“Lock and load!”
I started noticing The Gateway Pundit clickbait site in late 2020, when the comments sections beneath the articles in that prominent far-right news-and-conspiracy webzine were full of posts urging people to head to Washington well-armed to take back their country for then-president Donald Trump. Commenters told each other that the military would be on “our side” and would join us rather than fight us; one memorable post pointed out that the “soy boy liberals” were cowards who would run as soon as they saw their friends’ brains splattered on the wall beside them (which actually did not seem to be an unreasonable reaction). The site ran articles promoting the “Stop the Steal” rally scheduled for January 6, and the comments sections were full of people posting militaristic slogans like “the answer to 1984 is 1776!” and “lock and load!”
Of course, it seemed, none of it should be taken seriously. The commenters, judging by their posts, skewed toward senior citizenship, retired people disgruntled with the world and having time on their hands. A common refrain was “I may be old but I can still shoot!” I pictured lanky, grizzled Revolutionary War veterans carrying muskets with them to take on the US Army.
Then January 6 came along and it was no longer funny.
The comments posted on the afternoon of January 6 at first seemed triumphal – we are doing it! Then confusion set in – where is Trump? Has he betrayed us? The president, we now have reason to believe, had been furious with his Secret Service people for not allowing him to join the crowd at the Capitol Building, but at the time it seemed like he had told the people marching there that he would be with them only to scurry over to the White House and watch it all happen on television. As the election process continued and the shock of the violence at the capitol hit the public, confusion set in amongst the MAGA people as they posted their comments on the site.
Then, over the next couple of days, a new explanation coalesced amongst the comments as if sent down from on high, as perhaps it had been. MAGA people had not been violent; they were peaceful and law abiding. The violence had been caused by antifa people disguised as Trump supporters. They had been bused to the capitol where they changed into MAGA gear on arrival; they could identify each other because they wore their MAGA hats backwards. You could obviously tell they were not Trump supporters because they were skinny and wore backpacks. It was all a false flag attack, designed to make Trump supporters look like criminals.
It was as if Trump’s surrogates were retaking control of the narrative in real time, as perhaps they were.
The explanation did not stay the same. A few weeks later, it was not antifa but the FBI that had conducted the false flag operation. The problem was that it soon became hard to blame January 6 on antifa or the FBI after hundreds of Trump supporters were arrested and awaiting trial. The narrative changed again. There had never been any violence. Trump supporters had been let in through the doors by the welcoming capitol police, and had walked peacefully through the People’s House. The people in jail had been falsely arrested. The Gateway Pundit began running sanitized articles on and interviews with them, encouraging people to donate money to their legal defense funds.
All of these conflicting narratives of denial seemed to coexist, bumping against one other in real time.
A community where hate finds a home
The home of these denials, The Gateway Pundit, named after St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, began as the side project of a right-wing blogger named Jim Hoft. It has mushroomed into a multi-million-dollar business, featuring the writings of Holt and a skeleton staff that includes his twin brother and other relatives. Married recently to a man half his age who emigrated from the Philippines to be wed with him, Hoft seems an unlikely person to enrich himself from a webzine that is hostile to immigration and where homophobic slurs abound. Grumbling remarks pop up occasionally in the comments sections about how Hoft’s sexual identity is evidence that the site is “controlled opposition” – that is, an outlet created or sanctioned by the powers that be for people to let off steam, but only within set limits. Yet he would be far from the first member of a discriminated-against minority to identify with the group that others would think of as his oppressors. One can increasingly find people of mixed-race descent who identify strongly with white nationalism and become prominent figures in the movement (such as Canadian former academic Ricardo Duchesne and American Republican Congressional candidate Neil Robinson Kumar, to name a few examples).
The Gateway Pundit, or TGP as its readers like to call it, often simply refries stories from more legitimate news sites, with added right-wing snark. But it is best known for conspiracy theories, the wackier the better. Fans of A.J., as Alex Jones (radio show host and principal of the Infowars website) is affectionately known, can feel right at home here. The Trump-stoked Arizona audit of the 2020 American presidential election results was flogged daily, full of stories of such things as ultraviolet fraud-detecting machinery that would identify bamboo residue, proving that ballots had been printed in China. Each week, stories would promise “Big Developments next week!” until, finally, the audit only confirmed that Biden had won by a wider margin than originally reported. That was barely mentioned; by then, the site had skipped to new theories of fraud.
