(Featured image credit: Igor Bobic, Huffpost)
January 6th, 2021 began as a day of great anticipation in the MAGAverse. Massive crowds had gathered in DC, many of them streaming over social media. Hashtags such as #StopTheSteal, #PatriotsDay, #FightForTrump, #1776, and #MarchForTrump were trending.
MAGA influencers had led people to believe that this was the day Trump would finally “win” the election. Trump himself played no small part in the drummed-up anticipation, tweeting repeatedly about election fraud that could be fixed on Jan 6, the “historic day”, if Republicans fought hard enough.
But it ended in confusion, despair, and increasingly, lies—lies that it was not MAGA, but rather, Antifa that had attacked the Capitol. That lie survives till today.
Much of it played out on social media: on Twitter, Gab, TheDonald forum, Telegram, and other places. Although large sections of this content have been deleted during the post-Jan 6 purge by social media companies, much of it remains as snippets of threads—the rest can often be found in the archived internet. Using these archives, one can piece together a narrative of how the Capitol attack was seen in real time. How, amidst the shock of scenes of clashes with police and breached security, the grassroots set the narrative, and the influencers became the influenced.
The strongest sign that Trump expected a MAGA brawl on January 6 is that he began to flog the Antifa boogeyman early. On Jan 5, he released a memo painting Antifa as domestic terrorists and simultaneously, a foreign threat. It had the desired effect: Trump supporters arriving in DC early for the rally the next day were seeing Antifa under every rock.
Tina Forte, a QAnon-believing Trump devotee who sells patriot merch, tweeted out videos of bricks and propane tanks from construction sites around the city, claiming they were signs of Antifa prep. The videos went viral.
Overnight, rally goers marched across the streets with slogans such as “Fuck Antifa!” as a show of force. The militant TheDonald forum dubbed DC the “Frens Autonomous Zone (FAZ)“—“fren” being an alt-right term for comrade—a takeoff on Seattle’s CHAZ. “Communists get choppered,” a comment said; another, “this is MAGA country.” It was clear that they were seeing DC as a prospective warzone between MAGA and Antifa.
An apocryphal story about the “backwards hat” proved determinative in what followed: conspiracy theorist Bill Still claimed on Jan 1 that Antifa would dress up as Trump supporters for the Jan 6 rally, except that they would have their MAGA hats on backwards. He based this theory on a tweet that he showed scrolling on video. The tweet supposedly “proved” that Antifa had passed around the backwards hat instruction among themselves.
But it wasn’t true. The “backwards hat” tweet with “instructions” for Antifa was a sarcastic joke that liberal Twitter user Katherine Garth made on November 10th in response to an anodyne request for counter-protesters to stay away. When the video of her tweet began spreading on Jan 6, she deleted it (it survives as an image) and added clarification to the top of her feed. Her entire Twitter account is now deleted. Fake or not, the idea of backwards hat wearing Antifa spread widely on MAGA media on the eve of Jan 6.
As a matter of fact, the truth was the opposite. Lefty Twitter was full of warnings to stay away, and indeed, counter-protesters abandoned any ideas of scuffles with the MAGA crowd in DC that day. On the other hand, the Proud Boys made the explicit decision to dress in all black to blend in as Antifa.
At the barricades of Congress
At 10:32am, before Trump had even begun to speak at the Ellipse, reporter Matt Cohen already overheard groups carrying pepper spray encouraging rally-goers to storm the Capitol. The moment of the first breach has been noted as 12:54pm by the Capitol Hunters OSINT investigators. Within minutes, reports and videos from the Capitol began streaming out into the MAGAverse.
First out of the gate was a 4chan repost account called Kitty Boomhauer (now suspended). “They are storming DC,” it said at 12:59pm, “Trump supporters just tore down some barriers […] USA! USA! USA!”. Within minutes, right-wing BlazeTV personality Elijah Schaffer tweeted that “patriots” were breaching federal barriers and TownHall’s Julio Rosas tweeted that Trump supporters were storming the Capitol. Elijah Schaffer’s video of the breach of the West Capitol barricades was one of the first scenes of the riot to be viewed in MAGAverse. There was no question, at that time, from big MAGA accounts, that the attack was being carried out by Trump supporters.
