(CNN) — It wasn’t until Yusuf Nur was inside the execution chamber, standing next to a condemned man strapped to a gurney, that he understood why he’d been asked to be present.
The inmate, Orlando Hall, had asked Nur to be his Muslim spiritual adviser in the weeks leading up to his execution by the United States government and to serve as the minister of record when he was put to death on Thursday, November 19, 2020.
“At the beginning, it was not clear to me that being a spiritual counselor would entail being there in the death chamber,” Nur told CNN, “and be there only a few feet from the gurney where they execute the person.”
“But the day of the execution, standing there right beside his gurney where he’s lying, in that death chamber, that’s when I realized why he needed me there,” Nur said. Even with the inmate’s family in an adjoining witness room, “I was the only person he knew there.” Between July 2020 and January 2021, 13 federal death row inmates were executed by the US government in the final months of the Trump administration — the first federal executions since 2003, when an informal moratorium halted the death penalty for 17 years. It was a historic series of executions. Prior to the hiatus, only three federal inmates had been executed since 1988, making this schedule of executions the most prolific in decades. The 10 executions that took place in 2020 alone were the most federal civilian executions in a calendar year since the 1800s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Many of the inmates had spiritual advisers like Nur, who ministered to them in the weeks before they were executed and stood next to them inside the execution chamber at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Four advisers who served as ministers of record for six of the 13 inmates recently spoke to CNN. They described their relationship with the inmates, however brief, and what it was like to watch them be put to death. Despite coming from different faiths and walks of life, they described similar experiences and a confluence of emotions — both a sense of duty to be there for the inmates and an undercurrent of anger or sadness at what they witnessed.
And while they were clear they did not condone the violent crimes of which the inmates were convicted, each of the spiritual advisers who spoke to CNN believe the death penalty is wrong.
For Father Mark O’Keefe, a Catholic priest and a professor of moral theology, being the minister of record for Dustin Honken’s execution only affirmed that belief.
“I witnessed them killing someone, and I knew him, and I had a connection with him,” O’Keefe said. “It made the death penalty very, very real to me, and the moral wrong of it clear to me at a deeply personal level.”
Could I stand there and watch somebody being killed and not want to stop it?
Sister Barbara Battista
“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a statement at the time.The death penalty remains legal in 28 states, though governors in California, Oregon and Pennsylvania have imposed moratoriums on executions in their states. But the federal government has the authority to pursue capital punishment in all 50. A series of legal challenges pushed the first executions back until last July, when Daniel Lewis Lee, who’d been convicted of three murders, was put to death. A dozen executions followed over the next six months, culminating with the execution of Dustin Higgs on January 16, just days before Donald Trump left office.
“I wasn’t surprised at all that Trump did it,” said Rev. Bill Breeden, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister who’s been the spiritual adviser to death row inmate Chadrick Fulks for more than a decade. “I was surprised at the number of the ones he did and the persistence of it.”
Breeden has been working with prisoners since the 1990s. That work, he said, eventually led to a relationship with Fulks, who Breeden said was “like a son” to him. When the death penalty was set to resume, he feared Fulks would be executed.
Fulks was spared, but Breeden, a vocal opponent of the death penalty, knew he’d be at the prison gates, protesting as many executions as he could. And that was before he became the minister of record to Corey Johnson, who was executed in January for murdering seven people during a 1992 killing spree.
Sister Barbara Battista of the Sisters of Providence, a congregation in nearby Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, felt similarly. As her congregation’s justice promoter, capital punishment became a focus of her work soon after the executions were announced. She and others formed the Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance and committed themselves to “making as much noise as we possibly could,” she said. As each execution was carried out, the group stood near the prison, carrying signs and protesting.
“There was a sadness in me, and an anger, too,” said Battista. “It was like, we have to make sure people know this is happening.”
Battista said protesters had tried to honor pain on all sides of the executions, including the families of the inmates’ victims. While they stood vigil outside the prison, they tried to recite the victims’ names to acknowledge their families’ suffering. Another group, she said, had signs printed that included the victims’ names.
‘I can’t pass this cup’
When Keith Nelson first asked Battista to be the minister of record at his execution, she prayed about it, she told CNN.
