January 6th Anniversary: Right-Wing Delusions Have Not Changed Much

When people feel democracy is threatened, their concerns about violence become even more critical, and here’s where public opinion really matters: democracy depends on its citizens adhering to its norms both because they believe in them, and because they expect others will, too.


The insurrection, one year on

The Republican Party has rewritten the history of the violence its leader caused

“We got inside, we did our part. We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin’ brain. But we didn’t find her.”

DAWN BANCROFT, JANUARY 6TH INSURRECTIONIST IN A VIDEO MESSAGE TO HER CHILDREN

Lexington

January 5th, 2022

DAWN BANCROFT, a 59-year-old gym owner from Pennsylvania, travelled to the national capital a year ago this week to hear Donald Trump speak, not to commit terrorism. Yet as she marched up Constitution Avenue, with the former president’s instruction to “fight like hell” ringing in her ears, Ms Bancroft apparently mislaid her moral compass.

Forcing a way through the mob outside the Capitol building, she and her friend Diana came to a shattered window and clambered through it. “We got inside, we did our part,” Ms Bancroft later explained in a video message to her children. “We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin’ brain. But we didn’t find her.”

After hearing the women plead guilty to a misdemeanour last September, Judge Emmet Sullivan wondered “how good people never got into trouble with the law morphed into terrorists”. Court documents suggest that describes most of the 700-odd people so far charged over the insurrection—including around 225 accused of assaulting or impeding the police. Few had previous convictions or links to far-right groups. Most were the same unremarkable white people, in high spirits and wearing Trump merchandise, who swell the former president’s rallies. They are small-business owners, teachers, estate agents and retired folk.

Contrary to the implication of Judge Emmett’s question, this is not mystifying but self-explanatory. If you believed the election had been stolen, as tens of millions of Republican voters did even before the results were out, why wouldn’t you take the desperate measures Mr Trump demanded? Ms Bancroft and the rest thought they were doing their patriotic duty.

Most made no effort to hide their identities. A Texan estate agent plugged her company while live-streaming the attack; an Ohioan kicked in a window of the Capitol wearing a jacket bearing the name and phone number of his decorating firm. The riot, as the biggest prosecutorial effort in American history has already made clear, was the logical expression of Mr Trump’s big lie, proudly carried out by 2,000 of his devoted supporters. To repudiate the violence, Republicans had no alternative but to repudiate the lie. Having failed to do so, they are instead normalising it.

That process began hours after the riot, when most Republican congressmen and -women formally disputed the election result. This ended any serious prospect of them breaking with Mr Trump, has duly rewritten the reality of the violence he caused. He has claimed the rioters were “innocent” people “persecuted” by the police; that the real “insurrection took place” on election day. And yet if some of his supporters overstepped the mark, what of that? Mr Trump has also suggested it was “common sense” for them to chant “Hang Mike Pence” during the riot, given his deputy’s reluctance to steal the election. This is classic Trumpian disinformation: a smorgasbord of inconsistent cognitive dissonances for his supporters to select from. He celebrates their violence even as he denies it took place and blames it on the other side.

“A year after the rampage, which claimed five lives and injured more than 100 police officers, most Republicans say it was either peaceful or “somewhat” violent; and that Mr Trump bears little or no responsibility for it.”

Having reaffirmed their fealty to Mr Trump, most Republican lawmakers felt compelled to prevent investigation of the insurrection. They blocked a high-level bipartisan inquiry into the violence and, when the Democrats proposed a weaker House select-committee investigation instead, lambasted it as a partisan stunt. With the participation of two principled Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, that committee has since interviewed hundreds of witnesses. But its main targets, Mr Trump and his senior lieutenants, are obstructing it, apparently in the hope that the Republicans will retake the House in November and scrap it.

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 19: U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chair of the select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol, speaks during a committee business meeting as vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) looks on at Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. The committee voted to hold former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon in criminal contempt for refusing to cooperate with the committee’s subpoena. (Photo by Wong/Getty Images)

Both scenarios appear likely, in part because most Republican voters aren’t interested in litigating the violence either. A year after the rampage, which claimed five lives and injured more than 100 police officers, most Republicans say it was either peaceful or “somewhat” violent; and that Mr Trump bears little or no responsibility for it. Democrats say the opposite. They also doubt their opponents’ motives. To downplay the violence is to rationalise it, which in the current fraught environment, many Democrats believe, is tantamount to a promise of a repeat performance.

