Jenna Ryan seemed like an unlikely participant in the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. She was a real estate agent from Texas. She flew into Washington on a private jet. And she was dressed that day in clothes better suited for a winter tailgate than a war.
Yet Ryan, 50, is accused of rushing into the Capitol past broken glass and blaring security alarms and, according to federal prosecutors, shouting: “Fight for freedom! Fight for freedom!”
But in a different way, she fit right in.
Despite her outward signs of success, Ryan had struggled financially for years. She was still paying off a $37,000 lien for unpaid federal taxes when she was arrested. She’d nearly lost her home to foreclosure before that. She filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and faced another IRS tax lien in 2010.
Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.
The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.
The financial problems are revealing because they offer potential clues for understanding why so many Trump supporters — many with professional careers and few with violent criminal histories — were willing to participate in an attack egged on by the president’s rhetoric painting him and his supporters as undeserving victims.
While no single factor explains why someone decided to join in, experts say, Donald Trump and his brand of grievance politics tapped into something that resonated with the hundreds of people who descended on the Capitol in a historic burst of violence.
“I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. “And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away — mobilized a lot of people that day.”
The financial missteps by defendants in the attempted insurrection ranged from small debts of a few thousand dollars more than a decade ago to unpaid tax bills of $400,000 and homes facing foreclosure in recent years. Some of these people seemed to have regained their financial footing. But many of them once stood close to the edge.
Ryan had nearly lost everything. And the stakes seemed similarly high to her when she came to Washington in early January. She fully believed Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen and that he was going to save the country, she said in an interview with The Post.
But now — facing federal charges and abandoned by people she considered “fellow patriots” — she said she feels betrayed.
“I bought into a lie, and the lie is the lie, and it’s embarrassing,” she said. “I regret everything.”
The FBI has said it found evidence of organized plots by extremist groups. But many of the people who came to the Capitol on Jan. 6 — including Ryan — appeared to have adopted their radical outlooks more informally, consuming conspiracy theories about the election on television, social media and right-wing websites.
The poor and uneducated are not more likely to join extremist movements, according to experts. Two professors a couple of years ago found the opposite in one example: an unexpectedly high number of engineers who became Islamist radicals.
In the Capitol attack, business owners and white-collar workers made up 40 percent of the people accused of taking part, according to a study by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. Only 9 percent appeared to be unemployed.The Post obtained hours of video footage, some exclusively, and placed it within a digital 3-D model of the building. (TWP)
The participation of people with middle- and upper-middle-class positions fits with research suggesting that the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the 1950s was fueled by people in the middle of society who felt they were losing status and power, said Pippa Norris, a political science professor at Harvard University who has studied radical political movements.
Miller-Idriss said she was struck by a 2011 study that found household income was not a factor in whether a young person supported the extreme far right in Germany. But a highly significant predictor was whether they had lived through a parent’s unemployment.
“These are people who feel like they’ve lost something,” Miller-Idriss said.
Going through a bankruptcy or falling behind on taxes, even years earlier, could provoke a similar response.
“They know it can be lost. They have that history — and then someone comes along and tells you this election has been stolen,” Miller-Idriss said. “It taps into the same thing.”
Playing on personal pain
Trump’s false claims about election fraud — refuted by elections officials and rejected by judges — seemed tailored to exploit feelings about this precarious status, said Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who studies political extremism.
“It’s hard to ignore with a Trump presidency that message that ‘the America you knew and loved is going away, and I’m going to protect it,’” Haider-Markel said. “They feel, at a minimum, that they’re under threat.”
While some of the financial problems were old, the pandemic’s economic toll appeared to inflict fresh pain for some of the people accused of participating in the attempted insurrection.
A California man filed for bankruptcy one week before allegedly joining the attack, according to public records. A Texas man was charged with entering the Capitol one month after his company was slapped with a nearly $2,000 state tax lien.
Several young people charged in the attack came from families with histories of financial duress.
The parents of Riley June Williams — a 22-year-old who allegedly helped to steal a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol office — filed for bankruptcy when she was a child, according to public records. A house owned by her mother faced foreclosure when she was a teenager, records show. Recently, a federal judge placed Williams on home confinement with her mother in Harrisburg, Pa. Her federal public defender did not respond to a request for comment.
People with professional careers such as respiratory therapist, nurse and lawyer were also accused of joining in.
One of them was William McCall Calhoun, 57, a well-known lawyer in Americus, Ga., 130 miles south of Atlanta, who was hit with a $26,000 federal tax lien in 2019, according to public records. A woman who knows Calhoun, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said he started to show strong support for Trump only in the past year. An attorney for Calhoun declined to comment.
Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police when she tried to leap through a door’s broken window inside the Capitol, had struggled to run a pool-service company outside San Diego and was saddled with a $23,000 judgment from a lender in 2017, according to court records.
Financial problems were also apparent among people federal authorities said were connected to far-right nationalist groups, such as the Proud Boys.
Dominic Pezzola, who federal authorities said is a member of the Proud Boys, is accused of being among the first to lead the surge inside the Capitol and helping to overwhelm police. Up to 140 officers were injured in the storming of the Capitol and one officer, Brian Sicknick, was killed.
Pezzola, of Rochester, N.Y., also has been named in state tax warrants totaling more than $40,000 over the past five years, according to public records. His attorney declined to comment.
The roots of extremism are complex, said Haider-Markel.
“Somehow they’ve been wronged, they’ve developed a grievance, and they tend to connect that to some broader ideology,” he said.
The price of insurrection
Ryan, who lives in Frisco, Texas, a Dallas suburb, said she was slow to become a big Trump supporter.
She’s been described as a conservative radio talk show host. But she wasn’t a budding Rush Limbaugh. Her AM radio show each Sunday focused on real estate, and she paid for the airtime. She stopped doing the show in March, when the pandemic hit.
But she continued to run a service that offers advice for people struggling with childhood trauma and bad relationships. Ryan said the work was based on the steps she took to overcome her own rough upbringing.
Twice divorced and struggling with financial problems, Ryan developed an outlook that she described as politically conservative, leaning toward libertarian.
But politics was not her focal point until recently. She recalled being upset when President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012. And she preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton four years later. But she said she wasn’t strident in her support for Trump.
That changed as the 2020 election approached.
She said she started reading far-right websites such as Epoch Times and Gateway Pundit. She began streaming shows such as Alex Jones’s “Infowars” and former Trump campaign manager Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic.” She began following conspiracy theories related to QAnon, a sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology. She said she didn’t know if the posts were true, but she was enthralled.
“It was all like a football game. I was sucked into it. Consumed by it,” Ryan said.
She attended the first protest in her life in April, going to Austin to vent about the state’s pandemic lockdown orders. That was followed by a rally for Shelley Luther, who gained national attention for reopening her beauty salon in Dallas in defiance of the lockdown.
Ryan said she traveled to Trump’s “Save America” rally on a whim. A Facebook friend offered to fly her and three others on a private plane.
They arrived in Washington a day early and got rooms at a Westin hotel downtown, Ryan said.
It was her first trip to the nation’s capital.
The next morning, Jan. 6, the group of friends left the hotel at 6 a.m., Ryan said. She was cold, so she bought a $35 knit snow hat with a “45” emblem from a souvenir shop. They then followed the crowd streaming toward the National Mall.
“My main concern was there were no bathrooms. I kept asking, ‘Where are the bathrooms?’” she said. “I was just having fun.”
They listened to some of the speakers. But mostly they walked around and took photos. She felt like a tourist. They grabbed sandwiches at a Wawa convenience store for lunch. They hired a pedicab to take them back to the hotel.