That afternoon, she’d learned her oldest brother was killed in a car accident, she said. Despite her grief, she wanted to say yes. Still, as a physician’s assistant, she wondered if standing by as someone was killed would be “unnatural.”
“Could I stand there,” she wondered, “and watch somebody being killed and not want to stop it?”
Nelson was sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of 10-year-old Pamela Butler in 1999. Nelson abducted her while she was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home, according to the Justice Department, and Nelson confessed to strangling her with a wire.
Battista did not condone the inmate’s actions, she said. But she ultimately accepted Nelson’s request, because, she said, “As a Catholic Christian, I firmly believe that all persons deserve my compassion, deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter what.”
Nur, a business management professor, first received the request to be Orlando Hall’s spiritual adviser through Breeden, who’d reached out to Nur’s Bloomington mosque searching for one on Hall’s behalf.
The two met at Breeden’s home, in a stretch of forest in southern Indiana, and discussed what the role would involve.
“I said, as you take this on, he’s very likely going to ask you to be in the death chamber with him,” Breeden recalled. “And I said if you don’t feel like you can do that, I won’t respect you any less.”
Nur couldn’t understand. “I kept thinking, what will he get of me being there? In the back of my mind, I was hoping that he would not ask me to be there.”
Hall was sentenced to death for the 1994 kidnapping, rape and murder of 16-year-old Lisa Rene. Hall, along with several accomplices in a marijuana trafficking operation, kidnapped her from her Arlington, Texas, home while searching for her brother. After repeatedly raping her, they dug a grave in an Arkansas park, beat her with a shovel and buried her alive, according to the Justice Department.
Hall embraced Islam after his conviction, Nur said, and they spent a lot of time discussing the Quran. But it was “surreal” and “awkward,” Nur said, to talk to Hall about dying. At 49, he was in good shape and looked much younger, Nur said, and it was strange to discuss his impending death.
Just as Breeden predicted, Hall asked Nur to be with him during the execution. Nur still didn’t understand why, but he said yes.
The execution chamber
Father O’Keefe, the Catholic priest, regularly offered mass at the Terre Haute prison, but he generally did not do so on death row. It wasn’t until he filled in for another priest that he first met Dustin Honken.
Honken was sentenced to death for killing five people in 1993 — including Lori Duncan, a single mother, and her daughters, Kandi and Amber, ages 10 and 6 — in an effort to hide his multistate methamphetamine drug operation.
The two only met about four times, O’Keefe said, but he was struck by Honken’s “sincere faith,” and he thought Honken “wanted a deeper relationship with God.” But their own relationship was short lived, and when they said goodbye for what O’Keefe believed would be the last time, Honken had been scheduled to be executed.
About two weeks before Honken’s execution, Father O’Keefe received a request from the inmate through his lawyers that he be the minister of record at his execution. O’Keefe didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“It’s the ministry of priests to accompany the dying,” he said. He also recognized “spiritual depth” in Honken, and said the inmate believed a priest “would give him a sense that God was present to him in that final moment.”
“I couldn’t deny that to him,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe acknowledged the suffering of the families of Honken’s victims. He said he agreed to be Honken’s minister of record because the inmate was a human being who deserved to have someone with him at the end.
“It doesn’t change the crime he committed, and it doesn’t change the terrible suffering of that family,” he said. “Those families — what a horrible thing to live with all these years.”
“But killing Dustin didn’t change that…his death changed nothing,” he said.
The day of the execution, O’Keefe said he had expected to spend a significant amount of time with Honken, but in the end they only had a few minutes, with a piece of glass between them.
“We were both upset about that, but both of us knew, don’t fight this because there’s not enough time,” he said.
O’Keefe heard Honken’s confession, and they spoke briefly. Honken was mostly concerned about his family.
“He told me he was at peace,” O’Keefe said, “and that he was more concerned about his daughter,” who had come to visit her father but would not attend the execution.
From there, O’Keefe was escorted into a viewing room. He waited there until he was taken into the execution chamber itself, where Honken was already strapped to the gurney.
