Nov 28, 2022 • 1HR 41M

The Prism Metanews Guide to January 6th - Part 4

Chapters 11-13

 
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This segment is the final of four parts that comprise this voice essay. You can find this episode on Apple Podcasts here.

Chapter 11 - Aftermath

Ray Epps was there on January 6th, but he never went into the Capitol. But conspiracy theories about him and January 6th derailed his life. You see, Epps is on video, and got Internet-famous, for trying on the eve of the attack to agitate others to not just go *to* the Capitol, but to go *in* to the Capitol. Some people listening supported what he was saying. Some people pushed back. He said it over and over. After Trump’s speech, he directed people in the crowd toward the Capitol. But the kicker was a short clip, taken at an entry point along the Capitol perimeter where a younger guy was frontin’ the police. Ray Epps pulled him aside and whispered something in his ear. Shortly after, the guy busted through the barricade and on toward the building.

Despite appearing on an FBI list of persons of interest for a short time, Epps was never charged. He was not detained. And this seemed suspicious to many people, considering how the government seemed to be throwing the book at all kinds of offenders besides him. The hypothesis arose that he was working for corrupt elements of the federal government, who worked in premeditated fashion to cajole and nudge Trump’s peaceful supporters into violence and anarchy. A trap to lure patriots. Trump himself, along with other prominent Republicans and media personalities, have boosted this narrative.

A few things to say here. First: if this was a trap, you really have to wonder whether anyone at all even fell for it. A person who wasn’t already game for intruding on the Electoral College certification before they encountered Ray Epps on the streets of Washington, DC almost certainly wouldn’t have been swayed to do it on his say-so. To believe that Epps, or even a hundred people on the government payroll if that’s where your imagination takes you, could make lawbreakers out of a crowd of tens of thousands of peaceful people is frankly laughable. And that’s before you consider that the feds have no interest in doing anything like this.

Second, there are many good reasons the FBI would not charge a person like Ray Epps that have nothing to do with him working for the feds. Foremost among them: MAYBE HE DIDN’T BREAK ANY LAWS. Seriously, what is the argument here, that we can arrest people just for *talking* about breaking the law even when they never followed up with action? That’s not the country we live in, and we shouldn’t want to.

Third, the people pushing the Ray Epps conspiracy theory mostly do it in the hope of convincing others that the feds could have masterminded the attack and conned innocent Trump supporters into going along. But the existence and actions of Ray Epps don’t prove anything of the sort, and there is literally no other evidence to even suggest it.

For his part, Ray has had a pretty crummy time of it since January 6th, as these conspiracy theories have given him a bad rap with the MAGA crowd he used to hang with. Now, he is persona non grata. Epps was wrong to say what he did, and to condone what became a lawless riot that got people killed, but I do feel a little bad that, like QAnon Shaman Jacob Chansley, he fell victim to the face-eating leopard of online disinformation.

This chapter deals with the effects that January 6th directly caused. Let’s do a brief recap.

It’s 2020. The President of the United States sows doubt about mail-in ballots for months, then loses reelection in a way that seems suspect to people who believe there is reason to doubt mail-in ballots. He insists without evidence that he actually won and vows to sue to fight to stay in power. All his lawsuits are ultra-fails. He tries to get the Justice Department to make it seem like there are real questions about the validity of the election. Fail. He tries to have the Defense Department look into nonexistent foreign hacking of election machines. Believe it or not, fail. He orchestrates a scheme to have states he lost submit electors for him to the Electoral College, leans on his Vice President to throw out Biden electors from those states, and calls for a wild protest on the counting day. All fail, repeatedly, except summoning supporters to DC. In a final gambit to stop the certification of Biden’s win, he turns the mob loose on the Capitol to strong-arm Congress and the Vice President into assisting him. This gets very ugly for several hours but, thankfully, in the end also fails to achieve the overthrow of the election. Donald Trump has lost about seven different ways at this point.

So, what happened next?

Well, a lot of people started getting in trouble for breaking the law, starting with the most obvious among the attackers. Not many arrests were made on the day itself, but for more than a few it was a simple task to figure out who did what. Drip by drip, tip by tip, video clip by video clip, many of those who perpetrated violence against the police or damaged federal property were brought in. Some made it almost too easy; all one had to do was look at what they posted on main before and during the action.

Donald Trump also took a bit of immediate heat, though in the end he would be able to claim vindication. Seeing his role in bringing the mob to the Capitol and directing angry supporters toward where they and the Vice President were, the majority of the House of Representatives voted to impeach the President. It was the first time in American history a president had been impeached twice. Ten Republicans joined in. Yes, it was also the first time a president had been twice acquitted by the Senate, largely behind arguments that it was too close to–or even past–the inauguration that would end his time in office anyway. There are good arguments counter to that, and it’s questionable how sincere any of those saying this were to begin with. But politics are what they are, and so Donald Trump stayed in office and retained the ability to run again.

A good amount of lies about January 6th also sprang up around this time, in addition to the ones we have already discussed, apparently driven by the imperative to defend Trump from impeachment, the Republican Party from embarrassment, and those being charged with federal crimes from the consequences of their actions.

To wit: the false flag narrative–that villainized Ray Epps and Jacob Chansley and others who were clearly on Trump’s side–was done in the service of constructing a counterfeit alternative reality to that which really took place. To create the impression of the situation that is sometimes based loosely on facts, but even then delves so narrowly and context-free as to be impossible to interpret correctly.

Sean Hannity, for example, texted President Trump during the violence to communicate that it was a serious mistake and could lead to disaster. He knows the reality, or at least he did then. Mr. Hannity, however, along with his Fox colleagues and others in the right-wing mediasphere, has since then also worked diligently to shift attention off of Donald Trump, spread lies about the attack, and turn his Republican viewers against the very idea that the United States should seriously investigate it.

And in this we can understand a key the reason why Americans have gotten on such different pages about it all. They are divided about January 6th because propaganda works. Trump-loyal Republicans and the media ecosystem that advocates for them with their audience of millions of Americans have purposely injected canards and falsehoods into the discourse. They have misrepresented what occurred on January 6th, changed the subject when damning headlines broke, and aligned against any efforts to get to the bottom of the schemes and ultimate attack. It would be funny if it weren’t so damaging to the stability of our government.

These influential figures–and think for a second about how they could have influenced you, either directly or indirectly–have consistently suggested that neither reporters nor Congress nor the Department of Justice should investigate January 6th. They would prefer we all just stay in the dark about this dark episode, or, failing that, trust only the Republicans in Congress who helped Trump try to stay in power to probe or examine these extraordinary events. Even if you generally agree with Republicans, this argument should seem ridiculous. Because it is.

So, what kinds of fairy tales did the January 6th apologists deploy to deflect the blame? What do people say should really be looked at whenever the commonsense suggestion is made that we find out why the supporters Trump told to go to the Capitol to fight went to the Capitol and fought?

“The feds disguised as Trump supporters did it” baloney is a variation on the earlier baloney trotted out on January 6th itself: that antifa dressed like Trump supporters and did it. Both of these take advantage of the cognitive dissonance that so many Republicans watching from home felt. That was a very natural reaction on the part of peace-loving people, who by and large would never condone political violence. Fans of the police and law and order generally, seeing MAGA-hatted men attacking the police with Trump flags in a direct attack on the rule of law, surely hoped against hope that there was an explanation that could reverse the impression that their own eyes had given. They were primed to believe it was perpetrated by almost anyone but people like them. Someone else HAD to have done it. So the false flag fairy tales were designed to alleviate that cognitive dissonance, and they worked. It’s how human beings are wired.

Among the set of people unable to acknowledge the truth about January 6th but not willing to go full conspiracy theory calling it a government op, another false narrative gained widespread popularity: that the protest was peaceful. There was no insurrection at all, and the protesters were peaceful. They did nothing wrong, and they certainly didn’t know it was wrong if they had. In this version of things, the people inside the Capitol thought they were allowed to be there, that authorities on scene had ushered them in as though on a tour.

Like the false flag business, this canard has no leg to stand on. Those peddling it sincerely hope that you will forget about the injured defenders and broken windows and violent chants. They want you to believe that it was possible that thousands of people could be on the premises, witnessing what was happening and who was doing it—entering the building with others shouting “our house,” seeing fellow protesters verbally and physically abusing police and screaming for the blood of Pence and Democrats—and genuinely consider themselves to be innocent. It conveniently ignores the nonstop blaring of bullhorns with messages about how they had come to stop the steal by whatever means and how great it was that the Defense Department was unwilling to intervene to restore order. When you stop and think about it, this narrative might strain credulity even more than the others.

But it’s a comforting narrative for many, and it seems to resonate with normie Republicans. And so you see people—typically those who could suffer legal or political consequences from their connection to the attack—who say this kind of thing. Anton Lunyk, for example, who traveled from Brooklyn to DC for the rally and entered the Capitol, told several contacts asking via social media DM afterwards that everything was on the up and up. He repeated to several of them the lie that police had basically helped the crowd to see the sights. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have charged Lunyk and two other men with him that day with entering and remaining in the Capitol unlawfully, violently entering the Capitol, disorderly conduct inside the Capitol, and parading, demonstrating or picketing inside the Capitol. All three pleaded guilty to the latter in April 2022, and in September they were sentenced to a few months of home confinement, probation, and small fines for the other crimes.

The peaceful protest narrative peaked in popularity some time after the live television coverage of the attack but before a lot of the high-profile court cases and other coverage made clear to anyone paying attention the actual mood and misdeeds of the mob. It was around this moment that a Republican congressman–who had HELPED BARRICADE the doors of the House chamber–went so far as to say footage from inside the Capitol on January 6th could be mistaken for a “normal tourist visit.” The temptation to make this kind of comparison remains strong for those with something to lose if more of the public grasps how violent and awful it was.

