Unraveling 'Unite the Right' conspiracy theories

Immediately after the deadly “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August 11 and 12, far-fetched conspiracy theories blossomed on the internet.

The entire demonstration was a “false flag” meant to turn public opinion against the racist “alt-right”; the white supremacists who marched and fought in the streets of Charlottesville were “crisis actors”; the driver of the Dodge Challenger that plowed into a crowd, killing anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, was actually a left-wing anti-fascist activist; Jason Kessler, the primary organizer of Unite the Right, was a far-left plant…

The conspiracy theories, varied and inconsistent but with a few central themes, were perpetuated by some of the usual suspects — Alex Jones and Infowars, Gateway Pundit and other extreme-right news sites as well as the online cesspools of 4chan and Reddit — but some of the falsehoods found purchase with more mainstream figures, like the conservative pundit and author (and recent recipient of a presidential pardon) Dinesh D’Souza and a slate of Republican congressmen. And among conspiracy theorists and the racist “alt-right,” the conspiracies have become a multi-headed hydra, impossible to kill.

The facts are this: On the night of Friday, August 11, 2017, white supremacists and neo-Nazis carrying fiery tiki torches marched on the University of Virginia campus chanting “Jews will not replace us” along with the Nazi slogan “blood and soil!” and made monkey noises at black counter-protesters. The next day, after the planned white supremacist rally was declared unlawful by authorities, a car alleged to have been driven by James Alex Fields, Jr., sped into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heyer. Fields faces a first-degree state murder charge as well as federal hate crimes charges — making him eligible for the death penalty — and other criminal counts, along with a civil lawsuit.

After a lawsuit was filed against Unite the Right participants and organizers on behalf of a group of residents and businesses in Charlottesville, several militia groups and white supremacist organizations have agreed to refrain from taking part in future large-scale protests in Charlottesville. In early July, a judge ruled that a separate lawsuit against defendants including Kessler, “crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell, former neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party leader Matthew Heimbach and other prominent white supremacists could proceed.

But despite the preponderance of evidence driving the criminal charges and civil lawsuits, conspiracy theories about Unite the Right continue to fester.

Within 24 hours of Heyer’s death on August 12, the usual suspects were declaring that Unite the Right and the violence in Charlottesville were directly attributable to the “deep state” and/or George Soros, the billionaire financier who fills the role of bad (Jewish) guy in multitudinous far-right conspiracy theories.

Alex Jones of Infowars alleged that the torchlit march and subsequent violent street fighting at Unite the Right was a “false flag” operation — a false flag being a terrorist attack staged by the government (or “deep state” operatives) to direct hostility at the supposed perpetrator.

The supposed white supremacists were actors, Jones alleged — the actors being either anti-fascist (antifa) activists or Jewish actors, “like [the] cast of Seinfeld or like Howard Stern in a Nazi outfit,” as Jones described a supposed Nazi he’d seen at a previous protest. “They almost got like little curly hair down, and they’re just up there heiling Hitler. You can tell they are totally uncomfortable, they are totally scared, and it’s all just meant to create the clash.”

Reddit and 4chan quickly followed Jones’s lead, and another facet of the false flag theory emerged: Jason Kessler, the primary organizer of Unite the Right, was a liberal double-agent, actually an Obama-supporting leftist, a “deep state operative” himself, according to one news outlet. This theory sprung from information in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Extremist File on Kessler, which noted “rumors abound on white nationalist forums that Kessler’s ideological pedigree before 2016 was less than pure and seem to point to involvement in the Occupy movement and past support for President Obama.”

The false flag theory spread quickly online via some of the far right and alt-right’s social media figureheads. Pizzagate conspiracy promoter and rape apologist Mike Cernovich asserted that the left initiated violence in Charlottesville to instigate civil war. Jack Posobiec, another Pizzagate believer, called Unite the Right “a deep state [plot] to remove Trump allies in the WH and accelerate their coup.”

The Gateway Pundit, another far-right news outlet, ran with the Kessler-is-a-liberal storyline, prompting longtime Trump adviser and Infowars contributor Roger Stone to tweet, “Oops ! Charlottesville ‘White Supremacist’ was an Obama Supporter/Occupy protestor [sic] #fishy #falseflag #SorosOp.” Breitbart followed The Gateway Pundit’s lead, and D’Souza tweeted out its story, commenting, “Could it be that the organizer of the #Charlottesville rally is a left-wing fascist pretending to be a right-winger?” and followed with a tweet saying, “This suggests the whole rally may have been staged to feed the mainstream media’s big lie that racism & fascism are on the right.”

Then the congressmen joined the conspiracy chorus.

Texas Republican Rep. Louis Gohmert appeared on the Fox Business Network and told host Ashley Webster he wanted an investigation regarding Charlottesville. “I think the Democrats — I mean this needs an investigation… This is being driven by forces of evil that are beyond what normal people can think about. How do you have instances of people with KKK shirts and Black Lives Matter shirts getting off the same bus? I mean, somebody’s stoking this…” He followed up with a tweet demanding an independent counsel be appointed to investigate.