At that time, Trump supporters were avidly watching the objections in Congress and waiting to hear if Pence would reject Biden’s victory. VP Pence opened the Congressional session at 1:05pm. QAnon influencer Tracy Beanz tweeted a prayer for members of Congress to be granted the peace to do the right thing. Newsmax’s Emerald Robinson tweeted names of Republican senators who refused to “stand with Trump.”
The prayerful mood soon gave way to disappointment. The objectors in Congress weren’t releasing the Kraken—evidence of election fraud, as was expected—but rather, as one commenter put it, just blowing hot air. QANon influencer Tracy Beanz tsked at their lack of preparedness.
And then, disappointment gave way to anger. As Pence opened the session, almost simultaneously, his office released a statement (12:55pm) that he would not be doing Trump’s bidding in overturning the election. News of Pence’s perfidy, as most MAGAs saw it, began to spread. Sidney Powell called him a “coward, fraud, and worse” (1:29pm and 1:37pm). Others called him a swamp creature, a turd in a sewer of turds, a snake, and more.
But then, anger gave way to shock, as the skirmish at the barricades began in earnest. As scenes of the skirmish filtered out, the big MAGA accounts either made excuses for Trump supporters, or straightforwardly celebrated the attack.
Uber MAGA influencer Rogan O’Handley fired off three tweets celebrating “Patriots” (2:59pm)—saying that they would never allow communists to steal the Presidency (3:02pm), and that the patriot genie had been “unleashed” and could not be put back in the bottle (3:16pm).
Greg Kelly of Newsmax has now deleted several tweets where he insisted, contra Fox News, that Trump supporters were merely milling around the sidewalk (2:02pm); that contra Fox News, which was labeling the protests “violent”, all he saw were Trump flags and American flags (2:15pm); and with an image of insurrectionists inside the Capitol: “they keep talking up a riot that is not happening” (2:34pm).
Dinesh D’Souza’s feed was an excuse-making fest, one tweet after another either drawing a comparison with BLM protests over the summer, or justifying Trump supporters breaking into the Capitol due to their valid grievances. At 3:04pm, well after rioters had broken into the building itself, he said, “the Left tried to win by forced occupation what it could not win through the political process. So ditto now from the other side”. At 3:50pm, when the full scale of the attack was known, he said, “have they attempted to beat anyone up or harm them? It seems not. Okay, whew, we can now be sure this is not at an Antifa or Black Matter protest.”
CatTurd, a MAGA influencer with half a million followers, also put out excuse-making tweets. At 4:02pm, he tweeted, “I wish Republicans got this mad when ANTIFA and BLM rioted, looted, burned down buildings, and assaulted innocent bystanders for the past year,” implying that this was not Antifa.
Among the organizers of the rally, Women For America First’s Amy Kremer said it was “comical” to hear the media “hysterical” over the protesters (2:45pm); while Stop The Steal’s Ali Alexander claimed that the media and the Democrats had “ended the Republic” and the people had responded, adding, “welcome to duhhh” (3:00pm). More than an hour later, he expressed the thought that peace would return at the Capitol when “legitimacy” was restored (4:25pm).
Other MAGA influencers straightforwardly cheered on the attack after it was clear this was no peaceful protest. QAnon influencer Major Patriot tweeted, “more of this please” quoting Elijah Schaffer’s video clip (1:11pm) before deleting it. Mike Flynn Jr. tweeted, “GOOD FOR THESE PATRIOTS” in response to a Jake Tapper tweet calling what was happening at the Capitol “stochastic terrorism” (1:51pm). He even pushed back on Don Jr.’s call for peace half hour later, by excusing it as an act of desperation (2:25pm). A bit later, at 2:42pm, Lin Wood retweeted a call for Trump supporters to occupy both chambers of the Capitol.
Tore Maras, of the popular Tore Says podcast, tweeted a video of protesters streaming into the Capitol, saying, “Remember the seats they sit in YOU paid for. The pens they use to destroy our nation YOU paid for,” (2:39pm). QAnon influencer “Carrie 4 Truth”, whose husband was once seen guarding Mike Pence with a QAnon patch, said, “something has snapped in Patriots[…]we’re not going to take it” (1:39pm). A minute later, Major Patriot echoed the “we’re not going to take it” theme, while discussing civil war with Praying Medic, another QAnon influencer (1:40pm).
By 3pm, rioters had entered Senate Chambers. Mike Flynn Jr. posted an image of insurrectionist Josiah Colt at the podium calling it a “powerful image” (3:14pm). Tore Maras retweeted Flynn Jr., repeating her earlier message: “that is our seat, our table, our curtains” (3:17pm). As news of Congressional staffers and officials being evacuated filtered out, she unsympathetically tweeted that they were too afraid to face their constituents (3:15pm).
