False Flags, the Capitol Riot and The Need to Believe
Over the last two weeks, since supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building leaving five dead, many injured and enormous amounts of damage, a non-trivial fraction of his supporters have been trying to find ways to downplay it. In the immediate aftermath, they claimed there was no riot and that people thought they could just walk in. This fell apart when footage of rioters smashing down gates, climbing walls and beating police officers came out. They then claimed (and still claim to some extent) that it wasn’t that bad. Sure, some people were violent, but most were just there to protest. This has also fallen apart as more video and documentation has emerged. But the ultimate excuse, one made since the day it happened, has been that these weren’t supporters of Donald Trump at all. Or, at least, the violent ones were not. No, these were actually Antifa activists and Leftists carrying out a “false flag” operation to make Donald Trump look bad.
There is river of evidence that this claim is not true, which I’ll get into. But I did want to dive into this subject a bit deeper because “false flag” claims have bedeviled our political discourse lately, with any political violence whatsoever — from the violence that emerged from some of the George Floyd protests to the Capitol Riot — being blamed on nefarious agents of the other side or the always-popular-but-rarely-actually-seen “anarchists”. And they have been a staple of conspiracy theories for decades. There have been particularly poisonous versions connected to mass shootings (especially Sandy Hook) and 9/11 that have not illuminated anything but caused immense pain for the families of victims.
So, let’s walk a bit.
On the night of February 27, 1933, a Berlin fire station received a call that the Reichstag — the home of the Imperial Diet — was on fire. By the time they reached the building, the lower house was in flames. After two hours, the building was gutted. The police searched the ruin and found flammable materials along with Marinus van der Lubbe, a disabled Dutch communist. He confessed to setting the fire and was eventually executed for it. But Hitler claimed a much wider Communist conspiracy and convinced von Hindenburg to issue a decree that suspended civil liberties, led to mass arrests of Communists and paved the path to the Nazis’ one-party rule.
The Reichstag Fire has become a Godwin’s Law for conspiracy theories. As an online discussion of conspiracy theories grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Reichstag Fire approaches 1. It is often cited as an example of a so-called “false flag” operation; with the idea being that it was the Nazis who set the Reichstag Fire so that they would have an excuse to purge the communists. And it is held up as an example of how wicked governments or evil groups of people can do something awful, blame their political opponents for it and then use the ensuing outrage to advance a political agenda.
The problem is … it’s not really clear that the Reichstag was a false flag. In fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.
Van der Lubbe wasn’t some innocent patsy. He was an ardent Communist who some contemporaneous accounts indicate had issues with mental illness and past attempts at arson. For many years, the idea that the attack was faked wasn’t even on most historians’ radar. The debate was over whether it was a part of a wider Communist conspiracy (as Hitler alleged) or van der Lubbe acted alone (which is the general consensus). In recent decades, there has been more talk on the idea that the fire was a false flag, with the common view being that the was goaded into it or set a small fire while nefarious Nazi agents set the more massive fire that would destroy the building. William Schirer, in his masterful Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, relayed a story of Goring boasting about his involvement (Goring would deny this at his trial). But, in the end, the idea that the Reichstag fire was a false flag is based on a few offhand remarks of people long dead and the extreme convenience of the attack to Hitler’s agenda.1
It’s not like the Nazis shied away from such deceptions. World War II started when they faked a border skirmish with Poland (Germany’s ally, Japan, also faked an attack at Mukden to start a war with China). But there’s no convincing evidence that the Reichstag Fire was anything but what it claimed to be. While it was convenient to Hitler, I think it only provided him with the excuse he needed. Had the Reichstag Fire not happened, he would have found something to indicate a vast Communist conspiracy.
And that’s an important thing to remember when we dive into the fever swamp that is conspiracy theories. The more you look at the claims of “false flag” operations, the less there is to them. You can find occasional real examples, some of which I’ll mention. But these tend to be crude, easily discovered and rare. The vast majority of the time, when something horrible is done, the obvious culprit is, in fact, the culprit.
The term “false flag” comes from military history. In the past, an accepted tactic was to fly the flag of a neutral or friendly country in order to infiltrate or least get close to enemy lines. The ethics of false flags are tricky. A false flag of surrender, for example, is a war crime. But, in the Age of Sail, flying a false flag by privateers was fine so long as they unfurled their true flag when the fighting began. A great example of this is Aubrey’s plan to capture the Acheron in Master and Commander. The Surprise pretends to be a whaling vessel to lure the French ship close, then unfurls her true colors before attacking. As an historical example, Operation Grief sent German soldiers in Allied uniforms to sew confusion behind enemy lines. This was not considered a war crime because the units removed their disguises before engaging in combat.