There is no prospect of this week’s commemoration of the insurrection bringing a modicum of national unity. Americans disagree wildly on what is even being commemorated. And this latest severe disagreement, unsurprisingly, has made them more divided generally. Partisan relations on the Hill, which were hardly rosy before the riot, are abysmal. “The insurrection was a moment that changed Congress,” says Representative Cheri Bustos, a moderate Democrat from Illinois. “There’s a lack of trust, a lack of respect.”

Some Democrats still refuse to co-operate with any Republican who voted to decertify the election. Many Democrats and the handful of Republican holdouts against Mr Trump have received death threats from his supporters. The animated video that Paul Gosar of Arizona tweeted last November, which depicted him killing a Democratic congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was one of the subtler examples. Ms Cheney and Mr Kinzinger were the only Republicans to back a Democratic motion to censure Mr Gosar, which caused a further deterioration in partisan relations.

“Americans disagree wildly on what is even being commemorated. And this latest severe disagreement, unsurprisingly, has made them more divided generally. Partisan relations on the Hill, which were hardly rosy before the riot, are abysmal.”

Shaman you


Outside politics, there is more hope. The even-handed processing of so many hundreds of insurrectionist cases is a credit to the justice system. The police chiefs responsible for the Capitol’s inadequate defences have been held accountable, and the building’s security significantly beefed up. But, alas, that is a mixed blessing to those, like Ms Bustos, who ran for office to govern, not to fight.

She is one of 25 Democratic House members quitting politics, a decision she ascribes partly to the riot. “My husband’s been in law enforcement for four decades and, you know, he said it’s not going to get out there,” she says. “We talked it over with my three sons. None of them thought I should run again.”


A year after Jan. 6, violence still seen threatening U.S. democracy

Anthony Salvanto, Kabir Khanna, Fred Backus and Jennifer DePinto

Sunday, January 2, 2022

“Four in 10 Republicans say those who went into the Capitol were actually left-leaning groups pretending to be Trump supporters.”

Even as so many Americans decry the events of January 6, the day has had lasting impacts on the nation’s psyche, the most immediate of which is that millions of Americans think more violence is coming, and that democracy itself might be threatened.

The reality — and this won’t allay all those fears — is that there are some Americans who generally view force or political violence undertaken by others as justifiable, depending on the situation. That applies to the violence on January 6, and to a few for whom 2020 remains unsettled, but also extends to other issues, from abortion to gun policy to civil rights. And it’s partially related to beliefs that political opponents are an existential threat, or being convinced they’ll do worse to you. We stress this is not how most people feel, and that those who do are a low number in percentage terms. But then, we’ve also seen that it doesn’t take large numbers to provoke these wider concerns in the nation.

So, when people feel democracy is threatened, their concerns about violence become even more critical, and here’s where public opinion really matters: democracy depends on its citizens adhering to its norms both because they believe in them, and because they expect others will, too.

More violence to come?

The implications of January 6 are reverberating through the polity: two-thirds see the events as a harbinger of increasing political violence, not an isolated incident. That leads to larger misgivings. When people see it as a sign of increasing violence, they’re more likely to think violence is a reason democracy is threatened.

January 6 views — then and now

The events of January 6 were widely condemned when they happened and still are today by majorities of both parties. But there is an alternative set of descriptors and interpretations of those events, and of what should happen next, largely on the right, along with a softening of their disapproval that’s worthy of attention.

Despite overall disapproval of the events on January 6, Republicans do stand apart from others in offering descriptions that are less harsh. One, the intensity with which Republicans disapprove softened over the summer and has stayed softer. A year ago, most Republicans strongly disapproved, but today, their disapproval is spread between strongly and a bit more only somewhat disapproving.

Americans who no longer strongly disapprove are less likely to describe the day’s events as an insurrection than they were in January. They are also much likelier to consume conservative media than those consistent in strongly disapproving.

Moreover, four in 10 Republicans have a different conception of who was involved in the first place, saying most of those who forced their way into the Capitol were left-leaning groups pretending to be Trump supporters.