All told, none of the MAGA talking heads, organizers, content creators, influencers, etc. showed any doubt at all that it was Trump supporters attacking the Capitol. After all, they had summoned them there!
Shock & revulsion
At first, it seemed like the revolutionary thinking Trump supporters had indulged for months was leading up to just this sort of moment, and they cheered. A Tore follower exulted when Tore showed video of rally-goers streaming in to the Capitol, saying, “they all need to go inside, if not, no winning.” “Yes! This is OUR HOUSE! We want to reclaim it,” another agreed (2:45pm); and, “1776 all over again“.
But the discomfort was clear from the start. “Not going to lie, this makes me nervous,” a Tore follower said (2:46pm) about the same video.
Scenes of clashes with Capitol Police horrified many in the grassroots. As a Townhall reporter depicted these scenes, a Trump supporter said, “…this is crazy. The police need to start shooting, or using rubber bullets or tear gas. This violence needs to stop now!!!” (1:55pm). As Rogan O’Handley made his comment about the Patriot genie being unleashed, a follower chided him, “I like you Rogan but this is too much” (3:17pm).
After a year of being enraged over what they saw as left-wing violence while, in their view, the media turned a blind eye, they could not face the idea that violence should come from their side. They took refuge in “No true Scotsman” type of excuses, and pushed back on the cheerleading, excuse-making MAGA influencers: “hard to believe actual Trump supporters would do this. If so, they are not true patriots,” a follower of Rogan O’Handley responded to him (3:00pm). As Mike Flynn Jr. praised “patriots” in all caps, a follower countered, “patriots would not do that!” (1:53pm). Another responded to another of his excuse-making tweets, saying, “I don’t think you are flynn jr. no way would flynn be on board with this” (3:55pm). A Tore follower even accused her of being a plant: “this is not us! I can’t believe you are condoning this garbage” (3:55pm). “I don’t think acting like Antifa is gonna help us,” another said (3:03pm).
Yes, it was delusional; clearly, the so-called “patriots” would do that, and did. Yes, it was self-righteous; but some talking heads perhaps started to notice that the grassroots were losing their nerve about following through on “1776”. Mike Flynn Jr., for instance, deleted the tweet that exulted in these “patriots'” actions and several others.
Backwards hat pays off
Right as Trump supporters were desperately discomfited by scenes of violence, the “Antifa did it” rationalization came to them like a soothing balm. Trump’s boogeyman had prepped them well.
The rationalization started within minutes of Elijah Schaffer’s clips from the scene. By 1:19pm an account with 219 followers had connected a very brief glimpse of a backwards hat in those clips to the conspiracy theory that had been spreading for days, calling the rioter “textbook Antifa”. This notion spread on Twitter over the next few hours. The image of the joke tweet that originated the backwards hat theory went viral, along with any glimpse of any backwards hat people saw in the scenes pouring out of DC. By 2:20pm, Rep. Mo Brooks was tweeting out the backwards-hat-is-Antifa theory, even though he himself had had a lot to do with inciting MAGA crowds that day.
Within about an hour an a half, the new images streaming from the Capitol, replete with Vikings dressed in pelts and tattooed roughs, were so outlandish that they barely needed to dig up faked images.
Even the famous Q Shaman (Jacob Chansley a.k.a. Jake Angeli), who has now become a symbol of the insurrection and indisputably MAGA, spent some hours on MAGA Twitter as the focal point of Antifa theories based on his bizarre appearance. People pointed to his Viking horns, his face paint, his helmet, and his bare chest—all to claim he was Antifa (one wonders what MAGAs think Antifa really is).
In reality, Chansley is an Arizonan QAnon persona, who had been a constant presence as a counter-protester during the past summer’s BLM protests. Within minutes of his images being tweeted out by HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic, a software engineer from Arizona recognized him and posted an image of his from June 2020 holding a “Q sent me” sign. This image, posted in good faith, was cropped by Twitter user “Neurocrime1” (now suspended) to exclude the Q sign, and include a distant “fuck police” sign, so it could be passed around pretending that Chansley was Antifa. This cropped misrepresentative image, and another by Twitter user “KelemenCari” (also suspended) did the rounds.