And then there exist other, still wilder kinds of counternarrative. Some of them overlap with the two strategic uber-narratives above. Some, like saying officer Brian Sicknick died from the COVID vaccine and not from complications from being assaulted by the mob, stand alone and are generally more tactical in the effect they are meant to produce.

For Donald Trump’s part, he has kind of tried to rhetorically be on every side of the question, though he has made plain that he doesn’t dislike any of the fake versions that have circulated. Trump’s approach has been to say all the things, and that way you can point to where you’ve said the right thing even when you have also said its opposite. In his speech on January 7th, he acknowledged Joe Biden had won the election–but later walked back that admission. Trump has condemned the violence a time or two, but he has not shown remorse that the attack happened. He has lionized the rioters who led the attack and also expressed support for law enforcement harmed by them. He has dabbled in or boosted many of the phony counternarratives that have come along about January 6th, but he seems at times constrained in the operating space that the reality affords.

Probably the most notable rhetorical innovation Trump introduced was to punch back at those in the media and elsewhere who were calling the thing an “insurrection.” In a reprise of a familiar technique for the now-former President, he took a word that was being used against him and twisted it to refer instead to something his enemies had done to him. Within about six months of the mayhem at the Capitol, Trump was trying out the line that the REAL insurrection took place when he was voted out of office. In his words:

“I reverse it. The insurrection took place on November 3 - that was Election Day - and before and after. That was, to me, the insurrection. And the - January 6 was a protest.”

Notice how this statement, framed as a difference of opinion over what is said in a particular context, easily breeds misinformation as the meaning of words gets hopelessly confused in the dust being kicked up. As you might expect, the right-wing media ecosystem found this reversal very clever indeed and have been echoing it ever since.

We are going to delve more into the controversy about what words can appropriately be used with respect to January 6th in the final chapter, so stay tuned!

The impeachment by the House of Representatives did not lead to a Senate conviction. Donald Trump would serve out the remaining days of his single term as President. But Congress wasn’t done. It determined to launch into large-scale inquiries to learn as much as possible about why this thing had been inflicted on the country and on them personally.

One risk to this endeavor, though probably unavoidable given that the minority party was complicit in the events of January 6th, was that any investigation would become or be perceived as a partisan hack job. There is no shortage of examples of Congressional committees being stood up to help the majority win elections, from the Red Scare to Benghazi. The moment called for serious efforts by serious people.

The Speaker of the House started out with a concept in which the new “select,” or temporary, committee would roughly reflect the partisan representation of the House as a whole. Democrats had greater numbers, but Republicans would have their say. In July, Pelosi announced the committee’s creation and requested that minority leader Kevin McCarthy put forward names for a roster of five Republicans to participate.

Right out of the gate, the representatives McCarthy tapped telegraphed that they wanted to flout the stated objectives of the committee and derail the investigation by pursuing lines of inquiry focused on the security failings. In the words of one, Jim Banks of Indiana, as he announced he was accepting McCarthy’s nomination, these five Republicans would “force the Democrats and the media to answer questions… [like] why was the Capitol unprepared and vulnerable to attack on January 6?"

If after listening this far you still think the unpreparedness of the defenders and the security vulnerabilities of the Capitol are to blame for the violence, this may sound very reasonable. Pausing here for a minute, though, just to note that investigations of those things were, in fact, done in the weeks and months following the attack. Many of them. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, for example, pursued bipartisan investigations and ethics inquiries just days later. A House-commissioned independent review of security failures including recommendations for addressing vulnerabilities was wrapped up within a couple months. Both chambers held public hearings on the physical security of the Capitol complex and on how we had failed to collect and share intelligence in ways that could have enabled better preparation. And so on. The Congress even passed a law to remedy critical flaws in police and National Guard response processes.

Executive branch agencies with a role in the Capitol’s defense–and which played a part in the weak response to the attack–also conducted in-depth internal reviews, though these were not to be completed until later. DoD, the U.S. Capitol Police, and the Department of Homeland Security all saw their inspectors general launch probes and publish reports. The Government Accountability Office did a separate independent review of the performance of the Capitol Police. Maybe not all the questions were answered to everyone’s satisfaction, but a lot was being done on this front.

In light of the extensive attention given to the security aspects, Republicans’ hard line on insisting Democrats look at them exclusively as the new select committee was getting started in July was a clear signal, to me, that they intended to play politics, deflect blame from the attackers and the one they attacked for, and generally hinder the investigation from doing what it needed to do.

Even so, Nancy Pelosi accepted three of the Republicans tapped, but rejected Banks and Jim Jordan, another highly unserious, Trump-loyal member of Congress who made a circus out of the first impeachment proceedings in particular. What point was there in having a committee to investigate the attack, Pelosi reasoned, if people clearly in the tank for Trump and the attackers were allowed to cause havoc at every turn.

McCarthy wasn’t having it, though. He was going to have all his nominees, or he would pull the whole slate and Democrats would go it alone. Pelosi said (paraphrasing) fine, you do you. Republican leadership would have almost no influence on the committee, including the subpoena power, hearings, and other investigative tools at its disposal. On the other hand, Republicans would be free to lob broadsides at the committee and, by extension, the Democrats who run the House.

McCarthy further said the minority would run its own investigation. I should note: 13 months later and we’re still waiting for him to stand up this alternative panel... possible it was an empty threat! In the meantime, Republicans have done a good amount of talking about the security issues, and more recently have spoken about how they planned to take a hard look at the activities the Democrats’ committee has undertaken when they get the majority back. Surrogates have even hinted that members serving on the Committee would face jail time as payback for the people who have been found guilty of contempt of its subpoena power. The perpetrators are the victims, you see, and the investigators are really the ones who deserve to be investigated. That’s how the alternative reality thinks.

So it was that Democrats moved ahead with establishing the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. It would have Republicans, just not ones that McCarthy would have picked or can even stand to be in the same room as. The Committee would be co-chaired by Democrat Bennie Thompson and Republican Liz Cheney, who had voted for impeachment and was regularly speaking out about how wrong January 6th was. The Committee had Democrats Jamie Raskin and Adam Schiff, who had both played key roles in the Trump impeachments, but they also brought on Adam Kinzinger, a Republican who like Cheney had broken with his party on the thing it cared most about: Trump.

The Committee started working, quietly at first but growing in pitch and intensity as each month went by. The first phase was a wave of requests for interviews and documents from witnesses. These requests turned into subpoenas for some, and into criminal contempt referrals to the Department of Justice for a handful of the most obstinate. Steve Bannon was ultimately indicted for contempt because he had no legal defense for not complying. The momentum for gathering evidence built to the point that the Committee handed down subpoenas for sitting members of Congress, their own colleagues, in what surely made for occasional awkward silences in shared elevators around Capitol Hill.

Not everyone resisted. At least five staffers in the Trump White House, including a former press secretary and Trump’s daughter and her husband, cooperated with the Committee to provide testimony and documents. Donald Trump, Jr was deposed. Former Attorney General Bill Barr gave a revealing account of the weeks before he resigned. As of May 2022, the Committee had interviewed more than 1,000 people. It opened up a tip line, through which it received about 500 leads that it found worth pursuing.

On the documents front, the Committee went big early on to obtain records related to January 6th from the executive branch, now in the hands of the Biden Administration. Trump challenged this on grounds of executive privilege–saying the records of the Executive Office of the President and cabinet agencies should be shielded from others outside the executive branch from accessing–but President Biden waived privilege, which belongs to the sitting president, and the cases went against the former one. In January 2022, 8 justices of the Supreme Court ruled to let the Committee have the records. Clarence Thomas dissented.

This decision was a win for the Committee and for all interested in the public knowing more about January 2021. As of June 2022, the Committee had obtained 125,000 documents that would help it form an understanding of what happened within the government, and by key players not in government, and identify problem areas that needed more digging. It got text messages and emails and voice recordings and the memos that the lawyer types circulated saying the fake electors thing could really work if the Vice President went along.

Other wins came as well. Arguments had been made, mostly by witnesses who did not want to testify, that the Committee had no legislative purpose and that it had been improperly constituted and therefore lacked the authority to issue a subpoena in the first place. Federal judges considered both of these assertions and explicitly rejected them. The judicial branch found no fault with the Committee and was not willing to protect reluctant witnesses from its demands.

Trump kept leading the charge on total stonewalling of the Committee, and was able to in many respects himself. He invoked novel defenses such as a president’s supposed “absolute immunity” from being investigated for the rest of his life. He encouraged allies being served lawful subpoenas to refuse cooperation by claiming executive privilege, and many tried.

But the pressure on requested witnesses to cooperate, contrary to Trump’s wishes, intensified. Some doubled down and even tripled down, like former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark–remember him from Chapter 7?–who refused the Committee’s subpoena, saw his criminal contempt referral voted out of Committee, and then invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself more than 100 times in the course of an hour and 40 minutes in a separate deposition. Alex Jones pleaded the Fifth almost 100 times. In a letter explaining he would not give testimony responsive to a subpoena, John Eastman invoked the Fifth.

Stop the Steal firebrand Ali Alexander took to the courts, suing Nancy Pelosi, the Committee, and Verizon Wireless to keep his phone call records out of the hands of Congressional investigators. Mike Flynn sued Nancy Pelosi “in her official capacity as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives” in an attempt to block the Committee from enforcing its subpoenas. The Republican National Committee tried something similar.

By and large, these lawsuits went nowhere and ultimately the Committee got its hands on quite a lot. As the courts deliberated, though, the propagandists had time to keep hammering the counternarratives with the public and drive up negative perceptions of the Committee. Perhaps they calculated that if enough time went by Americans would be sapped of all interest in January 6th as fatigue set in over the back-and-forth.

Some of the topmost lieutenants, however, were finding resistance to be an untenable strategy. After all, it can cost a lot to file losing lawsuit after losing lawsuit, only to still end up at individual personal risk from a contempt charge. It was becoming clear that one could not rely on the “illegitimacy of the Committee” defense or, for most instances, the executive privilege defense when it came down to it.

