We have now arrived at an auspicious half-anniversary marking six months since a mob of angry Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, attempting to shut down the counting of Electoral College votes during a joint session of Congress — the final procedural step to confirm Joe Biden’s election victory.
What happened on January 6 was very much the result of a right-wing media propaganda operation that sought to delegitimize the 2020 election. Since then, there has been an effort to cover up what happened and to spread further conspiracy theories that would erase any semblance of accountability. Adding to this disinformation campaign, Republican politicians have almost unanimously opposed any comprehensive investigation into the events of that day.
And it’s not just about 2020, either. Behind all the smoke and mirrors is a real political battle going on for 2024.
How right-wing media got Trump supporters ready for a coup
After the 2020 election, right-wing media outlets not only spread many lies about the election, but also fanned numerous fantasies about a possible maneuver that could take place on January 6 leading to Trump remaining in office.
One of the worst offenders in this regard was former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who stoked images of war and revolution in the weeks before the election and then described the situation afterward as a “a war,” comparing it to historical situations that were worth fighting and dying for. He even posited scenarios by which Trump could become president even after the constitutionally mandated Inauguration Day.
In addition, Fox News actively pushed efforts by Republicans in Congress to block the counting of the official electoral votes, even as it was clear such illegitimate efforts were doomed to fail. Fox host Mark Levin brazenly declared that not even the state election results meant anything: “Despite what the media said, when electors were chosen by the states, that doesn't choose the president. What happens in terms of choosing the president is on January 6 when both chambers of Congress meet jointly and determine which electors to count and which ones matter.”
Right-wing media also spread the constitutionally baseless proposal for Vice President Mike Pence to unilaterally reject Electoral College votes from states Biden won — a dictatorial assertion that one person had the power to nullify a presidential election. Proponents of this maneuver included Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, Judicial Watch head Tom Fitton, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, pro-Trump lawyer Joe diGenova, far-right blogger Pamela Geller, and multiple guests on Steve Bannon’s War Room: Pandemic show.
Kirk’s organization Turning Point USA also funded bus travel for Trump’s rally that day — and at least one person who traveled to Washington on those buses was later arrested for allegedly throwing a fire extinguisher at police officers.
In addition, Alex Jones funded and helped plan the march. The night before, he spoke before a crowd, referencing a speech by Winston Churchill during World War II, “where he said all I can promise you is blood, and pain, and war, and suffering. But the alternative is even worse: total slavery.” (Jones also claimed the day after, January 7, that the White House had directed him to lead the crowd to the Capitol. ProPublica has subsequently reported more on the origins of the January 5th event.)
It’s clear that tensions were going to run high on January 6 because right-wing media outlets had done so much to drive up expectations that the day would present more than a normal, ministerial function. Indeed, the very morning of the count, and hours before the violence began, Bannon asked his audience: “What's going to happen today is going to happen. The question you have to ask yourself, have you pushed yourself as far as you possibly have pushed?”
Right-wing media immediately defended the insurrectionists
When the mob stormed the Capitol, a number of far-right commentators openly cheered on the attempted coup. These included former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, who declared that “patriots have taken over Capitol Hill. … God willing it will continue to be peaceful, but a message has been sent.” The right-wing site Gateway Pundit also repeatedly referred to the rioters as “patriots,” even as they fought with the police and caused members of Congress and Pence to take shelter. The Alex Jones Show guest host Harison Smith further praised the “patriots,” declaring, “This is what happens when Americans rise up.”
Fox’s “straight news” coverage also seriously downplayed the violence. Even after Trump supporters had fought their way past barricades to then climb the walls of the Capitol, anchor Bret Baier claimed, “It's not like it's a siege. ... It seems like they are protesting.” Fellow anchor Martha MacCallum also characterized the rioters as “protesters” and said the event was a “huge victory” for them. Fox News correspondent Mike Tobin also parroted the rioters’ paradoxical claims: “Aside from the things that were broken getting into the Capitol in terms of doors, they say there is no vandalism taking place.”
Fox host Sean Hannity also commented on his radio show: “I want to explain in detail if I can what today is about and why people are feeling the way they're feeling, if to the extent that I think I can. … And I would argue, and I have been arguing, that this is something that has been building and building for a long period of time.”
Newsmax host Rob Schmitt also argued at the time: “There's a tremendous amount of frustration. … I do think that a lot of it comes from a very, very logical place. I think some of it comes from somewhat of a crazy place. But I absolutely think that there were a lot of things that were unfair about this election for Donald Trump. No question.”