She drank white wine while the group watched on television as Congress prepared to certify the electoral college votes. They listened to clips of Trump telling rallygoers to walk to the Capitol and saying, “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
They decided to leave the hotel and go to the Capitol.
Ryan said she was reluctant.
But she also posted a video to her Facebook account that showed her looking into a bathroom mirror and saying, according to an FBI account of her charges: “We’re gonna go down and storm the capitol. They’re down there right now and that’s why we came and so that’s what we are going to do. So wish me luck.”
She live-streamed on Facebook. She posted photos to Twitter. She got closer to the Capitol with each post. She stood on the Capitol’s steps. She flashed a peace symbol next to a smashed Capitol window. The FBI also found video of her walking through doors on the west side of the Capitol in the middle of a packed crowd, where she said into a camera, according to the bureau: “Y’all know who to hire for your realtor. Jenna Ryan for your realtor.”
The FBI document does not state how long Ryan spent inside the building. She said it was just a few minutes. She and her new friends eventually walked back to the hotel, she said.
“We just stormed the Capital,” Ryan tweeted that afternoon. “It was one of the best days of my life.”
She said she realized she was in trouble only after returning to Texas. Her phone was blowing up with messages. Her social media posts briefly made her the infamous face of the riots: the smiling real estate agent who flew in a private jet to an insurrection.
Nine days later, she turned herself in to the FBI. She was charged with two federal misdemeanors related to entering the Capitol building and disorderly conduct. Last week, federal authorities filed similar charges against two others on her flight: Jason L. Hyland, 37, of Frisco, who federal authorities said organized the trip, and Katherine S. Schwab, 32, of Colleyville, Texas.
Ryan remained defiant at first. She clashed with people who criticized her online. She told a Dallas TV station she deserved a presidential pardon.
Then Trump left for Florida. President Biden took office. And Ryan, at home in Texas, was left to wonder what to do with her two mini-goldendoodle dogs if she goes to prison.
“Not one patriot is standing up for me,” Ryan said recently. “I’m a complete villain. I was down there based on what my president said. ‘Stop the steal.’ Now I see that it was all over nothing. He was just having us down there for an ego boost. I was there for him.” A
How the election was SAVED and how the election could be STOLEN
The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh for TIME
A weird thing happened right after the Nov. 3 election: nothing.
The nation was braced for chaos. Liberal groups had vowed to take to the streets, planning hundreds of protests across the country. Right-wing militias were girding for battle. In a poll before Election Day, 75% of Americans voiced concern about violence.
Instead, an eerie quiet descended. As President Trump refused to concede, the response was not mass action but crickets. When media organizations called the race for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, jubilation broke out instead, as people thronged cities across the U.S. to celebrate the democratic process that resulted in Trump’s ouster.
Reactions Throughout the U.S. After Biden Wins Presidential Race in Unprecedented Election
A second odd thing happened amid Trump’s attempts to reverse the result: corporate America turned on him. Hundreds of major business leaders, many of whom had backed Trump’s candidacy and supported his policies, called on him to concede. To the President, something felt amiss. “It was all very, very strange,” Trump said on Dec. 2. “Within days after the election, we witnessed an orchestrated effort to anoint the winner, even while many key states were still being counted.”
In a way, Trump was right.
There was a conspiracy unfolding behind the scenes, one that both curtailed the protests and coordinated the resistance from CEOs. Both surprises were the result of an informal alliance between left-wing activists and business titans. The pact was formalized in a terse, little-noticed joint statement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO published on Election Day. Both sides would come to see it as a sort of implicit bargain–inspired by the summer’s massive, sometimes destructive racial-justice protests–in which the forces of labor came together with the forces of capital to keep the peace and oppose Trump’s assault on democracy.
The handshake between business and labor was just one component of a vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election–an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted. For more than a year, a loosely organized coalition of operatives scrambled to shore up America’s institutions as they came under simultaneous attack from a remorseless pandemic and an autocratically inclined President. Though much of this activity took place on the left, it was separate from the Biden campaign and crossed ideological lines, with crucial contributions by nonpartisan and conservative actors. The scenario the shadow campaigners were desperate to stop was not a Trump victory. It was an election so calamitous that no result could be discerned at all, a failure of the central act of democratic self-governance that has been a hallmark of America since its founding.
Their work touched every aspect of the election. They got states to change voting systems and laws and helped secure hundreds of millions in public and private funding. They fended off voter-suppression lawsuits, recruited armies of poll workers and got millions of people to vote by mail for the first time. They successfully pressured social media companies to take a harder line against disinformation and used data-driven strategies to fight viral smears. They executed national public-awareness campaigns that helped Americans understand how the vote count would unfold over days or weeks, preventing Trump’s conspiracy theories and false claims of victory from getting more traction. After Election Day, they monitored every pressure point to ensure that Trump could not overturn the result. “The untold story of the election is the thousands of people of both parties who accomplished the triumph of American democracy at its very foundation,” says Norm Eisen, a prominent lawyer and former Obama Administration official who recruited Republicans and Democrats to the board of the Voter Protection Program.
For Trump and his allies were running their own campaign to spoil the election. The President spent months insisting that mail ballots were a Democratic plot and the election would be “rigged.” His henchmen at the state level sought to block their use, while his lawyers brought dozens of spurious suits to make it more difficult to vote–an intensification of the GOP’s legacy of suppressive tactics. Before the election, Trump plotted to block a legitimate vote count. And he spent the months following Nov. 3 trying to steal the election he’d lost–with lawsuits and conspiracy theories, pressure on state and local officials, and finally summoning his army of supporters to the Jan. 6 rally that ended in deadly violence at the Capitol.
The democracy campaigners watched with alarm. “Every week, we felt like we were in a struggle to try to pull off this election without the country going through a real dangerous moment of unraveling,” says former GOP Representative Zach Wamp, a Trump supporter who helped coordinate a bipartisan election-protection council. “We can look back and say this thing went pretty well, but it was not at all clear in September and October that that was going to be the case.”
Biden fans in Philadelphia after the race was called on Nov. 7
Michelle Gustafson for TIME
This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster. “Every attempt to interfere with the proper outcome of the election was defeated,” says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan rule-of-law advocacy group. “But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing.”
That’s why the participants want the secret history of the 2020 election told, even though it sounds like a paranoid fever dream–a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it. And they believe the public needs to understand the system’s fragility in order to ensure that democracy in America endures.
Sometime in the fall of 2019, Mike Podhorzer became convinced the election was headed for disaster–and determined to protect it.
This was not his usual purview. For nearly a quarter-century, Podhorzer, senior adviser to the president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, has marshaled the latest tactics and data to help its favored candidates win elections. Unassuming and professorial, he isn’t the sort of hair-gelled “political strategist” who shows up on cable news. Among Democratic insiders, he’s known as the wizard behind some of the biggest advances in political technology in recent decades. A group of liberal strategists he brought together in the early 2000s led to the creation of the Analyst Institute, a secretive firm that applies scientific methods to political campaigns. He was also involved in the founding of Catalist, the flagship progressive data company.
The endless chatter in Washington about “political strategy,” Podhorzer believes, has little to do with how change really gets made. “My basic take on politics is that it’s all pretty obvious if you don’t overthink it or swallow the prevailing frameworks whole,” he once wrote. “After that, just relentlessly identify your assumptions and challenge them.” Podhorzer applies that approach to everything: when he coached his now adult son’s Little League team in the D.C. suburbs, he trained the boys not to swing at most pitches–a tactic that infuriated both their and their opponents’ parents, but won the team a series of championships.