Arguably the most significant single trove of evidence the Committee received was that turned over by Mark Meadows, a former Congressman who was chosen by Trump to be his final White House Chief of Staff after Meadows showed great loyalty during the first impeachment. Meadows at first cooperated, then didn’t and sued the Committee to protect himself from the consequences of stonewalling, then maybe cooperated again. It’s all a little unclear, and probably only the Committee really knows how that back-and-forth went. What we know is that before suing in December 2021, Meadows had shared basically the entire contents of his phone with the Committee. In it were messages going back to November 2020 about the idea to overturn the Electoral College all the way through to what the inner circle was doing and saying on January 6th itself.

The senior technical adviser for the Committee, who has written a book about his team’s work to analyze phone records and other data, called the Meadows haul a “road map to the coup” that Trump’s team tried to pull off. The Committee has made many of these messages public and has used them extensively in its hearings.  Meadows had sent texts to and received texts from a whole range of conspiracy theory advocates and Stop the Steal movers and shakers, including Mike Lindell and Ginni Thomas and many others. Whatever history makes of January 6th, the Meadows phone contents seem likely to play a central role in the final telling.

A lot of what we know at this moment about the work of the January 6th Committee comes from the series of televised hearings it held in the summer of 2022. Over eight sessions, Chair Bennie Thompson, Co-chair Liz Cheney, and Kinzinger and the rank-and-file Democrats took turns weaving recorded testimony and collected documents together to lay out varying aspects of the ordeal. Not for nothing, but I had structured the first half of this essay well before the first hearing aired, and I found that I had gotten myself most of the way to understanding January 6th the same way as did the many highly placed Republicans who had a front-row seat to it, whose testimonies constituted almost all of the video clips played in the hearings. Seeing the world through the misinformation lens and knowing how to read the media can sometimes get you the same kind of insight–if not quite the same degree–that the Committee got through a year of whole teams with access to absolute mountains of documents, firsthand accounts, and raw data. It’s a highly effective, highly efficient way of making sense of your world.

The January 6th Committee has said it will finish its work and publish a final report and no small amount of the evidence it has amassed by the end of 2022. I, for one, plan to carve out a good several hours to dig in to what they put out. Depending on whether I judge it to be of high quality in terms of substantiated argumentation, if it differs from what I’ve said in this essay I may choose to revisit my thinking and re-release a modified version.

I’ll end with a brief note that what I’ve laid out here are the big ones, but several other important civil suits and criminal investigations have been set in motion that will yield information about January 6th and potentially impose court-ordered consequences on those who did wrong. People suing Trump for damages and emotional distress on the one hand. Things like seditious conspiracy (which Oath Keepers and Proud Boys have now pleaded guilty to), conspiracy to defraud the United States, and attempting to obstruct Congress from doing its work on the other. Like the Committee’s work, I will be keeping an eye on these for the facts that are made known in the winding, yearslong course that these are sure to take.

And that’s going to be it for the part that deals with the immediate effects that January 6th caused. But what about those longer term things that constitute the legacy of that event, though? How can we understand what January 6th hath wrought on our politics, our communities, and our society? That’s in the next and final chapter.

Chapter 12 - Legacies

Mike Lindell just wanted a mushroom and swiss burger and a chocolate shake. Instead, what he got was a warrant served on him by the FBI, who came up to his car as it idled in a Hardee’s drive thru, and seized his cell phone. This capped off a year that had been something of a roller coaster ride for Lindell, who is a self-made millionaire as the CEO of MyPillow.

On the one hand, Lindell had championed the Stop the Steal cause, in particular keeping the flame of foreign hacking alive long after everyone else had rightly given up on it. This had been good for his business, with all the other true believer influencers lining up to hawk pillows and sheets with their own custom MyPillow promo codes. (He shares the revenues with major personalities in the conspirosphere–Glenn Beck, Dan Bongino, Rudy Giuliani, Jack Posobiec, and Vincent James Foxx all have codes–leading Steve Bannon to call him “the most significant financier in all of conservative media.”) He spoke at election denialist rallies and has been a fixture of Trump’s own rallies, showing up whenever election fraud was invoked. The now former President spoke well of him, which must feel nice for someone who is such a Trump fan.

On the other hand, Mike Lindell was tied in to everything leading up to January 6th and has become infamous for his involvement in the shenanigans that followed it. He made headlines on January 15th when his picture was taken outside of the White House. He or, he claims, an attorney who asked him to convey a message, had written the words “martial law if necessary” and the name Sidney Powell on notes he was holding just before a 5-10 meeting with Trump. There were those who wanted the departing President to not depart, to keep fighting by all means available. Mike Lindell was one who thought Trump should stay.

He has sunk, by his account, as much as $40 million into proving the 2020 election was stolen, on films about the supposed hacking–bearing titles like “ABSOLUTE PROOF,” “ABSOLUTE INTERFERENCE,” and “SELECTION CODE”--on a social media site that has gained no traction, and on a large conference 7 months after Biden’s inauguration that he dubbed a Cyber Symposium. At the latter event, he had promised to unveil incontrovertible data and let invited experts examine and test it. Instead, he unveiled no data at all.

Lindell has tried, repeatedly, to file “the case” for the Supreme Court to rule that the election fraud is real and therefore that the outcome we all observed–Biden winning–would have to be overturned. Nevermind that there is no mechanism in the Constitution for a president to be removed by a court after being sworn in, Lindell confidently opined that Trump would be reinstated. On multiple occasions, he made predictions about this that each time failed spectacularly to pan out. The Supreme Court has said it won’t be examining the briefs, to say nothing of ruling in his favor.

And then there was the Tina Peters saga, for which the FBI ultimately came for his phone as evidence in the case. The Colorado county clerk who arranged for her own election machines to be illegally breached in hopes of uncovering evidence of foreign hacking, and prosecutors have taken note and have indicted her. But between the breach and her indictment, Tina Peters made an appearance on the stage of Lindell’s big cyber symposium. The MyPillow executive very likely had direct communications with Peters, and could be investigated himself depending on what the feds find on his phone. Three days hadn’t gone by before Lindell, appearing at an event with Eric Trump, told the crowd they could save 66 percent off using promo code “FBI.” His money is still at the heart of the election denialism movement.

Mike Lindell. A kind of microcosm for all the weirdness and awfulness that has been on display since January 6th. But maybe one we can find hope in. You see, people have kind of lost interest in his schtick. A year after the symposium, and just days before the Hardee’s incident, Mr. Lindell tried to host a “summit” he called “Moment of Truth.” The problem he had, though, was that no one really came. In true conspiracy theorist fashion, he had a reason for this failure–that Google, Yahoo, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Facebook, Fox, and Newsmax all got together and decided to prevent him from succeeding–but its sheer implausibility only further eroded his credibility. With any luck, this will eventually be the fate of the false uber narratives about the 2020 election and January 6th: they collapse under their own weight and fade into political irrelevance and historical insignificance.

How Mike Lindell’s Pillow Business Propels the Election Denial Movement (New York Times)

Shifting gears from previous chapters, in which I tried my best to chronicle what happened with a focus on the lens that I use to make sense of the world. In this conclusion, it’s going to be more of the world according to Kevin, in that I am subjectively, though I hope transparently, going to lay out my views about the influence this episode of American history has and might have. Bear with me. Get ready for some editorial content!

Quick thoughts about terminology before we get into it. I have mostly avoided it so far, but I am going to refer to it as an “insurrection” in this chapter.

The question of whether it was a demonstration, protest, riot, insurrection, sedition, coup? A lot hinges on this, both in the legal sense of people on trial for crimes and in the political sense in that the Constitution since after the Civil War has not allowed people who participate in insurrections or seditions hold public office.

The efficacy of that restriction is being tested for the first time in a long time with pro-insurrection candidates, including incumbent members of Congress, around the country. Hard to say what the judicial system will do with such challenges, other than to say an early precedent has been set in New Mexico, where a judge ruled that a man who was found guilty of breaking into the Capitol was no longer eligible to hold his position as a county commissioner. If that is followed in other cases, the implications will be profound for our politics as legal consequences catch up with more officeholders.

Let’s consider the judge’s definition of “insurrection” in this case, because I think it is one that will make sense to most people. (With the caveat that, because of the stakes, pro-insurrection types want the word to mean something even more serious than what happened on January 6th—whatever THAT would look like.)

Judge Mathew wrote that an “insurrection” is an assemblage that uses force or intimidation to “prevent the execution of one or more federal laws.” This is clearly the case here. If this fairly standard definition of insurrection applies, January 6th was one. Force AND intimidation were marshaled to prevent a whole host of federal laws—and the Constitution itself—from being executed.

Not everyone there meant to do an insurrection, but notice that’s not what anyone is even saying. Bystanders to looting are not looters, but looting still occurred. People who watch a gang beat down someone in the street aren’t guilty of assault, but the crime was committed—and those who say so aren’t wrong to use the word.

There is a line, and my view is this was clearly over it when viewed in the aggregate. Just gets trickier when getting to whether an individual *person* did an insurrection.

One of the quickest ways to get into a waste of time argument on the Internet is to call January 6th an insurrection. There are a lot of people who simply can’t stand it, or they are glad to have a semantics debate to avoid having to defend what happened, or both. They have made up their minds, and they know the person saying it has made up theirs.

But. If you do get into conversation with someone reasonable, who won’t immediately pounce and is wondering why you think it was one, you might find it helpful to know that top Republicans other than Trump have used the I word. Including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has done so several times. Eventually he characterized it a “violent insurrection,” which is a little redundant but helps to reinforce the nature of insurrection while also correctly identifying this event as one.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also at one point agreed with McConnell here, but he has been less consistent. What happened with McCarthy is that the night of the attack he condemned it, then he stopped condemning it and made a trip to Mar-a-Lago to reconcile with Trump, and then became a January 6th defender. Something other than the truth is clearly driving McCarthy’s publicly stated views on this, whatever his personal understanding may be.

