To claim that the mob at the Capitol didn’t almost entirely consist of fervent Trump supporters is to go to Green Bay in late November and wonder about the loyalties of all those people wearing hats shaped like hunks of cheese. They were there because of Trump, in support of Trump and sporting paraphernalia indicating allegiance to Trump. It was a Trump mob, and its failed goal was to keep Trump in office. Again, there is no serious question about any of this.
Yet most Republicans claim that somehow the political left is to blame.
The most recent data to that point is perhaps the most remarkable. A poll conducted by YouGov this month for Yahoo News asked respondents who bore blame for the events of that day. The question was asked about each of four people or groups: Trump, Trump supporters, Republicans who pushed the false claim that the election was stolen and left-wing protesters trying to impugn Trump.
More than half of Americans said that Trump, his supporters and the Republicans who backed Trump’s untrue assertions about the election bore at least some blame. Among Republicans, though, only about 4 in 10 blamed Trump supporters. Instead, nearly three-quarters suggested that some or most blame should be placed on those purported left-wing protesters.
It’s important to note that there is no evidence that any, much less many, left-wing protesters were present at the Capitol that day. One self-identified leftist captured footage of the attack, but his motivations are at best murky. Other allegations of involvement by members of antifa — a loose-knit identity centered on opposition to fascism — were quickly debunked in the days after the attack.
Yet here is a supermajority of the Republican Party, walking into Lambeau Field and arguing that all of those green-and-yellow jerseys were being worn by Denver Broncos fans eager to hide their identities. (If you don’t follow American football, hopefully you nonetheless get the point.) It’s bizarre to the point of surreal, but it’s also not the only time this assertion has emerged.
About a month after the attack, for example, polling from the American Enterprise Institute found that half of Republicans identified antifa as “mostly responsible” for the riots.
In April, YouGov conducted a poll for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst asked people to identify responsibility from a list of possible actors. Most Democrats selected Trump. Most Republicans picked the Democratic Party.
So: why? What’s motivating this rejection of an obvious reality?
There are at least two possibilities.
Misinformation. The rumors about antifa involvement that emerged soon after the Capitol was overrun were a function of a poorly reported Washington Times story that credulously elevated online rumors into statements of fact. The rumors were easily debunked but, you know, lies traveling around the world and so on. The allegations quickly landed on Fox News and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) repeated them that evening from the House floor.
In the months since, even as scores of individuals stating overt allegiance to Trump and Trumpism have been arrested for their roles in the attack, the allegation that antifa was involved has somehow lingered.
But that’s true outside of the specific context of Jan. 6, too. There’s an overarching sense on the right that antifa, overlapping or intertwined with Black Lives Matter activists, are engaged in a months-long campaign to wreak havoc in American cities. This arose a year ago as the death of George Floyd spurred national protests that infrequently preceded acts of violence or vandalism. In some places such as Portland, Ore. a handful of anti-government activists and antifa adherents went further, claiming autonomy from the government. (The government disagreed.) It was useful for Trump and his allies to claim that the tumult was constant, pervasive and ongoing as the 2020 election loomed, so they claimed that it was.
This sense lingers. It also probably spurred the second motivation for assuming that the Capitol attack should be blamed on the left.
Rationalization. Slate’s Aymann Ismail was inside the Capitol during the attack. He interviewed participants who directly contrasted what they were doing with what they perceived the left as doing.
From his report:
“Inside a building they had broken into, they described themselves as ‘peaceful’ to me. I talked to a kid from Florida, who must have been no more than 17 or 18. He told me, ‘This is nothing compared to what antifa does.’ I said, ‘Look, they’re breaking the glass.’ He answered, ‘Yeah, but at least they’re not destroying the things.’ I showed him pictures of things destroyed. It didn’t register. On the way up, there was a woman holding a sign saying, ‘If we were leftists, we would be rioting.’ ”
It isn’t just the rioters themselves who compared their actions with the violence they saw as endemic following last summer’s protests. In a statement opposing the formation of a commission to look at the causes of the Jan. 6 attack, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) directly linked the Capitol violence to what occurred then.
“[T]he renewed focus by Democrats to now stand up an additional commission ignores the political violence that has struck American cities, a Republican congressional baseball practice, and, most recently, the deadly attack on Capitol Police on April 2, 2021,” the statement read. “The presence of this political violence in American society cannot be tolerated and it cannot be overlooked.”
This comparison has come up repeatedly. It attempts to link sporadic, often opportunistic violence and vandalism with a concerted — and temporarily successful — effort to interrupt the transfer of power in the United States. But if you believe that the left is deploying violence to exercise its political will, it’s easy to see why you might shrug at your side doing the same thing. One can see how believing that “antifa started the pattern of using violence” might then lead to “therefore antifa is at least partly to blame for Jan. 6.”
If that is in fact a significant part of the response we’re seeing in polling, it fits with a broader pattern identified by journalist Dave Roberts. In a Twitter thread last week, he identified examples of conservative or right-wing actors using invented or exaggerated malfeasance by the left to rationalize their own extremism. For example, after a consultant for a Republican campaign in North Carolina was arrested for alleged electoral fraud, his actions were in at least some instances waved away as a reaction to perceived cheating by a heavily Black group in the area.
Or, along the same lines, the idea that states must pass laws to tighten election security — because Republicans have convinced themselves that illegal voting is rampant, when it isn’t. Of the few dozen people that have been arrested for casting illegal ballots last year (none of whom were demonstrably part of any systemic effort to throw the election), more than one has pointed to claims of Democratic illegal voting as a rationale for their own behavior.
Barry Morphew of Colorado is accused of killing his wife a year ago. He is also accused of casting a fraudulent ballot for Trump on her behalf, even as she was missing.
“All these other guys are cheating,” he allegedly told the FBI in an effort to explain his actions. “I just thought, give him another vote.”
The other guys weren’t cheating. But if you believe they are, why not do a little cheating of your own? As anyone over the age of, say, 8 should know, other children misbehaving doesn’t give you the green light to misbehave yourself. Especially if the other child isn’t misbehaving at all.
As always, the important question that follows from all of this is: now what? Yahoo’s poll found a broader erosion in the willingness of Republicans to blame the right for the events at the Capitol; what does it mean if that continues? How is it reversed? What happens if it isn’t?
For all of the justified consternation about the acceptance of false claims of rampant fraud in last year’s election, this idea that the left is to blame for Jan. 6 is perhaps more baffling. Fraud claims are explained away by their invisibility; they’re predicated on the idea that Democrats are so savvy that they can hide thousands of illegally cast ballots though not savvy enough to, say, secure a clear majority in the Senate or keep from losing seats in the House. But the riot on Jan. 6 was anything but subtle. It was Trump supporters in Trump gear acting on demands made in public by Trump. Yet we still get this shrugging.
There’s a third possibility here, of course. It’s also quite possible that Republicans know that Trump supporters were to blame for Jan. 6 but would rather blame the left anyway. If so, that truculence probably works against their desired political outcomes.
After all, if you think that the left is responsible for Jan. 6, wouldn’t you want to investigate it more thoroughly to uncover the truth? If you want to peruse ballots in Arizona for signs of bamboo to uncover alleged voter fraud, why don’t you want to run down your claims that antifa stormed the Capitol?