‘Worse Than Watergate’: How the Right Uses Disinformation to Generate Outrage and Conspiracy Theories

Last week, the right-wing Media Research Center released a report featuring the provocative title, “How Biden’s DHS Is Weaponizing an Anti-Terror Program Against Christians, Conservatives & the GOP.”  As the title suggested, the report claimed that the federal government is “being used to target the entire spectrum of the political right and Christians,” specifically groups like “The Heritage Foundation, Fox News, Christian Broadcasting Network, Turning Point USA, PragerU, the National Rifle Association (NRA), Breitbart News, the American Conservative Union Foundation and the Republican National Committee.”

The central claim of the report is false, but it has proved irresistible to the right-wing political and media machine that thrives on generating bogus narratives about the supposed political persecution of conservatives.

The report focused on a grant made by the Department of Homeland Security through its “Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program,” which provides funding to local governments, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education “to establish or enhance capabilities to prevent targeted violence and terrorism.”

One of the recipients of a TVTP grant was the University of Dayton, which MRC alleged then used the funding to launch a program known as “PREVENTS-OH,” through which it allegedly held a seminar linking mainstream conservative organizations to neo-Nazi groups.

The University of Dayton used grants from TVTP to create the infamous PREVENTS-OH program, which in turn hosted a series of events that maliciously equated mainstream organizations with neo-nazis and other extremist hate groups.

One of the first PREVENTS-OH events was a seminar called “Extremism, Rhetoric, and Democratic Precarity.” The seminar featured analysis from several so-called extremism experts who recklessly tied conservatives, Christians and Republicans to genocide and terrorism. Among the speakers were DHS Agent Joseph “J.R.” Masztalics a Regional Prevention Coordinator at CP3—who appeared in his official capacity at the event—and University of Cincinnati researcher Michael Loadenthal, a self-proclaimed member of a radical, anti-American Antifa group.

During the seminar, Loadenthal shared an outrageous “Pyramid of Far-Right Radicalization” that he claimed depicts the “modern far-right” and extremism in America.

Among the organizations and movements displayed on the pyramid were the Republican Party (RNC), The Heritage Foundation, the American Conservative Union, Fox News, Breitbart News, the National Rifle Association (NRA), PragerUniversity, Tea Party Patriots, the MAGA (Make America Great Again) movement, the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement and the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Also on the pyramid, as if somehow comparable to the aforementioned reputable organizations and movements, were rabidly hateful groups like the militant neo-Nazi gang The Base and pro-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer.

Right-wing media outlets immediately seized upon the “outrageous” Pyramid of Far-Right Radicalization to allege that the Biden administration is using the TVTP grant program to “target” conservatives.

MRC’s founder and president Brent Bozell appeared on TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk’s podcast last Friday to demand a “criminal investigation” into the grant.

“There has to be, I think, a criminal investigation into what the Department of Homeland Security is doing with federal funds, weaponizing the most radical left-wing government in the history of this nation to shut down anybody who doesn’t toe the narrative with them,” Bozell declared. “That includes the Republican Party, that includes the conservative movement, and that now includes Christians.”

Kirk readily agreed that “this is a smoking gun” and declaring that the supposed scandal is “worse than Watergate.”

Unfortunately for Kirk, Bozell, and the rest of the right-wing movement, the central component of MRC’s report is wrong.

As the links contained in MRC’s own report make clear, the seminar at which the Pyramid of Far-Right Radicalization was shown took place in December 2021. The University of Dayton did not receive the TVTP grant until September 2022.

The university then used the grant to launch its PREVENTS-OH program, meaning that MRC’s assertion that “the University of Dayton used grants from TVTP to create the infamous PREVENTS-OH program, which in turn hosted a series of events that maliciously equated mainstream organizations with neo-nazis and other extremist hate groups” could not possibly be true.

Even Fox News essentially debunked MRC’s allegations in an article that nevertheless blindly echoed those claims.

