American right-wing media have now fully reached the “waving the bloody shirt” phase of their mind-bending efforts to help Republicans avoid accountability for the Jan. 6 insurrection—the phase in which violent perpetrators are magically transformed into hapless victims, and the victims into malicious and malignant evildoers.
Republican Congressman Elise Stefanik of New York joined the parade on Fox News this week, wielding classic “bloody shirt” rhetoric in an exchange with Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan: “We need a broad-scoped commission that’s focused on political violence. What the Pelosi sham commission is focused on is only January 6 and trying to shame over 70 million Americans who are standing up for constitutional and election integrity issues.”
Indeed, Stefanik spent the week defending the insurrectionists by attacking Democrats. A few days before, she had joined the right-wing chorus (including Jordan) blaming Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for what they labeled “the so-called insurrection.”
"The American people deserve to know the truth. That Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility, as speaker of the House, for the tragedy that occurred on January 6," Stefanik told a press conference. Republican Congressman Liz Cheney tartly observed that she “would be deeply ashamed of myself” for such remarks.
Media Matters’ Eric Kleefeld recently assembled a nearly comprehensive rundown of the many ways that right-wing media have gone all-in on gaslighting the public about what happened on Jan. 6, as well as their culpability for spreading the very same disinformation about the election beforehand (as well as afterward) that was the fuel for the insurrection itself.
The gaslighting included the runup to Jan. 6, particularly the two months following the election when Fox News and an array of right-wing pundits produced a torrent of disinformation suggesting groundlessly that the presidential election results were fraudulent, and that moreover elected Republicans held statutory power to halt the ballot-counting process, another rank falsehood.
It continued even during the insurrection itself. The far-right Gateway Pundit website referred to the rioters as “patriots,” while an Alex Jones guest declared: “This is what happens when Americans rise up.” On Fox News, anchor Bret Baier opined: “It's not like it's a siege. ... It seems like they are protesting.” A Fox reporter on the scene credulously repeated insurrectionists’ claims: “Aside from the things that were broken getting into the Capitol in terms of doors, they say there is no vandalism taking place.”
Immediately after the insurrection, the gaslighting intensified, with a completely different version of events: It wasn’t really Trump supporters who did it, it was antifa leftists. Gateway Pundit claimed that “at least one bus load of antifa goons infiltrated the Trump rally as part of a false flag operation,” while Fox’s Laura Ingraham speculated that, because she had “never seen Trump rally attendees wearing helmets” and body armor, it seemed unlikely that the insurrectionists were really Trump supporters. (Ingraham was obviously unacquainted with the kind of gear Proud Boys and Oath Keepers commonly wear at their events.)
The Sunday news talk shows were shortly dominated by Republicans claiming that the election had been stolen as a way to deflect discussion of the insurrection. In short order, the conversation turned from false denials about the nature of the violence to an attack on the motives of the people who were demanding accountability.
Tucker Carlson—who had first argued that “it was not an insurrection” in mid-January, less than two weeks after the event—led this particular parade, with a post-insurrection rant claiming that Democrats were intent on exploiting the Jan. 6 events for political gain and to criminalize their political enemies:
Got that? Vote the wrong way and you are a jihadi. You thought you were an American citizen with rights and just a different view. But no, you’re a jihadi. And we’re going to treat you the way we did those radicals after 9/11. The way we treated Bin Laden. Get in line, pal. This is a war on terror.
… Keep in mind, they’re talking about American citizens here. They’re talking about you. But nobody seems to notice or care.
Carlson went on to claim that the First Amendment had been “effectively suspended,” and that “we’re clearly living under some form of martial law at the moment.”
By May, the denial that Jan. 6 had been an insurrection had spread to Congress, with Republican House members comparing the rioters to ordinary tourists visiting the Capitol. It similarly became the favorite response of an array of right-wing pundits, as well as among the protesters who turned up outside the D.C. Corrections Center where most of the arrested insurrectionists are being held.
Accordingly, Carlson leapt to the fore in claiming victimhood at the hands of the new “war on terror” that right-wing pundits claimed President Biden’s crackdown on white-nationalist violence constituted. Piling falsehood upon falsehood, Carlson simultaneously argued that right-wing extremists were not a threat while claiming that in fact, the National Security Agency was spying on him.
