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On January 3, just three days before President Trump incited and cajoled the predominately white mob that invaded Congress, Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a video of a scuffle between police and residents of Gatineau, Quebec who were holding a private gathering in violation of local pandemic restrictions. Cops and residents blamed each other for the altercation, but regardless of the details, the president’s oldest son and potential political heir warned “this insanity is coming here if you don’t wake the hell up.” Trump Jr.’s tweet was then retweeted by Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot dead by police on Wednesday after storming the Capitol Building with violent extremists and angry Trump fans. “Nothing will stop us,” Babbitt tweeted the day before her death, warning that a “storm” was “descending” on Washington, D.C. Babbitt is now a martyr on far-right message boards where racists obsess about avenging the death of a white woman.
The video Trump Jr. retweeted was posted by a Canadian far-right journalist who recently asserted the Black Lives Matter is “sponsored by Nike, CNN, and many mayors and local police departments.” In reality, Black Lives Matter is the banner for a broad movement, as well as an umbrella for a range of organizations; it is not a single organization, let alone one with corporate sponsors. It is a movement directly in opposition to police departments. And, of course, police in many cities violently cracked down on protests for racial justice last summer. However, on Trump Jr.’s Twitter feed, reality takes a backseat to red meat. A day before the assault on the Capitol, Trump Jr. urged Republicans voting in Georgia’s Senate runoffs to “save America as you know it from the communists.” That statement feeds false conspiracy narratives about congressional Democrats that drove Trump fans to violence. Narratives about a hostile takeover of the country are also fundamental to the white nationalist thinking that has gained traction on the right under Trump, who tweeted “we love you” to his supporters after his lies about the election convinced them to trash the Capitol.
“White supremacist hate groups often justify their violent ideologies under the guise of love — love for their families, for their communities, for their nation, which are perceived to be under existential threat by encroaching ‘Others,’” said Margaret Huang, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, in a statement after the Capitol breach.
The two Democrats who prevailed in the Georgia runoffs and others in the Senate are not authoritarian communists, of course, but this and other false narratives can be found supplanting facts across the right-wing media universe. A growing sea of bloggers, podcasters, message board moderators, conspiracy theorists, social media pundits, extremist preachers and “news” outlets feed off Trump directly, using the president’s lies and, until this week, latest tweets to garner likes, hits, donations and ad revenue. To gain followers, they repost trending conspiracies loved by Trump fans on social media and attack racial justice activists whose calls for social change generate resentment on the right.
The relationship is symbiotic. Trump constantly paints the mainstream and left-leaning media as illegitimate, boosting demand for conspiratorial, right-wing alternatives that recycle Trump’s lies into content and affirm his follower’s beliefs. The Trump family and its right-wing celebrity allies then use the far right to bypass the rest of the media and feed conspiracies theories to millions of people. None of this is new. Trump has attacked the media for years, and the disinformation he spread about the COVID-19 pandemic provided a preview of the contested election.
With the president’s election challenges thrown out of courts and, more recently, some Republican leaders turning against his effort, far-right media became Trump’s sharpest tool for undermining the election he lost. A poll in late December found that 68 percent of Republicans believe the November election was not “free and fair,” and 36 percent say Trump should not concede “no matter what,” even if he is unable to present evidence of widespread voter fraud. It doesn’t matter that the supposed “evidence” did not hold up in court. More than half of Republicans said the courts are biased against Trump, even though the president appointed some of the judges who threw out his campaign’s lawsuits. The Trumps, along with right-wing pundits and conspiracy hucksters, have convinced a large share of the electorate that anything defying their narratives is a lie told by Democrats, the media or the “deep state.”
Those who follow the right-wing media saw plenty of warning signs ahead of the violence in Washington D.C. this week. Between January 1 and January 4, posts with calls for violence were found on Parler, Twitter, TikTok and the pro-Trump message board The Donald, according to analysis by Right Wing Watch. Posts calling for violence — including the arrest and execution of politicians — on The Donald alone received 40,000 engagements. Some of the calls for violence are linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Democrats are an elite cabal of Satanic pedophiles, among other bizarre beliefs. On January 6, an armed ultra-nationalist with zip-tie handcuffs was photographed storming congressional chambers.
In the days before the violence at the Capitol, organizers of the Stop the Steal rally took to social media and various far-right outlets to argue that Democrats had stolen the election. They also increasingly mentioned “civil war” while attacking anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter activists, according to Right Wing Watch. Pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood was simultaneously spreading QAnon lies about child rapists and calling for Vice President Mike Pence to be arrested and executed for his disloyalty to Trump. Memes of nooses made the rounds, and a hangman’s gallows was erected outside the Capitol during the mob attack. (Wood also represents Kyle Rittenhouse, who became a right-wing hero after shooting three people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.)
With Trump unwilling to concede the election and coddling his supporters who attacked Congress, Facebook suspended the president’s account for an indefinite period of time. On Friday afternoon, Twitter finally kicked Trump off for good. As of this writing, Wood’s Twitter account is suspended as well. Their posts crossed a clear line with speech that led to harm. However, Trump is not the only one in his orbit whose public statements foment hate and violence. Should Trump Jr.’s account be suspended? What about Rudy Giuliani, who used Twitter to peddle false conspiracy theories about a stolen election before urging Stop the Steal protesters to hold a “trial by combat” at the Capitol? While both Trump Jr. and Giuliani asked the Trump loyalists to remain peaceful after the violence erupted, it was the widespread belief among Trump supporters that the election — if not their perceived white Christian way of life — is being stolen from them that sparked the violence.
Trump Jr. and Giuliani would not take deplatforming on social media well, but their public influence outside of the diehard Trump movement is waning as the Trump presidency reaches its end. There would be plenty of yelling, as there has been in the past, about the First Amendment and big-city, tech-industry “socialists” censoring conservatives. (Of course, the First Amendment protects speech from the government, not social media companies.) More MAGA fans and QAnon trolls would leave Twitter and Facebook in protest, joining other right-wingers on Parler, where Trumpian conspiracy theories spread unfiltered.
The Trumps have helped to normalize white nationalist narratives on the right, making it difficult for social media platforms to police right-wing voices without appearing biased.
When Facebook removed hundreds of QAnon groups and accounts for right-wing militias that glorify violence, the company also shut down left-wing pages, potentially to dodge accusations of ideological prejudice. While the anarchists and anti-fascists who lost their pages have a radical perspective, they were not spreading hate or disinformation, and they argued that Facebook had effectively equated anti-fascist and anti-racist organizing with dangerous conspiracies and white nationalist militias. As the anarchists at Crimethinc. wrote, “Suppressing the voices of those who seek to protect their communities from institutional and white supremacist violence is an intentional decision to normalize violence as long as the ones employing it hold institutional power.”
The right-wing media universe that helped Trump foment the violence we witnessed this week will not disappear when the president leaves the White House. In fact, Trump, his family and his remaining allies will likely rely on far-right media to stay relevant until the next campaign season. New ultra-right stars will likely be born online and ride Trump’s coattails, as did the two QAnon proponents who were recently elected to Congress. The Proud Boys and white nationalist groups will likely continue using conspiracies and far-right media as recruiting tools, and anti-fascists will continue confronting them online and in the streets. However, after the attack on the Capitol and the suspension of Trump’s social media accounts, the far-right media may become increasingly isolated, as Democrats and even some Republican leaders call for Trump’s early removal from office. However, even within its own bubble, the force and power of far-right media must not be underestimated; after all, it played a seismic role in paving the way for Trump’s presidency.