In Trump’s Jan. 6 recast, Capitol attackers become heroes

Calvin Woodward, Colleen Long and David Klepper
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A cocktail of propaganda, conspiracy theory and disinformation — of the kind intoxicating to the masses in the darkest turns of history — is fueling delusion over the agonies of Jan. 6.

Hate is “love.” Violence is “peace.” The pro-Donald Trump attackers are patriots.

Months after the then-president’s supporters stormed the Capitol that winter day, Trump and his acolytes are taking this revisionism to a new and dangerous place — one of martyrs and warlike heroes, and of revenge. It’s a place where cries of “blue lives matter” have transformed into shouts of “f–- the blue.”

The fact inversion about the siege is the latest in Trump’s contorted oeuvre of the “big lie” compendium, the most specious of which is that the election was stolen from him, when it was not.

It is rooted in the formula of potent propaganda through the ages: Say it loud, say it often, say it with the heft of political power behind you, and people will believe.

Techniques of glorifying your side and demonizing the other with skewed information, if not outright lies, have been in play at least since World War I, when the U.S. government roused sentiment for the cause with posters depicting the German soldier as an ape-human with a willowy American maiden in his clutches. That paled next to what followed years later with Nazi Germany’s terrifying use of propaganda for the slaughter and subjugation of millions.

Whether the deception feeds warmongering or merely a defeated president’s ego, some of the methods are the same, like telling the same fabrication over and over until it sticks.

Master of repetition: Trump perfected the art of repetition — about the “election hoax,” the “rigged election” and “massive voter fraud,” with none of those accusations substantiated in the dozens of court cases and official post-election audits but ingrained nonetheless among his supporters.

Four years ago, Trump appeared to equate white supremacists and racial justice protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his comment that there were “very fine people, on both sides.”

This time, in this telling, the very fine people on Jan. 6 were on one side: his.

For the other side — the police, overwhelmed for hours and bloodied in the insurrection — Trump only has an in-your-face question that doubles as a four-word conspiracy theory: “Who killed Ashli Babbitt?”

Those words have become a viral mantra meant to elevate Babbitt as a righteous martyr in the cause of liberty. They ricochet around the mainline social media platforms where Trump is banned for spreading misinformation but his followers still commiserate. The woman died from a police officer’s bullet fired as she tried to climb through the jagged glass of a smashed window toward the House chamber during the riot.

Babbitt has become the face of the insurrection — emblazoned on T-shirts and cheered in basement ballrooms at hotels around the country where conspiracy theorists gather to vent. In Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood, flyers are plastered on street lamps and building facades telling of an unveiling of a statue of Babbitt in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, on July 27, at “high noon.”

Shifting accounts: Trump and many Republicans have cycled through various characterizations of the insurrection, each iteration unlike the previous. The attackers were said to be leftist antifa followers in disguise. Then they were said to be overexcited tourists. Now they are heralded as foot soldiers for freedom. Each iteration has required Americans to ignore the rage they saw on their screens, and some lawmakers to ignore that they were among the shocked targets of the attackers that day. The hunted now praise the hunters.

Taken together, the revisionists and their believers are “swimming in a vast sea of nonsense,” said Brendan Buck, a former top aide to onetime House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

That sea’s currents are familiar to historians who study what makes some conspiracy theories and propa­ganda persuasive.

‘Sticking your head in the sand’: Once people buy into the lies, there can be no convincing them they aren’t true, said Dolores Albarracin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of a coming book, “Creating Conspiracy Beliefs: How Our Thoughts are Shaped.”

Despite the well-documented facts about what happened on Jan. 6, believers often dismiss anyone who tries to set them straight by claiming they are either duped or part of the conspiracy, Albarracin said.

“The belief contains a device that protects it,” she said. “Nothing can invalidate the conspiracy theory. Trying to refute the theory proves the theory and signals you as a conspirator.”

DJ Peterson, an expert on authoritarianism and propaganda, said that in an online world awash in information and a real world riven by polarization, “you pick and choose what you want to believe, including sticking your head in the sand.”

Trump, Peterson said, excels at amplifying claims that galvanize his core supporters and turn them against other Americans.