One of the unfortunate knee-jerk habits these days of extremely political people is to insist that any violence caused by people on their own side must actually be a false-flag conspiracy of their political opponents in disguise. This was a surprisingly common effort among progressives during the George Floyd riots (as I touched on at the time), with major voices insisting that all of the violence was really the work of white supremacist or right-wing agitators, and we now have people in right-wing media and politics (including Matt Gaetz on the House floor) claiming that today’s break-ins, looting, and violence at the Capitol was actually the work of Antifa and other left-wing infiltrators.
At the individual level, of course, it is always possible — even likely if it’s a large enough crowd — that a violent crowd includes some number of people who are looking to discredit the cause being protested for. It is also true, in nearly every case, that any violent crowd is only a subset of a larger, peaceful crowd protesting for the same thing. Neither of these facts matters — not Wednesday, not in the case of this spring and summer’s riots, and not in other cases of mob violence. The obvious, logical inference, which experience regularly bears out, is that the bulk of any violent mob are who they say they are, which in this case means Trump loyalists. That seems more obviously true here, as a number of the rioters at the Capitol cheerfully gave out their names to reporters, and can be easily checked out. Large numbers of arrests would help, as they helped this summer, in pinning down who was behind the mayhem. And there should be such arrests: anyone who breached the Capitol ought to spend time in federal prison.
Another theme going around at the opposite end of the spectrum is that the rioters were white supremacists. Now, white supremacists tend to be the most extreme of extremely political people and quicker to violence and lawbreaking, so undoubtedly they were more represented among the rioters than among the general run of peaceable protesters on Wednesday. Some of the known white supremacist groups were clearly active in organizing ahead of this. But fundamentally, the presence of white supremacists is neither here nor there. Because the “Stop the Steal” rallies were not about white supremacy, the problem they present is in no way limited to white supremacists, and is not entirely driven by them, either. It is simply a cause to which some of them have attached themselves, and focusing on their involvement risks misdiagnosing the nature of the problem.
There are bad actors in any political movement, and feeding them a steady stream of lies and conspiracy theories about a stolen election destroying our democracy is more likely to activate those people and swell their ranks with people who have been newly radicalized. Once you set that dynamic in motion, some of the nation’s existing bad actors on all sides — white supremacists, Antifa, what have you — will always come along to make their usual trouble. But the hunt to find a few false-flaggers in a mob of the most deplorable segment of Trump supporters is a red herring. Even if some of them were there, it does not change what happened, or why. And if you’re trying to sell the theory that left-wingers were a driving force in all this, you better have hard evidence for that, because you are swimming against the tide of simple common sense, basic human experience, and what we can see with our own eyes.