Meanwhile, recall that the Republican National Committee censured Republican House members Cheney and Kinzinger for participating in the select committee to investigate the attack. They were out. The RNC’s resolution went farther than most Republicans had been willing to in rationalizing what happened and steering the rhetoric away from talk of insurrection. Cheney and Kinzinger were bad Republicans, it asserted, because they were helping the Democrats punish the people responsible for what was, in the words of the censure resolution, “legitimate political discourse.” It was in the context of the public and political backlash to that egregious statement that Kevin McCarthy found it necessary to say he thought McConnell’s phrasing was accurate. It was an insurrection and it was violent, and was not legitimate as a form of political discourse.

So I’m in agreement with Judge Mathew and Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy on his good days. But I’ve chosen to mostly avoid saying “insurrection” anyway. Why? It is more important to me that I not trigger people than it is that I be able to use that word. Even though I believe it’s accurate, there are other accurate ways to describe January 6th that do not risk getting mired in semantics with people who are happy to distract from a real discussion—and put on a show of indignation that you dared to say “insurrection.” Not interested in playing that game. If I can reach more people by mostly avoiding the word, I’ll do that.

Still, and returning to what might END UP being one of the biggest legacies of January 6th, the question of if it is going to continue to be treated as an insurrection under the law—with ramifications for the future political careers of those who participated—remains to be seen. I’m not convinced the people who passed this Amendment after the Civil War to keep Confederates who battled for years against the Union out of the United States government would have agreed it should be applied, though, to elected officials whose role in the drama was essentially to cast a “no” vote on one or two states electors being certified.

Taking a maximalist position feels like a mistake for the pendulum swing we’re in right now as a nation. If someone worked actively to aid the coup machinations of Trump and his loyalists, sure let’s throw the book at them. But I’m sympathetic to the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board on this, which wrote that “down that road lies more political trouble as politicians use courts, rather than elections, to defeat their opponents. Mr. Griffin [the New Mexico county commissioner barred by the court from holding elected office] is best disqualified by the voters.”

Mostly what we need, I think, is to make insurrection*ism* poison on the campaign trail. If we enforce this provision but those who espouse it become martyrs and would otherwise easily win their races, matters will become far worse.

Okay, now for the legacies of January 6th, or what I’m just going to call the insurrection going forward, according to Kevin, in an order that I think demonstrates how each effect strengthens each of the others in a downward spiral:

The insurrection and its fallout have

  1. impaired our collective cognition and accelerated the descent of our society into conspiracy theory fever swamps.

  2. turned the Republican Party into a force for encouraging and even enforcing the talk and behaviors that lead to sedition

  3. made Americans less confident that that election outcomes can be trusted

  4. normalized political violence; and

  5. provoked new movements that push back on insurrectionism

These merit a good bit of unpacking. Let’s dive in.

First. The insurrection, and the ensuing information battles in which people and organizations with massive platforms have distorted reality, have impaired our collective cognition and accelerated the descent of our society into conspiracy theory fever swamps. That trend was already well underway between COVID and Stop the Steal, and now J6. The rabbit holes have gotten deeper, and the differences have been manufactured to be wider. It is classic American misinformation culture, but somehow moreso.

I know this firsthand because I started, and still admin, a support network for the loved ones of misinformation victims. It’s a private online group where people with a family member or close friend in the alternate reality can connect with others in the same boat. We have more than 740 members in this group from most of the states in the U.S. and a good number of folks in other countries as well. Overwhelmingly, what happens in our group is that people share heart-rending stories of how the conspiracy beliefs of their loved one is causing pain, igniting arguments, and in some cases destroying relationships.

I can say with confidence that the time surrounding and following January 6th saw a surge in the suffering of people in our group. It is very common for the loved one in question to believe in not just one conspiracy theory, but in many. Those to whom vaccines misinformation appeals tend to see merit in assertions that mass shootings are hoaxes. People who agree that Democrats steal elections and leave no real trace of their perfidy are just a step or two away from going all in on The Storm that QAnon thinks is coming. It all comes back to a shadowy “they”; when you are told after the attack that it wasn’t Trump supporters but that “they” framed Trump supporters, this reinforces and rhymes with many of the other fairy tales circulating. Blasting January 6th counternarratives into the infosphere was not harmless; it contributed in no small way to a new wave of misinformation that pushed Americans further than ever from reality.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, so many news organizations took an interest in the stories of people whose lives were being broken by January 6th and other misinformation. CBS ran a special with a panel of people. NBC Nightly News did a feature based on an interview with a woman in our support group. Probably dozens of articles in major publications.

In addition to looking at this through the lens of family relationships, too, there are other manifestations to evidence the trend I’ve described. Things like audits—and partisan exercises that shouldn’t count as audits—conducted in swing states to investigate made-up things about the long-over election. Without stopping to ask themselves if their own wins on the same ballots should be voided, Republican lawmakers charged ahead with calls to decertify Biden’s win. Part of this was cynical abuse of voters’ concerns—insisting that we still have to answer questions that have already been answered because that is what Trump wants and it seems to keep the base fired up. But many seemed sincere in their beliefs.

Another area where it can be hard to tell whether someone pushing conspiracy theories is just ignorant of the truth or shamelessly grifting is in the cottage industry of films, books, and other media that has sprung up around them since January 2021, and the conferences headlined by personalities who make such content, and the thriving merchandise economy that surrounds it all. Mike Flynn, Mike Lindell, Sidney Powell, Tina Peters, luminaries of the anti-vaccine movement, and a hundred others of lesser fame are fixtures in this revival-style road show. Many of these meetings have happened at large churches and have blended election denialism, COVID trutherism, QAnon zealotry, and Christian Nationalism into a jumble of emotional appeals completely detached from logic.

It hasn’t helped that Trump has more and more personally endorsed QAnon and the people, including fringe Republicans, who plan and make money from and speak at these events. He’s not single-handedly keeping the ecosystem alive, but he has played a large and increasing role in encouraging its growth. And grow it has.

The ecosystem does pretty well on its own, truth be told. It’s not nice to think about, but there are a lot of Americans, and a good number of them will open their wallets to scammers saying things they like. This is as true with election lies as with anything else. The popular conspiracy show InfoWars and its host Alex Jones draw in the target audience with outlandish, absurd, but ultimately simple and for many people satisfying, theories explaining why the world is the way it is. Many of them have been about the stolen election or the framing of patriots on January 6th, all the work of Satanist cabals and lizard people and the like. Jones then sells to that audience—and makes a killing on quack supplements, anti-Joe Biden or pro-MAGA pump and dump coin schemes, and merchandise. It is a well-oiled grift that takes millions from unsuspecting people every month.

Specific to the post-January 6th era, an organization called True The Vote got MAGA diehard Dinesh D’Souza to pick up some truly shoddy analysis it did and make it into a feature-length film. The surveillance footage of ballot drop boxes was grainy and the commercially acquired geotracking data is not precise enough to say much with confidence. But the film still tries—and has succeeded with many—to trick people into thinking that Democrats ran an enormous ballot harvesting operation in jurisdictions where Trump lost across the country, for example Georgia.

They called this work of fiction, which the producers loaded up with dramatic reenactments and talking head commentary to distract from the fact they showed no mules making visits to more than one drop box, “2,000 Mules.” Before all the debunks rolled in, and even after, D’Souza was charging election fraud believers a hefty 30 dollars per download to stream it. He wanted networks including Fox to give it free advertising by broadcasting the film, but none were interested.

Too awful for Fox, but a lot of people still point to “2,000 Mules” as some kind of inarguable trump card in disagreements about whether the election had been proven stolen. Since the film does nothing of the kind, it only makes sense as a grift from start to finish. In its first few weeks, indeed, “2000 Mules” grossed $1.3 million.

The larger Stop the Steal scam was orders of magnitude larger. It’s difficult to say concretely, but counting the fundraising of Trump’s Save America PAC and the revenues of wildly popular media personalities who propagate election misinformation like Dan Bongino, former Congressman and numbers guy Denver Riggleman once estimated the *floor* of the money raked in since November 2020 to be about $250 million.

With this kind of profit engine behind it, it’s no wonder that Stop The Steal didn’t end after January 6th. As things had now been fully certified and Biden even inaugurated, those who were sure that fraud really existed, and that its scale would be enough to reverse whole states all toward Trump, took a new approach. They’d just pretend that an election can be “decertified” well after its certification—and the President we all saw win could be simply swapped out for the other candidate.

This took different forms. In its most straightforward version, Republicans talked about decertification as an event that the people could petition for, or that elected representatives on the good side of the fight could introduce as a resolution in a state legislature. This was Mark Finchem and Wendy Rogers and others in Arizona. To take another Arizona example, Congressman Paul Gosar called for a “rematch” between Trump and Biden after the Maricopa County audit was concluded. Still one more from Arizona, Congressman Andy Biggs told a large rally audience that Trump would be president again in 2024–“if not sooner.”

Taking advantage of Trump’s mythical base of support meant, for one man, just inventing a story about how Biden is not vested with the powers of the presidency because Trump, in his wisdom, “devolved” them to the states where they belonged. According to this blog post that became a hit with the QAnon crowd, that action allowed Trump to continue on as POTUS even after his apparent loss. Sensational, brazen nonsense—that many in MAGA were happy to support financially.

Perhaps no person staked more on the early return of Donald Trump to the White House than Mike Lindell. He spent a small fortune producing films to persuade the persuadable that, aesthetically, are a lot like your old school conspiracy theory videos. It’s images, and voiceovers, kind of pieced together in a way that won’t even make sense unless you already know the ins and outs of the theory in question. Foreign hacking. Packet captures. Etc.