One of Newsmax’s guests also lauded the rioters’ bravery, in comparison to Republican members of Congress who were failing to overturn the election: “They're furious that this election has been so obviously rigged and these pussyfoot senators and congressmen in the Republican Party who fail to stand up to it. And they are saying if our elected representatives won't stand, then we will do something about it.”
In addition, some One America News personalities attempted to argue that the riot was itself a justification for Pence to come around on rejecting electors, by “sending it back” to state legislatures.
The next spin: These weren’t Trump supporters
Following the insurrection’s failure, however, right-wing media pivoted to new narratives that attempted to cast responsibility with anyone except the obvious perpetrators.
Sean Hannity may have already been hedging his bets. In the same radio broadcast when he said the assault on the Capitol had been “building for a long period of time,” he also cited reports speculating “that groups like antifa, other radical groups … were there to cause trouble.”
Likewise, The Gateway Pundit also alleged on January 6 that “at least one bus load of Antifa goons infiltrated the Trump rally as part of a false flag operation,” even as the site was openly celebrating the Capitol assault itself.
Newsmax anchor Tom Basile also alleged on the air during the riot that “we've seen in the past interference from leftist groups that are prone to violence, who have infiltrated — that oftentimes infiltrate rallies for their own purposes. And, again, we're not entirely sure what is happening here.”
Fox host Laura Ingraham speculated that night that the insurrectionists weren’t really Trump supporters, on the grounds that she had “never seen Trump rally attendees wearing helmets” and other accoutrements such as knee and elbow pads.
Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo also claimed on January 19 — during a seemingly normal headline update on security preparations for Biden’s inauguration: “A new report says that some far-right protesters have discussed posing as members of the National Guard to infiltrate the inauguration — the way Democrats infiltrated two weeks ago and put on MAGA clothing.”
Fox News also pounced on the arrest of Utah man John Sullivan, claiming that his past attendance at Black Lives Matters protests indicated that left-wing elements had stoked the assault on the Capitol. In fact, Sullivan had long been ostracized by local leftist movements in Utah — in part due to his brother’s association with the Proud Boys — while viewing him as someone who was essentially seeking out conflict under any ideological banner.
OAN’s Pearson Sharp also claimed in March, “Radical anti-Trump extremists attacked the Capitol on January 6 in an effort to discredit President Trump and his supporters. … History will show it was the Democrats, and not the Republicans, who called for this violence, and no amount of doctored evidence or falsified testimonies will change that.” (Though as noted above, his OAN colleagues had argued at the time that the action by the “protesters” was now justification for Pence to stop the count of the Electoral College votes.)
The Orwellian next step: “There was no insurrection”
Another track right-wing media have pursued is to deny that the clear, obvious events of January 6 even happened.
Tucker Carlson began painting an alternate reality about the event, insisting there was no insurrection and pushing the repeatedly disproven claim that white supremacists were not responsible. In Carlson’s telling, moreover, the rioters were indeed great American patriots: “A mob of older people from unfashionable zip codes somehow made it all the way to Washington, D.C., probably by bus. They wandered freely through the Capitol, like it was their building or something. … They talked about the Constitution and something called their rights.”
Carlson also fired back at the push for a special commission to investigate the event, by mockingly playing a video clip of one moment in which a crowd wandering through the Capitol spoke with members of the Capitol Police who urged them to not commit violence.
“That's one view of the so-called insurrection,” Carlson declared — though he did not show other video clips or photos, such as people crushing a police officer inside a doorway, beating another police officer with an American flag pole, or entering House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) office armed with a stun gun.
Ingraham has also lied about the FBI director’s related testimony to Congress, claiming it had been “one of the big lies that this was a coordinated insurrection,” while one of her guests has claimed there “was no insurrection.” And as Ingraham said on May 5, the media, Democrats, and even some Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) are “going to do anything … to keep that narrative alive of January 6.”
Indeed, the urgency with which Fox has urged against any comprehensive investigation of January 6 also contrasts with how fervently the network called for special inquiries in the past:
The ultimate conspiracy theory that began with Alex Jones and is now led by Tucker Carlson
By the end of January, Jones was claiming that both he and Trump had in fact been set up by the Secret Service and that government forces “just provocateured the siege, got what they wanted, had their victory.”