More interesting than the articles themselves are the readers’ comments. Many mainstream publications have discontinued comments sections; they tend to attract fanatical, vitriolic people, often making personal attacks and issuing threats, and the time spent moderating them can be prohibitive. The Gateway Pundit fosters free-wheeling comments sections, where fanaticism and vitriol are welcomed – within limits, albeit very wide ones. It uses a third-party service, Disqus, for its comments section, so that commenters have to abide by both the rules of the service and the rules of The Gateway Pundit’s own moderator.
Some of the limits placed by the moderator make for interesting copy in themselves. Right-wing sites tend to attract antisemitic proselytizers, and all but the most abjectly “based and red-pilled” want to avoid looking too much like the Nazi-era Der Stürmer. Knowing that, amongst its readership, words like “Jew” and “Jewish” are more likely to be used by bigots than Talmudic scholars, the site simply bans their use so that any comment that employs them is shunted to a never-ending “pending” file. This leads commenters to employ euphemisms – there are snide references to “Js” and “Jish,” to “the Juice,” to the “small hat people” and the “people who cannot be named.” The line, “to learn who rules over you, see who cannot be named” is often repeated. Other banned words and racial epithets are similarly talked around, as for example by mentioning the need to avoid words that “trigger.” As an ironic result, words like “Jewish” start to seem like swear words that cannot be mentioned in polite company.
Commenters include dedicated trolls, people who cut and paste the same hostile propagandistic messages beneath multiple articles. Often banned from the site and others like it, they come back under names that allow others to recognize their new persona. One poster who called himself RSmith and constantly posted the same lengthy racist messages purporting to cite scientific articles about racial inferiority was banned so often and so quickly that he had literally hundreds of handles, each ending in a different number – posting for example as RSmith755 or later using an SR series of monikers, such as SR435. Another pro-Nazi poster would come back under widely differing names but always using the same avatar picture.
One regular antisemitic and pro-Nazi poster on The Gateway Pundit, who for years used the name Daisy, described (on a different forum more restricted to white nationalists) their postings in the comments sections on the more popular far-right site, Breitbart, as “outreach” that was helping to move the Overton window – i.e., helping to expand the range of normal discourse into areas once considered beyond the pale. Daisy has been banned or suspended a few times, and has recently returned to cut and paste their earlier comments under the new name of Joanna and more recently, apparently banned once more, under the name of Mary.
After being exposed to commenters like that, even the least suspicious among us might end up thinking that everyone posting must be either a troll, a Russian disinformation agent, a CIA plant, or a Gateway Pundit moderator trying to guide the narrative. People can be anything they like on the internet, and it is hard to believe that the posters who write with exaggeratedly Black phonetic spellings or who end their comments with “PS I am black” are anything close.
Whatever the actual identity of the posters, however, there does seem to be a community of commenters. People will welcome back a poster who has not appeared in the comments sections for a while, or commiserate with each other about the children who have been infected with liberal ideas and the families that they can no longer associate with because of political differences. It is, or is representative of, a nation within the nation. These are people who believe that Democrats are not just political opponents, but evil enemies of America, Demonrats and DemoKKKrats, the latter an allusion to the somewhat ironic line that Democrats were historically the real racists, and that Black people are unfortunately still on the “Democratic plantation,” not realizing where their allegiances should lie.
There is of course no unanimity among commenters; posters disagree with one another. But the Overton window looks out on different scenery here, echoing the views that are making their way from the fringe into mainstream Republican politics. In a time when Republicans win presidential elections while losing the popular vote and white nationalists hawk fears of a demographic replacement that will turn people like themselves into a minority, democracy is for some on the right no longer a thing of value. America is proudly claimed to be a constitutional republic, not a democracy, and America’s Founding Fathers are extolled for avoiding the dangers of mob rule.