This claim shortly mutated into a new accusation: Namely, that the real cause for the Jan. 6 insurrection was an FBI plot using informants to manipulate Trump fans into committing acts of violence. This conspiracy was quickly picked up not only by far-right Congressmen Marjorie Taylor Green and Matt Gaetz, but also onetime progressive hero Glenn Greenwald, who devoted a long screed on Substack to the claim. The problem, however, was that the theory was built on a crude misunderstanding of how federal informant programs, as well as the process used by federal prosecutors to obtain cooperating witnesses in cases like the Jan. 6 prosecutions.
This clear departure from reality—and the insistence on inverting it on its head—for right-wing media was, as we have seen, largely fueled by the increasingly radicalized nature of the right-wing audience for outfits such as Fox News, which corrected course after its accurate but wildly unpopular election-night reportage caused its ratings to plunge. The gaslighting that now fills its programming is a reflection of its audience’s demands, suggesting that the right’s increasing radicalization is now stuck in an unstoppable feedback loop.
The final component in “bloody shirt” narrative entails demonizing and discrediting the actual victims of and rendering them into bullies, thugs, and would-be tyrants. After the recent opening hearing of the House Jan. 6 commission, Fox contributor Julie Kelly tweeted out an attack on Michael Fanone, the Capitol Police officer who was brutalized during the insurrection and testified before the panel, in which she made fun of him for crying. Kelly dismissed him as a “crisis actor,” adding that “he has many tattoos.”
In a similar vein, right-wing pundit Matt Walsh sneered at Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois—one of only two Republicans on the Jan. 6 commission—for his tears during his remarks at the hearing: “Men should not cry in public. It is unmanly and dishonorable.”
But the focus of the demonization, as Stefanik’s remarks suggest, has been on Pelosi. Two of the Republican congressmen initially appointed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to the Jan. 6 commission and then removed by Pelosi—Jim Jordan and Jim Banks—have claimed that the speaker herself was to blame for the breakdown in security that led to the insurrection.
“Why wasn’t there a proper security presence?” Jordan asked. “And that’s a question that … only the speaker of the United States House of Representatives can answer.”
But in fact, as CNN notes: “The Speaker of the House is not in charge of Capitol security. That's the responsibility of the Capitol Police Board, which oversees the US Capitol Police and approves requests for National Guard assistance.”
Moreover, the D.C. National Guard has a sole commander: The sitting president, which at the time was Donald Trump. Its website explains that “the Commanding General of the D.C. National Guard is subordinate solely to the President of the United States. This authority to activate the D.C. National Guard has been delegated, by the President, to the Secretary of Defense and further delegated to the Secretary of the Army. The D.C. National Guard is the only National Guard unit, out of all of the 54 states and territories, which reports only to the President.”
That hasn’t prevented right-wing pundits from trying to concoct an image of Pelosi as the secret overseer of the insurrection, apparently with the intent of eventually imprisoning all Trump supporters and Republicans.
Calling her “Nancy the Insurrectionist,” Ingraham told her Fox News audience that Democrats are engaging in a plan to take total control of the nation’s politics: "They're following Nancy Pelosi and her efforts to poison the well, to accuse Republicans of fascism and otherwise drive their opponents from public life."
Far-right cartoonist Ben Garrison concocted a caricature version of the “Gulag Archipelosi,” with a grim, dingy prison cell jammed with Jan. 6 insurrections wearing “Trump Won” T-shirts and miserable expressions, overseen by a Nazi-esque House Speaker (while Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn chides readers: “I warned you!”).
Turning the insurrectionists into victims and martyrs was the intent of a publicity stunt by Greene, Gaetz, and other far-right Congress members on Thursday, when they turned up at the D.C. Corrections Center demanding to be allowed inside to see the Jan. 6 prisoners. They were turned away, which infuriated Greene, who told Real America’s Voice: “We were completely rejected, and we were told that we were trespassing. They locked us out! They locked the door and wouldn’t let us back in!”
“I know that the people there, just from what little we saw from the outside, they’re being treated worse there than the bloodthirsty terrorists at Guantanamo,” Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas told reporters.
This is how the age-old “waving the bloody shirt” trope has always worked: Invert reality on its head, claiming innocence of violent intent, shifting the blame for violence onto the victims, always taking the rhetorical offensive. Thus, the bullies become victims, and the victims bullies. So far, it has worked every time.