The carefully-woven conspiracy theories behind the attempted coup of January 6th

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Thiago Vahia Malliagros
Thiago Vahia Malliagros is a brazilian historian focused on conspiracy theories and contemporary far right ideologies.

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To understand what happened at the Capitol in Washington on the 6th of January, I need to tell a story that starts even before the November 3rd election. As the election results came in, and it started to become clear that Biden would be the 46th President of the USA, the narrative of the conservative sphere had already been primed with a simple belief: that Donald Trump won the election and that any results that disagreed were proof that the election was stolen. What’s more, this fraud would be so evident and undeniable that the courts would immediately grant Trump his rightful win, and the Democrats would be shown to be the corrupt party Trump’s supporters knew for sure that they were.

The seeds of this conspiracy narrative were visible to all who knew where to look – they were present in the talking points of the Trump campaign, in repeatedly emphasising how untrustworthy the mail-in ballots were, and in rushing to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat with conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett, a mere month after Bader Ginsburg’s death.

That was the narrative in many conservative spaces, including from conservative twitter personalities such as Candace Ownes and Charlie Kirk, senators like Ted Cruz and Ron Paul, and news networks such as OAN and NewsMax: that the election was stolen, the proof is just about to come out, and the courts would confirm Trump’s win. This belief was characterised by crowds changing “Stop the Steal”, which soon became a popular hashtag.

Notably, not all conservative media was in lockstep with this narrative: Fox News, equal parts cheerleaders and bulldogs for the Trump regime, officially recognised Biden’s victory… but even then, many of their hosts such as Lous Dobb, Jeanine Pirro and Maria Bartiromo pushed #Stopthesteal narratives to spread false accusations of voter fraud.

It’s important to remember that the Republican party essentially fracturated itself on this question: some were focused on pushing Trump’s narrative of election stealing, while others backed Biden’s legitime win. For the most part, the party decided to stay silent – a silence that can perhaps be attributed to the imminent Georgia Senatorial run-off elections, which would crucially decide which party would have a majority in the Senate. The Republicans wagered those vital races were much more likely winnable with Trump’s support.

From November 3rd to December 14th, the conservative sphere, driven and guided by Trump’s constant tweeting, buzzed with baseless stories of voter fraud, with alleged witnesses coming forward, and photos or videos claiming to show the “steal”. Project Veritas, a “journalist organization” with a history of deceptively edited videos of its undercover operations, shared claims from postman Richard Hopkins that some ballots had dates altered in order to be falsely counted in the election – claims Hopkins retracted when asked by federal investigators. Others claimed that in Georgia, observers were asked to leave the room while videos showed suitcases of votes being taken behind a desk and counted – in reality, observers had never been asked to leave, and the footage actually showed the normal tabulation process.

To the believers, it didn’t matter that each of these were investigated before being found to reveal no irregularity; nor did it matter that the dozens of legal challenges brought before the courts were dismissed for having no real proof. For Trump supporters, these failures only went to show just how much corruption was going on, and how deep the “steal” really went. There were even attempts by the Texas state to sue states over the election results – an astonishing effort by one state to overturn the Presidential election of different states.

This perhaps should not have been a surprise: conspiracy theories and their believers often attempt to deal with reality by changing it. In this way, real events are transformed and misrepresented to suit what the conspiracy theorists want, but sometimes events are too stubborn to be changed, and they pop the conspiracists’ bubble. In this case, the believers’ narrative depended on Trump’s victory being confirmed; when, on December 14th, Biden was confirmed by the electoral college as the President of the United States, that narrative was broken.

Biden’s confirmation left an entire group of people adrift; failed by the media they trust, the personalities they follow, and the politicians they adore. Despite the big build up, #Stopthesteal didn’t happen. Instead of shifting back to reality, and being faced with the need to process and understand why they lost, the coalition of conspiracy theorists found a new date to look forward to, guided once again by Trump: the electoral vote count, on January 6th. This obviously overlooked the fact that the count is just the confirmation of the results, a mere formality; the election was already over.

From December 14th to January 6th, the biggest names in the conservative sphere, including the then-President themself, were echoing and amplifying a single narrative: the 6th was the day when the steal would be over and Trump would be reelected. All people had to do was to appear in Washington DC to show that they were there, to support their President. Some promised that on January 6th the Republican senators would have time to show the evidence of fraud, prompting a recount which would give the victory to Trump.

During this period, the Democrats won the Georgia run-off elections, taking a slim Senate majority. At this point, the narrative of the 6th shifted a little, refocusing on forcing the election to be decided not by the election results, by a system of electors, where each state would get one vote as a result of the irregularities… which believers were confident would lead to Trump winning. This plan found little support in the majority of the Republican party, who were already preparing for the transition of power, but who mostly stayed silent to avoid angering Trump or the passionate conspiracy theorists in his base.

Donald Trump By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52081539

When the day of reckoning arrived on January 6th, Trump addressed the huge crowd, alongside other guest speakers. Repeatedly, speakers reinforced that the decision to be taken by Congress that day was key for the future of the US (even though there was no decision to be taken – the count was a formality), if only the Vice President, Mike Pence, and the other senators play their part. The speakers at the event, including Trump, knew that wasn’t going to happen – they’d been told as much by Mike Pence.

For weeks, the people who came to gather in Washington had been repeatedly told that the election was stolen, that the wrong would be corrected, and that Trump would become president. They had been told that the 6th was their last chance to save America from Biden, who they had been told was an evil “globalist communist” that was determined to destroy their country. Then Trump told them he would be with them for their march on the Capitol, and that Mike Pence had refused to contest the election results.

So, what exactly was supposed to happen? An entire mass of people persuaded of the false belief that the election was stolen, and that it would lead to the end of their nation, along with – in their eyes – the best president they ever had. Agitated for weeks with stories and narratives reinforcing this belief, what were they supposed to do? Go back to their homes and allow the ‘evil’ to win? Let the steal be completed?

For many in the crowd, they did the most logical thing for the position they had been led into: they marched to the big symbol of DC, the Capitol, and stormed the building. While the events of the invasion have been amply covered elsewhere, it is worth looking at what these people did once they got into the Capitol. Some stormed the offices of political figures they didn’t like, to smear or even steal items of supposed important information. Some tried to locate specific politicians to arrest. These are actions doubtlessly driven by conservative media and conspiracy theorist media, which had repeatedly built the narrative that dozens of Democrats were criminals.

The rioters who stormed the Capitol had no stable plan or clear objective, and took the centre of democracy in America – just like they had been told to do, by the figures they trust and the media they followed. “We the people” had shown up in force to Congress… yet the stealing didn’t stop, and Trump didn’t get to be President. Once again, the bubble in which they lived came crashing against reality.

That was January 6th. Looking back, it was inevitable something would happen. The narratives driven by the misinformation which had been pushed for months all came to a head the only way it ever could have. But though the 6th has come and gone, the beliefs that led to that day are still out there. Biden, to them, is still an unlawful president who took power by a coup and stole the election from them. The conservative media has never really de-escalated this narrative; instead, they’ve re-written history to pretend they were never part of building it, and effect an outrage whenever they are accused of any responsibility.

The forces that made January 6th inevitable are still around, and all it will take is another point of focus for it to explode again.

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