Marjorie Taylor Greene and Mike Lee get Jan. 6 footage — but trying to blame the FBI could backfire

No surprise from a guy who took the lead defending Donald Trump‘s attempted coup, but the newly appointed Speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., moved quickly to abuse his power in an effort to spread lies and disinformation. He’s pretending to do so under the guise of “transparency,” by releasing over 40,000 hours of security footage from the January 6 insurrection online this week. Of course, Johnson does not actually expect people to watch the footage, especially as pretty much every American already knows what happened that day: attempted murder, vandalism, bashing cops, and limitless jackassery from people dumb enough to listen to Donald Trump. But of course, the MAGA movement — now indistinguishable from the Republican Party — wants to rewrite history in gaslight, claiming that our lying eyes deceived us and that the Capitol riot was merely a tickle.

The purpose of this release is not subtle. Propagandists can soon cherry-pick a few moments where rioters were not beating up cops, and pretend that somehow negates the rest of the time that they were beating up cops. As I noted in Tuesday’s newsletter, the tactic is familiar to anyone who has survived a trash boyfriend, the kind who whined, “Why don’t you talk about all the days I didn’t cheat on you?”

Relitigating a day that makes Republicans look like fascists and cowards doesn’t seem like the smartest electoral strategy. But the GOP now is primarily composed of professional trolls who cannot turn down an opportunity to spew noxious gases online. Sure enough, some of the most annoying people in Congress tweeted conspiracy theories about the footage in language so fevered you could practically hear them panting as they typed. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a man who is only spared from being the biggest dweeb in the Senate by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retweeted an image of a Capitol rioter with captions falsely implying he was an undercover FBI agent. “I can’t wait to ask FBI Director Christopher Wray about this at our next oversight hearing,” Lee wrote, with a junior high student’s enthusiasm for being annoying to adults.

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And, of course, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., repeated the same obviously silly story, because the woman never met a conspiracy theory she doesn’t like.

NBC News reporter Ryan Reilly immediately debunked the lie.

In a shocking twist, this managed to embarrass Greene just enough that she deleted the screenshot and rewrote the tweet to erase the mention of a badge. (The above tweet is her original draft.) Of course, she’s still shameless enough to continue pushing the flat-out falsehood that January 6 was anything but the Trump-inspired effort to overthrow an election it was. But Lee was able to do what was previously unthinkable, and exhibit more brazen dishonesty than Greene, by doubling down and bickering with former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., when she correctly noted he’s a “nutball conspiracy theorist.”

What’s crucial to understand here is that there is almost no chance that Lee believes a single word of the conspiracy theory. Nor do most, if any, of his followers. The person who originally tweeted the image, after all, is another convicted rioter, Derrick Evans. We can say with certainty that the convicted rioters know they are not, in fact, secret FBI agents. Nor did Lee apologize when confronted with irrefutable evidence that the man in the photo is Kevin Lyons, who has admitted his guilt and is sitting in prison for his crime. Instead, a spokesperson for Lee reiterated the implication that there’s an FBI conspiracy afoot.

But mostly, we know Lee is lying because, while Lee may not be the smartest man, almost no one is stupid enough to believe this “FBI did it” conspiracy theory. This isn’t like those conspiracy theories of old, where people actually believed it, like claims about the moon landing being fake or JFK being murdered by the mob 60 years ago today. MAGA conspiracy theories are, more often than not, a collective exercise in knowing B.S. The point of these conspiracy theories is not to believe them, but to sucker liberals into go-nowhere arguments with disingenuous actors. The end game is to overwhelm their opposition with so many lies and bizarre digressions that people eventually just get exhausted and give up.

Taking advantage of people’s goodwill and presumption of good faith is a tactic that reactionary forces have used forever. Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in 1945 about how fascists would bait decent people into faux-debates with similar tactics, noting that they “know that their remarks are frivolous” so they “seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.” The hope is that you, the well-meaning liberal, will take at face value their claim to sincerely believe the FBI did January 6. And that you, in your earnest desire for a better level of discourse, will provide time and energy to trying to reason with the unreasonable. But of course, people like Lee don’t believe their own words and are simply playing games. The end goal is to “win” the argument by wearing everyone else down into submission.

The good news is that it doesn’t seem to be working. It’s hard to measure these things, but the online reaction showed that folks seemed aware that arguing with Lee is beneath their dignity. Some, like Reilly, offered the correcting facts, but mostly people avoided getting sucked into “debates” over whether or not things like photographic evidence, court records, and the insurrectionist’s own confession count as evidence. Most importantly, the tone and tenor of the response showed that people grasp that Lee is not confused, but rather lying. So the focus was mostly on calling out what he’s doing, and indicating that no one is fooled.

This matters, because the trolling tactics that Sartre identified nearly eight decades ago only have power if people give in to them. This isn’t an “ignore the trolls and they go away” argument, as we know that never works. But one can choose not to argue on a troll’s turf. It’s not up for “debate” whether January 6 happened or why it happened. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar. By keeping these realities in mind, the public discussion can shift away from disingenuous rabbit holes and back to what matters: How people like Lee and Greene are actively fighting to destroy American democracy. If people can stick with it, there’s a strong chance the effort to relitigate January 6 will backfire on Republicans. In the end, they may have wished they’d pushed it down the memory hole, instead of constantly reminding people what happened that day.

As an added bonus, there’s one group of people who may actually bother to watch the Capitol footage, a group Johnson probably didn’t consider when he elected to release the tapes: The sedition hunters.

A community of online sleuths has spent the past couple of years combing through the publicly available photos and videos of the riot and using social media profiles and facial recognition software to figure out the identities of the insurrectionists. As Reilly wrote in his book on the subject, their all-volunteer work has already led to hundreds of arrests by the FBI. Still, the work isn’t done and there are many rioters that the sedition hunters haven’t yet been able to identify. Being handed a ton more footage will probably aid them in digging up more names and addresses. So for the short-term goal of making noise on Twitter, MAGA leaders likely just ensured that the news will have a regular injection of stories reminding voters of Jan. 6 and how bad it gets when Donald Trump is in charge.

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