Outright approval of what happened comes only from a minority of Americans, but it certainly is there. Those who approve are younger and use right-leaning news sources and social media more, but they also have what seem like larger items than just their views about 2020 or an election. They are more likely to say the United States should divide into “red” and “blue” countries. There’s a relationship between approval and conspiracy theories: among Americans who think QAnon ideas are at least probably true, approval of the Capitol events goes up to 50%.

Descriptions of what happened are also similar to how they were a year ago after it happened. People widely call it a protest that went too far, but how much further becomes more partisan. Most Americans — including most Democrats, but just a fifth of Republicans — call it an insurrection and describe it as an attempt to overturn the election and the government.

Four in 10 Republicans say those who went into the Capitol were actually left-leaning groups pretending to be Trump supporters.

Only a quarter of Americans call what happened “patriotism” or “defending freedom.” They tend to be on the political right, identifying as conservatives. When asked why they describe it that way, they say those who entered the Capitol were “exercising their right to protest” and drawing attention to (what they see as) election fraud — more than twice as often as they say January 6 participants were trying to stop the electoral count, per se. So, they are still supportive of the act, even though it didn’t meet its alleged goals, which could partially explain why they’re also willing to see other actions as justified.

What should Trump do next?

So, what do they want now? There is 12% of the country, and a fifth of Trump’s 2020 voters, that want Trump to fight to retake the presidency right now, before the next election.

When we follow up with them on that idea, they mostly say they would like to see that done through legal channels. But then a third of the people within that 12% say he should use force if necessary. While that only amounts to 4% of the population, it still translates into millions of Americans effectively willing to see a forceful change in the executive branch.

The specter hanging over the next election

In particular — and perhaps because it’s still so tangible — a majority of the nation now expect there will be violence from the losing side of a future presidential election.

We then followed up and asked, “If that’s your side that loses and there is in fact violence, would you be in favor of that or not?” It’s an abstraction right now, of course, and a mere 2% would favor it. But another quarter left it open, saying it depends on the circumstance — and in that, we start to see political differences, with 2020 Trump voters twice as likely as Biden voters to say that it depends.

Specifically, those who claim widespread voter fraud in 2020 and those who don’t consider Biden legitimate now are relatively more likely to be in favor, should violence occur after their side loses a future election. And they’re more likely to say that violence over election results might be justified in general.

It’s not just elections

The idea of political violence historically isn’t confined to anger over elections, of course. And to be clear, most don’t condone it on the left or right. But there are some Americans who could see justification for political violence over some issues, at least in principle. We’d also stress this by no means suggests they would do it themselves.

Gun policies, abortion policies, civil rights, labor issues, and even vaccine and coronavirus issues are each issues at least a quarter of Americans say are important enough that violence might be justified, depending on the situation.

Among liberals and Democrats, about four in 10 say civil rights and equality issues are important enough that violence might be justified over them, and a quarter name labor issues and abortion policies. For the right — that is, conservatives and Republicans — it’s more likely to be gun policies and election results, with about four in ten saying force might be justified on these issues.

Then there’s how people respond to political actors who might call for violence, or otherwise violate political norms. It’s 14% who feel that elected officials or candidates might be justified in calling for violence in public speeches. This is somewhat lower than the one in five who say that public insults might be justified.

Within each group, those who would justify violence tend to be younger, and somewhat more ideologically extreme — that is, identifying as very liberal or conservative. It’s important to note they also report being less likely to vote, which may reflect an inclination to seek political outcomes by other, less traditional means.

But it’s also associated with attitudes toward opponents: the partisans among them are more inclined to think the other side threatens their way of life and less likely to favor compromise in general.

On that, too, we see what looks like a vicious circle: Americans who consider violence potentially justified aren’t necessarily eager for it, but may feel it is forced upon them. For example, looking at people who say that calls for force from political leaders can be justified, about half say this approach can be justified because their opponents do the same or worse.

This is not wholly relegated to one ideology or political party, because on several issues, like labor issues, civil rights, abortion, and vaccines, we find comparable numbers of Democrats and Republicans saying violence might be justified, though Republicans are more apt to say so on elections and guns. Across all six issues tested, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to select at least one issue as important enough to possibly justify violence. The formation of citizen militias — which for the purposes of this study, is not directly measuring action or violence — is acceptable to three in 10 Americans, driven by those on the right.

The good news?