The Gateway Pundit hosts a community where it is normal to see George Floyd as a dangerous criminal who died from a drug overdose and Black Lives Matter as a hate-filled movement that wreaked destruction and murder throughout the United States – where COVID is a hoax or no worse than the flu, and the government is coming after your guns. It is a world fiercely loyal to Donald Trump, where it is insane to think that Biden won the 2020 election or that masks can prevent infection… but not absurd to believe, along with Q and British conspiracy theorist David Icke, that the world is run by a cabal of lizard-people pedophiles pursuant to a conspiracy stretching back centuries. It is representative of a nation living in its own bubble that demonizes and denies the Americanness of half the country.
Recently, the Ukraine war has shown us another example of how opinion on the site coalesces, and is perhaps manipulated along particular paths.
Russia’s Putin has long been an idol of the far-right. An authoritarian leader who despises gay people and claims to speak for traditional values, presiding over an almost entirely white country, he is appealing to white nationalists. Terse statements saying that Putin should bomb Washington, DC are not out of bounds in TGP comments sections.
When Russia first invaded Ukraine, posters on the comments sections did not know how to respond. Then voices began increasingly to emerge speaking for American isolationism. There are articulate voices strongly supportive of Ukraine; there are also far more voices than one would find in the mainstream asserting isolationism, either saying that Russia and Ukraine are equally corrupt and neither deserves support, or coming down strongly on the side of Russia, arguing that the Biden family and the Deep State are raking in a share of all the money allocated to Ukraine. Some of these posters identify themselves as Russian, while others that do not nonetheless seem to misuse the articles of English speech in a way characteristic of Russian native language speakers. The Gateway Pundit regularly runs military and political analysis by Larry Johnson, a far-right hoax-peddler who is strongly pro-Russian and has been declaring Russia the winner of the war since March.
Conspiracy theories: when imaginary guns fire steel bullets
How seriously should any of this be taken? The Gateway Pundit does seem to be circulating and feeding ideas that are taking over significant sections of America’s Republican Party. Much as we may like to think of Canada as a kinder place, these ideas do not stop at the border. Marchers at the weekly anti-vaccination demonstrations in downtown Toronto during the pandemic shut-downs often flew signs and flags or wore t-shirts ripped straight from the American stage. MAGA hats and Trump-Pence signs (or just Trump signs, later) could readily be seen, as was a flag bearing the QAnon slogan “Where We Go One, We Go All.”
In weighing whether sites like TGP should be talked about or ignored, I again think of Ricardo Duchesne, the far-right Canadian sociologist – born in Puerto Rico of parents whose marriage would have been unlawful in many American states at the time of his birth – who was pressured into taking early retirement from a tenured position at the University of New Brunswick over his increasingly racist views and commentary. He has written his own account of his intellectual journeys, how he was converted to a belief in the genetic superiority of European men through his visits to “forbidden places,” listing a string of neo-Nazi and white nationalist websites and later also mentioning an online site devoted to making available the writings of racist thinkers. Duchesne’s account of the path he followed may be disingenuous, but it does generate concern. If a university professor with a PhD has been radicalized like this, what hope can there be for less knowledgeable people surfing the net? He now devotes his energies to his own website with an expressed intent to use it to foster what he calls a “dissident right” movement in Canada. These ideas grow in darkness, and being “forbidden” is part of their appeal. They need to be discussed.
The “fake news,” to coin a phrase, of sites like The Gateway Pundit is a danger, even if it seems crackpot to outsiders. One can reach a point where reason no longer helps us to make sense of the world. We test what we learn against what we already know to be true, examining information to see if it rings true in the context of our lived experience, to see if it is reconcilable with the rest of our knowledge and our understanding of human nature. But once we accept and believe in lies, then the only new truths we will accept are the ones that fit those lies.
The Gateway Pundit similarly exists in a self-contained ecosystem, where readers regularly look at only a small number of similar or like-minded sites that refer to and take stories from one other. Commenters on TGP express contempt for anyone who watches liberal-leaning television networks such as CNN or MSNBC, and deride people who read the progressive muckraking Mother Jones magazine. Even the Fox News network has been ostracized as traitorous and moved onto their informal “Index” of banned reading due to the fact that it called the Arizona election early, and correctly, for Joe Biden. As a result, The Gateway Pundit’s readers are members of a separate nation, one that looks on itself as the real republic and on those who disagree as the enemy; one whose allegiance lies to the nation they imagine rather than the country that is out there on the ground.