“It was sterile,” said O’Keefe, a statement echoed by all the ministers of record. “The color, the tile — it could have been an old hospital room. And all the accoutrements of trying to heal somebody were there — the oxygen monitor, what appeared to be the heart monitor, the IV.”
“But none of that was to save him,” the priest said. “It was all to kill him.”
All the spiritual advisers who spoke to CNN described largely the same experience, with slight deviations. Each was told to stand next to a piece of tape by the gurney. They were given an opportunity to speak with the inmate, pray, give last rites, read scripture or recite a declaration of faith. Prison officials, witnesses from the media, the inmates’ family and friends, and the victims’ family watched from adjacent viewing rooms.
Corey Johnson, who didn’t read well, according to Breeden, had asked Breeden to read his last words, the minister said. But Breeden said he was not allowed to and that an official said Johnson had to read the words.
Johnson’s lawyers released the inmate’s final words after the execution.
“I would have said I was sorry before, but I didn’t know how. I hope you will find peace,” he said. “To my family, I have always loved you, and your love has made me real. On the streets, I was looking for shortcuts, I had some good role models, I was side tracking, I was blind and stupid. I am not the same man that I was.”
And then the lethal injection began.
The ministers of record mostly described silence as the executions they each witnessed were carried out.
Breeden said Johnson turned to the witness room used by his family and said, “I love you.” Breeden said he heard Johnson’s brother yelling, “I love you, bro. I love you, bro!”
The inmate’s breathing slowed until someone came from an adjacent room and used a stethoscope to check Johnson’s pulse before he was declared dead.
In their statement, Johnson’s attorneys said they saw him as a “gentle soul” who had tried to earn his GED.
“We wish also to say that the fact Corey Johnson should never have been executed cannot diminish the pain and loss experienced by the families of the victims in this case,” they said. “We wish them peace and healing.” The executions gave some families the opportunity to close a painful chapter of their lives. After William LeCroy was executed for the 2001 murder of Joann Lee Tiesler in Georgia, her father said in a statement, “justice was finally served.”
“I regret that it took nineteen years to get to this point, but it has brought some needed closure to Joann’s family and friends,” Tom Tiesler said. Not all the victims’ families supported the executions. Despite then-Attorney General Barr’s statement the US was seeking justice for the victims and their families, Earlene Peterson, whose daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law were tortured and killed by Daniel Lewis Lee, told CNN prior to his execution that she didn’t want it done in her name.
“It would shame my daughter,” she said, “that someone has to die for her.”
Nur and Battista would both end up going back to the execution chamber to serve as the ministers of record for two other inmates: Dustin Higgs and LeCroy, respectively.
“To tell you the truth, I really didn’t want to go back there,” Nur said of receiving the request from Higgs, the last inmate to be executed. “But what can you do? That’s the least you can do for somebody in that position.”
Like the other spiritual advisers, Nur had always been opposed to capital punishment. After witnessing Hall’s execution, however, something shifted.
“From the moment I realized what was happening, that the death penalty issue is no longer on my periphery, that I am facing it, I became committed to the abolition of the death penalty,” he said. “This horror has to stop.”
Nur tested positive for Covid-19 about a week after Hall was put to death, and while he was asymptomatic, Nur believes he contracted the virus during the execution. He later lent his account to a complaint in which other inmates at Terre Haute argued for halting the remaining executions, citing the risk posed by Covid-19. The effort was unsuccessful.The executions drew additional scrutiny because of the fact they were carried out during the pandemic. Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, previously told CNN the executions were possible super spreader events because of the number of people involved.
“The decision to move forward with all these super spreader events in the midst of a pandemic…is historically unprecedented,” Dunham said.After Hall’s execution, at least six members of the execution team and more than a dozen Terre Haute prison staffers tested positive for Covid-19, according to a motion filed in court. Attorneys for Johnson also called on the Justice Department to withdraw his execution date after he tested positive for Covid-19 and said proceeding exhibited “reckless disregard for the lives and safety of staff, prisoners and attorneys alike.”
In his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Biden’s pick for Attorney General, Judge Merrick Garland, said the death penalty had given him “great pause.”
As an associate deputy attorney general, Garland was involved in the decision to seek the death penalty in the case against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. During his February confirmation hearing, Garland said he supported capital punishment in that case and he did not regret pursuing it.
