As early as 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, just as the mob was taking over the Capitol building, claims that antifa had “infiltrated” the group started to go viral on Twitter. The far-right blog The Gateway Pundit insisted that a whole busload of “Antifa thugs” was on the scene. Others claimed that a well-known figure in the QAnon movement, Jake Angeli, was a “paid actor” and a secret liberal supporter of Black Lives Matter, or they labeled random photos of members of the crowd “ANTIFA supporters dressed in MAGA clothing.” By the evening, the theory had been picked up by several Republican members of Congress, including Representatives Paul Gosar of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, and Matt Gaetz of Florida. (None of these representatives’ offices returned a request for comment.)
The theory is false. There is no credible evidence of involvement by antifa, which is not an organized group and has been responsible for very little violence, while Gray and numerous other known MAGA figures actually were involved in the insurrection. But empirical reality notwithstanding, the antifa story has become a dividing line within the MAGA world this week—and a telling symbol of its internal upheaval.
Over the past two days, Trump loyalists have been bickering online over whether to take credit for and celebrate their most dramatic action yet, or distance themselves from the scene by calling up familiar conspiracy theories to explain it away. Some may genuinely believe, as they say, that paid “crisis actors” are responsible. Many don’t seem to know what they believe, or what is most savvy to present, and pivot from post to post. Still others, like Gray, are consistently frustrated and outraged that anybody on their side wouldn’t be proud of what happened Wednesday afternoon. “The blue-check conservatives, all the popular ones, put ‘1776’ in their bios and tweet about how it’s time for patriots to stand up and fight,” he told me. “Then they turn around and condemn patriots doing exactly that.”
The coalition, in other words, is experiencing a schism—and you can watch it on Twitter, or by flipping through Instagram Stories. As soon as #StopTheSteal went offline in a serious, dangerous way, everyone who had been posting about it had to choose a side, or a reality. Broadly, the Republican establishment and its voters have had to grapple with whether they want to continue claiming the party’s radical flank. Wednesday “was probably the most visceral experience of watching a political party fracture,” says Joan Donovan, the research director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “It seems to me that we’re in the midst of watching MAGA become its own movement.”
Read: When the MAGA bubble burst
The antifa rumor is unsurprising and sort of stale—a knee-jerk response at this point to anything that certain right-wing commentators see in public and don’t like. “This is such a repetitive tactic that many in the [disinformation] field don’t even track it anymore, because it’s so glaringly obvious,” Donovan told me. Nevertheless, it caught on easily—just as it did last summer, when antifa was repeatedly blamed for stoking unrest during the Black Lives Matter protests, and the summer before, when Trump first tweeted that the “Radical Left Wack Jobs” were a “major Organization of Terror.” By Wednesday evening, the Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson were on air suggesting that it was not clear how many people at the Capitol were actually Trump supporters. Ingraham also tweeted the link to a now-debunked story on the Washington Times website, which claimed that members of antifa had been identified using facial-recognition technology. (The story is now inaccessible on the Washington Times site. The site’s digital editor did not return a request for comment.)