It’s not necessarily related to violence but speaks to some of the mood that underpins animosity: not all partisans think of the opposition as enemies threatening their way of life. Those who do tend to be more ideological, though. And few Americans favor the idea — as far-fetched as it might be — of a “national divorce” between red and blue states.

Given all this, going forward, the important divisions into 2022 and beyond might be not just along partisan lines, but between that large group of Americans who don’t condone violence, along with those who don’t see themselves as engaged in an existential struggle with an opposing party, and those smaller numbers who do.

What does run throughout public sentiment, though, is that wider apprehension about the state of democracy, and that measure may be the most important of all to watch. On a certain level, democracy has to be self-reinforcing; when people adhere to its norms, they need to believe and trust in its stability, particularly that others will adhere to them as well.

This CBS News/YouGov survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 2,063 U.S. adult residents interviewed between December 27-30, 2021. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the U.S. Census American Community Survey and Current Population Survey, as well as to 2020 presidential vote. The margin of error is ±2.6 points.


Ashli Babbitt a martyr? Her past tells a more complex story

BY MICHAEL BIESECKER

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The first time Celeste Norris laid eyes on Ashli Babbitt, the future insurrectionist had just rammed her vehicle three times with an SUV and was pounding on the window, challenging her to a fight.

Norris says the bad blood between them began in 2015, when Babbitt engaged in a monthslong extramarital affair with Norris’ longtime live-in boyfriend. When she learned of the relationship, Norris called Babbitt’s husband and told him she was cheating.

“She pulls up yelling and screaming,” Norris said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, recounting the July 29, 2016, road-rage incident in Prince Frederick, Maryland. “It took me a good 30 seconds to figure out who she was. … Just all sorts of expletives, telling me to get out of the car, that she was going to beat my ass.”

Terrified and confused, Norris dialed 911 and waited for law enforcement. Babbitt was later charged with numerous misdemeanors.

The attack on Norris is an example of erratic and sometimes threatening behavior by Babbitt, who was shot by a police officer while at the vanguard of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Former President Donald Trump and his supporters have sought to portray her as a righteous martyr who was unjustly killed.

Trump has called her “an incredible person” and he even taped a posthumous birthday greeting to her in October. Trump has also demanded the Justice Department reinvestigate Babbitt’s death, though the officer who shot her was cleared of any wrongdoing by two prior federal investigations.

But the life of the Air Force veteran from California, who died while wearing a Trump campaign flag wrapped around her shoulders like a cape, is far more complicated than the heroic portrait presented by Trump and his allies.

In the months before her death, Babbitt had become consumed by pro-Trump conspiracy theories and posted angry screeds on social media. She also had a history of making violent threats.

“In the months before her death, Babbitt had become consumed by pro-Trump conspiracy theories and posted angry screeds on social media. She also had a history of making violent threats.”

Babbitt, 35, was fatally shot while attempting to climb through the broken window of a barricaded door leading to the Speaker’s Lobby inside the Capitol, where police officers were evacuating members of Congress from the mob supporting Trump’s false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. She was one of five people who died during or immediately after the riot, including a Capitol Police officer.

On social media, Babbitt identified as a Libertarian and ardent supporter of the Second Amendment. Her posts included videos of profane rants against Democrats, COVID-19 mask mandates and illegal immigration.

Her Twitter account, which was taken down after her death, was rife with references to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which centers on the baseless belief that Trump has secretly battled deep-state enemies and a cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibals that includes prominent Democrats who operate a child sex trafficking ring.

“Nothing will stop us,” Babbitt tweeted Jan. 5. “They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”

Among Q followers, “The Storm” refers to the predicted day Trump would finally unmask the pedophile cabal, arrest and execute those deemed traitors and restore America to greatness.

Trump has repeatedly insisted Babbitt was murdered, and she has achieved martyr status among Trump supporters. Her name and likeness now appear on T-shirts and flags at pro-Trump rallies.

A Maryland personal injury lawyer representing Babbitt’s husband, Aaron Babbitt, has raised $375,000 through a Christian crowdfunding site and has threatened to file a lawsuit against the Capitol Police.

Key to that wrongful death claim is the contention that Babbitt, a former police officer who was 5-foot-2 and weighed 115 pounds, would have peacefully surrendered had Capitol officers attempted to arrest her.

