Welcome to the Thunderdome, Chief Justice Roberts

Chief Justice Roberts is the MAGA digital army’s new target. Social media on the right is rife with conspiracy theories about the Chief Justice—and notions that therefore, SCOTUS is compromised. This is being used to justify calls for martial law and other extreme actions from Trump. “Behind closed doors, loud arguments were heard…” the story goes.

(Featured image from YouTube show Crossroads with Joshua Philipp.)


The cases

It all got started on radio host Hal Turner’s show on the 12th of December. Well, it really started one day prior, when the Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, that had asked the court to throw out 2020 election results in four battleground states.

Trump supporters had banked on this case as the moonshot that would finally vanquish Joe Biden’s claim to the Presidency. Not only did Trump himself pressure several state AGs into joining the suit, a few days prior, he had quoted Major Patriot, a QAnon influencer, who expressed confidence in “Trump’s Justices” ruling in their favor. To depict this, he posted an image of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in “activated” meme form.

The SCOTUS defeats came as a one-two punch. On December 8th, just hours after the “ACB Activated” tweet, SCOTUS rejected a lawsuit filed by Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, that asked to reject all mail ballots in Pennsylvania. Never mind, MAGAs said, the Texas case was the big one that would blow the thing wide open. Until three days later, when SCOTUS rejected that one too.

Naturally, Trump supporters on Parler and elsewhere were extremely disappointed. Uber Trump fans Bill Mitchell and Dinesh D’Souza both expressed confusion. Milo Yiannopoulos, the MAGA provocateur who has found new life on Parler after being deplatformed everywhere else, ranted that he would wreak vengeance on the Republican Party for ruining his life.

Image may contain: text that says 'Bill Mitchell Save the Republic! hour ago @mitchellvii 46k don't even know what to say at this point. We can't even get a favorable ruling from a 6-3 Supreme Court. BREAKING: US Supreme Court Throws Out Texas Lawsuit Against Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisc... This is breaking news- #BREAKING: #SCOTUS throws out Texas's suit attempting to challenge presidential election results 286 625'
Image may contain: text that says 'Dinesh D'Souza 1hour ago @DineshDSouza 791k don't get it. Other States have no interest in the outcome of presidential election that affects the whole country? #scotus'
Image may contain: one or more people, text that says '2.5k MILO minutes ago @Milo lost everything helping to put Trump in office. My life and career were completely destroyed. Was it worth it? No. feel utterly betrayed. will have vengeance. 39 13 113 ದಹೆ'



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The conspiracy theory

That was the day of the SCOTUS dismissal—December 11th. The next day, the conspiracy theories got started.

On December 12th, the Hal Turner Radio website featured commentary from someone who claimed to be a clerk for one of the Justices. [Update (12/19/2020): I see from this Media Matters post that this text originated on the 4chan /pol/ board.] They spoke of the scene before the dismissal of the Texas lawsuit came down:

To be clear, this is nonsense. Due to the pandemic, the Justices have not been meeting in person to discuss cases at all. Nor does it make sense to see Alito and Thomas as keepers of the MAGA flame: they ruled that they were obligated to hear the case, but would not have “given other relief”.

Regardless, the story began to spread on right-wing social media. Two days later, on December 14th, as the Texas electors met to cast their vote for Trump, one of them (Matt Patrick) recounted having read of Chief Justice Roberts screaming as he dismissed the Texas AG lawsuit. It’s just as false as before, but now, due to the sad reality that even Republican operatives live in a world of bespoke right-wing misinformation, here it was, a conspiracy theory of unknown provenance being recited at an official meeting in a state Capitol. The video of that was circulated by a C-SPAN reporter with no mention of its falsity:

The false story is now an article of faith among the right. Here is one incidental demonstration of how this works: on December 17th, ex-Fox journalist Kyle Becker (who was once suspended from IJR for a conspiracy post) tweeted out the video from the Texas Elector with this commentary…

…and in that same thread, another person called Mason called Becker’s tweet “confirmation” of the original, anonymous false story on the Hal Turner website—even though Becker’s tweet itself was derived from that very shaky source. “Mason” got over two thousand likes and over a thousand retweets.

At this point the Hal Turner post is shared widely among right-wing social media as confirmed.

[Update (12/20/2020): Yesterday, a DC Examiner reporter Jay Caruso tweeted out that Rudy Giuliani asserted on OANN that SCOTUS refused to hear this case because they are afraid of Antifa. While that statement strikes many as nonsensical, it is actually merely a call-out to this particular conspiracy theory, the the Justices’ purported fear of “riots”.]


Compromised

Once the right-wing in this country homes in on a target, their appetite for conspiracy theories about them is insatiable. The targets are then seen, in the language of Deep State theorizers, as “compromised”. Sadly for Chief Justice Roberts, he has achieved that status.

So that’s the demand-side. But the supply of right-wing crazy is legion, too.

On the same day that the Texas Elector recited a false report about John Roberts screaming behind closed doors, an obscure right-wing QAnon-style conspiracy theorist, Howell Woltz, published a blog post that accused the Chief Justice of being one of Jeffrey Epstein’s guests at his pedophile island. As evidence, an image of Bill Clinton at a beach with friends is shown, with a circled person who is supposedly the Chief Justice. To be clear, the image is from an unrelated trip, not from Epstein’s island, and the circled person is not the Chief Justice.

This image with the red Sharpie circle around a misidentified John Roberts has been circulating around right-wing social media for months.

Then, attorney Lin Wood got wind of it.

