A reporter embedded with the January 6 rioters warns that the dogs of domestic war have now been fully unleashed
The January 6 Committee is nearing its end. Its final report may tell us what happened at the US Capitol, but not necessarily what it all means.
Was it a singular event, led by an unstable demagogue, or was it an early warning about a rage machine that’s just getting warmed up?
Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, awarding-winning foreign correspondent Luke Mogelson, took a great personal risk when, as a reporter, he embedded himself with the January 6 rioters to try and find out.
Mogelson has written for The New Yorker since 2013, covering wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq. He was a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, based in Kabul. And he is the author of the just published book The Storm Is Here.
Mogelson has seen war, insurrection, and the crushing of democracy up close in places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. After a tour overseas, he would come home to find frighteningly familiar signs in places like Grand Rapids and Minneapolis and at the US Capitol on January 6.
Even more powerful than the pictures we’ve seen from January 6, Mogelson tells of what he heard on that day, as he witnessed both anger and desperation, violence and fear.
He talks about how self-righteous the voices were, and how most of them really believed in their “cause.” He speculates about the possibility of someone coming along to escalate even Trump’s rhetoric and ratchet the threat up another notch. Based on his experience with other insurrections around the world, he summarizes the playbook that would-be autocrats typically deploy in their efforts to grab power: drive out or eliminate moderate voices, build up paramilitary forces, and proclaim a willingness to “blow it all up.”
Sound familiar? Mogelson believes it’s too late for the forces that have been unleashed in the US to simply walk back their extreme positions. His conclusion: More violence seems inevitable.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Was January 6th the ultimate culmination of years of building White rage in America? Or merely just another stop on the racial anger train? Was this a seminal event that would forever be imprinted on or change America? Or was it simply, no matter how ugly it got, just a symbolic event that would release pressure on the valve that could turn off democracy in America?
Sometimes it’s hard to see these things up close. For most of us, we’ve watched from afar as Trump rode down the escalator and attacked immigrants, to Charlottesville, to Helsinki, to BLM, to the Ellipse on January 6th. As a nation, we were like the frog dropped in warm water. As it began to boil, we got used to it and we adjusted until perhaps it’s too late. My guest, esteemed foreign correspondent Luke Mogelson, saw it differently.
He was used to seeing war and insurrection and the crushing of democracy in places like Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan. But he would come home to America to find frightening, similar signs in places like Grand Rapids and Minneapolis. The January 6th Committee will dutifully do its report, and it will show that Trump incited the insurrection in the effort to overturn the will of the people. But what the report may not say is whether it was a moment in time from which Madisonian democracy may never recover.
In his new book, The Storm is Here, perhaps Mogelson writes the first draft of how democracy ends. Luke Mogelson has written for The New Yorker since 2013, covering the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq. During the pandemic, he reported from across the US and previously he was a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, based in Kabul. He’s won two National Magazine Awards and two George Polk Awards. And it is my pleasure to welcome Luke Mogelson here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about his new book The Storm is Here: An American Crucible. Luke, thanks so much for joining us.
Luke Mogelson: Thanks for having me.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. As we look at the events of January 6th and the reverberations from them, is it your sense that this was the end of something that has dissipated since, or really the beginning of something that is continuing to pick up energy and steam along the way?
Luke: I would say the latter. Even the night of January 6th, after the Capitol had been secured and the rioters had all been kicked out, and the National Guard and local law enforcement had established a perimeter around the building, a big group of the people who had participated in the attack gathered on the lawn nearby, and they chased off a bunch of TV journalists and had an almost ritual moment of trying to pile up and burn all of their camera gear and equipment.
At that moment, they were already talking about the war to come and this was the first page of the new chapter. And they were incredibly energized, galvanized, even though they hadn’t achieved their objective, which was to keep Trump in power. So, I think that for the people we need to be most concerned about, January 6th was for them a proof of their power, their capability, and their ability to inject themselves in the democratic process with violence.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about – and really based in part on what you’ve seen around the world – the way in which that energy comes together. Certainly, the people that were engaged in that have no history, no personal history of mass violence in this country from a political perspective, and yet it just sprang full-blown. Talk a little bit about that and how it relates to what you’ve seen play out in other countries.
Luke: It didn’t come out of nowhere, I should say. Even just that winter, there had been previous rallies with the same groups, the same individuals, during which serious violence was committed, mob violence. There were two rallies even in D.C. on November 14th and December 12th with Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Proud Boys, America Firsters – all the groups that spearheaded the January 6th attack – and they had run roughshod over downtown D.C., vandalized historic Black churches, gay-owned businesses, attacked Black pedestrians and done all this just steps from the White House and then been celebrated by the president on Twitter and social media.