Lindell has also talked constantly about how the Supreme Court would overturn the election based on the supposed hacking. At least twice, Lindell prognosticated that Trump would be “reinstated” within a specific timeframe.

But decertification isn’t a thing, and neither is a rematch. Joe Biden has the full powers of the presidency  The only ways for a president to be removed from office after being sworn in are clearly laid out in the Constitution—and the Supreme Court just deciding to do it isn’t on the list. This was make-believe, innovations tailored to keep the Stop The Steal crowd engaged and ready to shell out for the cause.

And by any measure, it was a wild success despite how impossible it all was in the real world. As of January 2022, a poll found that three in 10 Republicans thought Trump’s reinstatement before 2024 might be possible. 

Some people got out of the election lie rabbit hole, even QAnon, after the insurrection, but on net the past 18 months will be remembered as a mass red-pilling event, where millions were bombarded with counterfeit narratives and bad information—and resolved to remain angry because of the things they now believed. Following on top of the COVID mass red-pilling event, this has made American misinformation culture stronger than it has ever been. There are two realities, and one of them is constructed around fairy tales and hopium for dramatic cures to our medical and political ills. We will have to reckon with this fallout for decades to come.

Second. After January 6th the Republican Party was transformed into a force for encouraging and even enforcing the talk and behaviors that led to insurrection—election denialism most of all. The only way to stay in today’s Republican Party is to pay lip service to Trump’s insistence that the election was stolen from him. That’s just objective and plain to see; all Republicans who do otherwise are driven out.

Some are genuinely afraid of a primary challenge or losing standing with the voter base that is loyal to Trump. Or they are afraid the people who constantly talk about the Second Amendment will decide they are traitors to their oaths by crossing him. Such fear is the only thing I can really figure to which things like voting against a Capitol police support bill can be chalked up.

I suppose I understand why they fear, though I do wish these public servants would muster more courage when their country needs them. The logic is very tough in individual cases, but what is stopping dozens of Republicans who truly want out of the death pact from banding together and making a direct, sustained, unified case for ditching election denialism? I have to believe there is strength in numbers.

Beyond fear, and perhaps the reason we don’t see pushback of the kind I wish for, the dynamic that has most frustrated me is that many, particularly leadership in the Party, seem to have calculated that they can harness the power of Trump and the brainwashing effect of the propaganda based on falsehoods to help themselves and the party get more power. Kevin McCarthy in particular appears to be banking on his fealty to Trump as the path to retaking the majority and being voted Speaker of the House. There’s a very “One Ring To Rule Them All” feeling to this, as if they think this corrupt, but powerful, dark magic can be used to accomplish worthy policy objectives and political victories without also corrupting and darkening them. Spoiler alert: it cannot!

Trump and McCarthy and the right-wing media ecosystem actively enforce election denialism and the shielding of Trump from all criticism, going back to when the Russian government supported his 2016 campaign, or the way he tried to withhold aid to Ukraine and hurt U.S. national security until he was personally benefiting from the transaction, or the long list of his private and moral failings. This fall, the apologism du jour was all about why Trump is allowed to claim government property, much of it very sensitive in the national security sense, as his own and throwing unwarranted suspicion on the National Archives and federal law enforcement, of all institutions, for insisting it be returned.

Republicans also don’t dare criticize Trump’s continued poor treatment of Mike Pence, either. The former President has never stopped talking about how he thinks Pence did the wrong thing. Trump has even suggested that the chants to hang Mike Pence on January 6th weren’t so bad when you thought about it. Pence has spoken out, and a couple members of Congress have backed him up, but generally it’s silence as Trump keeps hammering away at his erstwhile ally.

Perhaps most remarkable, though, is the complete reversal on who was responsible for the mob existing and coming to the Capitol on January 6th at all. This obviously was Trump, and most Republicans including McCarthy said so in the hours following the violence. But not long after, the deflection and redirecting took hold. The Party and its allies in conservative media decided on a strategy, and it was not going to be to tell the truth that many had already let slip in a fleeting moment of anger and patriotism. After only a few days, Republicans were no longer willing to say it was Trump’s fault.

As the most potent instrument he has to enforce the acceptance of this ugly, dishonest partisanship that can only be done well by abandoning conservative principles, Trump has wielded his mighty endorsement to destroy anyone who speaks against him in Republican primaries. One can see how dangerous it is that so many openly anti-democracy candidates are winning Republican nominations. At the same time, maybe there is hope that because of how extreme they are they will, by and large, be crushed in the generals. This would deal a severe blow to the near-mythical awe that Republicans hold Trump’s endorsement in.

But I’m not holding my breath. For now, Trump’s endorsement remains a salient, effective mechanism for further remaking the GOP in his image—and getting some of the fringiest election truthers on the midterms November ballot. In Pennsylvania, for example, Trump wanted Doug Mastriano, a QAnon follower who is transparently in favor of reversing the 2020 outcome and has indicated he will not allow Trump to lose in 2024, to be the Republican nominee for governor. He got it. Similar story with Kari Lake in Arizona.

Having Trump signal to his allies and followers that you are a RINO or disloyal to him, meanwhile, is the evil twin of his positive endorsement. By some measures he has been more effective at pushing people out for heresy than he has in elevating those who are sufficiently compliant. But it’s two sides of the same coin, really. Riding the likes of Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Rusty Bowers, and others out on a rail makes the party smaller but more in his thrall. What you lose in moderates you gain in activating people who love Trump.

The doctrines and makeup of the party have shifted to the point where if you’re running as a Republican, you have to say Trump won in 2020. In September 2021, one poll found that almost 60 percent of GOP and right-leaning independent voters felt that believing what Trump says about the election is an important part of what it means to call oneself a Republican.

Some examples. In August 2021 Mo Brooks—of Ellipse rally speech fame—spoke at another Trump event. “Look forward” and leave 2020 behind, he implored. He was booed, and heckled, and quickly walked it back. Brooks later said that well into 2022 Trump had pressured him into rescinding his 2020 loss—which he understood to be illegal and impossible. Amid this public falling out, Brooks lost Trump’s endorsement for his run for Senate in Alabama and failed to secure the nomination.

October 2021 was something of a watershed in the enforcement of this orthodoxy. At a rally in Iowa, Trump made not conceding into an applause line. Arizona’s Andy Biggs claimed from a House committee rostrum that “we don’t know” who won in 2020 when asked by a Democratic colleague. Trump issued a full letterhead statement praising Biggs for this performance, calling him “incredible” for parroting all the same nonsense about Maricopa County. The next day, the number 2 Republican in the House was asked on Fox over and over who won 2020, and Steve Scalise steadfastly refused to answer. And so on. Bear in mind that by this time almost a year had passed since Trump lost. Biden had been president for more than nine months.

Election denialism has been a fault line in factional warfare within the GOP in several states including Nevada, Wisconsin, Idaho, and Missouri. Local Republican leaders who definitely voted for Trump and even helped him carry their states are castigated for suggesting that the fixation on 2020 would be a drag on the party’s prospects in future elections. The deniers seem to have the edge in most places, but even with a stalemate or where normies ultimately carry the day, the issue drives a wedge between erstwhile fellow travelers and alienates the losing side.

The Trump camp sees itself as correcting an historic injustice here. The way they talk about it, the many elected Republicans and Republican election administrators who did not agree to help Trump “find” votes, or delay signing certificates, or say there was widespread fraud in their jurisdictions are at best RINOs, Republicans in Name Only, one of the worst things you can be called by the MAGA crowd. To be a true Republican means you support Trump no matter what. Leader over party, party over country. Anyone who enforces the law and sticks to procedure because there are no extraordinary circumstances to warrant anything else instantly become RINOs who have sold out and joined the criminals in the Demon-rat Party.

Enforcement of the new orthodoxy has reached the media as well. Trump has been vocal about which channels and publications are good—those that parrot the things he says about election fraud and January 6th—and which are not. Fox News has been on Trump’s naughty list, while Newsmax and OAN get full stockings.

When the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board truthfully said, also in October 2021, that Trump lost Pennsylvania, the former President wrote a letter with twenty bullet points with warmed-over, unsubstantiated claims that supposedly prove he did not. The number of ballots remaining in question, all told, are nowhere near enough to flip the state to Trump even if they went 100 percent to him, and the Journal fired back at Trump’s “2020 monomania,” which strikes me as accurate and also a label that Trump and his most ardent supporters might mostly agree with.

As a couple of the conservative outlets got gun-shy about propagating obvious lies about election machine hacking because of the massive lawsuits being filed by the companies that make election machines, the Big Lie about the 2020 election lived on in pro-Trump local news orgs. It found new ways to burrow into our collective consciousness.

And it’s not just Republican candidates and conservative media. Believe it or not, but Trumpism has driven out evangelical pastors who declined to follow the movement off a cliff. It’s an all-encompassing purity test that polarizes all that it touches.

All of the above adds up to this: Republicans will no longer allow Republicans to lose elections, especially Trump, if they can help it. In my opinion, this is not a positive development. Even if they don’t get away with it, swinging a sledgehammer at the foundations of representative democracy is moving the conservative zeitgeist closer toward overt authoritarianism. It has also prompted responses on the left that are more urgent and alarmed than is probably healthy. For the sake of stability, we should be looking for ways to narrow the pendulum’s reach, not allow it to swing ever higher.

One might rightly ask: what difference does it make? Why does it matter that Republicans are locking themselves into these kinds of antidemocratic stances? Well, the answer is that a national political party has a lot of power! Insisting that there is only one right answer, and that the answer is Democrats cheat so they must be stopped, is already manifesting a number of worrying trends.

To take one example, Trump has tipped the scales to help election conspiracy theorists running for secretary of state and other positions in swing states that control the machinery of election administration. In this, Trump is also aided by an open plot, led by an infamous QAnon influencer, to have Q-friendly individuals gain control of election infrastructure around the country. They aren’t even hiding that the point of doing this is to block the certification of tallies that go against Republicans. Wins for Democrats are inherently corrupt, according to this worldview, demanding extraordinary interventions in response.