Trump’s election in 2016–credited in part to his unusual strength among the sort of blue collar white voters who once dominated the AFL-CIO–prompted Podhorzer to question his assumptions about voter behavior. He began circulating weekly number-crunching memos to a small circle of allies and hosting strategy sessions in D.C. But when he began to worry about the election itself, he didn’t want to seem paranoid. It was only after months of research that he introduced his concerns in his newsletter in October 2019. The usual tools of data, analytics and polling would not be sufficient in a situation where the President himself was trying to disrupt the election, he wrote. “Most of our planning takes us through Election Day,” he noted. “But, we are not prepared for the two most likely outcomes”–Trump losing and refusing to concede, and Trump winning the Electoral College (despite losing the popular vote) by corrupting the voting process in key states. “We desperately need to systematically ‘red-team’ this election so that we can anticipate and plan for the worst we know will be coming our way.”
It turned out Podhorzer wasn’t the only one thinking in these terms. He began to hear from others eager to join forces. The Fight Back Table, a coalition of “resistance” organizations, had begun scenario-planning around the potential for a contested election, gathering liberal activists at the local and national level into what they called the Democracy Defense Coalition. Voting-rights and civil rights organizations were raising alarms. A group of former elected officials was researching emergency powers they feared Trump might exploit. Protect Democracy was assembling a bipartisan election-crisis task force. “It turned out that once you said it out loud, people agreed,” Podhorzer says, “and it started building momentum.”
He spent months pondering scenarios and talking to experts. It wasn’t hard to find liberals who saw Trump as a dangerous dictator, but Podhorzer was careful to steer clear of hysteria. What he wanted to know was not how American democracy was dying but how it might be kept alive. The chief difference between the U.S. and countries that lost their grip on democracy, he concluded, was that America’s decentralized election system couldn’t be rigged in one fell swoop. That presented an opportunity to shore it up.
On March 3, Podhorzer drafted a three-page confidential memo titled “Threats to the 2020 Election.” “Trump has made it clear that this will not be a fair election, and that he will reject anything but his own re-election as ‘fake’ and rigged,” he wrote. “On Nov. 3, should the media report otherwise, he will use the right-wing information system to establish his narrative and incite his supporters to protest.” The memo laid out four categories of challenges: attacks on voters, attacks on election administration, attacks on Trump’s political opponents and “efforts to reverse the results of the election.”
Then COVID-19 erupted at the height of the primary-election season. Normal methods of voting were no longer safe for voters or the mostly elderly volunteers who normally staff polling places. But political disagreements, intensified by Trump’s crusade against mail voting, prevented some states from making it easier to vote absentee and for jurisdictions to count those votes in a timely manner. Chaos ensued. Ohio shut down in-person voting for its primary, leading to minuscule turnout. A poll-worker shortage in Milwaukee–where Wisconsin’s heavily Democratic Black population is concentrated–left just five open polling places, down from 182. In New York, vote counting took more than a month.
Suddenly, the potential for a November meltdown was obvious. In his apartment in the D.C. suburbs, Podhorzer began working from his laptop at his kitchen table, holding back-to-back Zoom meetings for hours a day with his network of contacts across the progressive universe: the labor movement; the institutional left, like Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace; resistance groups like Indivisible and MoveOn; progressive data geeks and strategists, representatives of donors and foundations, state-level grassroots organizers, racial-justice activists and others.
In April, Podhorzer began hosting a weekly 2½-hour Zoom. It was structured around a series of rapid-fire five-minute presentations on everything from which ads were working to messaging to legal strategy. The invitation-only gatherings soon attracted hundreds, creating a rare shared base of knowledge for the fractious progressive movement. “At the risk of talking trash about the left, there’s not a lot of good information sharing,” says Anat Shenker-Osorio, a close Podhorzer friend whose poll-tested messaging guidance shaped the group’s approach. “There’s a lot of not-invented-here syndrome, where people won’t consider a good idea if they didn’t come up with it.”
The meetings became the galactic center for a constellation of operatives across the left who shared overlapping goals but didn’t usually work in concert. The group had no name, no leaders and no hierarchy, but it kept the disparate actors in sync. “Pod played a critical behind-the-scenes role in keeping different pieces of the movement infrastructure in communication and aligned,” says Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party. “You have the litigation space, the organizing space, the political people just focused on the W, and their strategies aren’t always aligned. He allowed this ecosystem to work together.”
Protecting the election would require an effort of unprecedented scale. As 2020 progressed, it stretched to Congress, Silicon Valley and the nation’s statehouses. It drew energy from the summer’s racial-justice protests, many of whose leaders were a key part of the liberal alliance. And eventually it reached across the aisle, into the world of Trump-skeptical Republicans appalled by his attacks on democracy.
SECURING THE VOTE
The first task was overhauling America’s balky election infrastructure–in the middle of a pandemic. For the thousands of local, mostly nonpartisan officials who administer elections, the most urgent need was money. They needed protective equipment like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. They needed to pay for postcards letting people know they could vote absentee–or, in some states, to mail ballots to every voter. They needed additional staff and scanners to process ballots.
In March, activists appealed to Congress to steer COVID relief money to election administration. Led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, more than 150 organizations signed a letter to every member of Congress seeking $2 billion in election funding. It was somewhat successful: the CARES Act, passed later that month, contained $400 million in grants to state election administrators. But the next tranche of relief funding didn’t add to that number. It wasn’t going to be enough.
Private philanthropy stepped into the breach. An assortment of foundations contributed tens of millions in election-administration funding. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative chipped in $300 million. “It was a failure at the federal level that 2,500 local election officials were forced to apply for philanthropic grants to fill their needs,” says Amber McReynolds, a former Denver election official who heads the nonpartisan National Vote at Home Institute.
McReynolds’ two-year-old organization became a clearinghouse for a nation struggling to adapt. The institute gave secretaries of state from both parties technical advice on everything from which vendors to use to how to locate drop boxes. Local officials are the most trusted sources of election information, but few can afford a press secretary, so the institute distributed communications tool kits. In a presentation to Podhorzer’s group, McReynolds detailed the importance of absentee ballots for shortening lines at polling places and preventing an election crisis.
The institute’s work helped 37 states and D.C. bolster mail voting. But it wouldn’t be worth much if people didn’t take advantage. Part of the challenge was logistical: each state has different rules for when and how ballots should be requested and returned. The Voter Participation Center, which in a normal year would have deployed canvassers door-to-door to get out the vote, instead conducted focus groups in April and May to find out what would get people to vote by mail. In August and September, it sent ballot applications to 15 million people in key states, 4.6 million of whom returned them. In mailings and digital ads, the group urged people not to wait for Election Day. “All the work we have done for 17 years was built for this moment of bringing democracy to people’s doorsteps,” says Tom Lopach, the center’s CEO.
The effort had to overcome heightened skepticism in some communities. Many Black voters preferred to exercise their franchise in person or didn’t trust the mail. National civil rights groups worked with local organizations to get the word out that this was the best way to ensure one’s vote was counted. In Philadelphia, for example, advocates distributed “voting safety kits” containing masks, hand sanitizer and informational brochures. “We had to get the message out that this is safe, reliable, and you can trust it,” says Hannah Fried of All Voting Is Local.
At the same time, Democratic lawyers battled a historic tide of pre-election litigation. The pandemic intensified the parties’ usual tangling in the courts. But the lawyers noticed something else as well. “The litigation brought by the Trump campaign, of a piece with the broader campaign to sow doubt about mail voting, was making novel claims and using theories no court has ever accepted,” says Wendy Weiser, a voting-rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. “They read more like lawsuits designed to send a message rather than achieve a legal outcome.”