They had been doing this, and even going back to Charlottesville, which you mentioned earlier, and it’s also important to remember that a lot of the Proud Boys had been engaging in regular street battles with anti-fascists in Portland and Berkeley and other cities since 2016. And again, been celebrated by the president and other politicians and funders for that violence. This had been building; it didn’t come out of nowhere. And it was a result also not only of complacency by law enforcement but also of passive endorsement by politicians.
Jeff: Talk about that. Talk about the early passive endorsement, because you talk about when you traveled around the country, particularly during the pandemic, that this was building, that you had a sense of what was about to come.
Luke: I arrived in Michigan in the spring of 2020 after seeing images of these militias occupying the State House and Lansing with semi-automatic rifles and accosting lawmakers. So, even at that stage, there was an incredible degree of anger and fear of the government and a view that the efforts to address COVID-19 were examples of the new world order and the deep state incrementally implementing this oppressive regime.
Then after George Floyd was killed, that fear and anger was extended to leftist, anti-fascist, Black Lives Matter protesters and anybody participating in the national uprising for racial justice. And then when Trump lost the election, it was just further exacerbated and extended to other segments of society. So, it was incredible to witness over this relatively compressed period of time this mutable sense of dispossession and anger just be redirected from one target to another, to another, to another. And after January 6th, it’s been redirected again to vaccination programs, school board meetings, et cetera.
Jeff: One of the things that you talk about is the economic underpinnings and how the whole red-blue divide plays out with respect to economics. When you look at these kind of insurrections, these kind of battles in other countries that you’ve seen, has economics played as large a role as it has here?
Luke: That’s a good question. It’s very difficult to draw a direct parallel mainly because in a place like Afghanistan, poverty is just much more prevalent and the wealth gap is much narrower. But certainly, among the far right, there’s a sense that they are being taken advantage of by elites[ and whatever their economic woes might be, they’re not attributed to specific policies but to a darker, more nebulous conspiracy against them by the likes of George Soros and the Rothschilds, and others, mainly prominent Jews.
Jeff: How much did COVID play a role in amping this up, do you think? Certainly, Charlottesville and some of these events happened before, but how much did COVID amp it up?
Luke: I think it was huge. I think that for people who had already been convinced that the government was intent on oppressing them and that Democrats wanted to take away their guns – or, for some people, put them in camps – the restrictions on personal liberty that were put in place to address the pandemic were just validating and confirmed all of their worst fears.
But I went to multiple events throughout 2020 in which a common chant among the crowd was “Alex Jones was right.” And he accrued a massive following during the pandemic because, for certain kinds of Americans, this was evidence that there was some basis to these fears of a deep state or a new world order. And then, of course, the stolen election allegation further reinforced that worldview.
Jeff: Talk about what you heard up close and personal on January 6th. You embedded yourself with the crowd in a pretty dangerous way, as you write about it. Talk a little bit about the voices that you heard that day.
Luke: Well, I heard a lot of the same things that I had been hearing at anti-lockdown rallies in the spring; at pro-law-enforcement rallies over the summer, after George Floyd was killed; and at Stop the Steal rallies over the winter – which was that, again, the deep state, the new world order was attempting to oppress the American people, and the American people weren’t going to stand for it.
I also heard a lot of just pretty outright racist rhetoric. At one point, in the mob that was attacking police officers, one of the Proud Boys just started screaming “F George Floyd, F Breonna Taylor, F them all.” I heard a woman inside the rotunda of the US Capitol yell out, “White people will not let this country fail.” I heard rioters on the dais in the Senate chamber thanking Jesus Christ for allowing them to enter the building and to keep President Trump in power.
I heard a lot of QAnon theories. I heard another rioter scream at a policeman – again, inside the US Capitol – that if they didn’t let them through, they were all going to be put in camps and concentration camps.
And one thing that all of these comments, I would say, had in common was an intense level and a palpable sense of self-righteousness, like people really believed that what they were doing was virtuous and necessary for the country.
Jeff: You talk about that, in addition to the anger – which, obviously, we’re talking about – that you saw a great deal of fear in these people.
Luke: Yes, I think fear and anger are mixed up with a lot of folks on the far right. I was in Detroit on Election Day, at the TCF Convention Center, where a mob descended on the counting room while election workers were processing mail-in ballots. And, at one point, a rumor spread among the Republican mob that Black Lives Matter had arrived outside the building.