Steve Bannon and Mike Flynn, who you will recall played important roles in the insurrection, have been leading the charge for even more localized activism to put Republicans, especially fringe Republicans loyal only to Trump, into strategic position to shape outcomes more to his liking. Kick the RINOs to the curb and put in some people with real spine. Fighters. In the QAnon community, you saw influencers encouraging adherents to the faith to run for Republican precinct committees and make them ideologically pure.

Further to the aim of imposing their preferences, these schemers have the help of groups like the Proud Boys. Yes, the Proud Boys! After a brief interlude in the wake of January 6th, the Proud Boys got back into public activism in a big way and have stayed there. In 2021, according to reporter Tess Owens, Proud Boys made themselves conspicuous at no fewer than 114 local events around the country. Grid News reported in June 2022 that the Proud Boys had more chapters at that point than they did before January 6th. None of this bodes well for Americans who hope for less political violence.

A lot of these candidates are, most likely, going to lose. Based on the wild popularity of election trutherism after 2020, and considering that Trump still never ceases talking about it, though, there is every reason to think that that the ones who don’t win, by whatever margin, are going to contest their losses and kick up a lot of dust that further confuses things. Same for fringe-y Republicans running for other offices, too. None of what they allege will hold up in court, but they’ve figured out that they just need to keep deceiving a large enough chunk of the population. Court wins are out of reach, and though losses don’t seem to matter to believers, we might see less time invested in working challenges through the legitimate process. Buckle up.

And for the ones who do win, what I expect to happen is they will direct most of their energies at measures that make voting harder for Democrats, elections more difficult to tally generally, and candidates and races at all levels easier for Trump and co. to influence.

There is also a backup plan for the presidential contest in 2024 in case fringe Republicans are unable to burrow themselves sufficiently into the bureaucracy to dictate election results at will. The final say, according to one theory, at least, is that state legislatures have ultimate authority over which votes their states send to the Electoral College. Because Republicans control a lot more state legislatures than Democrats, giving those assemblies the power to unilaterally decide which candidate gets its electors would change the game entirely.

This is almost certainly a bad legal reading of the Constitution. It doesn’t make sense on its face, either, because what reason could there be to put a middleman between what the people of a state want and who is chosen to cast votes at the Electoral College. But if a swing state or two tries it–Arizona nearly passed a law to this effect already–and the Supreme Court rules it to be valid, that could become a favored instrument for canceling whatever the people of those states decide via the voting booth. On a parallel track to all the rest of this stuff, people in the Republican Party are working on setting up just such a ruling and new political rules of the road. Something that I’ll be watching out for, and I hope you will too.

With the abyss widening and this Sauron effect turning the GOP into a force for pushing society into it, the third legacy of January 6th is that Americans no longer feel that election outcomes can be trusted. We have undermined and delegitimized THE THING that ensures the powers that be remain responsive to what the American people want. [start normal and gradually ramp up speed] Strident Stop the Stealism, the multiple attempts to overturn 2020, the dissembling over the multiple attempts to overturn 2020, the ease with which contextless video “evidence” and other debunked claims are accepted as true, the refusal to recognize the judicial branch as the arbiter of disputes, the so-called audits, the citizen “canvasses,” some conducted by armed Trump enthusiasts, that followed the audits [break]… all of these things have damaged, and are damaging, our country. They erode confidence in our system of democracy.

You’ve seen the Trump-led faction of the Republican Party dusting off the election fraud playbook on several occasions since January 6th. Tucker Carlson, for example, gave oxygen to a conspiracy theory about the Virginia governor’s race in November 2021. The same night, Telegram lit up with paranoia about fraud and users were self-reporting what they considered suspicious happenings.

More of this was to come with elections in New Jersey, and California. In more and more places where Democrats are winning fair elections, more and more Republicans are chiming in to say they think the whole system is hopelessly corrupt. In October 2022 in Arizona, the Republican candidate for governor went on a cable news channel and refused to answer whether she would accept the results of her own election if she loses. Not conceding, and crying fraud to avoid acknowledging a loss, is going to become far more frequent.

The 2022 midterms chapter of our history is still being written, but it seems clear that those that follow Donald Trump are going to deny adverse election outcomes in perpetuity because he hasn’t softened the rhetoric about his loss at all.

And, frighteningly, this trend is obviously a big step toward losing democracy altogether. It’s poison. People who feel there is no fair way to decide who will be in charge and what will get done tend to support extreme means to achieve their policy ends. Americans who repeatedly see their preferred candidates lose, but pretend they didn’t lose, will not have confidence that democracy is the right system. Demagogues and would-be dictators will take advantage of those passions. All will devolve into a raw power struggle with no off ramps. We have to shore up faith in elections, and we have to do it now. Yes, I’m talking to you folks who keep saying asking questions is good and should be celebrated. I’m talking to you, Donald Trump, and how you said as recently as October 2022 that you “don’t think we’ll ever have a fair election again.” Repeating falsehoods that have been proven false is bad, even if you dress it up as asking questions.

January 6th’s fourth legacy is that it has normalized political violence. We talk about violence much more often, and it isn’t universally condemned, especially on the right. Our politics were already taking on a harder edge before January 6th, but the ginned up controversy over whether the violence that day was justified has made it worse. It puts me in mind of countries, and times in our own history, where things like coercion and assassination are used to cow political opponents and scare off people who would be inclined to stand up for agendas those with thugs at their call don’t like. Leaders say violent things and listeners take it on themselves to act it out. Stochastic terrorism. Violence and talk of violence can be effective for the exercise of power. But it isn’t the American way.

The act of making excuses for the attack itself is the most obvious thing in this category, starting early on and perhaps culminating with that RNC resolution saying the riot was “legitimate political discourse.” If savagely assaulting police and breaking into buildings to achieve badly wrongheaded authoritarianistic aims is now legitimate, what else can be justified? Is violence okay when the people doing it just really really really believe they are right?

On top of the lies and deflection in general, Trump and his allies are going further by lionizing the specific people who perpetrated violence. He said he loved them on the day they attacked the police, and his feelings have not changed. On multiple occasions, Trump has held forth on the blamelessness of the rioters and pledged to pardon them if he is elected for another term. Surprise! The guy who asks his rallygoers to assault hecklers and talks about Second Amendment solutions to electoral loss problems is going to make sure people that do violence for him are taken care of.

Trump and his acolytes have attempted, further, to turn the tables by making these hundreds of lawbreakers into victims of an overzealous and politically motivated administration of justice. Yes, not only is what these people did acceptable, they insinuate, but it is unacceptable that they are made to take responsibility and do the time. The conditions in the jail are horrendous, they say. Their cases are taking too long to process, they say. The perpetrators are having the book thrown at them unfairly, they say. These are political prisoners, they say. Surely this is the work of Democrats who just hate them for their pure conservative beliefs, they say. Law enforcement and the courts are corruptly and unpatriotically persecuting innocents, they say. And so the thinking goes.

Marjorie Taylore Greene and other Trump allies want to help the foot soldiers in jail, which I suppose is admirable. Some in the Trump camp have gone so far as to stand up a legal fund to help those accused of January 6th crimes defend themselves, though this seems to be mostly going to the planners of the attack more than the front line attackers who need it most. But again: when people who do violence are cast as innocents and see a pouring out of political and even financial support, what does that say about how okay violence is becoming in some parts of our society?

Trump has also been leading out on the right’s martyr-ization of Ashli Babbitt, who you will remember was killed trying to rush a barricade inside the Capitol to reach lawmakers on the other side. Most memorable was probably the video Trump recorded for a family birthday celebration in honor of Ashli ten months after she died, in which he said, scripted: “she was shot and tragically killed… there was no reason Ashli should have lost her life that day. We must all demand justice for Ashli and her family.”

Where Trump goes, others follow. Here’s Tucker Carlson, commenting on the incident and railing against the officer who shot Ashli: “I don’t think we *execute* unarmed protesters, do we?” By erasing the responsibility Ashli Babbitt bears for her death, Tucker is here giving support to the kind of violence that she was trying to do in the moment the police officer shot her. By calling it an execution, Tucker performs what I’m sure he thinks is a clever reversal and makes her an innocent victim. He doesn’t want you to think about the violence she was doing, because if you look away from it in her case then the consequences of others doing violence are lessened.

Tucker Carlson, who by the way later made a whole film about how “patriots” are being “purged” by an illiberal regime of liberals. Black helicopter imagery, almost completely unveiled conspiracy ideation about a shadowy “they” who are coming for freedom-loving people. In this telling, January 6th and the people who faced consequences for their criminal outbursts were part and parcel of an ongoing good-vs-evil struggle. The people who did the Capitol attack, now political prisoners, were on the good side of this struggle. By extension shouldn’t you, another good person watching this, support them and their cause? Shouldn’t you, a good person who is witnessing these injustices, also consider that all the good people might need to rise up and resist the evil by force? You can see where this easily leads.

So that’s all looking backward, setting up January 6th as an event to be covered in glory when the attacking side wins and writes the history books.

What is happening now, though, is also clearly helping create an atmosphere of political violence in the present. Let’s talk about the trend toward more intimidation and threats–and acceptance of these as tactics. In a healthy political arena, every person speaking for a large bloc of Americans would come out against intimidation and threats whenever they occur. Yes, this is my wish. But for now only a wish, because it isn’t our reality.

First, consider how MAGA politicians wield threats of retaliation against people and organizations who take, or might take, actions that bother them. It’s like cancel culture, but instead of boycotting a company for its social justice failings, you vow to use the power of the state to crush those who cross your tribe. It’s calling for political opponents to be arrested when they have not even been charged with a crime–to say nothing of proven guilty. It’s saying you will delicense news organizations because they publish unflattering stories about you. In the case of Marjorie Taylor Greene, it’s threatening to entirely shut down telecomms companies when Republicans are back in power because those firms said they would comply with Congressional subpoenas for records related to January 6th.