In the end, nearly half the electorate cast ballots by mail in 2020, practically a revolution in how people vote. About a quarter voted early in person. Only a quarter of voters cast their ballots the traditional way: in person on Election Day.
THE DISINFORMATION DEFENSE
Bad actors spreading false information is nothing new. For decades, campaigns have grappled with everything from anonymous calls claiming the election has been rescheduled to fliers spreading nasty smears about candidates’ families. But Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories, the viral force of social media and the involvement of foreign meddlers made disinformation a broader, deeper threat to the 2020 vote.
Laura Quinn, a veteran progressive operative who co-founded Catalist, began studying this problem a few years ago. She piloted a nameless, secret project, which she has never before publicly discussed, that tracked disinformation online and tried to figure out how to combat it. One component was tracking dangerous lies that might otherwise spread unnoticed. Researchers then provided information to campaigners or the media to track down the sources and expose them.
The most important takeaway from Quinn’s research, however, was that engaging with toxic content only made it worse. “When you get attacked, the instinct is to push back, call it out, say, ‘This isn’t true,’” Quinn says. “But the more engagement something gets, the more the platforms boost it. The algorithm reads that as, ‘Oh, this is popular; people want more of it.’”
The solution, she concluded, was to pressure platforms to enforce their rules, both by removing content or accounts that spread disinformation and by more aggressively policing it in the first place. “The platforms have policies against certain types of malign behavior, but they haven’t been enforcing them,” she says.
Quinn’s research gave ammunition to advocates pushing social media platforms to take a harder line. In November 2019, Mark Zuckerberg invited nine civil rights leaders to dinner at his home, where they warned him about the danger of the election-related falsehoods that were already spreading unchecked. “It took pushing, urging, conversations, brainstorming, all of that to get to a place where we ended up with more rigorous rules and enforcement,” says Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who attended the dinner and also met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and others. (Gupta has been nominated for Associate Attorney General by President Biden.) “It was a struggle, but we got to the point where they understood the problem. Was it enough? Probably not. Was it later than we wanted? Yes. But it was really important, given the level of official disinformation, that they had those rules in place and were tagging things and taking them down.”
SPREADING THE WORD
Beyond battling bad information, there was a need to explain a rapidly changing election process. It was crucial for voters to understand that despite what Trump was saying, mail-in votes weren’t susceptible to fraud and that it would be normal if some states weren’t finished counting votes on election night.
Dick Gephardt, the Democratic former House leader turned high-powered lobbyist, spearheaded one coalition. “We wanted to get a really bipartisan group of former elected officials, Cabinet secretaries, military leaders and so on, aimed mainly at messaging to the public but also speaking to local officials–the secretaries of state, attorneys general, governors who would be in the eye of the storm–to let them know we wanted to help,” says Gephardt, who worked his contacts in the private sector to put $20 million behind the effort.
Wamp, the former GOP Congressman, worked through the nonpartisan reform group Issue One to rally Republicans. “We thought we should bring some bipartisan element of unity around what constitutes a free and fair election,” Wamp says. The 22 Democrats and 22 Republicans on the National Council on Election Integrity met on Zoom at least once a week. They ran ads in six states, made statements, wrote articles and alerted local officials to potential problems. “We had rabid Trump supporters who agreed to serve on the council based on the idea that this is honest,” Wamp says. This is going to be just as important, he told them, to convince the liberals when Trump wins. “Whichever way it cuts, we’re going to stick together.”
The Voting Rights Lab and IntoAction created state-specific memes and graphics, spread by email, text, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, urging that every vote be counted. Together, they were viewed more than 1 billion times. Protect Democracy’s election task force issued reports and held media briefings with high-profile experts across the political spectrum, resulting in widespread coverage of potential election issues and fact-checking of Trump’s false claims. The organization’s tracking polls found the message was being heard: the percentage of the public that didn’t expect to know the winner on election night gradually rose until by late October, it was over 70%. A majority also believed that a prolonged count wasn’t a sign of problems. “We knew exactly what Trump was going to do: he was going to try to use the fact that Democrats voted by mail and Republicans voted in person to make it look like he was ahead, claim victory, say the mail-in votes were fraudulent and try to get them thrown out,” says Protect Democracy’s Bassin. Setting public expectations ahead of time helped undercut those lies.
Amber McReynolds, Zach Wamp and Maurice Mitchell
Rachel Woolf for TIME; Erik Schelzig—AP/Shutterstock; Holly Pickett—The New York Times/Redux
The alliance took a common set of themes from the research Shenker-Osorio presented at Podhorzer’s Zooms. Studies have shown that when people don’t think their vote will count or fear casting it will be a hassle, they’re far less likely to participate. Throughout election season, members of Podhorzer’s group minimized incidents of voter intimidation and tamped down rising liberal hysteria about Trump’s expected refusal to concede. They didn’t want to amplify false claims by engaging them, or put people off voting by suggesting a rigged game. “When you say, ‘These claims of fraud are spurious,’ what people hear is ‘fraud,’” Shenker-Osorio says. “What we saw in our pre-election research was that anything that reaffirmed Trump’s power or cast him as an authoritarian diminished people’s desire to vote.”
Podhorzer, meanwhile, was warning everyone he knew that polls were underestimating Trump’s support. The data he shared with media organizations who would be calling the election was “tremendously useful” to understand what was happening as the votes rolled in, according to a member of a major network’s political unit who spoke with Podhorzer before Election Day. Most analysts had recognized there would be a “blue shift” in key battlegrounds– the surge of votes breaking toward Democrats, driven by tallies of mail-in ballots– but they hadn’t comprehended how much better Trump was likely to do on Election Day. “Being able to document how big the absentee wave would be and the variance by state was essential,” the analyst says.
The racial-justice uprising sparked by George Floyd’s killing in May was not primarily a political movement. The organizers who helped lead it wanted to harness its momentum for the election without allowing it to be co-opted by politicians. Many of those organizers were part of Podhorzer’s network, from the activists in battleground states who partnered with the Democracy Defense Coalition to organizations with leading roles in the Movement for Black Lives.
The best way to ensure people’s voices were heard, they decided, was to protect their ability to vote. “We started thinking about a program that would complement the traditional election-protection area but also didn’t rely on calling the police,” says Nelini Stamp, the Working Families Party’s national organizing director. They created a force of “election defenders” who, unlike traditional poll watchers, were trained in de-escalation techniques. During early voting and on Election Day, they surrounded lines of voters in urban areas with a “joy to the polls” effort that turned the act of casting a ballot into a street party. Black organizers also recruited thousands of poll workers to ensure polling places would stay open in their communities.
The summer uprising had shown that people power could have a massive impact. Activists began preparing to reprise the demonstrations if Trump tried to steal the election. “Americans plan widespread protests if Trump interferes with election,” Reuters reported in October, one of many such stories. More than 150 liberal groups, from the Women’s March to the Sierra Club to Color of Change, from Democrats.com to the Democratic Socialists of America, joined the “Protect the Results” coalition. The group’s now defunct website had a map listing 400 planned postelection demonstrations, to be activated via text message as soon as Nov. 4. To stop the coup they feared, the left was ready to flood the streets.
About a week before Election Day, Podhorzer received an unexpected message: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wanted to talk.
The AFL-CIO and the Chamber have a long history of antagonism. Though neither organization is explicitly partisan, the influential business lobby has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Republican campaigns, just as the nation’s unions funnel hundreds of millions to Democrats. On one side is labor, on the other management, locked in an eternal struggle for power and resources.