But the term has become somewhat nebulous in modern times. In reading up on false flag claims, I found it being used from things like traditional false flag ops like Operation Grief to foreign support for coups like the 1973 Chilean one to sinister agents perpetrating horrible acts in order to blame political enemies for them. The latter is what conspiracy theorists are usually on about when they talk about “false flags”, with the supposed conspiracy behind the Reichstag Fire being the prime example.
There are real-life examples of such things, even setting the Reichstag aside. But they are exceedingly rare. Some are perpetrated by governments; some by groups; and some by individuals.
On August 19, 1991, bombs exploded at a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish cemetery in Zagreb. The attack was blamed on Croatian extremists and used by the Yugoslav government to claim that the nascent Croatian government, then fighting for its independence, was dominated by fascists. Some weeks later, Croatian forces captured documents showing that the attack was actually planned and carried out by the Yugoslav Air Force’s Counterintelligence Service to discredit the Croatian government.
The historical record contains some very real and very documented instances of governments using false flag operations to discredit their enemies. The CIA, for example, carried out attacks in Iran in the 1950s posing as Communists although it’s not clear how big that operation was. Israel was once caught planning to bomb targets in Egypt to blame on the Muslim Brotherhood. Operation Northwoods was a plan by our own government to stage terrorist attacks which they would then blame on Cuba. Kennedy nixed the idea.
Conspiracy theorists deeply love the idea of government-created false flags. It supports their ideas of vast webs of nefarious powerful conspirators whispering in the shadows and controlling our every move. And it also has some historical support. But the number of government-run false flag operations is still relatively small. It’s small for a very simple reason: government conspiracies involve the government.
No, I’m not going all libertarian extremist on you here. The problem with government is that it is big and bureaucratized. So, everything it does involves large numbers of people and is relentlessly documented. And both of those are inimical to keeping secrets.2 We don’t have to speculate about Operation Northwoods because we had blabbermouths and documents that told us all about it. The government of Croatia didn’t have to sift through shaky websites and slow-motion video to figure out that the SOK bombed them; they found actual indisputable proof.
As noted above, the most recent and prominent claims of “false flag” operations are connected to 9/11 and mass shootings, with the allegation being that these were carried out by our own government. But do the conspiracy theorists have the kind of witnesses and documentation that revealed Operation Northwoods? No. They have some shaky videos. They have some “experts” who don’t know what they’re talking about. They have inferences and rumors. And they also have a lot traumatized families of the actual victims.
The idea of a government-run false flag in the Capital Riot has not come up very much because the government is, for at least the next few hours, run by Donald Trump. And even he isn’t dumb enough to fake an attack by his own supporters.3 But the lack of an effort to blame this on a shadowy government conspiracy is very telling. Because a government role in false flag conspiracy theories is almost universal. If the attack had happened after the inauguration of Biden, we would undoubtedly be hearing that it was orchestrated by the Feds. That a government hand in the Capitol riot is not being countenanced by the conspiracy theorists reveals that false flag conspiracy theories are not about facts, information or even paranoia. They are about an agenda. They are about a narrative. They are about fixing blame on the conspiracy theorist’s preferred boogeyman and/or exonerating whatever party he wishes to absolve. The interest of the conspiracy theorists is rarely to get to the truth; sometimes it’s to divert or attach blame to the desired parties. In this case, shifting blame from Donald Trump and his supporters to someone else, preferably someone leftist. Since they can’t depict Biden as their boogeyman (yet) and they won’t depict Trump as their boogeyman, Antifa has been plugged into that role.
As is often the case with this subject, definitions get murky. When I use the word false flag, I’m generally referring to someone actively doing an awful thing so that it can blamed on someone else. But a related theory is that sometimes awful things are allowed to happen in order to advance a political goal.
9/11 conspiracy theories are a classic example of this, where some of the less deranged conspiracy theorists say that while our government didn’t carry out the attacks, they allowed them to happen so they could invade Iraq. Many conspiracy theorists think FDR let the Pearl Harbor attack happen so that we could get involved in World War II.4 These “malign neglect” theories are popular for the same reasons the malign action ones are: they countenance a vast conspiracy that is playing four-dimensional chess.5
I mention this because if you wanted to play conspiracy theory with the Capitol Riot, you already have the elements to support the idea of malign neglect. There are indications that some Capitol police allowed rioters in or did little to stop them. And many were allowed to leave without being detained. But this theory has not gained much traction among the Capital Conspiracy Kooks for two reasons. First, most Capitol Police did their best to stop the chaos, at the cost of one killed and dozens injured. And second, the idea that Capitol Police teamed up with Antifa to discredit Trump is a bridge too far even for the craziest Trumpists.