And the Trump supporter that I was interviewing, when he heard that, he went pale and said, “I have to go.” And I ask him why, and he said, “Because I’m afraid I’ll be killed.” And, again, he was sincere in that fear. It wasn’t a put-on; it wasn’t a cynical ploy. He really had been convinced that leftist activists were an existential threat to him and to the country. And I met many, many, many people who felt the same way.
Jeff: Do you think that the gap is widening? Do you think that the anger is worse today?
Luke: It certainly seems that way, yes. I don’t see how you put this back in the box.
Jeff: Where does it go from here, and what form does it take, and is it going to be agitated by Trump or by somebody else? Is it going to take another voice to amp it up to the next level?
Luke: It might. That’s the million-dollar question: Will this movement outlive Trump? I just don’t see how you walk back a situation in which half the country believes that every time they lose an election, it’s rigged and then, once they are in power, do everything they can to manipulate the system into one where they can never lose, whether it’s with gerrymandering or the court. So, I just think that both sides are going to become less and less accepting of our democratic process as we go forward. And I don’t know how you throw that in the dustbin.
Jeff: Well, I guess the real question is – and there have been a bunch of surveys about this lately – whether the group that is this extreme is smaller than we think it is and that a lot of people that even might be sympathetic to their cause are more passive, that they’re not as willing to take to the streets, and that, eventually, this anger will dissipate. The real question, I suppose, is first that, but the second part of it is, if it does dissipate, is it just temporary; will something else bring it forth again, whether it’s two years from now or five years from now?
Luke: Well, the way that extremism works – the way that I’ve seen it work overseas, in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq – is that extremists undertake to eliminate the possibility of moderate participation. And one way that they do that is by attacking the moderate segment of their own flank or sect or tribe or political party so that people in the middle are left with only two options: either a radical flank of their own party, sector, tribe; or an intolerable enemy, so, for example in Syria, you might be left with the choice between ISIS and the Assad regime.
In the US, when you see Trump and his allies attacking RINOs and moderate Republicans and people like Liz Cheney or Congressman [Adam] Kinzinger more viciously than they do Democrats, it’s because they also want to eliminate the possibility of moderate participation. They want to create a binary choice for anyone right of center between MAGA and the Democrats. And parallel with that effort is casting the Democrats as evil incarnate. And I think that they’ve done a pretty good job of reducing most conservative American options to those two choices.
Jeff: One of the things that one wonders about this is that, what does it look like? And we don’t know the answer to this, obviously, but what is it going to look like in the next election, even the midterms? If we get through that intact, if that goes reasonably well and a lot of these MAGA crazies lose and there’s a sense that it was reasonably fair, then maybe we can move forward. If it all blows up, then who knows?
Luke: Yes, I think that’s right. I think that– As you say, if it all blows up, who knows? I think that exact blowing it all up is the explicit intent of some of these actors and certainly some of the people who spearheaded January 6th. If you look at groups like the America Firsters, who are led by a guy named Nicholas Fuentes, he says very clearly that the system is the enemy.
And when you hear more and more far-right politicians telling their constituents and followers that America is not a democracy, it’s a republic, it’s because these people have become openly anti-democratic – because they know they no longer command the majority in the country. I think that blowing it all up, as you say, is the objective of some of these folks, and that’s what we need to resist.
Jeff: And finally, among these groups that you talk about in The Storm is Here, is there more going on now, more organization, more activity, more planning going on below the surface, more than we hear about on a day-to-day basis?
Luke: I think you have to assume so, although it’s not– What’s surprising is how above the surface a lot of their activity is. You would think that they would have gone silent after January 6th. That’s what happened to far-right militias and other paramilitary groups after the Oklahoma City bombing, for example; they all went to ground. But since January 6th, you’ve had Proud Boys openly gathering, wearing their black and yellow colors at school board meetings, rioting through Portland, attacking antifascists, smashing up cars, and shooting paintballs in broad daylight in downtown Portland.
You have Nicholas Fuentes, who I just mentioned in the America Firsters, holding conferences that are attended by US Congress members. Both Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) have attended events with Nicholas Fuentes during which he has celebrated January 6th, and described the United States as a White nation that should serve White people’s interest, and neither Gosar nor Green were rebuked or censured by the Republican caucus for being part of those events.
I don’t think you really have to worry so much about the subterranean clandestine activities and organizing of these groups because they’re now doing it out in the open. They’re even running for office. Two of the people I saw in the mob on January 6th attacking police officers, one ran for governor of Michigan recently and another ran for state legislator.
Jeff: Luke Mogelson, his book is The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible. Luke, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Luke: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate