As an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, vandalizing offices, occupying the House and Senate chambers and sending legislators and staffers running for cover, several of President Trump’s key allies knew just where to cast the blame: on the loose-knit movement of left-wing agitators known as antifa, a favorite bogeyman of Trump and the right wing for the last several years.
They were undeterred by video showing rioters in MAGA hats, carrying Trump 2020 flags, descending on the Capitol from a rally near the White House where Trump himself had exhorted them to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes submitted by the states, the final step in certifying Joe Biden’s victory. To them, that just showed that the insurrection was actually a leftist false-flag operation meant to embarrass the president’s peaceful supporters.
One of the first to push this narrative was Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican and part of a small group of Trump loyalists who’d pledged to challenge the Electoral College results from several states during Wednesday’s joint session of Congress in an ill-fated final attempt to undo Trump’s defeat. “Rumor: ANTIFA fascists in backwards MAGA hats,” Brooks tweeted from the locked-down Capitol where he was taking cover from the mob. “Time will tell what truth is.”
Yet it was Brooks himself, addressing Trump supporters at the rally that morning, who had dramatically removed his camouflage cap and replaced it with a bright red one emblazoned with the words “Fire Pelosi” and urged fellow Republicans in Congress to back the effort to overturn the election results, declaring, “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”
When the House eventually reconvened Wednesday evening, one of those colleagues, the firebrand Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, declared on the floor that he had seen “some pretty compelling evidence from a facial-recognition company showing that some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters, they were masquerading as Trump supporters, and in fact were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.”
Antifa, which is short for antifascist, refers to a loosely connected movement of militant left-wing activists who believe that using violence is justified in fighting white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other fascist or racist groups. Extremism experts and federal law enforcement officials have made clear that the threat of violence from white supremacists and other domestic extremist groups far outweighs that posed by anti-fascist activists. But Trump and his supporters have turned “antifa” into an all-purpose slur against any left-wing protests or demonstrations. This has the advantage that since antifa barely exists in any organized form, as FBI Director Chris Wray has testified, there is no one speaking for it to dispute or correct the charge. Over the summer, Trump sought to baselessly blame these “radical leftists” for any acts of violence or property damage that occurred during the largely peaceful wave of nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, and even vowed to formally label antifa as a domestic terrorist organization, despite having no legal authority to do so.
As Trump’s supporters began converging on Washington Tuesday, Trump appeared to start laying the groundwork to blame antifa for any unlawful activities that might take place the next day. “Antifa is a Terrorist Organization, stay out of Washington. Law enforcement is watching you very closely!” he tweeted Tuesday evening. Not long after, the White House issued a (largely performative) memo calling on the secretary of state to consider designating the amorphous group as foreign terrorists.
Lawyer and Trump ally Lin Wood, who has become a devout proponent of the president’s baseless and conspiratorial voter fraud allegations, tweeted out several pixelated photos and screenshots Wednesday afternoon that he touted as proof that “Trump supporters are peaceful” and antifa was responsible for storming the U.S. Capitol. One particularly egregious example featured an edited split screen of two images which he described as “Indisputable photographic evidence that antifa violently broke into Congress today to inflict harm & do damage. NOT @realDonaldTrump supporters.”
Quite the opposite. In one photo is a man who had already been widely identified as Jake Angeli, a well-known promoter of the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory. The other shows Matthew Heimbach, a prominent figure in the white nationalist movement, with his arm around another man. While the photo of Angeli appears to have at least been taken during Wednesday’s siege on Congress, a reverse image search of the Heimbach photo suggests it was pulled from a 2018 post on an antifascist blog dedicated to exposing neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Several others have latched onto the false-flag narrative, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, televangelist and Trump surrogate Pastor Mark Burns, and Fox News political analyst Brit Hume, as well as some popular QAnon promoters with large Twitter followings. Franklin Graham, a leading Trump supporter among evangelicals, also raised the specter of antifa, without evidence.
Zack Vorhies, a self-described former YouTube and Google engineer turned whistleblower, who according to Vice is also a QAnon fan and anti-vaxxer, posted an interview with a man outside the Capitol who claims to have overheard antifa activists “dressed as Trump supporters” discussing how to make Trump fans look bad before smashing a window. The video had received over 100,000 views in just four hours.
Of course, it’s impossible to know the identity and ideology of every single person who participated in Wednesday’s violence. But for weeks, the president has been urging his supporters from around the country to descend on Washington for what he promised would be a “wild” day of protests.
At least three different pro-Trump groups obtained permits for protests that were scheduled to take place throughout the day Wednesday, while many others promoted the demonstrations online and coordinated caravans of Trump fans traveling to D.C. to show their support.
Among those who had publicly promised to gather in Washington on Wednesday were right-wing militia groups like the Oath Keepers and members of the Proud Boys, a self-described male chauvinist group with white nationalist ties that has been involved in a number of violent confrontations with counterprotesters and police at previous protests in D.C. and around the country.
In fact, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio last week suggested that members of the far-right group would dress in all black for the occasion, a look typically associated with members of antifa.
“[T]he Proud Boys will turn out in record numbers on Jan 6th but, this time, with a twist,” Tarrio wrote on Parler. “We will be incognito and we will spread across downtown DC in smaller teams.”
While others were trying to divert the blame for the chaos that took place on Wednesday, Tarrio and others seemed to embrace it.
“This is no longer Washington DC...This is the City of The People of the United States of America!” Tarrio posted on Parler this afternoon as images of the besieged Capitol building began flooding social media and TV news. “Come and Take it!” Tarrio, who was arrested in D.C. earlier this week on charges stemming from an earlier incident of vandalism at a historically Black church, and ordered by a judge to stay away from the city, directed his followers to another account that appeared to be posting live photos and videos from inside the Capitol.
A separate account for @TheProudBoys posted a photo of a massive crowd of Trump supporters in D.C. with the caption “Doesn't look like they're destroying the capital. Looks like they're liberating it. God bless America and all her patriots.”
Another Parler account promoting the “Stop the Steal” slogan used by Trump devotees protesting the election posted, “BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR DEMOCRATS.”
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