According to DHS, the University of Dayton was not a TVTP grantee at the time of the seminar and received a grant the following year — when the department was already aware of what was presented at the event. A DHS spokesperson told Fox News Digital that the award was unrelated to the seminar and rejected the notion that it supports any form of discrimination.

“This seminar was not funded, organized, or hosted by the Department of Homeland Security,” the spokesperson said. “Similarly, the presented chart was not developed, presented, or endorsed by the Department of Homeland Security, and was not part of any successful grant application to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS does not profile, target, or discriminate against any individual for exercising their constitutional rights protected by the First Amendment.”

The University of Dayton similarly described the seminar as being separate from the PREVENTS-OH program.

“The speakers at the programs referred to in the Media Research Center’s report are from the University of Dayton Human Rights Center’s Social Practice of Human Rights Conference in the fall of 2021, which had no affiliation with and predates PREVENTS-OH,” the university told Fox News Digital in a statement. “The University of Dayton Human Rights Center received its PREVENTS-OH grant in the fall of 2022 and, to date, its community awareness events and dialogues have focused on all forms of domestic terrorism, targeted violence, and extremism. As we stated when awarded the grant, ‘We look forward to partnering with Ohioans throughout the Miami Valley across all political and social affiliations and sectors of the community.’”

On top of that, the Pyramid of Far-Right Radicalization image has been around since at least 2019, and clearly states that the institutions listed on the lower tiers are mainstream conservative organizations. In fact, the researcher who used the image, Michael Loadenthal, said as much in his presentation, making clear that his focus was on the dangerous extremist groups “on the top tier.”

Loadenthal likewise explained this to Fox News:

According to Loadenthal, the MRC is “misinterpreting and misrepresenting” the diagram as well as his role with it. He sent Fox News Digital a full copy of the image, which included text underneath the pyramid describing the bottom tier with the GOP, the NRA, and the Heritage Foundation as “mainstream conservatism.”

“The chart is meant to show that what is termed ‘the right’ is not monolithic and that some individuals travel to a path of radicalization, beginning with more mainstream sources,” said Loadenthal. “This point is not controversial nor is it deterministic; it is NOT meant to imply that engaging with level 1 inherently leads to level 4. That would obviously be false.”

When the pyramid was presented at the seminar, the text at the bottom was not visible. However, Loadenthal’s notes visible on the screen of the slideshow to the right of the image provide an abbreviated version of the text.

“So today we’re talking about the modern far-right, which depending on who you ask, can include things as mundane as the Heritage Foundation, all the way up to underground cells of militants,” the on-screen text reads. “I like the use of this 4-part taxonomy, although I disagree with some of the groups’ placements.”

Loadenthal also noted that he did not create the pyramid, telling Fox News Digital that he believes it was authored around 2018 — the upper left corner attributes the image to two scholars, McCauley and Moslalenko. “I found it a helpful conceptual scaffolding and used it,” he said.

Despite the fact that MRC’s report was basically debunked right out of the gate, that hasn’t stopped right-wing activists from using it to spin wild conspiracy theories, During Friday’s episode of her “WrongThink” program, right-wing commentator Anna Perez baselessly alleged that the Biden administration is using the TVTP grant program to “radicalize the youth and turn them into a paramilitary organization” that will attack conservatives.

“You know what this program is really for?” Perez said. “It’s so that the Biden administration can radicalize the youth and turn them into a paramilitary organization. … He is literally creating more members of antifa by implementing this program, that is why it exists. This program is literally meant to fund antifa.”

This entire saga provides a case study in how the right-wing movement works to generate “controversy” out of thin air, first by misrepresenting basic facts in order to generate outrage, and then using that outrage to gin up wild conspiracy theories. And the fact that the central component of this entire “controversy” is false will not, in any way, stop right-wing activists from continually repeating it in order to generate ever more outrage.

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