Aaron Babbitt declined to comment in October when a reporter knocked on the door of the San Diego apartment he shared with Ashli and another woman. In a June interview with of Fox News, Babbitt said he has been sickened by some of what he has seen written about his deceased wife.

“There’s never been a person who Ashli ran across in her daily life that didn’t love her,” said Babbitt, 40.

“Nothing will stop us. They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”

Ashli Babbitt tweet, January 5th, 2021

That is not how Norris felt about her.

Court records involving the violent 2016 confrontation between Babbitt and Norris have previously been reported by media outlets, including the AP. But Norris, now 39, agreed to speak about it publicly for the first time in an interview with the AP and shared previously unreported details. She also provided documents and photos from the crash scene to support her account.

Norris was in a six-year relationship with Aaron Babbitt when she said she learned he was cheating on her with a married co-worker from his job as a security guard at a nuclear power plant near the Chesapeake Bay. She eventually found out the other woman was Ashli McEntee, who at the time went by the last name of her then-husband.

“He was telling me about this foulmouthed chick that’s on his shift, blah, blah, blah,” Norris recounted. “Come to find out a few months later … they were basically having this relationship while they were at work.”

When she learned of the affair, she reached out to Babbitt’s husband, Timothy McEntee.

“You know, I was trying to keep my home life together,” she said.

Norris said she tried for a few months to salvage her relationship with Aaron Babbitt before finally deciding to move out of their house. Within days, Norris said, Ashli moved in.

A few weeks later, Norris was waiting at a stop sign in Prince Frederick, about an hour southeast of Washington, D.C., when she says a white Ford Explorer passed her going the other direction.

Norris saw the SUV pulling a U-turn before speeding up behind her. She recounts that the SUV’s driver began swerving erratically, laying on the horn and attempting to pass a Chevrolet Suburban that was in between them on the narrow two-lane road.

When the driver of the Chevy pulled over, Norris said the white Ford SUV accelerated and rammed into her rear bumper. She said the SUV rammed her a second time and then a third, all while the vehicles continued to roll down the road.

After Norris dialed 911, an emergency dispatcher advised her to pull over to the shoulder and stop. As she waited for help, Babbitt got out of her vehicle and came up to Norris’ driver’s-side window, banging on the glass.

Norris said the force of the impact caused her seatbelt to lock tight, preventing her from getting out of her car. Within minutes, deputies arrived.

A case report from the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office obtained by the AP shows Ashli Babbitt was issued a criminal summons on charges of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor defined under Maryland law as engaging in conduct “that creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to another” and punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. She was also charged with malicious destruction of property for the damage to Norris’ vehicle.

This July 29, 2016 photo provided by Celeste Norris, shows Ashli Babbitt’s damaged vehicle after a road rage incident where Babbitt, who then had the last name McEntee, rammed the back of Norris’ SUV three times as part of a fight over an extramarital affair. Babbitt was later charged with numerous misdemeanors. (Celeste Norris via AP)

Court records show those charges were later updated to include traffic offenses — reckless driving, negligent driving and failure to control a vehicle’s speed to avoid a collision.

Photos from the scene provided to the AP by Norris show Babbitt’s white Ford Explorer with its front bumper smashed in. The SUV’s grill is also pushed in and the hood dented. The rear bumper of Norris’ Escape is pushed in on the passenger side, with the detached Maryland license plate from the front bumper of Babbitt’s SUV wedged into it.

Following the altercation, Norris and a friend went to the courthouse in neighboring St. Mary’s County, where she lived at the time, and petitioned for a peace order, a type of restraining order, against Ashli Babbitt. The resulting judicial order barred Ashli Babbitt from attempting to contact Norris, committing further acts of violence against her and going to her home or workplace.

A copy of the order, dated the same day as the altercation, contains Norris’ contemporaneous account of what occurred, as written down by her friend. Norris’ hands were still shaking so badly she couldn’t write down what happened for herself, according to a note on the document.

In the weeks after the incident, Norris said, Babbitt falsely claimed to authorities that the collisions had occurred when Norris repeatedly backed her vehicle into Babbitt’s SUV. But when the case went to trial, Norris said, Babbitt changed her story, admitting under oath that she had collided with Norris’ vehicle but portraying it as an accident.