Many people tweeted out corrections—after all, Chansley was a highly visible persona that one doesn’t easily forget—including the software engineer whose had been the first to identify Chansley. It barely made a difference.
Lin Wood, always ready to up the ante, even gave him an apocryphal identity, calling him Spencer Sunshine (4:53pm). But Spencer Sunshine is a real life leftwing writer, and Jacob Chansley certainly isn’t him. (Here you can listen to Spencer Sunshine’s own account of the time he was misidentified as the Q Shaman.)
Eventually, it took concerted effort, including by Chansley’s sister Alice Kennedy, also a big QAnon account, and by Chansley himself, to turn the tide and get big MAGA accounts to accept him as one of their own. By late in the evening, uber Twitter influencer Techno_Fog was calling him “MAGA Viking” (8:53pm).
Meanwhile, someone noticed a strange tattoo on the hand of a bearded man in a yellow sweatshirt pictured next to the QShaman and called it a “hammer and sickle” (3:09pm). The notion that this was a hammer-and-sickle-marked Communist, thus “Antifa”, spread far and wide on Twitter for hours, and was even repeated by Louis Gohmert—who cleverly solicited peace while blaming the other side for the lack thereof (4:38pm). Coincidentally, someone found a likeness of the bearded man on a Philadelphia Antifa website, and people treated that as “proof” that the hammer-and-sickle man was Antifa. Ex-NSC conspiracy theorist Rich Higgins straight-up claimed, based on that image, that “Philly Antifa [was] operating in [the] crowd” (4:21pm). These images were also posted by Lin Wood (4:41pm).
In reality, it was error laid upon error. The tattoo was not depicting a hammer and sickle, it was the Outsider symbol from the Dishonored video game. The man portrayed on the Philadelphia Antifa website was on a page that identified Neo-Nazis, not Antifa activists. And, the Neo-Nazi identified was Jason Tankersley of Keystone State Skinheads, while the bearded insurrectionist turned out to be William Watson of Auburn, AL, who was arrested on Jan 11th.
Over the next few hours any and every Antifa rumor got shared wildly. Black clothes, black backpacks, helmets, even Trump hats that seemed “too new”—all were supposedly clues of Antifa’s presence. An old apocryphal Antifa rumor got re-aired: a poster of a molotov-throwing silhouette that supposedly instructs Antifa to dress like Trump supporters has been trotted out at every fraught event since 2017. It made the rounds.
All that was needed was for anyone to throw up an image or video and call it “Antifa” for it to go viral.
A man with a face tattoo posted a video of five unmarked buses, and claimed “busloads of Antifa” had been escorted in (2:25pm). It was obviously fake, considering the buses weren’t labeled “Antifa”, nor, obviously, were the people; but Trump supporters grasped that video with both hands and the “busloads of Antifa” theory spread. It gave rise to offshoots, as when Investor’s Business Daily writer Paul Sperry threw out an unverified claim that an FBI Agent on the ground had texted him that at least one busload of Antifa infiltrated MAGA (5:02pm). It got retweeted tens of thousands of times. Within an hour, the busload rumor was echoed by Texas AG Ken Paxton (6:00pm).
Another video that went viral was from “MAGACovfefe711”—a woman who forthrightly said that she was not at the Capitol—however, her impression was that they were “infiltrated” (3:28pm). This impression, based on no concrete facts whatsoever (as she herself admitted), got tens of thousands of likes and retweets and even made it to Dinesh D’Souza’s account (4:21pm).
The influencers were influenced
It did not start off this way, but over the hours, the big accounts—the content creators, the influencers, the Kraken-releasers—took their lead from the grassroots who were furiously pushing back on the discomfiting truth that their own side were violent brawlers. Some of these influencers actually had a vested interest in promoting a MAGA revolution, they had been pushing it for months. But they, too, eventually folded.
At 12:20pm, Jovan H Pulitzer, election-denying Kraken charlatan, tweeted out an image of a soldier in a battlefield calling it a “battle for America“. At 1:50pm, he sounded irritated that Trump supporters were being tear-gassed by Capitol Police—but they “did not do this for Antifa” back in the summer. Every single one of his responses from his followers on that tweet insisted that it was Antifa attacking the Capitol. A couple hours after this, he was considering and retweeting Antifa theories: from the busloads-of-Antifa to Chansley-as-Antifa.
