On Sept. 18, hundreds of supporters were supposed to turn out in front of the U.S. Capitol in support of the insurrectionists who stormed that same building. A crowd did form, but the majority of those there were reporters eager to get in on the story of an event that seemed made for a photoshoot, more posturing than rally.
Matt Braynard, the one-time 2016 Trump campaign staffer who lasted a mere five months on the job, led the “Justice for J6” rally, taking to the podium to tell the smattering of attendees and sea of press that they were there in support of “nonviolent” Jan. 6 defendants and that this was a nonpartisan issue. He announced to the crowd that he had asked attendees who had shown up with a political flag to take it down and that they had obliged. He declined to note that the aforementioned flag had shown the symbol of the extremist Three Percenters militia group.
But the real message Braynard—who has rubbed shoulders with white nationalists and joined Rudy Giuliani in making false allegations of voter fraud—wanted the mainstream press to write is that the Jan. 6 defendants are “political prisoners.” As he told Vice News in August, “We’re going to push back against the phony narrative that there was an insurrection…. And demand justice for these political prisoners.”
Braynard had completed a speaking tour to different media outlets beforehand to spread the message, and as my former colleague Jared Holt noted after Saturday’s rally, “the nation’s top newsrooms [gave] a C-list Trump activist more publicity than money can buy.”
Despite Braynard’s interviews with numerous outlets, there was never any evidence this rally was going to be large and the threat of violence, slim. Most chatter from extremist groups about the rally discouraged people from attending, suggesting it was a “false flag” event orchestrated by the feds.
As Right Wing Watch reported prior to the event, “There’s a few reasons we may not see the crowd the nation’s capital is bracing for: the pressure is too hot on the groups most loyal to Trump; the optics aren’t great—most GOP leaders want to play down the failed insurrection and move on ahead of the 2022 midterms; and the host of the rally, Matt Braynard, is seen as a C-list influencer in Trump world.”
An analysis from Advance Democracy, Inc., a nonprofit research center, found far less chatter about the “Justice for J6” rally than there was ahead of the Jan. 6 so-called Stop the Steal rally. Examining Twitter mentions of the rally from Sept. 10-14, ADI found that the majority of posts did not support the event. Prior to Jan. 6, thousands of tweets called for violence; in the lead up to Saturday’s event, only eight tweets mentioning the rally promoted violence—but against those who considered attending the event. From Gab to TikTok to Patriots.win, much of the social media about the rally suggested or debated whether it was a “false flag” event.
Despite no evidence that the rally would compare to the so-called Stop the Steal rally prior to the insurrection, news media offered plenty of coverage. From Sept. 1-14, ADI found that 262 articles mentioned the “Justice for J6” rally. More than 80 percent were from center and center left outlets, while right-wing outlets like One America News Network, Newsmax, and Fox News accounted for less than 13 percent.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Capitol Police, which was roundly criticized for botching the response to the Jan. 6 rally, brought the riot gear out in a show of force, marching through the crowd of reporters before lining up in front of the Capitol, ready for photos. They would have no extremists to clash with on Saturday.
The Proud Boys, a hate group prominent during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, discouraged its members from attending prior to the event, suggesting it was a honeypot for federal agents. In a post to Telegram Saturday morning, the group reiterated its stance and called for its group to focus its efforts locally:
Just a reminder that we will not be attending any rally in DC this weekend. These events are obvious traps. The federal government would love for us to fall for them, so that they can use the inevitable fabricated violence against the political prisoners of January 6th. We will instead be using that time to improve our local communities and build a better future for our friends and families. We suggest you do the same. If you insist on going to a rally, which is right. As always, be smart and stay safe. God bless you all.
That didn’t mean the group didn’t offer support to the Trump loyalists who stormed the Capitol; rather the heat was just too much to appear in person. The main Proud Boys account proceeded to share the GiveSendGo fundraising campaigns for those Proud Boys members who were arrested and face federal charges.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that such a smattering of attendees means that the right-wing movement is in disarray or in retreat. But the right-wing movement is simply focusing elsewhere, and as the main Proud Boys account noted, looking local. Ignoring the C-list celebrity in their midst, extremists are focused on refusing vaccine mandates, shunning mask and public health requirements, preventing schools from teaching about race or racism, expanding Christian nationalism, and rolling back voting rights and reproductive rights.