By now, we’ve all seen, and will remember, alleged mail bomber Cesar Sayoc’s white van covered in right-wing propaganda.
Let’s also remember the propaganda of the prominent conservative media figures — including Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, Lou Dobbs, Mike Flynn Jr., Frank Gaffney Jr, Rush Limbaugh, Candace Owens, Michael Savage and James Woods — who peddled "false flag" conspiracy theories about the mail-bomb spree this week, suggesting or outright stating that the pipe bombs sent to CNN, the Clintons, the Obamas and other top Democrats and critics of Donald Trump were a plot by liberals to make the president and his party look bad before the midterm elections.
Sayoc is in FBI custody and facing 48 years; the pundits intend to go back to life as normal and change the subject back to the migrant caravan. They are counting on people forgetting, never knowing, or not caring about their appalling words.
Some are working hard to memory-hole their comments. Owens, communications director for the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA and a Fox News mainstay, deleted a tweet she wrote that read: "Caravans, fake bomb threats — these leftists are going ALL OUT for midterms." Fox Business News host Lou Dobbs deleting his tweet that read: "Fake News--Fake Bombs. Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery?"
Others are offering up weak-tea defenses. Ann Coulter tweeted she was only citing "history" in her earlier tweet saying that "bombs are a liberal tactic." Dinesh D'Souza mounted a "both-sides" defense on Twitter: "With all the demented loons on their side, we may have to concede there is at least one demented loon on ours."
Both sides? Fox News' expert guests speculated about the "false flag" theory during the channel's news programming. Trump complained on Twitter about the political impact of "this 'Bomb' stuff" — with “Bomb” in scare quotes — hours before the alleged bomber was found.
The Trumpist pundits also want a new conversation in the hopes that as they erase and evade, the news moves on and they keep their media platforms, unlike, say, Megyn Kelly. But these "false flag" conspiracies are important in their own right since they expose how rapidly conspiracy theories bursts into to the mainstream under Trump.
The evidence-free speculation began within hours of news breaking of the first pipe bombs. It started in dark corners of the Internet, like 4Chan and Reddit; it moved to Twitter; prominent conservatives tweeted and talked about it on cable; it became a topic of discussion on Fox News; the president legitimized it. Just a few years ago, "false flags" were the domain of far-right radio host Alex Jones' show.
Even after Jones was kicked off of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms for calling the Sandy Hook shooting a hoax last July, conservative pundits took the Jones playbook and gave it a bigger megaphone. Pundits like Coulter and Savage have turned the phrase "false flag" into a part of public discussion.
Last month, conservative lawyer Ed Whelan posted a series of tweets suggesting that sexual assault allegations against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh were a case of mistaken identity, while baselessly accusing a private citizen of sexual assault. Right-wing Twitter ultimately compelled House Intelligence Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) to release a memo in February that pro-Trump figures believed would show the Russia investigation to be a hoax; it was released and did not show that but damaged the credibility of the intelligence community and congressional oversight.
Given that the likes of Owens and Dobbs were so wrong for saying the bombs were fake, will they apologize after Sayoc's arrest, even to the postal service and law enforcement officials who brought a real and dangerous situation to an apparent close?
Geraldo Rivera has owned up to his own "false flag" speculation, and walked it back. For the rest, the conspiracy playbook is too good to give away -- and has a defender in the commander-in-chief.