But he had developed concerns over the death penalty in the last two decades, he said. He pointed to the exonerations of wrongfully convicted people, the arbitrary nature with which the death penalty is applied and its “disparate impact on Black Americans and members of other communities of color.”Garland said he expected Biden would be “giving direction in this area” and indicated it was “not at all unlikely” the Department would return to the “previous policy.”
“We need to abolish capital punishment,” Battista said. “Yes, we need President Biden to affect a moratorium, but that’s just a stop gap measure.” She’s hopeful, pointing to states like Virginia, which is on the verge of outlawing capital punishment. “It gives me great hope,” she said. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, legislators in a number of states, including California and Kansas, among others, have recently introduced bills to abolish the death penalty in their states.
I was honored to be there. But I was also ashamed to be there, because this is done with my taxes.
Rev. Bill Breeden
O’Keefe has also experienced a shift after witnessing Honken’s execution. He’d always believed the death penalty was wrong. But as an academic, he said it was something he’d largely only thought about in theory.
“Intellectually, I know the Catholic Church’s arguments against the death penalty and I adhere to those. I am against the death penalty,” he said. “But I must admit, for me, it was always kind of abstract.”
But witnessing Honken’s execution changed something. The next day, his emotions caught up to him, and he realized what he had seen.
“It struck me that being present when another human being is killed just ought not to be,” he said. “That’s when my belief against the death penalty became real.”
Following Johnson’s death, Breeden said he turned to the execution team and told them, “I would be remiss in my role as a minister if I did not advise you to find another line of employment before you lose your souls.”
Outside, Breeden spoke to reporters and the group of protesters who’d held vigil nearby.
“I was honored to be there,” he told them, according to a video of his remarks that was streamed live on Facebook. “But I was also ashamed to be there, because this is done with my taxes.”
CNN’s Christina Carrega contributed to this report.
Democrats can’t kill the filibuster. But they can gut it.
Three reforms Manchin and Sinema might consider
Democrats won both Georgia Senate seats in January’s runoffs, giving them control of both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time in a decade. But their ability to advance legislation — from raising the federal minimum wage to democracy reforms in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — can be thwarted by the Senate’s 60-vote supermajority filibuster rule.
Progressives’ anger at Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his caucus, who use the filibuster to block every initiative they can, is nearly matched by their frustration with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), whose opposition to getting rid of the filibuster means Democrats are stuck with it, since they’d need all 50 votes in their caucus, plus Vice President Harris as a tiebreaker, to do it. Last month, the progressive No Excuses PAC, whose leaders helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) in 2018, said Manchin and Sinema “stand in the way of progress” by abetting Republican efforts “to shrink their own party’s pandemic relief, climate, and economic investment plans.” The political action committee has talked up primary challenges to both of them to show “‘how angry Democratic primary voters are going to be’ if they continue to support the filibuster.”
Manchin hasn’t budged, though. Monday, when asked if he’d reconsider his stance on eliminating the filibuster, he shot back: “Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about ‘never’?”
Democrats are right to see the urgency: Republican state lawmakers around the country are moving to enact voter suppression measures that will, if passed, put the slender Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives in jeopardy in 2022 and beyond. Without democracy reform, and with the Supreme Court’s recent assaults on the Voting Rights Act, sticking with the filibuster could make it nearly impossible for the Biden administration to pursue its agenda.
But Democrats should proceed with caution: In 2001, I warned that if Republicans harangued Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) over his apostasy on their party’s policy priorities, they would regret it. He would switch parties and, in a 50-50 Senate, shift the Senate majority. The next month, it happened. The same concern now applies to Democrats with Manchin. Push too far, and the result could be Majority Leader McConnell, foreclosing Democrats’ avenue to pursue infrastructure, tax reform and health reform legislation.
So, what can Democrats do?Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) demurred when asked on March 2 if he would support ending the legislative filibuster. (The Washington Post)
For a West Virginia Democrat, heavy criticism from key members of his own party, up to and including President Biden, might wind up working to Manchin’s advantage. That was true of an earlier apostate, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), who’s been reelected several times after switching from Democrat to Republicanin 1994, after butting heads with President Bill Clinton.
Instead of naming and shaming them, Democrats might consider looking at what Manchin and Sinema like about the filibuster. Sinema recently said, “Retaining the legislative filibuster is not meant to impede the things we want to get done. Rather, it’s meant to protect what the Senate was designed to be. I believe the Senate has a responsibility to put politics aside and fully consider, debate, and reach compromise on legislative issues that will affect all Americans.” Last year, Manchin said, “The minority should have input — that’s the whole purpose for the Senate. If you basically do away with the filibuster altogether for legislation, you won’t have the Senate. You’re a glorified House. And I will not do that.”
If you take their views at face value, the goal is to preserve some rights for the Senate minority, with the aim of fostering compromise. The key, then, is to find ways not to eliminate the filibuster on legislation but to reform it to fit that vision. Here are some options:
Make the minority do the work. Currently, it takes 60 senators to reach cloture — to end debate and move to a vote on final passage of a bill. The burden is on the majority, a consequence of filibuster reform in 1975, which moved the standard from two-thirds of senators present and voting to three-fifths of the entire Senate. Before that change, if the Senate went around-the-clock, filibustering senators would have to be present in force. If, for example, only 75 senators showed up for a cloture vote, 50 of them could invoke cloture and move to a final vote. After the reform, only a few senators in the minority needed to be present to a request for unanimous consent and to keep the majority from closing debate by forcing a quorum call. The around-the-clock approach riveted the public, putting a genuine spotlight on the issues. Without it, the minority’s delaying tactics go largely unnoticed, with little or no penalty for obstruction, and no requirement actually to debate the issue.
One way to restore the filibuster’s original intent would be requiring at least two-fifths of the full Senate, or 40 senators, to keep debating instead requiring 60 to end debate. The burden would fall to the minority, who’d have to be prepared for several votes, potentially over several days and nights, including weekends and all-night sessions, and if only once they couldn’t muster 40 — the equivalent of cloture — debate would end, making way for a vote on final passage of the bill in question.
Go back to the “present and voting” standard. A shift to three-fifths of the Senate “present and voting” would similarly require the minority to keep most of its members around the Senate when in session. If, for example, the issue in question were voting rights, a Senate deliberating on the floor, 24 hours a day for several days, would put a sharp spotlight on the issue, forcing Republicans to publicly justify opposition to legislation aimed at protecting the voting rights of minorities. Weekend Senate sessions would cause Republicans up for reelection in 2022 to remain in Washington instead of freeing them to go home to campaign. In a three-fifths present and voting scenario, if only 80 senators showed up, only 48 votes would be needed to get to cloture. Add to that a requirement that at all times, a member of the minority party would have to be on the floor, actually debating, and the burden would be even greater, while delivering what Manchin and Sinema say they want — more debate.
Narrow the supermajority requirement. Another option would be to follow in the direction of the 1975 reform, which reduced two-thirds (67 out of a full 100) to three-fifths (60 out of 100), and further reduce the threshold to 55 senators — still a supermajority requirement, but a slimmer one. Democrats might have some ability to get five Republicans to support their desired outcomes on issues such as voting rights, universal background checks for gun purchases or a path to citizenship for Dreamers. A reduction to 55, if coupled with a present-and-voting standard would establish even more balance between majority and minority.
In a 50-50 Senate, and with the GOP strategy clearly being united opposition to almost all Democratic priorities, Biden and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) need the support of Manchin and Sinema on a daily basis. They won’t be persuaded by pressure campaigns from progressive groups or from members of Congress. But they might consider reforms that weaken the power of filibusters and give Democrats more leverage to enact their policies, without pursuing the dead end of abolishing the rule altogether.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referenced 40 senators as “two-thirds” of the full Senate. Forty senators equal two-fifths.
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.
* * *
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)
AMSTERDAM IS EMBRACING A RADICAL NEW ECONOMIC THEORY TO HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. COULD IT ALSO REPLACE CAPITALISM?
Amsterdam Is Embracing a Radical New Economic Theory to Help Save the Environment. Could It Also Replace Capitalism?