What we really need to watch out for, though, is where these pressure tactics and efforts to intimidate are directed at the people who run our elections. And be assured, this is going on all around you. There are the times in late 2020 when Rudy Giuliani and Trump made phone calls to such officials, including in Arizona and Georgia. We talked earlier about Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger; an hourlong phone call where Trump just kept asking over and over for the Republicans running Georgia’s election infrastructure to find him votes. That is one instance of a number that are known. Imagine how many others were subjected to this kind of pressure.

But it goes well beyond phone calls and suggestion. As has been extensively–though I suspect incompletely–documented, election officials, in swing states in particular, have been targeted with a torrent of threats of violence against themselves and their families. The FBI has warned of “unusual levels of threats to election workers” in AZ, NV, CO, GA, MI, PA & WI.

Secretaries of State being the highest profile of those threatened, but there are many others down the chain, going all the way to rank and file election workers of the kind that are known well by the neighbors in the precincts where they do their work. Most of these people aren’t hiding and can’t if they wanted to. These aren’t big shots who have resources to afford security or pursue legal action against those who threaten–and no way of knowing who many of them are, in any event.

There’s no mystery as to why they are being threatened, or who it is that wants them to change the way they run elections. Reuters has done whole series on this, and guess what? It’s Trump supporters. The ones who plan the harassment and make the phone calls are, overwhelmingly, fans of the former president who are unable to accept that their favorite politician could have lost in a legitimate election. So they turn on the administrators who they think are complicit. It is unfortunate, but law enforcement does almost nothing about these threats.

Imagine doing your job, one that you know is important for our society to function and the brings you satisfaction as a civic-minded resident of your state, and then finding yourself on the receiving end of a litany of baseless accusations and vile, unhinged voice messages calling you and your family traitors, and phone calls warning that you deserve to be hunted down and killed. This is the reality for many election officials in this country in the last two years. People around are also impacted by this. The threats are relentless, and you and your loved ones and your coworkers and staffers are distressed. Emotional trauma takes its toll as the weeks roll on.

Oh, and your job is getting harder and more dangerous to boot. Hassles ranging from things like Mike Lindell asking Trump supporters to intentionally flood local election offices with so many requests for information about 2020 that it grinds your operation into dysfunction to the advent of militias and sheriffs and freelance election truthers appointing themselves to “monitor” the polls and drop boxes for suspicious activity. Now I don’t just face threats at my office and on my home number, and am required by law to work through a backlog of bad faith requests that make it harder for me to pull off a solid election this cycle, I have to also go to places where hostile, armed, angry men are waiting to render judgment on my performance of the duties I have been assigned. What happens if they don’t like what they see? What happens if I see them harassing a voter? So many ways for this to go sideways. Election workers in many places are receiving active shooter training and seeing security increased at their work locations, but it shouldn’t have to be done! If politicians currently ignoring or encouraging the threats were to speak out against them, there would be little need for bulletproof glass and a contingent of trained guards.

Understandably, the proliferation of these threats has driven a lot of people who don’t want this life for themselves to simply get out of the business of elections. Informed as they are about elections and being unwilling to bend or break the rules in the ways the election fraud crowd demanded of them, they choose to leave.

The departure of seasoned election officials is a clear win for the election fraud crowd, because now there is a vacuum. Now there are openings to put people who DO have the stomach (“spine”) to help Trump in 2024. First run the competent, principled guard out of town on a rail, then install the denialist crew and make the little moves all across the country that will add up to a big difference. Get into position to steal an election by cursing and harassing the people who actually took seriously the responsibility. Say, falsely, that they helped steal the 2020 election and then help the ones who would be happy to “find votes” and do whatever Trump says is “the right thing.”

Going to shift gears and talk about another kind of violent rhetoric, more specific to the legacy of January 6th. There are millions of people in this country–millions–who think Trump’s return to office is so important that the use of force is justified to make it happen.

This has been the subject of a series of studies by the University of Chicago along with the National Opinion Research Center that have documented Americans’ attitudes toward political violence starting in 2021. A poll conducted five months after the insurrection showed that 26 percent of people asked said the 2020 election was stolen and Joe Biden was an illegitimate president. Of these, a fifth or so thought that using force to restore Trump to power is justified. The authors of the study estimate that about 15 million Americans are strongly in the insurrectionist way of thinking, mostly in urban areas and mostly Republicans. In this movement, about 6 million people support militias like the Oath Keepers and extremist groups like the Proud Boys.

And what, do you suppose, is the belief system driving these attitudes? Why is it that I have focused on misinformation all throughout the telling of January 6th? Well, it’s conspiracy theories. Most notably: Great Replacement, which holds that the demographic shift from majority white to majority other races in the U.S. will lead to white people having fewer rights and job opportunities, and QAnon. People who spend a lot of time on the chanboards and other right-wing social media, and to a lesser but still significant extent watching channels like OAN and Newsmax or listen to talk radio, are much MUCH more likely to hold these beliefs about political violence, according to this study. And no wonder; the whole ecosystem is flooded with this notion, and it has been moving more people in its direction.

That all comes from the first in the University of Chicago series. The titles of its subsequent reports bear the following titles, in case you are wondering: 

  • Deep, Divisive, Disturbing: New Survey Shows Mainstream Community Support for Violence to Restore Trump Remains Strong. January 2, 2022.

  • "Patriotic Counter-Revolution": The Political Mindset that Stormed the Capitol. April 11, 2022.

  • Remorse or Double Down? Those Who Stormed the Capitol are Remorseful but Do Not Repudiate Trump's Big Lie. September 14, 2022.

If you can believe it, all of this gets worse still. Our stumble off the violent rhetoric cliff is going to a place we haven’t been in generations: a steady background chatter about civil war being possible. The rhetorical foundations are being laid to excuse full-blown domestic conflict; all you have to do is listen to fringe Republicans and many will tell you that such a war is coming, or they believe it is inevitable, or in their minds there is already one underway.

It starts with things like Representative from North Carolina Madison Cawthorn saying there could be “bloodshed” if elections in this country aren’t stopped from being rigged. Some of the most outspoken election truther personalities are former military or intelligence, and they tend to couch the situation, as they see it, in the language of armed conflict. For example, when talking about how they plan to stand ready to challenge results they don’t like in 2022 or 2024, they’ll say things like “it’s going to be an army” on their side. Right-wing podcasts are no help; they are getting people all riled up for civil war for more listens and ad revenues.

Remember, this talk resonates with so many people because the misinformation about election fraud–but not recognizing it as misinformation–has made them sure they are on the side of justice. That when they talk about fighting, it’s understood that they are fighting for freedoms that they believe are being taken away.

Consider, as well, that there is a negative feedback loop that will lead people who are convinced Democrats cheat toward radicalization and, ultimately, violence. It goes like this: I am absolutely certain that there was election fraud. I see people on my side trying to pursue this through the channels available in our system: law enforcement, the courts, state and federal prosecutors, maybe my elected representatives, etc. But, to my extreme frustration, none of these things go anywhere. The authorities who are supposed to handle things when there is wrongdoing are standing by. The other side appears untouchable. Since the allegations are so rock solid in my mind, I start thinking that officials who fail to take them seriously are corrupt—and in on the steal. And if the corruption is so widespread, there is no longer recourse to address grievances available within the system. After a couple times round this loop, I may be ready to nod along when someone comes and says “we the people” have to “take back our country.” They’re talking about civil war, and you start to feel we might not have other options left.

In the end, as on January 6th, whether there will be violence is largely going to depend on Donald Trump. He has indicated that aggressive pushback will be in order if he is made to feel real consequences for… anything, really. Hounded by federal and state prosecutors for a number of alleged crimes, the Congress investigating his role in January 6th, and a raft of civil suits on top of it all, as far back as January 2022 at a rally the former president fairly demanded that they all come to nothing, or else: “"If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington DC, in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere because our country and our elections are corrupt.”

In Georgia, where prosecutors were investigating Trump’s call with Raffensperger when Trump said this at a rally, the district attorney found it necessary to ask the FBI for security assistance including intelligence and federal agents to protect her and her staff. He knows the effect it has when he says this kind of thing, but he isn’t going to stop.

And then came the incident with the sensitive, highly classified government documents that he declined to give back despite being asked several times. The FBI showed up at Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago and took the documents back, which among other things means they had demonstrated to a judge probable cause that these documents were or would contain evidence of crimes. An entire voice essay could be separately dedicated to these 2022 happenings, which really don’t have all that much to do with January 6th.

But for now, let’s just highlight that Trump’s brush with the law has made him even more willing to hint that he will muster his supporters en masse if an indictment follows the search. And those supporters aren’t going to be hard to convince. 

Because Trump can’t start a civil war on his own, we also need to pay attention to who is helping him keep the possibility front and center. Picking up on Trump’s cues, influential allies like Marjorie Taylor Greene have suggested that the Mar-a-Lago event was the opening act of the coming civil war. Globalists and the corrupt institutions they control on one side, and freedom-loving patriots led by Donald Trump on the other.

A public that has had limited direct experience with war, and certainly not the kind where brothers fight against brothers, is certain to be under any number of illusions about how this would all play out. But violence has been excused and threats have gone unpunished, and now probably thousands or more of Americans are talking openly about civil war. Like it would be a fun time, and something to be welcomed. The Overton window, as they say, on what is acceptable in the country has shifted compared to where it was for all of my life and stretching back a good long ways. It seems unlikely that we will be able to escape further bouts of political violence. I hate January 6th for this.

Returning to optimism of the kind that springs from Mike Lindell losing his groove, the fifth legacy of January 6th is that new movements have sprung up to push back on the falsehoods and the political power that commitment to these falsehoods has commanded. What can I say? I want to end on a hopeful note.