But behind the scenes, the business community was engaged in its own anxious discussions about how the election and its aftermath might unfold. The summer’s racial-justice protests had sent a signal to business owners too: the potential for economy-disrupting civil disorder. “With tensions running high, there was a lot of concern about unrest around the election, or a breakdown in our normal way we handle contentious elections,” says Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer. These worries had led the Chamber to release a pre-election statement with the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based CEOs’ group, as well as associations of manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, calling for patience and confidence as votes were counted.
But Bradley wanted to send a broader, more bipartisan message. He reached out to Podhorzer, through an intermediary both men declined to name. Agreeing that their unlikely alliance would be powerful, they began to discuss a joint statement pledging their organizations’ shared commitment to a fair and peaceful election. They chose their words carefully and scheduled the statement’s release for maximum impact. As it was being finalized, Christian leaders signaled their interest in joining, further broadening its reach.
The statement was released on Election Day, under the names of Chamber CEO Thomas Donohue, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals and the National African American Clergy Network. “It is imperative that election officials be given the space and time to count every vote in accordance with applicable laws,” it stated. “We call on the media, the candidates and the American people to exercise patience with the process and trust in our system, even if it requires more time than usual.” The groups added, “Although we may not always agree on desired outcomes up and down the ballot, we are united in our call for the American democratic process to proceed without violence, intimidation or any other tactic that makes us weaker as a nation.”
SHOWING UP, STANDING DOWN
Election night began with many Democrats despairing. Trump was running ahead of pre-election polling, winning Florida, Ohio and Texas easily and keeping Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania too close to call. But Podhorzer was unperturbed when I spoke to him that night: the returns were exactly in line with his modeling. He had been warning for weeks that Trump voters’ turnout was surging. As the numbers dribbled out, he could tell that as long as all the votes were counted, Trump would lose.
The liberal alliance gathered for an 11 p.m. Zoom call. Hundreds joined; many were freaking out. “It was really important for me and the team in that moment to help ground people in what we had already known was true,” says Angela Peoples, director for the Democracy Defense Coalition. Podhorzer presented data to show the group that victory was in hand.
While he was talking, Fox News surprised everyone by calling Arizona for Biden. The public-awareness campaign had worked: TV anchors were bending over backward to counsel caution and frame the vote count accurately. The question then became what to do next.
The conversation that followed was a difficult one, led by the activists charged with the protest strategy. “We wanted to be mindful of when was the right time to call for moving masses of people into the street,” Peoples says. As much as they were eager to mount a show of strength, mobilizing immediately could backfire and put people at risk. Protests that devolved into violent clashes would give Trump a pretext to send in federal agents or troops as he had over the summer. And rather than elevate Trump’s complaints by continuing to fight him, the alliance wanted to send the message that the people had spoken.
So the word went out: stand down. Protect the Results announced that it would “not be activating the entire national mobilization network today, but remains ready to activate if necessary.” On Twitter, outraged progressives wondered what was going on. Why wasn’t anyone trying to stop Trump’s coup? Where were all the protests?
Podhorzer credits the activists for their restraint. “They had spent so much time getting ready to hit the streets on Wednesday. But they did it,” he says. “Wednesday through Friday, there was not a single Antifa vs. Proud Boys incident like everyone was expecting. And when that didn’t materialize, I don’t think the Trump campaign had a backup plan.”
Activists reoriented the Protect the Results protests toward a weekend of celebration. “Counter their disinfo with our confidence & get ready to celebrate,” read the messaging guidance Shenker-Osorio presented to the liberal alliance on Friday, Nov. 6. “Declare and fortify our win. Vibe: confident, forward-looking, unified–NOT passive, anxious.” The voters, not the candidates, would be the protagonists of the story.
The planned day of celebration happened to coincide with the election being called on Nov. 7. Activists dancing in the streets of Philadelphia blasted Beyoncé over an attempted Trump campaign press conference; the Trumpers’ next confab was scheduled for Four Seasons Total Landscaping outside the city center, which activists believe was not a coincidence. “The people of Philadelphia owned the streets of Philadelphia,” crows the Working Families Party’s Mitchell. “We made them look ridiculous by contrasting our joyous celebration of democracy with their clown show.”
The votes had been counted. Trump had lost. But the battle wasn’t over.
THE FIVE STEPS TO VICTORY
In Podhorzer’s presentations, winning the vote was only the first step to winning the election. After that came winning the count, winning the certification, winning the Electoral College and winning the transition–steps that are normally formalities but that he knew Trump would see as opportunities for disruption. Nowhere would that be more evident than in Michigan, where Trump’s pressure on local Republicans came perilously close to working–and where liberal and conservative pro-democracy forces joined to counter it.
It was around 10 p.m. on election night in Detroit when a flurry of texts lit up the phone of Art Reyes III. A busload of Republican election observers had arrived at the TCF Center, where votes were being tallied. They were crowding the vote-counting tables, refusing to wear masks, heckling the mostly Black workers. Reyes, a Flint native who leads We the People Michigan, was expecting this. For months, conservative groups had been sowing suspicion about urban vote fraud. “The language was, ‘They’re going to steal the election; there will be fraud in Detroit,’ long before any vote was cast,” Reyes says.
Trump supporters seek to disrupt the vote count at Detroit’s TCF Center on Nov. 4
Elaine Cromie—Getty Images
He made his way to the arena and sent word to his network. Within 45 minutes, dozens of reinforcements had arrived. As they entered the arena to provide a counterweight to the GOP observers inside, Reyes took down their cell-phone numbers and added them to a massive text chain. Racial-justice activists from Detroit Will Breathe worked alongside suburban women from Fems for Dems and local elected officials. Reyes left at 3 a.m., handing the text chain over to a disability activist.
As they mapped out the steps in the election-certification process, activists settled on a strategy of foregrounding the people’s right to decide, demanding their voices be heard and calling attention to the racial implications of disenfranchising Black Detroiters. They flooded the Wayne County canvassing board’s Nov. 17 certification meeting with on-message testimony; despite a Trump tweet, the Republican board members certified Detroit’s votes.
Election boards were one pressure point; another was GOP-controlled legislatures, who Trump believed could declare the election void and appoint their own electors. And so the President invited the GOP leaders of the Michigan legislature, House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey, to Washington on Nov. 20.
It was a perilous moment. If Chatfield and Shirkey agreed to do Trump’s bidding, Republicans in other states might be similarly bullied. “I was concerned things were going to get weird,” says Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP executive director turned anti-Trump activist. Norm Eisen describes it as “the scariest moment” of the entire election.
The democracy defenders launched a full-court press. Protect Democracy’s local contacts researched the lawmakers’ personal and political motives. Issue One ran television ads in Lansing. The Chamber’s Bradley kept close tabs on the process. Wamp, the former Republican Congressman, called his former colleague Mike Rogers, who wrote an op-ed for the Detroit newspapers urging officials to honor the will of the voters. Three former Michigan governors–Republicans John Engler and Rick Snyder and Democrat Jennifer Granholm–jointly called for Michigan’s electoral votes to be cast free of pressure from the White House. Engler, a former head of the Business Roundtable, made phone calls to influential donors and fellow GOP elder statesmen who could press the lawmakers privately.
The pro-democracy forces were up against a Trumpified Michigan GOP controlled by allies of Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chair, and Betsy DeVos, the former Education Secretary and a member of a billionaire family of GOP donors. On a call with his team on Nov. 18, Bassin vented that his side’s pressure was no match for what Trump could offer. “Of course he’s going to try to offer them something,” Bassin recalls thinking. “Head of the Space Force! Ambassador to wherever! We can’t compete with that by offering carrots. We need a stick.”