But now the idea has lept to the big leagues, thanks to Tucker Carlson. The top Fox News host gave a platform to Darren Beattie of Revolver News and a former Trump White House staffer who previously left his job after reports surfaced that he had attended a white nationalist conference. Carlson and Beattie now advance the idea that January 6 was a false-flag operation organized by the FBI. The flimsy grounds for this claim is that government documents against insurrectionists refer to unindicted co-conspirators, who Carlson alleges “in potentially every single case they were FBI operatives.” (Legal experts have explained the many ways this could not possibly be true and that the terms used in the documents can refer to “people who have been arrested and then cooperated later.”)
Predictably, Beattie has now also promoted his conspiracy theory in interviews with both Bannon and Jones. Notably, Jones also said during his broadcast on June 16, “I had been working with other folks to get the information, obviously, out to the great Tucker Carlson. And Tucker did a really splendid job last night.”
The continued campaign to delegitimize the 2020 election
Even after the campaign of lies about the election culminated in violence, right-wing media have not turned over any new leaf. In the weeks afterward, and following Biden’s inauguration, Sinclair Broadcasting Group continued to host former Trump campaign operative Steve Cortes, who claimed there was “very real fraud,” while Bannon argued that Trump’s impeachment defense should focus on the election and an effort to “fix November 3.”
Carlson also hosted businessman and Trump supporter Mike Lindell in late January, allowing Lindell to promote his claims that a voting systems vendor had changed the results. Two months later, Carlson continued to insist: “And there was voter fraud in the last election, and the fact that when you say that people become hysterical just shows how true it is.”
Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo also interviewed Trump in late April, giving him a platform to again voice a series of discredited claims that he won the election. Bartiromo lended her support, complaining about these claims being removed from social media platforms: “I mean, you get hammered if you speak what you feel is truth, honestly. You get hammered on social media.”
But something even more insidious has begun with the involvement of OAN personalities, who are raising money and promoting the Republican-led “audit” of ballots in Arizona, hoping to spread them to other states. (As for the “audit” itself, ballots have been examined for rumored bamboo fibers or secret watermarked messages in the paper.) In the telling of OAN personality Pearson Sharp, the audits will uncover such massive corruption in election administration across the country, they could lead to the executions of potentially tens of thousands of people.
Bannon has also promoted the audits and, along with Boris Epshteyn, has pushed a fantasy that they will lead to the “decertification” of the 2020 election. Bannon has also applauded comments by an Arizona state lawmaker, who threatened Attorney General Merrick Garland with imprisonment if the federal government were to intervene legally on any of the audit’s practices or potential violations of election security. In his June 12 show, Bannon proclaimed addressed Garland: “Take the 3:10 to Yuma, bubba, because they've got a jail cell for you.”
Still tearing down the last election — in preparation to steal the next one
It’s obvious that despite what Trump-connected conspiracy theorists are saying, the former president is not going to be “reinstated” into the White House. So what purpose does it really serve, to continue peddling these lies?
The fact is, continuing to spread lies about a stolen 2020 election does further another aim: the effort to steal the next election in 2024.
In the immediate wake of the Capitol attack, Fox personalities ranging from Ingraham to MacCallum began pushing a series of talking points about changing the voting laws. “So, should we curb expansive mail-in-voting or ballot harvesting and demand votes be counted day-of? You bet we should,” said Ingraham on the night of January 6. And the same day MacCallum claimed in an interview with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that purported voter fraud and the use of mail-in voting in 2020 were “issues that people have been fired up about, and I think rightfully so.”
The network has also gone all-in on supporting the wave of voter-suppression laws that have been passed in Republican-controlled state legislatures — including proposals that would make it easier next time for a Republican-friendly judge to overturn an election — while airing false claims about voting accessibility in Democratic-controlled states and attacking any federal attempt to protect voting rights.
Sinclair has similarly whitewashed the new campaign of voter suppression, provided a platform for lies about voting rights proposals, and attacked the Justice Department for intervening against voter-suppression laws.
And in a Newsmax interview with Trump himself, host Heather Childers bluntly explained that Republican legislatures were “taking steps now” to deal with the purported voter fraud before the next election.
“We are,” Trump replied.
“And we won’t have to fight it after the fact,” Childers replied.
The fact is, all of Trump’s efforts, aided by right-wing media, to overturn his clear loss in the 2020 election failed. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a next time. And rather than try to win the battle “after the fact,” the fight is already happening right now.