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California joined in, telling the San Francisco Chronicle “It’s all baloney,” because a former “Hillary and Bernie supporter” (Kessler) organized the rally in Charlottesville. “It was a setup for these dumb Civil War re-enactors,” Rohrabacher told the Chronicle. “It was left-wingers who were manipulating them in order to have this confrontation,” “to put our president on the spot.”

Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar piled on as well, telling Vice News, “Maybe [the rally] was created by the left. Because, let’s look at the person that actually started the rally. It’s come to our attention that this is a person from Occupy Wall Street that was an Obama sympathizer.” Gosar also said Unite the Right was backed by Soros, and told a CNN reporter in October 2017 “proof will be coming” that Soros was behind Unite the Right.

Meanwhile, Alex Jones, Infowars, Gateway Pundit and others had found a new supposed collaborator to implicate in the false flag operation.

Brennan Gilmore, a Foreign Service officer who once worked as chief of staff to a Democratic congressman, filmed the Dodge Challenger plowing into the crowd of protesters in Charlottesville on August 12, and posted the video online, subsequently giving interviews to a slew of media outlets.

When the extreme right noticed Gilmore’s background — State Department employee and former Democratic operative — Infowars and Gateway Pundit insisted Gilmore couldn’t have recorded the video by chance, he must have been working for the CIA and have helped stage the attack that killed Heyer.

Gilmore is suing Jones, Jim Hoft of Gateway Pundit, former Florida Representative Allen West and others for defamation resulting from their accusations.

Beyond the false flag theory, other conspiratorial tendrils regarding events at Charlottesville emerged. One, alleged by news site YourNewsWire, and picked up at length in a self-published book titled Political Theater in Charlottesville: Faux Terrorism in Three Acts Produced by Leftist Zealots, alleges that Charlottesville law enforcement were given a “stand down” order and told to bring the racists and the anti-racist protesters together to instigate a race war.

Though a report examining the events in Charlottesville did blame police for flawed planning and coordination that “produced disastrous results,” and should have prevented much of the violence at Unite the Right, the notion that police were told to stand down or to push rival groups together has been meticulously debunked by Snopes.

Heyer’s death in downtown Charlottesville prompted its own whirlwind of false speculation. Many white supremacist and neo-Nazi online outlets declared the 32-year-old anti-racist activist and paralegal had died of a heart attack rather than injuries caused by the Dodge Challenger smashing into the crowd of protesters.

Though no autopsy report has been released, a spokesperson for the Central District Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia, told former Newsweek reporter Michael Edison Hayden that “after more than two months of examinations, it was determined that Heyer died of ‘blunt force trauma to the torso,’ and that her death has been ruled a homicide.”

Even Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, was sucked into the conspiratorial tornado. The book Political Theater in Charlottesville and various online conspiracists have pushed the theory that Bro is a crisis actor who also played a role as a grieving mother of a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting. (The editors of Political Theater have previously published a book titled Nobody Died at Sandy Hook, as well as another titled And Nobody Died in Boston, Either.)

Actor Scott Baio retweeted a photo montage perpetuating the theory that Bro is a crisis actor who was also at Sandy Hook, before deleting it and apologizing in a later tweet.

The man alleged to have driven the Dodge Challenger that killed Heyer, James Alex Fields, Jr., is at the center of his own conspiracy vortex. Nearly immediately after the accident, some websites were inaccurately reporting another man had driven the Challenger, described as “a known antifa/anti Trump supporter,” he was actually one of the car’s previous owners.

Though that was quickly debunked, some websites, including YourNewsWire, reported that James Alex Fields, Jr., was a Clinton supporter and antifa activist on the payroll of Soros. This despite one of Fields’ high school teachers telling the Cincinnati Enquirer Fields’ beliefs were “very much along the lines of the neo-Nazi movement,” and photographs showing Fields at Unite the Right with a contingent from the racist group Vanguard America.

Then there is the theory that Fields has been framed by the left. Former Traditionalist Worker Party leader and disgraced neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach declared Fields a “prisoner of war” in January 2018. “It is our God given duty and responsibility to not only memorialize the dead, but to stand arm-in-arm with our Prisoners of War throughout their entire sentence,” Heimbach wrote in a blog post.

Andrew Anglin of neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer wrote of Fields, “They are attempting to crucify him based solely on his political beliefs. Here’s the deal: James Fields did nothing wrong.”

The conspiracy theories don’t end there; they’re as elaborate as you could wish for, especially in the Political Theater in Charlottesville book where you’ll find stuntmen, Freemasons and the Illuminati. In the end, these fabulists’ tales prove the strength of the link between the conspiratorial extreme right (Jones, Infowars, Gateway Pundit, etc) and the racist “alt-right.”

Photo illustration by Southern Poverty Law Center.

Comments, suggestions or tips? Send them to HWeditor@splcenter.org and follow us on Twitter @Hatewatch.