The January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol was the culmination of a far-right effort to delegitimize the 2020 election, directly cheered and incited by President Donald Trump, who has been falsely claiming for weeks that the election was stolen from him, and who directly urged his supporters on with a speech on Wednesday. Yet, before the events of the day had fully unfolded, conservative media outlets and politicians were already circulating baseless claims that left-wing movements were responsible for the events that unfolded — blaming “socialists,” “anarchists” and “antifa” for an action that was clearly fomented and carried out by the Right.
This false narrative is the product of a right wing that has shaped its identity around violent incitement and false accusations against the Left. But the Right alone is not responsible for creating an atmosphere where such rumors can spread so quickly: Politicians and media outlets across the political spectrum have spent the Trump years fear-mongering about the supposed dangers posed by the Left. This has not only contributed to a tinderbox of anti-left violence, but has also undermined efforts to identify the political dangers posed by the far right.
In a January 6 article from KSTP TV, a Twin Cities media outlet owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, it’s suggested — with no evidence — that “antifa” was behind the storming of the Capitol, not Trump supporters. The article is titled, “Minneapolis security expert says protection of U.S. Capitol surprisingly weak.” The expert, it turns out, is Michael Rozin, the head of Rozin Security Consulting whose clients include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the RAND Corporation. “Rozin said there were some rioters inside the U.S. Capitol who used symbols and had tattoos which seem to be aligned with the ANTIFA movement, which is made up of decentralized groups across the country who promote dismantling the federal government,” the article states.
This false claim was reiterated repeatedly on the floor of the U.S. House early on the morning of January 7. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R‑Fla.) proclaimed, “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.” In making this assertion, Gaetz cited an unverified Washington Times report based on the dubious assertions of a facial recognition company whose leader authors a right-wing blog.
The baseless claim that the storming of the Capitol was a “false flag operation” orchestrated by the Left was echoed by Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R‑Ariz.).
The right-wing press outlet Fox News quickly became a mouthpiece for such unverified assertions. Rep. Mo Brooks (R‑Ala.) told Fox Business “there is some indication that fascist antifa elements were involved, that they embedded themselves in the Trump protests.” (In fact, antifa is a tactic employed against fascism, not in support of it.) Brooks baselessly pointed his finger at “any other number of groups, anarchists or what have you,” that he said “could have taken advantage of this opportunity to try to vandalize the United States Capitol.”
And in a January 6 appearance on Fox News, Laura Ingraham tried to equate the storming of the Capitol with Black Lives Matter protests over the summer when she criticized people who “were markedly silent when there was widespread violence and pushing back on police and National Guard troops and attempts to breach that fence right outside the White House perimeter.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R‑Tex.), who filed a lawsuit to challenge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidential win, baselessly stated to East Texas media outlet KLTV that a wide swath of left-wing protesters were responsible. The outlet says, “Gohmert said he hopes they find whoever started the assault on the Capitol. He mentioned several photos being shared widely online, referring to a few of them as ‘socialists, skin heads, and climate change guys.’” KLTV notes that other outlets have found that the men Gohmert identified had, in fact, supported Trump.
And it’s not just far-right demagogues. CNN twice asserted, live on air, that the violence was being carried out by “anarchists”—once by long time left-basher Erin Burnett and again by reporter Dana Bash.
These claims of left-wing responsibility are, of course, at odds with Trump’s own pronouncements: The president has repeatedly declared his sympathy for the crowd that stormed the Capitol. “I know your pain, I know you’re hurt,” he said in a video released on Twitter (Twitter has since removed the video).
But blame for feeding this climate of anti-left fear-mongering extends across the political spectrum. Throughout the past four years of the Trump administration, Democratic leaders and centrist media outlets have repeatedly equated antifascists determined to stop reactionary forces with these very reactionary forces themselves. In the month following the Charlottesville attack that left one antifascist, anti-racist protestor dead, one analysis by FAIR found that commentary in the six top broadsheet newspapers — the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News and Washington Post—condemned fascists and anti-fascist protesters equally. The analysis found that “between August 12 and September 12, these papers ran 28 op-eds or editorials condemning the anti-fascist movement known as antifa, or calling on politicians to do so, and 27 condemning neo-Nazis and white supremacists, or calling on politicians — namely Donald Trump — to do so.”
From the start of Trump’s reign, the center-left instinct was to spend more time engaging in Condemnation Theater of “far-left radicals” than to develop systems to meaningfully oppose white nationalist movements emboldened by the president. Form was far more important than substance, and “violence’’ committed to defend against white nationalists on the street was deemed just as bad as violence animated by racial hatred — a violence fully systematized in “law” enforcement, an overtly white nationalist White House, and a sophisticated system of Amazon- and Palantir-backed ethnic cleansing at the border.
Over the summer, justified Black anger at the routine killing and subjugation of Black lives, manifesting as property destruction, was equated with wide-scale police oppression and right-wing vigilantism hellbent on maintaining white dominance and protecting capital. This tendency was displayed by Joe Biden himself, who, in May 2020, when he was still a presidential candidate, condemned the supposed “violence” of Black Lives Matter protesters. As Eli Day noted in June 2020, “Rather than indicting the racist police murder of George Floyd and other black Americans, our leaders are up in arms over protests and property destruction.” The demands for justice were largely ignored, or placated with hollow post-George Floyd corporate branding and leading Democrats insisting that if Black Lives Matter protesters simply went home and pulled the lever for them in November, all would be okay. Ideology was flattened, and power and historical analysis thrown out the window in favor of performative denouncement of “both sides.”
The false equation of the Right and the Left erodes our ability to name and identify the dangerous forces that underlie Trumpism, casting political content itself as irrelevant. This is a problem because political content matters: The fact that a far-right movement sought to undemocratically seize power, cheered on by the president, should trouble us all. False equivalency between the Right and Left makes it difficult to actually interrogate the politics behind the events of January 6, and it also feed a key ideological tenet of the very Trumpist political current that the center-left claims to oppose. Anti-Left incitement has been an organizing principle of Trumpism from the beginning, intermingled with Trump’s incitement against Black Lives Matter protesters, poor people, and immigrants. It is exactly this political current that the Left is trying to counter and defeat, with an urgency that has been repeatedly dismissed, denigrated and misrepresented.
Media outlets and politicians have a responsibility to be accurate, and avoid feeding into this false equivalency, which gives ideological fuel and moral cover to a far-right political project.