On May 9, 1998, a bomb went off at a hotel in Cannes, injuring four people. Leaflets found at the scene bore the Star of David and promised to destroy Islam. However, this Zionist claim of responsibility turned out to be one of the rare instances of an actual false flag. In reality, the group that bombed the hotel was the French and European Nationalist Party, a neo-Nazi group that hoped to stoke hatred between French Muslims and Jews.
We are now getting closer to what the Capital Conspiracy Kooks are claiming: an actual attack was perpetrated, and the goal was to discredit an organization the attackers hated. The agents were not a government but a small terrorist group. Instances of false flag attacks by small terror groups are even rarer than government-run false flags because individual groups rarely have the resources to carry such a thing off. But there are, in fact, isolated instances of events similar to the ones the Capitol Conspiracy Kooks describe.
So, does this lend credence to the Capitol Conspiracy Kooks? No.
Notice something important about the PFNE attack: the attackers weren’t caught in the act. One of the elements of false flag attacks is trying to create a sense of mystery. A bomb goes off, no one is seen, but you find a pamphlet or a claim of responsibility from a group the real perpetrators detest. This is not a tactic that can be used with open attacks in daylight with cameras running.
Let’s think about some events that are not called “false flags” as such but represent the same ethos: fake hate crimes. Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a few prominent hate crimes committed that, in the end, turned out to be faked, often by someone who wanted attention but sometimes by folks who wanted to discredit their political foes. Jussie Smollett falsely alleged Trump supporters attacked him on the streets of Chicago; a gay member of a liberal church vandalized his own building to make Trump supporters look bad; Ashley Todd faked an attack by Obama supporters; Maria Daly staged a burglary she could blame on Black Lives Matter; a German man attacked a bus of soccer players in a bizarre scheme to sell the team’s stock short and tried to blame it on Islamic terrorists.
Again, what do these all have in common? No direct witnesses. Indirect evidence. Vandalism, leaflets, slogans.
But the thing is … actual fringe and terrorist organizations usually want credit for the things they do. They want to rally other outsiders to their cause. When Al-Queda claims responsibility for an attack, they’re not doing so out of a sense of civic duty. They’re doing it to recruit. They’re doing it to tell other maniacs out there, “See?! This is what we can do. You can be a part of this.”
We can debate whether Antifa is a terrorist organization, a disorganized group of idiots or a throwback 1980s New Wave band. But they have never been shy about claiming credit for things. They boast about it. They post videos about it. They recruit based on it. The same goes for Right Wing thugs like the Proud Boys.
Was the Capitol Riot in any way like the false flag attack of PFNE? Was it any way like the fake hate crimes? Did it happen under cover of darkness, committed by shadowy figures who left graffiti or pamphlets describing their (false) motives?
Of course not. It was committed in broad daylight. It was committed by people who were photographed, filmed and are now being identified by the FBI. The Right Wing kooks who actually carried out the attack … well, they did what extremists usually do. They bragged about it, posted pictures about it, live-streamed it and have now confessed to it. Because that’s what fringe groups do.
ARRESTED: The man who use the American flag to beat a police officer at Capitol riot has been charged with a federal crime. He is Peter Stager of Arkansas. He’s on video saying: “Death is the only remedy for what’s in that building.”https://t.co/yImwags0MJpic.twitter.com/UImXK5B0Co
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) January 14, 2021
It’s even more glaringly obvious that isn’t a false flag when you consider the events leading up to it. The rally that preceded the attack was called for by Trump himself and planned by his supporters, not shadowy Antifa figures laying a clever trap. In the build-up to it, Right Wing agitators were openly talking about violence, to the point where the FBI and Capitol police asked for more help six different times leading up to January 6. The people seen in videos and pictures were not mystery figures in masks; many had well-established social media presences as Right Wing kooks. And again, they literally live-streamed the moment they stormed the Capitol. And are confessing and boasting about what they did.
So, I will not sit here and claim that false flag operations are a fiction. But I will claim that they are extremely rare. And they follow certain patterns and meet certain characteristics. They are most often used by unethical governments. When discovered, they are accompanied by a trove of evidence. And they are staged to deliberately create ambiguity so that it’s not clear exactly what happened until someone steps forward and says, “You know who did this? SNOWBALL!”
The Capitol Riot in no way resembles any of the real life false flags ops I looked into. Because it wasn’t a false flag. And … the people that are pushing this idea know it.
And that is the ultimate point I’m trying to get at here. The gripping hand when it comes to conspiracy theories about shadowy organizations making false flag attacks is how unnecessary such attacks would be. Governments don’t need to cook up shadowy conspiracies with obvious patsies to do awful things to cajole the public into policies they want. If they wait around long enough, something bad will happen on its own.