If Trump were to offer something in exchange for a personal favor, that would likely constitute bribery, Bassin reasoned. He phoned Richard Primus, a law professor at the University of Michigan, to see if Primus agreed and would make the argument publicly. Primus said he thought the meeting itself was inappropriate, and got to work on an op-ed for Politico warning that the state attorney general–a Democrat–would have no choice but to investigate. When the piece posted on Nov. 19, the attorney general’s communications director tweeted it. Protect Democracy soon got word that the lawmakers planned to bring lawyers to the meeting with Trump the next day.
Reyes’ activists scanned flight schedules and flocked to the airports on both ends of Shirkey’s journey to D.C., to underscore that the lawmakers were being scrutinized. After the meeting, the pair announced they’d pressed the President to deliver COVID relief for their constituents and informed him they saw no role in the election process. Then they went for a drink at the Trump hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A street artist projected their images onto the outside of the building along with the words THE WORLD IS WATCHING.
That left one last step: the state canvassing board, made up of two Democrats and two Republicans. One Republican, a Trumper employed by the DeVos family’s political nonprofit, was not expected to vote for certification. The other Republican on the board was a little-known lawyer named Aaron Van Langevelde. He sent no signals about what he planned to do, leaving everyone on edge.
When the meeting began, Reyes’s activists flooded the livestream and filled Twitter with their hashtag, #alleyesonmi. A board accustomed to attendance in the single digits suddenly faced an audience of thousands. In hours of testimony, the activists emphasized their message of respecting voters’ wishes and affirming democracy rather than scolding the officials. Van Langevelde quickly signaled he would follow precedent. The vote was 3-0 to certify; the other Republican abstained.
After that, the dominoes fell. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the rest of the states certified their electors. Republican officials in Arizona and Georgia stood up to Trump’s bullying. And the Electoral College voted on schedule on Dec. 14.
HOW CLOSE WE CAME
There was one last milestone on Podhorzer’s mind: Jan. 6. On the day Congress would meet to tally the electoral count, Trump summoned his supporters to D.C. for a rally.
Much to their surprise, the thousands who answered his call were met by virtually no counterdemonstrators. To preserve safety and ensure they couldn’t be blamed for any mayhem, the activist left was “strenuously discouraging counter activity,” Podhorzer texted me the morning of Jan. 6, with a crossed-fingers emoji.
Incited by the President, Trump Supporters Violently Storm the Capitol
Trump addressed the crowd that afternoon, peddling the lie that lawmakers or Vice President Mike Pence could reject states’ electoral votes. He told them to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” Then he returned to the White House as they sacked the building. As lawmakers fled for their lives and his own supporters were shot and trampled, Trump praised the rioters as “very special.”
It was his final attack on democracy, and once again, it failed. By standing down, the democracy campaigners outfoxed their foes. “We won by the skin of our teeth, honestly, and that’s an important point for folks to sit with,” says the Democracy Defense Coalition’s Peoples. “There’s an impulse for some to say voters decided and democracy won. But it’s a mistake to think that this election cycle was a show of strength for democracy. It shows how vulnerable democracy is.”
The members of the alliance to protect the election have gone their separate ways. The Democracy Defense Coalition has been disbanded, though the Fight Back Table lives on. Protect Democracy and the good-government advocates have turned their attention to pressing reforms in Congress. Left-wing activists are pressuring the newly empowered Democrats to remember the voters who put them there, while civil rights groups are on guard against further attacks on voting. Business leaders denounced the Jan. 6 attack, and some say they will no longer donate to lawmakers who refused to certify Biden’s victory. Podhorzer and his allies are still holding their Zoom strategy sessions, gauging voters’ views and developing new messages. And Trump is in Florida, facing his second impeachment, deprived of the Twitter and Facebook accounts he used to push the nation to its breaking point.
As I was reporting this article in November and December, I heard different claims about who should get the credit for thwarting Trump’s plot. Liberals argued the role of bottom-up people power shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly the contributions of people of color and local grassroots activists. Others stressed the heroism of GOP officials like Van Langevelde and Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, who stood up to Trump at considerable cost. The truth is that neither likely could have succeeded without the other. “It’s astounding how close we came, how fragile all this really is,” says Timmer, the former Michigan GOP executive director. “It’s like when Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff–if you don’t look down, you don’t fall. Our democracy only survives if we all believe and don’t look down.”
Democracy won in the end. The will of the people prevailed. But it’s crazy, in retrospect, that this is what it took to put on an election in the United States of America.
–With reporting by LESLIE DICKSTEIN, MARIAH ESPADA and SIMMONE SHAH
Correction appended, Feb. 5: The original version of this story misstated the name of Norm Eisen’s organization. It is the Voter Protection Program, not the Voter Protection Project. The original version of this story also misstated Jeff Timmer’s former position with the Michigan Republican Party. He was the executive director, not the chairman.
The internet rewired our brains. He predicted it would.
Feb. 4, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
Michael Goldhaber is the internet prophet you’ve never heard of. Here’s a short list of things he saw coming: the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture — along with the near destruction of our ability to focus.
Most of this came to him in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, had a revelation. He was obsessed at the time with what he felt was an information glut — that there was simply more access to news, opinion and forms of entertainment than one could handle. His epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by a psychologist, Herbert A. Simon: “the attention economy.”
These days, the term is a catch-all for the internet and the broader landscape of information and entertainment. Advertising is part of the attention economy. So are journalism and politics and the streaming business and all the social media platforms. But for Mr. Goldhaber, the term was a bit less theoretical: Every single action we take — calling our grandparents, cleaning up the kitchen or, today, scrolling through our phones — is a transaction. We are taking what precious little attention we have and diverting it toward something. This is a zero-sum proposition, he realized. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.
The idea changed the way he saw the entire world, and it unsettled him deeply. “I kept thinking that attention is highly desirable and that those who want it tend to want as much as they can possibly get,” Mr. Goldhaber, 78, told me over a Zoom call last month after I tracked him down in Berkeley, Calif. He couldn’t shake the idea that this would cause a deepening inequality. “When you have attention, you have power, and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.”
Michael GoldhaberCayce Clifford for The New York Times
In 1997, Mr. Goldhaber helped popularize the term “attention economy” with an essay in Wired magazine predicting that the internet would upend the advertising industry and create a “star system” in which “whoever you are, however you express yourself, you can now have a crack at the global audience.” He outlined the demands of living in an attention economy, describing an ennui that didn’t yet exist but now feels familiar to anyone who makes a living online. “The Net also ups the ante, increasing the relentless pressure to get some fraction of this limited resource,” he wrote. “At the same time, it generates ever greater demands on each of us to pay what scarce attention we can to others.”
In subsequent obscure journal articles, Mr. Goldhaber warned of the attention economy’s destabilizing effects, including how it has disproportionate benefits for the most shameless among us. “Our abilities to pay attention are limited. Not so our abilities to receive it,” he wrote in the journal First Monday. “The value of true modesty or humility is hard to sustain in an attention economy.”
In June 2006, when Facebook was still months from launching its News Feed, Mr. Goldhaber predicted the grueling personal effects of a life mediated by technologies that feed on our attention and reward those best able to command it. “In an attention economy, one is never not on, at least when one is awake, since one is nearly always paying, getting or seeking attention.”
More than a decade later, Mr. Goldhaber lives a quiet, mostly retired life. He has hardly any current online footprint, except for a Twitter account he mostly uses to occasionally share posts from politicians. I found him by calling his landline. But we are living in the world he sketched out long ago. Attention has always been currency, but as we’ve begun to live our lives increasingly online, it’s now the currency. Any discussion of power is now, ultimately, a conversation about attention and how we extract it, wield it, waste it, abuse it, sell it, lose it and profit from it.
