The misinformation that drove South Dakotans to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6
In conversations with Forum News Service, three South Dakotans who attended former President Trump's "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., reveal the roots of a conspiratorial mindset propped up by extreme cable news to "trusted sources on the internet."
PIERRE S.D. — On Thursday, Jan. 7 — one night after a violent mob breached the U.S. Capitol for the first time in two centuries — South Dakota's lone congressman, Dusty Johnson, sought to reason with voters in an evening tele-townhall.
Call after call, voters continued to repeat election falsehoods endorsed by former President Donald Trump and echoed by a battery of far-right media platforms, from One American News Network (OANN) to The Epoch Times to YouTube pages populated with a feast of Rudy Giuliani videos.
Finally, one caller, "Doug from Rapid City," pleaded with the congressman.
"I don't really have a good source I can go to," said the South Dakotan, not speaking with frustration, but with anxiety in his voice, as though he were reaching out to a good friend for help. "I have to search through everything to try and find truth, and it's difficult."
If the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol, which was fanned by the former president and others propping up false claims of election fraud, presented a coalescing moment between reality and fiction for the country, a chance to step back from toxic sources of misinformation, it has been a missed opportunity among Trump's most loyal supporters.
In the month since the siege, Forum News Service has communicated with three women — and spoken by phone with two — who reside in western South Dakota who found their way to D.C. last month the day a horde briefly forestalled Congress' certification of Joe Biden's presidential victory in the Electoral College.
Although they say they didn't follow the crowds into the Capitol, they believe the false claim that the insurrection was perpetrated by undercover left-wing activists posing in MAGA gear.
"Conservatives, we don't do those things," said Chris Livingston, a pizza maker from rural Lead, S.D., in the Black Hills. Livingston traveled to D.C. for the "Stop the Steal" rally "to show our loyalty" to the president, she said. "We're not destructive. We don't destroy things. We're not the people in these cities burning down and tearing apart businesses."
Instead, Livingston, a registered Independent, said she holds with the 46% of Republicans, according to Pew Research Center , who say Trump is blameless for the violence, instead pointing a finger, without proof, at Antifa or the Black Lives Matter movement.
Asked where she gets her news, Livingston said, "trusted folks on the internet."
Conspiracy theories abound
For the people who spoke with FNS for this story, all roads lead to the same conspiracy stories.
Deanna Becket, a Rapid City woman who was in Washington on Jan. 6 with her husband, said that Giuliani and Sidney Powell — Trump's disavowed election attorney who has promoted the baseless fraud allegations — had yet to give the "evidence" in court.
Brooke Formanek, a Philip, S.D., woman declined to be interviewed about her participation in the "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6 but, in an email to FNS wrote, "One cannot trust the media anymore." She did tell her story in her local newspaper , the Pioneer Review.
Becket and Formanek certainly are not alone in this conviction.
A former Trump aide who lives in South Dakota and worked on the president's 2016 campaign in Iowa hung up the phone after being pressed on his boosting election falsehoods on social media. Another GOP county director in the state's western half refused to speak with FNS, saying he had some "real questions" about what took place on Jan. 6 and that he did "not trust (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell," who also points to Trump as the insurrection's instigator.
South Dakota's senators, John Thune and Mike Rounds, both have cast blame at Trump's feet for stirring people up over false election claims.
"I do believe that he has misled the American people since the election," Rounds told FNS in an interview in January.
But the words of the faraway congressional delegation might not be resonating at home.
A few days after the attack on the Capitol, Custer County Chronicle editor Charley Najacht in Custer, S.D., penned an op-ed alleging, without any evidence, that "four white shuttle busses reportedly carrying Antifa members" arrived on the Hill "(j)ust prior" to the insurrection.
Reached by phone, Najacht defended his column, which got his page briefly booted off of Facebook.
"Yeah, that's been proven," he said, of the conspiracy that the insurrection was perpetrated by liberal or anarchic activists.
Federal authorities so far have pressed charges against 181 persons involved in the siege, according to George Washington University's Program on Extremism , including members of Oath Keepers, a far-right militia, and the Proud Boys, as well as a gun-rights activist who put his boots on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's desk.
Pressed further for proof, Najacht demurred. "It's pretty hard to describe truthful news today and fake news."
The long-time newspaper editor said his news diet is "various sources," but mostly Newsmax, OANN, and The Epoch Times.
Cocooned in misinformation
The Black Hills have long offered shelter to a conservative politics that looks askance at government, and it's what Livingston felt when she moved from Rochester, Minn., and — in her words — "crossed the border" over a decade ago.
For years, Livingston ran a pizza parlor and pub off a spur through the heart of the Hills. She lives on a spread near an old mining village that she shares with over a dozen family members, seven dogs, and enough food to last a year. She loves her country and her neighbors, even those who "are a little more liberal."
And at 68, she talks with the gravelly voice of a caring mom who'd stick an extra chocolate pudding in your brown lunch sack or fight like hell if someone bullied her kid.
But aside from "maybe Tucker (Carlson) on Fox," Livingston doesn't watch CNN or read The New York Times.
"I don't look there ever," said Livingston.
She also doesn't buy the conspiracy theory that March 4 — the nation's original inaugural date — will bring a reckoning to usher Trump back into office.
"I'm not so sure that March 4 isn't more of a Q-thing," said Livingston. She said she has "guarded" herself from conspiracies associated with the online QAnon community. But she noted, almost whimsically, that "a majority of the things Q said were going to happen happened."
She didn't elaborate, save to say she knew "military sources." Pushed further she simply clarified, she knew "people who know people that are in special ops."
'I have other sources'
In July 2020, amid the nationwide race riots sparked by the death of George Floyd and in growing skepticism of the coronavirus health precautions, Adam Enders, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, told news site Politico that America during the pandemic is "ripe ground" for conspiracy theories.
The question remains, can that soil be cleansed?
Talk of the election and the siege has somewhat faded as the congressional delegation has pivoted attention to President Biden's actual actions, including his rescission of the Keystone XL pipeline permit, a move cheered by environmentalists and South Dakota's tribal leaders, but blasted by Republicans for upending pipeline workers' jobs and local economies.
But the echoes of Jan. 6 are close. On Thursday, Feb. 4, Dusty Johnson did not join 11 Republican colleagues in voting to remove Marjorie Taylor Greene from two committees, with Democrats citing a litany of internet-based conspiracy myths uttered by the freshman congresswoman from Georgia.
And next week, a trial to convict Trump for inciting the riot reaches the U.S. Senate. It's not certain how South Dakota's two senators will vote, but The Washington Post has reported 12 Republicans are "open to conviction" based on public statements.
Back in South Dakota, many of Trump's loyal supporters aren't budging. Not just from their conviction that Trump is being framed, but even from the original lie, that the election that sent him packing to Florida was stolen.
Asked about the multitude of courts, federal and state, that tossed out Trump attorneys' lawsuits, or the election officials who called the presidential election "the most secure in American history," Livingston was only momentarily deterred, like someone who backs up after catching a spark off a light fixture.
"Yeah, I don't buy that," she said, after a pause. Then she regained her confidence.
"Because I have other sources that definitely conflict with that."