Illustration by Chris Dent for TIMEBY CIARA NUGENT JANUARY 22, 2021 3:11 PM EST
One evening in December, after a long day working from home, Jennifer Drouin, 30, headed out to buy groceries in central Amsterdam. Once inside, she noticed new price tags. The label by the zucchini said they cost a little more than normal: 6¢ extra per kilo for their carbon footprint, 5¢ for the toll the farming takes on the land, and 4¢ to fairly pay workers. “There are all these extra costs to our daily life that normally no one would pay for, or even be aware of,” she says.
The so-called true-price initiative, operating in the store since late 2020, is one of dozens of schemes that Amsterdammers have introduced in recent months as they reassess the impact of the existing economic system. By some accounts, that system, capitalism, has its origins just a mile from the grocery store. In 1602, in a house on a narrow alley, a merchant began selling shares in the nascent Dutch East India Company. In doing so, he paved the way for the creation of the first stock exchange—and the capitalist global economy that has transformed life on earth. “Now I think we’re one of the first cities in a while to start questioning this system,” Drouin says. “Is it actually making us healthy and happy? What do we want? Is it really just economic growth?”https://2b19906329dde744abe99d82ff83fe55.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
In April 2020, during the first wave of COVID-19, Amsterdam’s city government announced it would recover from the crisis, and avoid future ones, by embracing the theory of “doughnut economics.” Laid out by British economist Kate Raworth in a 2017 book, the theory argues that 20th century economic thinking is not equipped to deal with the 21st century reality of a planet teetering on the edge of climate breakdown. Instead of equating a growing GDP with a successful society, our goal should be to fit all of human life into what Raworth calls the “sweet spot” between the “social foundation,” where everyone has what they need to live a good life, and the “environmental ceiling.” By and large, people in rich countries are living above the environmental ceiling. Those in poorer countries often fall below the social foundation. The space in between: that’s the doughnut.Marieke van Doorninck, deputy mayor for sustainability, is trying to make Amsterdam a “doughnut city” Judith Jockel—Guardian/eyevine/Redux
Amsterdam’s ambition is to bring all 872,000 residents inside the doughnut, ensuring everyone has access to a good quality of life, but without putting more pressure on the planet than is sustainable. Guided by Raworth’s organization, the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL), the city is introducing massive infrastructure projects, employment schemes and new policies for government contracts to that end. Meanwhile, some 400 local people and organizations have set up a network called the Amsterdam Doughnut Coalition—managed by Drouin— to run their own programs at a grassroots level.
It’s the first time a major city has attempted to put doughnut theory into action on a local level, but Amsterdam is not alone. Raworth says DEAL has received an avalanche of requests from municipal leaders and others seeking to build more resilient societies in the aftermath of COVID-19. Copenhagen’s city council majority decided to follow Amsterdam’s example in June, as did the Brussels region and the small city of Dunedin, New Zealand, in September, and Nanaimo, British Columbia, in December. In the U.S., Portland, Ore., is preparing to roll out its own version of the doughnut, and Austin may be close behind. The theory has won Raworth some high-profile fans; in November, Pope Francis endorsed her “fresh thinking,” while celebrated British naturalist Sir David Attenborough dedicated a chapter to the doughnut in his latest book, A Life on Our Planet, calling it “our species’ compass for the journey” to a sustainable future.https://2b19906329dde744abe99d82ff83fe55.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Now, Amsterdam is grappling with what the doughnut would look like on the ground. Marieke van Doorninck, the deputy mayor for sustainability and urban planning, says the pandemic added urgency that helped the city get behind a bold new strategy. “Kate had already told us what to do. COVID showed us the way to do it,” she says. “I think in the darkest times, it’s easiest to imagine another world.”
In 1990, Raworth, now 50, arrived at Oxford University to study economics. She quickly became frustrated by the content of the lectures, she recalls over Zoom from her home office in Oxford, where she now teaches. She was learning about ideas from decades and sometimes centuries ago: supply and demand, efficiency, rationality and economic growth as the ultimate goal. “The concepts of the 20th century emerged from an era in which humanity saw itself as separated from the web of life,” Raworth says. In this worldview, she adds, environmental issues are relegated to what economists call “externalities.” “It’s just an ultimate absurdity that in the 21st century, when we know we are witnessing the death of the living world unless we utterly transform the way we live, that death of the living world is called ‘an environmental externality.’”