The big tech platform debates about online censorship and content moderation? Those are ultimately debates about amplification and attention. Same with the crisis of disinformation. It’s impossible to understand the rise of Donald Trump and the MAGA wing of the far right or, really, modern American politics without understanding attention hijacking and how it is used to wield power. Even the recent GameStop stock rally and the Reddit social media fallout share this theme, illustrating a universal truth about the attention economy: Those who can collectively commandeer enough attention can accumulate a staggering amount of power quickly. And it’s never been easier to do than it is right now.
Mr. Goldhaber was conflicted about all of this. “It’s amazing and disturbing to see this develop to the extent it has,” he said when I asked him if he felt like a Cassandra of the internet age. Most obviously, he saw Mr. Trump — and the tweets, rallies and cable news dominance that defined his presidency — as a near-perfect product of an attention economy, a truth that disturbed him greatly. Similarly, he said that the attempted Capitol insurrection in January was the result of thousands of influencers and news outlets that, in an attempt to gain fortune and fame and attention, trotted out increasingly dangerous conspiracy theories on platforms optimized to amplify outrage.
“You could just see how there were so many disparate factions of believers there,” he said, remarking on the glut of selfies and videos from QAnon supporters, militia members, Covid-19 deniers and others. “It felt like an expression of a world in which everyone is desperately seeking their own audience and fracturing reality in the process. I only see that accelerating.”
While Mr. Goldhaber said he wanted to remain hopeful, he was deeply concerned about whether the attention economy and a healthy democracy can coexist. Nuanced policy discussions, he said, will almost certainly get simplified into “meaningless slogans” in order to travel farther online, and politicians will continue to stake out more extreme positions and commandeer news cycles. He said he worried that, as with Brexit, “rational discussion of what people stand to gain or lose from policies will be drowned out by the loudest and most ridiculous.”
Mr. Goldhaber said that looking at Mr. Trump through the lens of attention gives a deeper understanding of his appeal to supporters and, potentially, how to combat his style of politics. He said that many of the polarizing factors in the country are, in essence, attentional. Not having a college degree, he argued, means less attention from corporations or the economy at large. Living in a rural area, he suggested, means being farther from cultural centers and may result in feeling alienated by the attention that cities generate in the news and in pop culture. He said that almost by accident, Mr. Trump tapped into this frustration by at least pretending to pay attention to them. “His blatant racism and misogyny was an acknowledgment to his supporters who feel they deserve the attention and aren’t getting it because it is going to others,” he said.
His biggest worry, though, is that we still mostly fail to acknowledge that we live in a roaring attention economy. In other words, we tend to ignore his favorite maxim, from the writer Howard Rheingold: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”
Where do we start? “It’s not a question of sitting by yourself and doing nothing,” Mr. Goldhaber told me. “But instead asking, ‘How do you allocate the attention you have in more focused, intentional ways?’” Some of that is personal — thinking critically about who we amplify and re-evaluating our habits and hobbies. Another part is to think about attention societally. He argued that pressing problems like income and racial inequality are, in some part, issues of where we direct our attention and resources and what we value.
As someone who writes about online extremism, I found one line of his eerily compelling. “We struggle to attune ourselves to groups of people who feel they’re not getting the attention they deserve, and we ought to get better at sensing that feeling earlier,” he said. “Because it’s a powerful, dangerous feeling.”
Attention is a bit like the air we breathe. It’s vital but largely invisible, and thus we don’t think about it very much unless, of course, it becomes scarce. If that’s the case — to extend a tortured metaphor — it feels as if our attention has become polluted. We subsist on it, but the quality has been diminished. This is certainly true in my life, where I’ve become so reliant on the constant stimuli of our connected world that I find myself frequently out of control of my attention. I give it to others too willingly — often to those who will abuse the privilege. I’ve also become dependent on the attention of others, even those who bestow it in bad faith. I’ve become a version of the very person Mr. Goldhaber described in 1997, for whom “not being able to share your encounters with anyone would soon become torture.”
Maybe you feel this way too.
“The fundamental thing is that you can’t escape the attention economy,” Mr. Goldhaber told me before we hung up. That much feels true.
But we can try to follow Mr. Rheingold’s advice. We can explore the ways in which our attention is generated, manipulated, valued and degraded. Sometimes attention might simply be a lens through which to read the events of the moment. But it can also force us toward a better understanding of how our minds work or how we value our time and the time of others. Perhaps, just by acknowledging its presence, we can begin to direct it toward people, ideas and causes that are worthy of our precious resource.
In other words, I’m finally going to pay attention to where we pay attention.
On January 6, Trump supporters gathered at a rally at Washington DC’s Ellipse Park, regaled by various figures from Trump world, including Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani. Directly following Giuliani’s speech, the organizers played a video. To a scholar of fascist propaganda, well-versed in the history of the National Socialist’s pioneering use of videos in political propaganda, it was clear, watching it, what dangers it portended. In it, we see themes and tactics that history warns pose a violent threat to liberal democracy. Given the aims of fascist propaganda – to incite and mobilize – the events that followed were predictable.
Before decoding what the video presents, it is important to take a step back and discuss the structure of fascist ideology and how it can mobilize its most strident supporters to take violent actions.
I. The Fascist Framework
Increasingly central to Trumpism is the QAnon conspiracy theory, which, as many commentatorshavenow pointed out, closely resembles Nazi anti-Semitic myths. QAnon is just the most obvious manifestation of the increasing parallels between Trumpism and Hitler’s framework itself. Indeed, several contemporary fascist and white supremacist movements find similar roots in the framework Hitler developed, even if they did not culminate in such extreme actions as the Nazis.
Chapter 2 of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s first and most famous book, is entitled “Years of Study and Suffering in Vienna.” In it, he documents what he describes as his gradual realization that behind the various institutions of power were the Jews. His enlightenment supposedly begins with the entertainment industry, where he remarks that “[t]he fact that nine tenths of all literary filth, artistic trash, and theatrical idiocy can be set to the account of a people, constituting hardly one hundredth of all the country’s inhabitants, could simply not be talked away; it was plain truth.” But it was, Hitler writes, when he “recognized the Jew as the leader of the Social Democracy” that “the scales fell from [his] eyes.” Hitler describes a growing sense, foundational to the ideology the book delineates, the ideology of Nazism, that Jews were controlling the apparatus of the state, both as important party politicians in the Social Democratic Party, and as operators behind the scenes of the press and other institutions.
In Nazi ideology, Jews are represented by an unholy alliance between Jewish capitalists and Jewish communists. The goal of the Jewish plot is to destroy national states, replacing them by a world government run by Jews. This diabolical Jewish plot involves destroying the character of individual nations, by flooding them with immigrants, and empowering minority populations. Hitler describes the German loss in World War I as part of this plan, a “stab in the back” of the German people by Jewish traitors seeking the ruin of the nation. In Nazi ideology, liberal democracy is represented as a corruption, a mask for this takeover by a global elite. Hitler reveals his true attitude toward liberalism in Mein Kampf, when he writes (in the characteristically sexist terms of Nazi ideology):
Like the woman, whose psychic state is determined less by grounds of abstract reason than by an identifiable emotional longing for a force which will complement her nature, and who, consequently, would rather bow to a strong man than dominate a weakling, likewise the masses love a commander more than a petitioner…
Fascism is a patriarchal cult of the leader, who promises national restoration in the face of supposed humiliation by a treacherous and power-hungry global elite, who have encouraged minorities to destabilize the social order as part of their plan to dominate the “true nation,” and fold them into a global world government. The fascist leader is the father of his nation, in a very real sense like the father in a traditional patriarchal family. He mobilizes the masses by reminding them of what they supposedly have lost, and who it is that is responsible for that loss – the figures who control democracy itself, the elite; Nazi ideology is a species of fascism in which this global elite are Jews.