No transcript from the hearing was available, but Norris said the lawyer defending Babbitt made repeated references to her employment at the local nuclear power plant and years of service, which included deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Babbitt served on active duty with the U.S. Air Force, and then in the reserves and the Air National Guard until 2016. A judge acquitted Babbitt on the criminal charges.

In February 2017, records show Norris asked for and received a second peace order against Ashli Babbitt, citing ongoing harassment and stalking. In a handwritten petition, Norris says that Babbitt had recently followed her home from work and that she had also received repeated calls in the middle of the night from an unlisted number.

“I lived in fear because I didn’t know what she was capable of,” Norris told the AP. “I was constantly looking over my shoulder.”

In 2019, Norris filed a personal injury lawsuit against Ashli Babbitt, seeking $74,500 in damages, and she said she settled out of court with Babbitt’s insurance carrier for an undisclosed sum.

By then, Aaron and Ashli had moved to California, where she grew up and still had family. Timothy McEntee was granted a divorce in Maryland in May 2019. McEntee did not respond to voicemails and messages left at his home.

Ashli posted on Facebook that she married Aaron Babbitt the following month. Records show the couple owned a pool cleaning service with Ashli’s brother. When a reporter visited the business the day after her death, a large sign on the locked door declared the building to be “Mask Free Autonomous Zone Known as America.”

In the year since Babbitt’s death, Trump and many Republicans in Congress have sought to recast the Jan. 6 insurrection as nonviolent — a contention directly contradicted by hours of video footage and the public testimony of Capitol Police officers, 140 of whom were injured in the melee.

In his video on Babbitt’s birthday, Trump also said: “Together we grieve her terrible loss. There was no reason Ashli should have lost her life that day. We must all demand justice for Ashli and her family, so on this solemn occasion as we celebrate her life, we renew our call for a fair and nonpartisan investigation into the death of Ashli Babbitt.”

Aaron Babbitt’s lawyer, Terrell Roberts III, did not respond to numerous phone messages and emails seeking comment. But in written statements to the media, he has said her shooting “was tantamount to an execution without trial.”

“Given her background as a 14-year veteran of the Air Force, it is likely that Ashli would have complied with simple verbal commands, thereby making the use of any force unnecessary,” Roberts said.

The Capitol Police officer who shot Babbitt, Lt. Michael Byrd, said in a televised interview in August that he fired as a “last resort.” When he pulled the trigger, he said, he had no idea whether the person jumping through the window was armed.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia cleared Byrd of wrongdoing in April, concluding that he acted in self-defense and in the defense of members of Congress. The U.S. Capitol Police announced in August that they had also cleared Byrd.

“I tried to wait as long as I could,” Byrd said. “I hoped and prayed no one tried to enter through those doors. But their failure to comply required me to take the appropriate action to save the lives of members of Congress and myself and my fellow officers.”

Associated Press correspondent Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.


Since Jan. 6, the pro-Trump internet has descended into infighting over money and followers

Drew Harwell

Monday, January 3, 2022

The far-right firebrands and conspiracy theorists of the pro-Trump internet have a new enemy: each other.

QAnon devotees are livid at their former hero Michael Flynn for accurately calling their jumbled credo “total nonsense.” Donald Trump superfans have voiced a sense of betrayal because the former president, booed for getting a coronavirus immunization booster, has become a “vaccine salesman.” And attorney Lin Wood seems mad at pretty much everyone, including former allies on the scattered “elite strike-force team” investigating nonexistent mass voter fraud.

After months of failing to disprove the reality of Trump’s 2020 presidential election loss, some of the internet’s most popular right-wing provocateurs are grappling with the pressures of restless audiences, saturated markets, ongoing investigations and millions of dollars in legal bills.

The result is a chaotic melodrama, playing out via secretly recorded phone calls, personal attacks in podcasts, and a seemingly endless stream of posts on Twitter, Gab and Telegram calling their rivals Satanists, communists, pedophiles or “pay-triots” – money-grubbing grifters exploiting the cause.

The infighting reflects the diminishing financial rewards for the merchants of right-wing disinformation, whose battles center not on policy or doctrine but on the treasures of online fame: viewer donations and subscriptions; paid appearances at rallies and conferences; and crowds of followers to buy their books and merchandise.