Ali Alexander, Stop The Steal organizer, also gave in. At 4:25pm he tweeted that peace would return at the Capitol when legitimacy returned, for all intents and purposes sounding like he was personally directing the return of peace; half hour later, he tweeted, “Antifa agitation!“. Amy Kremer, rally organizer who had been instrumental in having the great numbers of protesters descend on DC, who first thought it was comical for the media to complain (2:45pm), began to retweet Antifa theories after it was clear the insurrection had failed.
Rogan O’Handley, until well past 3pm, was celebrating the Patriot genie that could not be put back in the bottle. An hour later, he was soliciting opinions from his followers about whether it was Antifa; from that point, he posted tweet after tweet blaming “leftist agitators”.
CatTurd solicited opinions from his followers about whether it was Antifa; later spoke as if the groundswell of Antifa conspiracy theories meant that it was proven. Even Dinesh D’Souza capitulated to the Antifa theory onslaught (4:21pm), passing on rumors of infiltrators after many tweets making excuses for Trump supporters.
Lin Wood was a tweeting machine throughout the day. Till the around the 3pm hour all his tweets either incited followers against Mike Pence, or encouraged them to occupy both chambers of the Capitol. Once Trump sent out his tweet asking people to remain peaceful, Lin Wood took the cue to start blaming Antifa for the violence. The rest of the day, he tweeted any Antifa conspiracy theory that bubbled up from the grassroots that he could find.
Meanwhile, as we know from the Jan 6 hearings, by this time the White House was fielding desperate missives to have Trump call off the coup. At 3:45pm, when Jason Miller came up with the excuse to blame Antifa for the riots, he was merely advocating a course of action that the grassroots had already perfected by this point.
Trump’s message for people to go home marked the failure of the coup. This came at 4:17pm. This is the moment that Patrick Byrne chose to start blaming Antifa for the violence. He posted the absurd “backwards hat” theory at 4:28pm.
Even Flynn Jr., after celebrating the image of an insurrectionist at the Senate chamber, took the denialist route of blaming Antifa (4:29pm) after it was clear that Trump had folded. Major Patriot had said, “more of this please,” (1:11pm) on the first scenes coming out of the Capitol. It instantly became clear that that sentiment was highly unpopular; within minutes, he deleted that tweet, and instead, on the same video, tweeted: “how do you know they are Trump supporters?” (1:22pm).
Not everyone gave in to Antifa-based denialism. Tellingly, the talking heads who had been at the Capitol had seen too much to promote the Antifa delusion. Elijah Schaffer, who had even made it to Nancy Pelosi’s office (2:44pm), insisted till the end of the day that most of the violence was started by “strong, heated” Trump supporters; his responders uniformly did not want to hear it. Antifa antagonist Andy Ngo also stuck with the notion that it was not Antifa causing the attack. Emerald Robinson of Newsmax—who was also at the Capitol—stuck with the excuse-making tweets rather than blame Antifa.
Then there were those who actually felt deflated at the MAGA push to deflect blame; because it demeaned the glorious revolution that they had sought.
Brandon Straka, who was one of the Stop The Steal organizers and had been at the Capitol, set off a string of tweets: “I’m completely confused. For 6-8 weeks everybody on the right has been saying ‘1776!’ & that if congress moves forward it will mean a revolution! So congress moves forward, Patriots storm the Capitol- now everybody is virtual signaling their embarrassment that this happened” (8:57pm); then later, “perhaps I missed the part where this would be a revolution of ice-cream cones[…]” (9:00pm); and, “also- be embarrassed & hide if you need to- but I was there. It was not Antifa at the Capitol” (9:06pm).
The Trump-loving TheDonald forum did their own post-mortem, comparing the failed riot to George Washington crossing the Delaware. “No, George! Please don’t cross the Delaware!” one person imagined their detractors saying.
They had a point. What other revolution do we know of where the revolutionaries pointed fingers at the other guy when things got too hot? The sine qua non of a revolutionary is to be out-and-proud about it. But aside from the militants who put their bodies in, MAGAs from Trump on down wanted it to cost them nothing more than tweets. As revolutions go it was more LARP than freedom struggle.
Liberty Hangout, an unapologetically right-wing presence on Twitter with 67K followers, summarized it this way: “conservatives spent decades preaching 1776 only to disavow it when it finally happened” (6:50pm). He had identified the core issue. While blaming Antifa assuaged MAGA discomfort, it was also a sign that the revolution had failed.
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