Much of this is yet to be written, because in my estimation we are at the beginning of a yearslong period where the tide turns, slowly, to put people who don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories back in charge of whatever the Republican Party becomes. Or maybe of a new party that will take its place. All of this has been compared to a fever, and yes fevers do break–except for when they kill the patient first. So I think it will happen one of those two ways, but I don’t know which.

The how, though, we maybe can guess at. The 2022 midterms have seen the remarkable, alarming rise of a coterie of election truthers and January 6th enthusiasts to be the Republican nominees on the general ballot. I’m pleased to say, recording this on the 10th of November, that it seems to have been a good night for normies.

Some Democrats, too, have undermined confidence in elections at a time when we really need everyone to believe in them more. And, stupidly, Democratic strategists even got behind some of the most extreme Republican candidates in their primaries to the tune of millions of dollars, gambling that this would make them less acceptable to the general electorate and therefore easier to beat. Risky strategy. Probably makes matters worse even if all those candidates are defeated, which it looks like has now happened.

There have also been bright spots that could portend even brighter things in 2024 and beyond. A handful of Independent candidates are testing the proposition that the reasonable middle will reject extreme candidates and elect them instead. These independents are running against outspoken Trump supporters who were both personally invested in the fake electors plot and voted, or looked for a way to justify a vote, against certifying Biden’s win.

Is it possible that normies banding together can consistently defeat the fringe in elections to come? I’m anxious to find out. I am mindful, however, that many Americans I would consider “normie” are tuned out of politics and don’t exactly realize all of what is happening–and the stakes involved. Some know part, but think the dangers of election denialism are overblown. Still others, including many holding office, are plainly afraid to support this counter-movement yet because of how vindictive Trump is to anyone who crosses him. I understand this; it’s no fun to have the former president turn his vocal, already angry minority even more angry—and direct that ire at me and my family.

So it’s with all the more regard I hold these candidates, and the nascent, grassroots political structures that are building their capacity to get such candidates across the finish line. Organizations like Country First, the Forward Party, Stand Up Republic, Principles First, and others that have risen up to meet this moment and try to round up RINOs and right-leaning moderates into a proper herd, with a ground game, and fundraising.

I have hope when I see growing support for GOP castaways like Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney. I believe their courage to defy the prevailing currents and sacrifice their standing and seniority in the process will be seen for what it is in the years to come, and we’ll all be better off as more Republicans follow their lead.

But, as I said, I think this is going to take a long time. I’ll be here for it. I pray you’ll join me.

Chapter 13 - Epilogue

In San Francisco, a 42-year-old man let himself in to the home of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, in the middle of the night, by breaking a window with a hammer he was carrying. He seemed intent on doing violence. But Nancy wasn’t there. Paul Pelosi, whose wife was on the other side of the country, was, and David DePape woke him up. It was the end of October 2022. This happened as I was finishing the part above about political violence.

Paul managed to call the police, who arrived after a few minutes. It was then that DePape assaulted Mr. Pelosi with the hammer, landing at least one blow to his head. When the altercation ended, Paul was taken to the hospital. He underwent emergency surgery. As of this writing, his doctors said it was a successful surgery to repair a skull fracture and serious injuries to his right arm and hands. They expect him to make a full recovery.

Details from LA Times on Pelosi attack https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-29/paul-pelosi-attacker-police-hammer-nancy-pelosi-san-francisco 

DePape, the man who probably would have killed Nancy Pelosi if she had been home that night, was acting out violent ideation that was all too familiar to listeners of this essay. While many at the Capitol on January 6th were out for Pence, there were many who wanted Nancy as well. When DePape shows up at her San Francisco home asking “where’s Nancy,” we can make reasonable guesses as to where this animus came from. It sounds an awful lot like the mob that sacked the Capitol.

But it turns out we don’t even need to guess; David DePape’s social media tells the story of a left-wing nudity ban protester turned by online misinformation into a MAGA enthusiast. He had posted and interacted with a variety of conspiracy theory content, including many you’ll know if you’ve listened this far. Mike Lindell’s “Absolute Proof” on May 7, 2021. Two weeks later, a YouTube video saying the Democrat farce effort to investigate January 6th had collapsed. Pizzagate, the red pill, and QAnon. Antisemitism. Et cetera.

Yes, it seems certain that DePape suffered a mental health episode. But it’s also the case that it is irresponsible to encourage or look the other way when these kinds of nonsense are reaching millions of people. There. Are. Consequences. To. Misinformation.

I believe that avoiding another insurrection, and attempts to assassinate leaders in Congress, begins with understanding of what has taken place. To do that, we have to get much more disciplined, quickly, about how we talk about these events and allow others to talk about it around us. The small minority of anti-Americans dressing themselves up as patriots who want a repeat event are working hard. We won’t succeed against them if we don’t put in the work as well. We are in real danger of further attempts at authoritarian takeover.

A lot will hinge on how fate treats Donald Trump. If for whatever reason he is not on the ballot in 2024, the chances are much better that the country will avoid another attempt at what he did on January 6th. Not likely, though. Despite a raft of legal troubles, the former president remains in as strong a position as he ever has been since leaving the White House. The Republican Party quickly came to terms with and embraced the insurrection, so he’s not in danger of losing that support. Its leaders take criticism of it and him as attacks on all Republicans, despite how obviously ridiculous that is. Trump will probably be the GOP’s 2024 nominee. The majority of all Americans think he is to blame for the insurrection, but they doubt he will face any charges for his actions. Feelings of helplessness have set in. 

There is much we need to do, and—for reasons that I hope are clear by now–-doing something about misinformation culture is at the top of my list. Misinformation culture is what I call that quintessentially American set of attitudes toward lying that makes us susceptible to paranoia and conspiracy theories. Going beyond mistrust of government, misinformation culture is why we wink at, and usually don’t challenge, insinuations that there is a shadowy “they” at work behind what we see in front of us. The belief that the news that gets reported is not an imperfect reflection of reality, but is somehow an elaborately choreographed show designed by master deceivers to cover up what the “they” are really doing.

Think about it: these are the centuries-old mindsets that have formed the basis of political attacks against whole parties with their millions of members, made it normal to talk without evidence of elections being stolen, led to January 6th, and rationalized and excused violence on countless occasions. They are the same mindsets that gave birth to and sustained wild tales about UFOs, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, 9/11, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, the U.S. government generally, and so on. If we leave misinformation culture untouched, it will just fuel the next thing after this moment has passed.

Weakening misinformation culture-–and strengthening an intentionally better culture and other mindsets about the information we consume in its place—is the way. Right now America is at a low point. We need all Americans to help fix this, including and especially you. Here are three simple ways you can help.

First, be aware that you are exposed to an almost constant stream of misinformation about all kinds of things. If this isn’t where you are already, you can follow news orgs and social accounts that keep tabs on the various false narratives and major claims in media and by government and via celebrities. Sign up for the Prism newsletter, which packages up all the reporting on misinformation in a given week, from January 6th and Elections to COVID and QAnon, plus what’s happening on the platforms and with respect to government policy. Get smart about the reliability of news sources that people are using around you, perhaps by using resources like the Ad Fontes interactive media chart. 

If you’re listening to this guide, and have gotten this far, you are well on your way! It’s curiosity about your information diet, and the habits of media literacy you build around that curiosity, that will make all the difference in the long run. In other words: choose to pay attention to the filters through which news about the world reaches your brain.

Second, I invite you to think of your stream as unique, and understand that you are the only one who can do something about the specific misinformation that enters your consciousness. Once you recognize it as such, you are making a choice no matter what you do. Maybe you will accept what is being said. Maybe you will reject it. Maybe you will repeat it. Maybe you will challenge it privately. Maybe you will put out a fact-based counterpoint on a separate thread. But it’s down to you, no one else sees the same things you are seeing. And remember: doing nothing is also a choice.

Third, experiment until you find an anti-misinformation approach that works for you, then live it. For some that will be putting good information out there and supporting others who do, for example about how elections are run. The more people understand civics, or public health, or climate science, the smaller the cognitive surface area is that disinformationists can target.

For some, their efforts will be focused on patiently rebuilding relationships with loved ones who have become detached from reality. There are no guarantees, but the misinformation culture in your immediate line of sight can be radically diminished if you find a way to reach people in the rabbit hole. There are support groups for people who are in this situation, and if you would like I can connect you.

Possibly the most impactful thing any of us can do is to stop tolerating when leaders with politics we like peddle in misinformation. Calling out lies on your political opponents is more satisfying, but ultimately this doesn’t do much to change things. Far more important is to call out when untrue things are being said by those with influence in your own camp. If they hear from their voters that this is unacceptable, they will do it less!

January 6th changed this country profoundly. It’s also affected me personally. Clearly. Here I am doing a lengthy voice essay on it, taking chunks of time away from family and hobbies and, like, Netflix over months to write and record it. At the time the attack happened, I remember being struck by how surprised a lot of folks were because they didn’t know what was happening with Stop the Steal, or maybe overestimated President Trump’s patriotism. This would be a wakeup call, surely, and we could all agree that this was a Bad Thing.

When it became clear that wasn’t the way it was headed, that universal, sustained condemnation didn’t follow, I despaired. Maybe the America that I thought I knew never existed. I felt sad for families torn apart. I felt angry when I saw politicians lying about it. What I want, most of all, is for us to deter it from happening again. My hope is that this project will help in its own small way.

Thank you for listening, and for the things you are doing to understand January 6th better. This essay was possible through the support of too many people to name, but I want to start with my wife and children, who gave the most. To make the video trailer in particular, I want to thank the generous support from the following friends of Prism:

  • David and Jana Farrel

  • Erin Thornhill Reeder

  • Clint and Kathy Smith

  • Dorothy Nash

  • Luke Hubbard

  • Rebecca Mackelprang

  • Melissa Hayden