[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]
To hear the conspiracy-ridden far right tell it, the American antifascist movement (which only a few months ago none of them seem to have been aware of) has become so vast, powerful and insidious that it threatens to overthrow the American government through an overnight revolution that entails the beheadings of white Christians. And the massacre at that church in Texas was just the first attack.
Or something like that.
The most recent episode of far-right fearmongering about anti-Donald Trump demonstrations has revolved around an anti-fascist organization’s efforts to stage rallies at locations around the country on November 4. According to an array of conspiracy theorists — led, naturally, by Alex Jones and his Infowars operation, as well as the far-right John Birch Society — these rallies were likely to become violent attacks on white Christians, the beginning of a “civil war” intended to overthrow the Trump presidency.
The planned rallies were factual: Refuse Fascism, a small organization with modest reach but associated with the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, was advertising its plans to hold anti-Trump rallies in a number of cities around the country on November 4. The organization bought a full-page ad in the New York Times and set up a website devoted to the event, which was never billed as anything other than an entirely peaceful protest.
Viewed through the prism of right-wing conspiracism, however, the rallies were quickly demonized as potentially violent uprisings intended to spark a “civil war” against the government. And in response, a number of self-described “patriots” threatened to create violence on their own.
“Honestly, I’m happy,” one YouTuber told his audience. “Dude, we’ve been on the verge of the great war for what seems like forever and I’m just ready to get it going.”
According to one theory, the Department of Defense was planning secret exercises designed to support the mass “antifa” uprising. Another claimed that violent “antifa” thugs were planning to behead all white Christian parents. A panoply of fantasies were spun up around the supposed “civil war,” including claims that attacks on police officers were also planned.
Then, after none of these attacks or violence materialized on November 4, the hysteria rapidly shifted into overdrive when, on November 5, a Texas man walked into his local church in Sutherland Springs and murdered 26 people. Unsurprisingly, the same conspiracy mills that had been fearmongering about “antifa” violence began promoting utterly spurious evidence that the shooter had been an antifascist shouting Communist slogans.
The Oath Keepers, in the meantime, urged people to remain armed at all times and to insist on being permitted to bring their guns to church. Founder Stewart Rhodes urged his followers to expect “a wave of left wing terrorism targeting conservatives, libertarians, Christians, police, military, veterans, etc (anyone the left considers on the right or part of the system). Expect it. Prepare yourselves in case this does lead to a full blown civil war.”
This is not the first time conspiracist “Patriot” Trump supporters have come unglued over a Refuse Fascism protest. Back in January, many of the same people called out the “Patriot” troops for Trump’s inauguration, claiming that a mass of “Communist” protesters were plotting a coup to prevent the newly elected president from taking the oath.
Among the people beating this drum were Alex Jones and his Infowars operation, as well as the Oath Keepers and their founder, Rhodes. (This was before the word “antifa” had become the newest word in their lexicon as the object of their deepest loathing; it did not appear in any of the pre-inauguration fearmongering about Refuse Fascism.)
So on January 20, a collection of bikers, conspiracists and militiamen came to Washington, D.C., ostensibly to prevent violence, but they did not encounter the massive coup attempt that they had anticipated; instead, Refuse Fascism’s rallies wound up attracting a couple dozen people and resulted in zero rioting. Their protest was overwhelmed in any event the next day by the hundreds of thousands of people participating in the long-organized Women’s March, which again was thoroughly nonviolent.
Neither Jones nor the Oath Keepers seemed to recall that previous outcome while whipping up hysteria over Refuse Fascism’s latest protests. Jones’ Infowars began hyping the supposed “threat” posed by antifascists shortly after the inauguration, and began intensifying over the spring as clashes between black-clad “antifa” protesters and pro-Trump “alt-right” rallygoers intensified.
Following a Refuse Fascism rally in Los Angeles in late September, where marchers carried a banner reading “November 4 It Begins,” Infowars reporter Paul Joseph Watson filed a piece headlined “Antifa Plans ‘Civil War’ To Overthrow Government,” warning that “antifa” groups had targeted November 4 as a day of nationwide civil unrest and violence, “part of a plot to start a ‘civil war’.”
Soon the John Birch Society, one of the hoariest of conspiracy-theory mills, began chiming in; their CEO, Arthur Thompson, posted a video warning society members about the looming “antifa” violence and offering helpful tips about what they could do about it.
Jones began stepping up the hysteria with fresh theories. He claimed that financier George Soros had poured $18 billion in resources into the operation, and that the protests would be led by Women’s March organizer Linda Sasour, who he described as “the pro-sexual-mutilation Muslim.”
