID-19 vaccine doses out to spoil believed an outlandish theory that the vaccine could change a recipient’s DNA.
Republicans, right-wing media still haven’t learned their lesson
Right-wing conspiracy theories have grown in popularity over the last year, due in part to uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the social unrest that consumed the United States last year. Security officials and terrorism researchers have warned that the right’s embrace of conspiracy theories could result in more politically motivated violence. However, some have indicated the violent risks could subside once Trump leaves office.
“It really matters that the president of the United States is an arsonist of radicalization. And it will really help when that is no longer the case.”
“Leadership matters,” Kori Schake, a former senior adviser in the State Department, Defense Department and the National Security Council, told NPR. “It really matters that the president of the United States is an arsonist of radicalization. And it will really help when that is no longer the case.”
But Trump’s removal doesn’t account for Republican politicians and right-wing media figures, who continue to peddle conspiracy theories even after the Capitol siege. Josh Hawley, the first senator to announce he would object to the election’s certification on January 6, was one of the only lawmakers to follow through with his objection after the chaos at the Capitol. That night, Pro-Trump Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) shared a right-wing conspiracy theory on the House floor, alleging that antifa was actually responsible for the Capitol siege. Fox News also tried to shift the blame, with primetime host Laura Ingraham baselessly attributing the Capitol siege to left-wing activists. Newsmax alleged that antifa was responsible, as well.
Although key Republicans are abandoning Trump and his voter fraud conspiracy theories, Republican politicians and the right-wing media apparatus are already engaging with the same kind of lies that resulted in the events of January 6. It isn’t difficult to imagine how something like this could happen again.
Follow Jared Casto on Twitter @jaredcasto.