Wood has lately become a MAGA star due to his role in the Kraken lawsuits that seek to overturn the election. For weeks, his Twitter timeline has been a Dominion-machine-inflected jeremiad against Georgia Republicans—Governor Kemp, SoS Raffensperger, and the two Senators running for reelection in January. On December 16th, two days after the above blog post was published, Wood tweeted it out.

On that thread, responses pasted in images of Jeffrey Epstein’s flight logs from a court document, with a person called “John Roberts” listed—a very common name.

Lin Wood wasn’t done. Yesterday (December 17th) he tweeted out a completely unsubstantiated, bogus story about Justice Roberts and Justice Breyer conspiring to work for Trump’s defeat while calling him a “motherfucker”. This, Lin Wood claims, is the reason SCOTUS dismissed the case—not on its merits or the lack thereof.

Parler is now aflame with these theories: the “Pedogate”-izing of John Roberts, the “motherfucker” false news, and the original “screaming behind closed doors” false news. A hashtag of #JohnRoberts brings them all forth and a few more—including a brand new conspiracy theory about Roberts being hacked by the CIA. Here, for example, is an hourlong video on the subject of the Chief Justice, created by Epoch Times reporter Joshua Philipp.

The false news about John Roberts on Epstein’s island was also being placed on Trump’s Twitter timeline, ensuring that he sees it, including by a failed Republican Senatorial candidate:

Image may contain: 1 person, text that says 'Lauren Witzke @LaurenWitzkeDE 26m Replying to @realDonaldTrump heard Justice Roberts was on Epstein Island and adopted his kids from Epstein' pedo pipeline. Very bad news for C.J. Roberts if true! tn 206 000 301 1.2K Gritty52 @Gritty522 25m We've seen his name on the Lolita Express flight logs, and saw pics of him with Clinton (Bill) and others in the water off the coast of the island. He was there. He's corrupted. 6 000 10 62'

Ron Watkins

Ron Watkins is the son of the owner of 8chan/8kun, the far-right imageboard, and it’s erstwhile network administrator. There has been some speculation that Ron Watkins and his father Jim Watkins post as Q, the mysterious figure whose posts drive conversation among the QAnon faithful. Lately, Ron Watkins has taken to directly spreading disinformation: for example, the knot of conspiracies around election fraud through Dominion voting machines were pretty much created out of whole cloth by him.

His Twitter timeline since the election has been a round-robin between theories about Dominion voting machines, theories about the SolarWinds hack, theories about compromise by the Chinese, and exhortations to Trump to make use of Executive Order 13848 to declare martial law. Since yesterday, he started adding a simple message to his tweets: “SCOTUS is compromised”.

This smacks of spycraft, but of course is a complete fairy-tale. By using the language of “compromise”, Ron Watkins is using the hook that a proliferation of “Anon” accounts have used to delight MAGA readers with—the feeling that they are involved in something thrilling—the very hook that made “military intelligence Q-clearance Patriot Q” so off-the-charts famous.


Martial Law

General Flynn also got into the act. On a Newsmax interview with Greg Kelly, he famously called for martial law. But less remarked upon was the fact that he tied this call for martial law explicitly to his “concerns” with Chief Justice Roberts. What the concerns are is left unsaid, but he is clearly suggesting that the Chief Justice cannot be relied upon to institute their particular view of justice. Considering that Gen. Flynn is a hero to the very same MAGA audiences that marinate in these conspiracy theories, he does not need to spell it out. A simple mention of “concerns” will do to call all of that up.

This, indeed, is the upshot. The conspiracy theories aren’t merely a way to blow off steam or cast dark aspersions. They are an operational step. They are a way to fan the flames of anger and whet the appetite for maximal solutions, including civil war and secession; the right-wing has already edged over into wanting and expecting these maximal outcomes. In the words of Lin Wood, if “corruption & deceit have reached most powerful office in our country – the Chief Justice of U.S. Supreme Court”—what recourse do they have?


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Postscript

As an aside, it turns out that several characters in this story hold grudges against the US criminal justice system and the Judiciary.

Hal Turner, on whose show the conspiracy theories got started, once spent two years in prison for threatening to kill three federal judges. In his radio career he has promoted holocaust denial, white supremacy, and several hoaxes.

Howell Woltz once pled guilty to money laundering and tax evasion and spent time in prison. He later wrote a book arguing that the guilty plea was forced out of him, and about his experiences in the federal prison system.

L. Lin Wood started his career as a personal injury lawyer, then turned celebrity lawyer handling high-profile cases. He has represented JonBenet Ramsey’s family, Nicholas Sandmann’s defamation lawsuit against the Washington Post for the Lincoln Memorial confrontation, defended Herman Cain against sexual harassment charges, and Kyle Rittenhouse, the Kenosha shooter. He has said that what inspired him to become a lawyer is helping his own father escape a lengthy prison sentence for killing his own mother. He has recently been sued by three former colleagues for breach of contract. He is also, with Sidney Powell, working on a swathe of “Kraken” cases to overturn the election in favor of Trump.

Gen. Flynn was fired by two successive Presidents. By Obama as head of the DIA, and three years later, by Trump, ostensibly for lying to the Vice President about his discussions with the Russian Ambassador about removing US sanctions on Russia (however, it is clear that he was actually fired because news of those conversations leaked to the press). As part of the Mueller investigations, in December 2017 he pled guilty to lying about those conversations to the FBI; then later claimed that he had been tricked into pleading guilty. This, even though the guilty plea helped him avoid a different charge for unregistered lobbying for Turkey. His second case was handled by Sidney Powell, the Kraken lawyer—but not very effectively. Even DOJ withdrawing the charge didn’t help him escape the law; until his full pardon last month by Trump.