He also claimed that his critics accused him of “making up” the events, and then held up Refuse Fascism’s full-page ad in the New York Times as “proof,” though he neglected to note that the ad buy had nothing to do with the Times’ news operations and its existence only proved that the group had enough money to pay for the ad.
Amateur conspiracy theorists began piling on. A man named Jordan Peltz who self-identified as a “deputy” (although he is seen wearing a badge from the “United States Warrant Service,” a private company) posted a popular YouTube video (with over a million views) warning about the nefarious “antifa” plans: “They will start off by attacking police officers, first responders, anybody that’s in uniform,” he said. “And after they have disrupted that enough in the nation, and us first responders are literally going everywhere, trying to resolve things, they will then go after the citizens and the people and the government and all of that. So if you’re white, you’re a Trump supporter, you’re a Nazi then, to them. And it will be open game on you.”
“Make sure you got enough ammo, make sure your guns are ready,” another YouTuber advised in a popular clip. “You have to understand these are vicious, vicious people. Your life means nothing to them. In fact, if you’re a white man, you don’t deserve to live.”
In the right-wing blogosphere and on social media, the hysteria reached ludicrous levels when the blog Gateway Pundit published a post claiming that “antifa” radicals were planning to “behead white parents and small business owners.” It quickly emergedthat the Twitter post being cited as the basis for a claim was, in fact, a fairly undisguised attempt to mock the conspiracy theorists and nothing more.
The Gateway Pundit writer acknowledged to a reporter that the basis for his story was a joke, but defended it nonetheless as proof of a double standard in how the media treats extreme rhetoric.
When November 4 arrived, Infowars reporters spread out across the country to report on the Refuse Fascism rallies, with a warning from Jones at the website: “Attention, devil worshipers. Attention meth heads. Attention antifa scum. We’re fully aware of the globalists funding your operation to push for a violent revolution in America.”However, they found that, just as predicted, only a handful of protesters showed up for them, and that moreover no violence or civil war was in the offing. This meant the conspiracy theorists who warned of a mass uprising – ignoring critics who predicted the rallies would be tiny and inconsequential – then were able to claim victory.
Infowars correspondent Owen Troyer reported from Austin, Texas: “Instead of the day that Refuse Fascism and antifa started to bring down the Trump-Pence regime, no! Instead the Refuse Fascism antifa march died. They’ve been embarrassed. Their numbers are dwindling, and Trump support continues to grow.”
However, the conspiracists were reluctant to abandon their narrative, and a mass shooting the next day in Texas provided them with all the pretext they needed. A 33-year-old man named Devin Patrick Kelly went on a shooting rampage at the Sutherland Springs church he attended, killing 26 people and wounding another 20.
Infowars promptly dispatched a reporter to the scene, who described the gunman as an “atheist leftist,” concluding that “this has the makings of a social justice warrior, somebody who was out there looking for a victim or looking to be a victim, and then making all white men or the establishment his enemy.”
Watson speculated on Infowars’ YouTube channel that it was “an anti-Christian hate crime,” and that Kelly might have been on mind-altering drugs. Soon Jones was indulging in similar on-air speculation that the Texas shooter was the first in a series of “deep state” attacks using people whose minds were being manipulated for nefarious purposes by such drugs.
“You are going to see more attacks like the Texas shooting that may be double-barbed – what double-barbed means is that they have a specific point, and they have a specific blackmail characteristics for people within the government, and the second barb of it is to carry out political agendas like gun control,” one of his guests told Jones.
For Stewart Rhodes, the event mainly was an opportunity to remind his Oath Keepers to pack weapons everywhere they go. “Go armed in church!” he admonished. “If your pastor has an idiotic “policy” of no guns in church, give him till this next Sunday to change that policy (and teach him why he must) or go find a new pastor and a new church. Do NOT let yourself be disarmed in church. How many fathers and husbands died unarmed in that church while they watched women and children slaughtered around them?”
In reality, investigators have been clear that Kelly had no political agenda and was acting out of anger over a domestic dispute. The rest of the conspiracist right, however, has apparently now settled on a narrative that he was an “antifa member” — even though the evidence for that claim is based entirely on a spurious photo concocted by YourNewsWire, an established conspiracy mill frequently associated with a variety of misinformation.
Even though these stories have in fact been thoroughly debunked, the sites’ true believers have made clear in their comments they are ready to act. “It’s getting to the point where it’s about time for Frontier Justice,” wrote one commenter noted by BuzzFeed. “If they want to start attacking innocent people at churches it’s time to bring these people to their knees.”
“Carry everywhere now,” responded another.
“It’s absurd. Calling for a civil war?” Andy Zee, a Refuse Fascism organizer, told the Washington Post. “Pick a date for a civil war? Honestly, what do you say to this?”