Over the last decade, the biggest and vilest “false flag” conspiracy theories have centered around mass shootings. Fringe kooks claim that unbelievably awful events like Sandy Hook or the Pulse were carefully orchestrated with “crisis actors” so that the government would seize our guns. But … why? Democrats don’t need to have crisis actors and trained gunmen to make the case for gun control. If you support gun control, 30,000 deaths and the occasional mass shooting every year is already enough to make the case. If you don’t, one more death (or a few dozen) is not going to convince you otherwise. Mass shooting have motivated legislation in other countries, but not in this one. Not with our culture.
Yes, it’s true, after 9/11, the feds pushed through a lot of policies they had wanted for a long time (sneak-and-peak surveillance, roving wiretaps, etc.). But if it hadn’t been 9/11, it would have been something.
Why would Antifa even bother to stage the Capitol Riot6? Trump’s behavior over the last few months and the increasingly deranged claims of his most ardent supporters were already awful enough. It wasn’t Antifa that made Lin Wood threaten Mike Pence’s life on Twitter. It wasn’t Antifa that made Trump push conspiracy theories and rile up a crowd of his supporters. It wasn’t Antifa that posted pictures of guns on social media.
False flags are popular among conspiracy theorists for…well, the same reasons all conspiracy theories are: they allow us to deny the evidence of our own eyes. More deeply, they allow us to pretend that awful things can’t be done by regular people or that singularly horrifying events can’t come at us out of the blue.7 The idea that you can be at work, minding your own business, when a jumbo jet slams into your building because someone’s pissed off about a conflict 7,000 miles away is terrifying. But if it’s all part of a plan … if that plan is enacted by your political opponents or Corporate America or whomever your villain is … well, that’s a little less scary. It makes it more like a story. And the good guys always win in stories!
A monster getting a bunch of weapons, penetrating a school and deliberately murdering tiny children is one of the most horrifying things we’ve seen. And the idea that this just … happened … is terrifying. But if it’s all part of a plan … if we can prevent it just by stopping the right people … if those people, conveniently enough, happen to be our political opponents … well, that’s a bit better.8
The Capitol Riot conspiracy theories are not really comparable to the Sandy Hook or 9/11 conspiracy theories in vileness. But they flow from the same vein — a desire to disbelieve. A need to think that certain truths are not true. Many Trump supporters don’t want to believe that they attached themselves to a dangerously unstable man who cultivated and supported a lunatic fringe among his supporters. They can’t accept that an outbreak violence was going to inevitably happen under these conditions. They don’t want to believe that conservatives, salt-of-the-Earth mom-and-pop conservatives, could do something like storm the capital. Nah, that’s Antifa. It’s liberals who do that. Weren’t you watching the news last summer?
But good people do bad things all the time, especially when you get them into a mass. There are very few genuinely evil people in our world. Almost all of the evil in our world is done by … just folks. Folks who get swept up in the moment, folks who allow their sense of reason to be distorted, folks who just follow orders and do what they’re told, folks who’ve talked themselves into believing that their acts are justified.
Conspiracy theories are what Bill James once called a Bullshit Dump. It’s a place of vague theory and half-knowledge that allows us to reconcile what we know to be true with what we want to be true. We know that terrorists killed a bunch of our citizens; we know that a monster murdered a bunch of children; we know that a lone gunman killed JFK. But we don’t want it to be true. We want to wake up and find that it was all a dream — that the towers still stand, that the children still live, that JFK had a second term. Conspiracy theories and false flags may not make it all a dream; but they allow us to at least pretend that it’s not quite real.
The idea that the Capitol Riot was carried out by Antifa is on a lesser scale than other conspiracy theories. But it is no less delusional and no less toxic. It is an attempt to deny the dangerous road the Trump movement went down. It is long past time that the Right Wing faced up to facts.
- And, I would also note, the need of Communists to pretend it was so.
- Dave Barry once joked that he knew there were no aliens at Roswell because, if there were, we’d get daily leaks about it and Congressional floor flights over whose district the Federal Dead Alien facility got built in.
- Although I’m sure someone out there is claiming Trump got his supporters to attack the Capitol so he could blame Antifa.
- This never made sense to me since a failed attack on Pearl would have justified our entry into the war just as much as a successful attack.
- As opposed to the reality of large organizations, which is more like a four-dimensional solo game of Twister.
- That is, assuming an organization as chaotic and nebulous as Antifa could plan such a massive false flag op, which they can’t.
- Jesse Walker has written a very good book on this subject called The United States of Paranoia.
- Even better for the conspiracy theorists is if you can wish away such horror by claiming those children never existed, no matter how much trauma you may inflict upon their parents.