But it also reflects a broader confusion in the year since QAnon’s faceless nonsense-peddler, Q, went mysteriously silent.

Without Q’s cryptic messages, influencers who once hung on Q’s every “drop” have started fighting to “grab the throne to become the new point person for the movement,” said Sara Aniano, a Monmouth University graduate student of communication studying far-right rhetoric and conspiracy theories on social media.

“In the absence of a president like Trump and in the absence of a figure like Q, there’s this void where nobody knows who to follow,” Aniano said. “At one point it seemed like Q was gospel. Now there’s a million different bibles, and no one knows which one is most accurate.”

The cage match kicked off late in November when Kyle Rittenhouse, acquitted of all charges after fatally shooting two men at a protest last year in Kenosha, Wis., told Fox News host that his former attorneys, including Wood, had exploited his jail time to boost their fundraising “for their own benefit, not trying to set me free.”

Wood has since snapped back at his 18-year-old former client, wondering aloud in recent messages on the chat service Telegram: Could his life be “literally under the supervision and control of a ‘director?’ Whoever ‘Kyle’ is, pray for him.”

The feud carved a major rift between Wood and his former compatriots in the pro-Trump “stop the steal” campaign, with an embattled Wood attacking Rittenhouse supporters including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.; Flynn, a former national security adviser to Trump; Sidney Powell, Flynn’s attorney; and Patrick Byrne, the Overstock founder who became a major “stop the steal” financier.

Each faction has accused the opposing side of betraying the pro-Trump cause or misusing the millions of dollars in funds that have gone to groups such as Powell’s Defending the Republic.

Wood has posted recordings of his phone calls with Byrne, who can be heard saying that Wood is “a little kooky,” and Flynn, a QAnon icon who can be heard telling Wood that QAnon’s mix of extremist conspiracy theories was actually bogus “nonsense” or a “CIA operation.”

Beyond the infighting, both sides are also staring down the potential for major financial damage in court. A federal judge last month ordered Wood and Powell to pay roughly $175,000 in legal fees for their “historic and profound abuse of the judicial process” in suing to overturn the 2020 presidential election. And Powell and others face potentially billions of dollars in damages as a result of defamation lawsuits filed by Dominion Voting Systems, which they falsely accused of helping to rig the 2020 race.

To help cover their legal bills, the factions have set up online merchandise shops targeting their most loyal followers. Fans of Powell’s bogus conspiracy theory can, for instance, buy a four-pack set of “Release the Kraken: Defending the Republic” drink tumblers from her website for $80. On Flynn’s newly launched website, fans can buy “General Flynn: #FightLikeAFlynn” women’s racerback tank tops for $30. And Wood’s online store sells $64.99 “#FightBack” unisex hoodies; the fleece, a listing says, feels like “wearing a soft, fluffy cloud.”

Their arguments increasingly resemble the performative clashes of pro wrestling, said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher and author of a book on QAnon: full of flashy, marketable story lines of heroes conquering their enemies. The drama, he said, gives the influencers a way to keep their audiences angry and engaged while also offering them a chance to prove their loyalty by buying stuff.

QAnon is “the easiest money that you could possibly make if you don’t have a conscience, but there’s only a certain number of people you can fleece. It’s not a renewable resource,” said Rothschild (who has no relation to the famous banking family targeted in antisemitic conspiracy theories).

“The fact that they’re all mad at each other, that’s all a byproduct of the fact that they’re just desperate for money, and there’s only a certain amount,” he added. So now, he said, the us-vs.-them argument for many QAnon influencers is: “They’re the pedophiles, the Freemasons, the illuminati. I’m the truth-teller. I’m the one who’s trying to save the world.”

Although Trump is only indirectly connected to some of the increasingly personal battles, many of them show clear signs of his playbook: winning attention and overwhelming the enemy through constant, uninhibited attacks. And the animosity has begun filtering down to mid-level influencers with smaller followings, who have become divided on the basis of their loyalty to the warring camps. Some have begun marking their allegiances on Telegram with special emoji in their usernames: Three stars, for instance, means you’re on team Flynn. (His opponents haven’t agreed on a symbol yet, though some have used the three stars as a punchline.)

