Almost immediately after news broke that explosive devices had been sent to a variety of President Donald Trump’s critics, a “false flag” conspiracy theory began to percolate on the far right, emerging from fringe message boards and gaining traction on social media before edging into the mainstream press.
The theory, as many on the far right posited without evidence, was that the bombs were the work of a Democrat who was hoping to make Republicans and Trump look bad a few days before the 2018 midterm election.
But with the arrest Friday of Cesar Sayoc Jr., a suspect who vehemently supported Trump, some conservatives are calling for a dose of reality.
“There was every reason to doubt that the bomber was a legitimate Trump supporter before we knew anything about him,” tweeted Matt Walsh, a widely followed writer for The Daily Wire, a conservative news outlet. “But now that we do have info on him, it would be kooky conspiracy theory territory to stick with the ‘false flag’ hypothesis. Clearly the guy is just a nut.”
Other popular conservatives echoed those sentiments, including Republican political strategist Rick Wilson, Fox News host Howard Kurtz and Scott Adams, a cartoonist-turned-political commentator.
“My prediction was that the bomber is an older, crazy Republican,” Adams tweeted. “How is the false flag hypothesis looking?”
The blowback comes after “false flag” claims related to the explosive devices were widely embraced by the far right and some mainstream conservatives, joined by the president’s son.
The fringe message board 4chan and Reddit’s largest pro-Trump community first pushed what’s known as “false flag” theories after a spate of explosive devices were sent to a group of Trump’s critics. Those theories also propagated throughout Twitter, where Donald Trump Jr. liked a tweet that claimed "fake bombs made to scare and pick up blue sympathy vote.”
The tweet, posted by the account @USANews007, included the hashtags #FakeBombHoax and #VoteRed. Trump Jr. liked the tweet at around 4:50 p.m. ET Thursday.
The “false flag” narrative has become a common response by the far right to major news events, and proponents claim the events were either manipulated or made up to push a liberal agenda. Such claims continue to follow the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Parkland High School, for instance.
The conspiracy theory that the explosive devices were a liberal plot was amplified by prominent conservative voices on Wednesday and Thursday, including the pundit Ann Coulter, the actor James Woods and others.
Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs used the expression “fake bombs” in a tweet sent by his verified Twitter account Thursday morning. He later deleted the tweet.
“Fake news--fake bombs,” Dobbs wrote. "Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery?”
Radio host Rush Limbaugh postulated on his radio show that the attacks may not be from a Republican, because “Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing.”
“Wouldn't it serve… if you're a Democrat operative to make it look like the Republicans are a bunch of insane lunatics and have some mobsters on their side as well?” Limbaugh asked.
The president tweeted on Friday that the “‘bomb’ stuff” and media coverage had taken away from Republican momentum. At an event on Friday at the White House recognizing young African-American Republicans, Trump praised Candace Owens, the communications director for conservative student group Turning Point USA.
In a now-deleted tweet, Owens insinuated that the explosive devices and the migrant caravan were a liberal conspiracy.
“Caravans, fake bomb threats — these leftists are going ALL OUT for midterms,” Owens tweeted.
The theories reached cable news, with security analyst Juliette Kayyem saying on CNN that the theory was “possible” but not necessarily “probable.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., also said on CNN: “I don’t know that we can rule out that it was some kind of false flag.”
Fox News guests offered a similar perspective. Fox News host Brian Kilmeade asked Chad Jenkins, a former FBI agent, about his belief that the bombs could be a “false flag.”
“We have the worst right-wing bomb maker in history, or we have a false flag operation where it’s a left-wing type of operation to create hysteria and to play on the hearts and minds of those who would be independents or undecideds come the midterms,” Jenkins said.
Former New York Police Department officer Vince Guastamacchia said on Fox News he believed the fact that the bombs did not go off were an indication of a “false flag.”
Guastamacchia then asked if he could elaborate on that statement, to which hosts Steve Doocy and Ainsely Earhardt said yes.
“I really think that the left feels they're losing on many levels, and I feel they're planting these devices just for -- to play the role of the victim,” Guastamacchia said.
Despite evidence that Sayoc appeared to be one of themselves — an angry, even disturbed conspiracy theorist — 4chan posters remained mostly unconvinced, arguing that the stickers on the suspect’s van that showed support for Trump and put targets over the faces of prominent Trump critics were just part of the left-wing conspiracy. (Some said that was obvious because the stickers hadn’t been faded by the sun and thus were newly attached.)
David French, a senior writer at the conservative magazine National Review, tweeted that he didn’t expect any admission of error by those pushing the “false flag” theory.
“One of the reasons why I doubt we'll get a single significant apology from the ‘false flag’ crowd. . . The brand of the worst part of the Trumpist right is never, ever, ever backing down in any way -- even if ‘fighting’ means being really, really stupid in public,” French tweeted.