The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The worrisome pro-Capitol-riot activism isn’t a rally. It’s in right-wing media.

Rioters loyal to President Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (John Minchillo/AP)

Law enforcement is understandably wary about the rally planned for Washington on Saturday. Centered on demonstrating support for those arrested in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the rally has prompted Capitol Police to reintroduce barriers around the building. The department has worked to ensure it has additional personnel Saturday, just in case, the memory of being overpowered in January obviously fresh in their minds. Recent incidents have escalated the sense that the area is being targeted.

Those tracking the discussion about the rally, though, suspect it may end up fizzling out. Jan. 6 has made extremists as skittish as it did police officers; supporters of the cause are warning one another that this weekend’s event will be crawling with federal agents — if it wasn’t a trap set up by the feds in the first place. The central reason so many people were in Washington on Jan. 6, of course, was that President Donald Trump was encouraging them to be. This time, he hasn’t done so, even telling one far-right network that the rally is a “setup.”

But Trump did release a statement Thursday expressing sympathy for the people being “persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest.”

“It has proven conclusively that we are a two-tiered system of justice,” the statement continued, however confusingly.

This idea has been gaining energy on the right. In late July, vocal Trump supporters Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) brought some right-wing media folks to a federal jail where some of the riot suspects are being detained, alleging that they were being held in abject conditions.

Greene later claimed that they thought there was probably “a two-tier justice system in the United States for Trump supporters that are charged for January 6 and letting — catch-and-release, it’s basically catch-and-release for Antifa and BLM rioters.” She said that the visit “confirmed” that, though she didn’t say how. (Greene’s track record on accuracy should not warrant her the benefit of the doubt.)

It’s also hard to take that claim at face value since most of those arrested after allegedly participating in the Jan. 6 riot were, in fact, allowed to go free immediately afterward. The government has spent months trying to track down those who were involved, arresting them and — usually — then releasing them until trial. A Guardian analysis in May found that 70 percent of those who’d been arrested at that point were released from detention.

The idea that people are languishing unfairly in grim detention facilities, though, fits neatly with a broad narrative that the Biden administration is rounding up and jailing political opponents. This weekend’s rally is called “Justice for J6,” implying that those still held are being detained unjustly for punitive reasons. This is a common argument on the right, one that has been treated as near-fact on Fox News.

In August, host Tucker Carlson told his viewers that “the ringleaders of the riots go free, especially if they were working for the FBI” — a reference to his unsubstantiated claim that the violence that day was fomented by federal agents — “but the people who offend Joe Biden’s friends, they are in jail.” The prior month, he’d complained about a Black Lives Matter protester who did not have to “rot in solitary in the D.C. jail for six months and counting for a nonviolent offense like so many of the Trump voters on Jan. 6.”

Host Mark Levin has focused on the issue repeatedly. In June, he told his audience that “we’re hearing that they’re in some of the worst jails, and some are being put in solitary confinement where they only have an hour where they can go outside if that. That they’re being fed poor food. They’re being treated like they’re terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, where they’d be treated actually better!” He added that the events that day were “not an insurrection.”

It is obviously true that Americans should be tried quickly to minimize unnecessary detention and that those detentions should be humane. But it’s important to remember that law enforcement didn’t make many arrests on Jan. 6. So most arrests came later, meaning that it wasn’t true in July that most of those in detention had been there for six months. One would also be justified in thinking that Levin is perhaps not expressing concerns about political prosecutions uniformly; in May 2020, he went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to insist that officials from the Obama administration should be thrown in jail.

If the goal of the rally this weekend is to elevate a sympathetic view of the rioters, it doesn’t really matter if it fails. After all, that elevation is already happening in the attention-seeking right-wing media ecosystem.

New research shows the extent to which consumption of right-wing media overlaps with views of Jan. 6 and the election. PRRI, for example, released new data Thursday measuring who Americans believe is accountable for the day’s violence. A majority believe that Trump and conservative media that spread misinformation bear a lot of responsibility. Among Republicans, though, only 15 percent think Trump bears a lot of responsibility (despite his encouraging people to come to D.C. and misleading them about the results of the election) and only about a quarter blame conservative media.

Among Republicans who said they most trust Fox News or far-right networks like Newsmax, only 3 percent think Trump bears a lot of responsibility. (It was an interview on Newsmax, incidentally, that helped elevate questions about Jan. 6 detainees into the right-wing conversation.) Asked if left-wing activists like antifa bear a lot of responsibility, though, two-thirds of Republicans who most trust Fox News said that was the case, as did more than three-quarters of those who most trust further-right sources.

It’s worth noting that a quarter of Republicans said they trusted Fox News the most and another 10 percent identified the far-right sources. That’s equivalent to 6 percent and 3 percent of respondents overall.

It can be tricky to separate out causality here. Are Fox News Republicans more likely to assume that it’s left-wing activists and not White conservative Christian groups that were involved because they watch Fox News? Or do they watch Fox News for the same reason that they hold that belief? There’s certainly little reason that a viewer of Fox News’s prime-time shows would be inclined to reject the idea that Jan. 6 is overblown or falsely blamed on the right.

We see this same pattern at play in another new bit of polling, this time from CNN and its partners at SSRS. It found that only about a fifth of Republicans think President Biden was legitimately elected — and that half erroneously believe that there’s solid evidence that he wasn’t.

This isn’t new, mind you, but it is remarkable that even 10 months after the election and with precisely zero hard evidence of fraud that could shift the election outcome having emerged, most Republicans still say it happened. Newsmax eagerly embraced these conspiracy theories from the outset, using Fox News’s pronouncement that Biden had won in an effort to steal away viewers.

But Fox also amplified false claims about the election, hundreds of times in the weeks after the election. It has repeatedly hosted Trump for interviews in which he makes false claims about the election results. In the weeks after the election, as the then-president continued to amplify false claims about fraud, only about a third of Americans told Pew Research Center that they believed Trump was offering the right message to the country. Among Fox News viewers, nearly 80 percent did. In PRRI’s polling, three-quarters of those who most trusted Fox or far-right sources said they thought the election was stolen.

To a large extent, this is just supply-and-demand capitalism. Telling a base of voters that fervently believes fraud occurred that it didn’t is a good way to get them to tune out or change the channel. Telling them that many or most of those in jail for participation in the riots are alleged to have been part of a violent attack on law enforcement is likely to be met with, “Well, what about antifa?!” The path of least resistance is the one that keeps sliding downward into a darker place.

Who needs a rally of a few hundred people in D.C. to reframe those who were detained after the riot when there’s an entire media ecosystem that will be rewarded for doing so?