QAnon’s credibility didn’t exactly climb when its long-heralded promise – that Trump’s long-secret war against a Satan-worshiping “deep state” would culminate in a righteous apocalyptic battle known as the “storm” – collapsed last January. As Joe Biden entered the White House, Trump took refuge in Palm Beach, Fla., and most of Trump’s enemies were left unvanquished.

Many believers have sought since then to distance themselves from the QAnon name, which they’ve called a “moniker created by [them] to attack us,” though Q is still their central prophet, devotees still call themselves “anons” and the theories remain the same.

Fans of Flynn have argued that, in his caught-on-tape conversation, he was merely disavowing the QAnon media creation, not them, leaving the sanctity of Q intact. On Telegram last month, Wood said that while “Q speaks truth” in the fight against “pedophilia and satanic rituals,” the broader QAnon movement is “likely a Deep State operation.”

But the movement has far from evaporated. Dozens of candidates who have boosted QAnon talking points are running for Congress this year, including Ron Watkins, the longtime administrator of Q’s favorite message board, 8kun, (who, as one unproven theory argues, was perhaps once even Q himself.) And Q-inspired offshoots are promoting anti-vaccine propaganda and other bizarre theories: One group in Dallas has camped out for weeks awaiting the second coming of President John F. Kennedy’s long-dead son.

The power vacuum has played out as Trump and his allies have fought not only an investigation into pro-Trump rioters’ storming of the U.S. Capitol but separate inquiries into his family business. And Trump himself has had to go on defense. After he promoted coronavirus vaccines as having “saved tens of millions of lives worldwide,” some of his most ardently supportive online communities pushed to brand him a traitor.

In an anonymous poll posted to QAnon-boosting Telegram channels asking whether Trump’s receipt of a booster shot made them comfortable getting vaccinated, 97 percent of the more than 19,000 votes said no. Andrew Torba, the head of Gab, a social network popular with the far right, posted that Trump’s promotion of “his biggest ‘accomplishment,’ the death jab,” was “so cringe.”

With Facebook and Twitter banning many Q-related accounts, much of the QAnon discussion has played out in the past year on social media platforms popular with far-right sympathizers. But even those online communities have found themselves in conflict with one another.

In posts to his 3 million Gab followers, Torba has criticized Gettr, launched by Trump’s longtime aide Jason Miller, and Rumble, which Torba said was run by “Canadian blockheads” pushing “the establishment right’s second subversion attempt of the true alternative tech movement.”

Torba has also shared clips of conspiracy theorist Jones saying he would “declare war” on Trump over his support for vaccines. Jones – facing his own financial pressures after a judge ruled in November that he must pay damages to families of children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which he falsely called a hoax – has recently started hawking a membership-only video series for “navigating the apocalypse” for $222.75.

Even beyond QAnon, many in Trump’s orbit appear eager to settle scores and wage long-running feuds. Trump confidant Roger Stone, pardoned by Trump after his 2019 conviction on a charge of lying to Congress, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on Dec. 17 after being subpoenaed as part of the House probe into the Jan. 6 riot.

But two days later, on Telegram, he claimed that former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon – an old foe he accused of lying about him during the 2019 trial – “gave the order to breach” the Capitol “to curry favor” with an uninterested Trump. (In his next post, Stone advertised his online fundraising auction, in which he’s offering autographed rocks for $50.)

The cage match, coupled with months of pro-Trump prophecies falling apart, appears to have worn down some QAnon promoters. One influencer who recently voiced some exasperation with the “annoying” Wood-vs.-Flynn drama, “SQvage DQwg,” said he was considering leaving Telegram and his roughly 50,000 followers “if nothing happens publicly before the end of this year. The time is now. We are tired. Exhausted. Hold the Line doesn’t have the same meaning anymore.”

But many of the fights still show the tried-and-true signatures of modern-media storytelling: the bitter rivalries and gossip that online audiences often can’t help watching.

“It’s become almost like reality TV, and what makes great reality TV is conflict,” Aniano said. “Conflict creates great content. And these people are content creators, if nothing else.”


A supporter of President Donald Trump carries a Confederate battle flag on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol near the entrance to the Senate after breaching security defenses, in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. A portrait of abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who was savagely beaten on the Senate floor after delivering a speech criticizing slavery in 1856, hangs above the couch. REUTERS/Mike Theiler TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RC2K2L9T6BWB

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CPE

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