The future promised by the fascist leader is one in which there are plentiful blue collar jobs, reflecting the manly ideals of hard work and strength. In Nazi propaganda, many white collar jobs, the domain of Jews – running department stores, banking – were for the idle. And the fascist nation’s heart and soul is the military – as Hitler writes, “[w]hat the German people owes to the army can be briefly summed up in a single word, to wit: everything.” The fascist future is a kind of restoration of a glorious past, but a modern version – replete with awesome technology that glorifies the nation to the world. The German V-2 rocket was a characteristic representation of Nazi might. The fascist future is, in the famous description of Jeffrey Herf, a kind of reactionary modernism.
Fascism uses propaganda as a way of mobilizing a population behind the leader. Fascist propaganda creates an awesome sense of loss, and a desire for revenge against those who are responsible. In the face of the supposed betrayal of the nation during World War I by Jewish “vipers,” Hitler describes the proper response to have been to place the “leaders of the whole movement…behind bars.” Hitler writes, “[a]ll the implements of military power should have been ruthlessly used for the extermination of this pestilence. The parties should have been dissolved, the Reichstag brought to its senses, with bayonets if necessary, but, best of all, dissolved at once.” The goal of fascist propaganda is to mobilize a population to violently overthrew multi-party democracy and replace it with the leader.
Fascism is not an ideology consigned to Europe. Black American intellectuals from W.E.B. Du Bois to Toni Morrison have spokenof American fascism. America has a long history of anti-Semitism similar to Nazi anti-Semitism, central to the ideology not just of the Ku Klux Klan, but to Henry Ford’s “The International Jew.” In its American version, communist Jews supposedly use Black liberation movements, control of Hollywood, and labor unions to destroy the nation in the service of a global elite. We should not be surprised at all by the rise of a fascist movement in the United States. And if it does arise, it would be no surprise if it did so in the party that keeps alive the “lost cause” myths of the American South.
II. The Movie Shown at the Ellipse
This history, both European and American, illuminates the dangers we face today, laid bare in the video. In it, Trump is repeatedly represented as the nation’s father figure. It is laced through with images of masculinity, and mournful loss at the hands of traitors, clearly justifying a violent restoration of recent glory.
The video begins with Trump’s eyes in the shadow, and its second frame focuses the audience on the Capitol building – America’s Reichstag, where the decisions being denounced by the rally’s organizers were being made that day. The third frame of the video is the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. This image immediately directs the attention of an audience attuned to an American fascist ideology to the supposedly elite class of Jews who, according to this ideology, control Hollywood. The appearance of the Hollywood sign makes no other sense in the context of a short video about an election. The next two images, of the UN General Assembly and the EU Parliament floor, connect supposed Jewish control of Hollywood to the goal of world government. As we have seen, according to Nazi ideology, Jews seek to use their control of the press and the entertainment industry to destroy individual nations. The beginning of the video focuses our attention on this supposedly “globalist,” but really Jewish, threat.
The next clip lingers on Joe Biden, with a vacant stare in his eyes and the video footage slowed, while Trump’s inauguration speech plays, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have born the cost.” It is clear from the image of Biden that he is not making the decisions. The video shifts to an image of Senator Charles Schumer, reminding the viewer of prominent Jewish leaders of the Democratic party. Schumer is wearing a Kente cloth, an image evocative of Ku Klux Klan ideology — that Jews support Black liberation movements as a way to undermine white rule and destroy the nation. The next frame shows the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, flanked by two Jewish Congressman, Representatives Nadler and Schiff. Pelosi, too, is controlled by Jews.
Who, then, are this “small group in our nation’s capital”? The video suggests it is a group that controls Hollywood and the Democratic Party, and seeks to use Black liberation movements to undermine the nation, and bring about world government. In Nazi ideology, as well as its US counterpart, this group is the Jews. And what are the costs? As the inauguration speech continues, “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of this our country;” gunshots are fired and we are shown images of these citizens betrayed by a duplicitous establishment – mournful pictures of coffins of veterans, homeless encampments, and a series of slides varying between nostalgic images of white American families over dinner with rural destitution – a worn down home flying a large American flag with an old pickup truck in front. At the end of these grim scenes of the results of elite betrayal, Trump declares, “This all ends right here, right now.”
As the music surges, what follows is a series of photos taken during Trump’s first term. This phase of the video begins with images of enormous naval ships on the ocean, and moves to images of Trump striding in front of a military guard at a football game, the iconic sport of American masculinity (hence the very particular danger of the Black quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s challenge to white supremacy). It is followed by rally after rally with adoring masses cheering Trump. The images of women overcome with emotion at the sight of the nation’s father figure, and violent anger at his political enemies, are interspersed with heavy machinery in factories, churning out huge new pick-up trucks, fighter jets streaking across the sky, and Trump striding across the screen framed by the powerful American imagery of the Lincoln Memorial. A Black man and a white man are shown in brotherhood at a Trump rally. Trump is shown observing powerful rockets launch, images evocative, for those schooled in history, of the Nazi’s own obsession with this particular technology.
After these scenes of Trump’s glorious leadership, the restoration of American rocket technology dominance, the mood shifts, as we are shown former Attorney General Bill Barr swearing in at what appears to be a deposition, followed by a smirking Joe Biden. Treachery has entered in, stage left.
What follows is scene after scene of immense loss. Empty streets of great American cities, a forlorn white woman peering out of a window, trapped at home. Scrabble pieces spelling “FEAR” appear and disappear within less than a second, empty chairs at a school, a sign reading “closed.” We see an image of the Supreme Court, followed by what appears to be a Black Lives Matter rally on a street emblazoned with “DEFUND THE POLICE.” Joe Biden appears in a forlorn photo in a gym, speaking to a lone man in a chair – Biden is here a petitioner, not a commander. The video switches back to a representation of glorious Trump years – a rising stock market, more fighter planes, a Black man and a white man with a “Jesus Saves” shirt embracing in brotherhood – a reference to the power of a shared Christian identity to bond Americans across racial lines. It ends with the screen filling with a powerful image of Trump’s face, showing steely resolve.
The message of the video is clear. America’s glory has been betrayed by treachery and division sown by politicians seeking to undermine and destroy the nation. To save the nation, one must restore Trump’s rule.
Each of us can decide what moral responsibility Trump personally has for a video to rouse his supporters at the rally. How much of a role the White House or Trump himself may have played in deciding to show the video and sequencing it immediately after Giuliani’s speech, we don’t know. But it is worth noting that the New York Times recently reported that by early January, “the rally would now effectively become a White House production” and, with his eye ever on media production, Trump micromanaged the details. “The president discussed the speaking lineup, as well as the music to be played, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversations. For Mr. Trump, the rally was to be the percussion line in the symphony of subversion he was composing from the Oval Office,” the Times reported.
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Worldwide, there have been many fascist movements. Not all fascist movements focus on a global Jewish conspiracy as the enemy, and not all of them were genocidal. Early on, Italian fascism was not anti-Semitic in its core, though it later turned that way. British fascism was not genocidal (though it also was never given the opportunity to be). The most influential fascist movement that takes a shadowy Jewish conspiracy as its central target is German fascism, Nazism. Nazism did not start out in genocide. It began with militias and violent troops disrupting democracy. In its early years in power, in the 1930s, it was socialists and communists who were targeted for the Concentration Camps, torture, and murder. But it must never be forgotten where Nazism culminated.
Top image: “Save America March,” rally at the Ellipse, Washington, DC, Jan. 6, 2021 (AP Photo/John Minchillo)