Almost two decades after she left university, as the world was reeling from the 2008 financial crash, Raworth struck upon an alternative to the economics she had been taught. She had gone to work in the charity sector and in 2010, sitting in the open-plan office of the antipoverty nonprofit Oxfam in Oxford, she came across a diagram. A group of scientists studying the conditions that make life on earth possible had identified nine “planetary boundaries” that would threaten humans’ ability to survive if crossed, like the acidification of the oceans. Inside these boundaries, a circle colored in green showed the safe place for humans.
But if there’s an ecological overshoot for the planet, she thought, there’s also the opposite: shortfalls creating deprivation for humanity. “Kids not in school, not getting decent health care, people facing famine in the Sahel,” she says. “And so I drew a circle within their circle, and it looked like a doughnut.”https://2b19906329dde744abe99d82ff83fe55.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlInner Ring: Twelve essentials of life that no one in society should be deprived of; Outer Ring: Nine ecological limits of earth’s life-supporting systems that humanity must not collectively overshoot; Sweet Spot: The space both environmentally safe and socially just where humanity can thrive Lon Tweeten for TIME
Raworth published her theory of the doughnut as a paper in 2012 and later as a 2017 book, which has since been translated into 20 languages. The theory doesn’t lay out specific policies or goals for countries. It requires stakeholdersto decide what benchmarks would bring them inside the doughnut—emission limits, for example, or an end to homelessness. The process of setting those benchmarks is the first step to becoming a doughnut economy, she says.
Raworth argues that the goal of getting “into the doughnut” should replace governments’ and economists’ pursuit of never-ending GDP growth. Not only is the primacy of GDP overinflated when we now have many other data sets to measure economic and social well-being, she says, but also, endless growth powered by natural resources and fossil fuels will inevitably push the earth beyond its limits. “When we think in terms of health, and we think of something that tries to grow endlessly within our bodies, we recognize that immediately: that would be a cancer.”
The doughnut can seem abstract, and it has attracted criticism. Some conservatives say the doughnut model can’t compete with capitalism’s proven ability to lift millions out of poverty. Some critics on the left say the doughnut’s apolitical nature means it will fail to tackle ideology and political structures that prevent climate action.
Cities offer a good opportunity to prove that the doughnut can actually work in practice. In 2019, C40, a network of 97 cities focused on climate action, asked Raworth to create reports on three of its members—Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Portland—showing how far they were from living inside the doughnut. Inspired by the process, Amsterdam decided to run with it. The city drew up a “circular strategy” combining the doughnut’s goals with the principles of a “circular economy,” which reduces, reuses and recycles materials across consumer goods, building materials and food. Policies aim to protect the environment and natural resources, reduce social exclusion and guarantee good living standards for all. Van Doorninck, the deputy mayor, says the doughnut was a revelation. “I was brought up in Thatcher times, in Reagan times, with the idea that there’s no alternative to our economic model,” she says. “Reading the doughnut was like, Eureka! There is an alternative! Economics is a social science, not a natural one. It’s invented by people, and it can be changed by people.”https://2b19906329dde744abe99d82ff83fe55.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
The new, doughnut-shaped world Amsterdam wants to build is coming into view on the southeastern side of the city. Rising almost 15 ft. out of placid waters of Lake IJssel lies the city’s latest flagship construction project, Strandeiland (Beach Island). Part of IJburg, an archipelago of six new islands built by city contractors, Beach Island was reclaimed from the waters with sand carried by boats run on low-emission fuel. The foundations were laid using processes that don’t hurt local wildlife or expose future residents to sea-level rise. Its future neighborhood is designed to produce zero emissions and to prioritize social housing and access to nature. Beach Island embodies Amsterdam’s new priority: balance, says project manager Alfons Oude Ophuis. “Twenty years ago, everything in the city was focused on production of houses as quickly as possible. It’s still important, but now we take more time to do the right thing.”
Lianne Hulsebosch, IJburg’s sustainability adviser, says the doughnut has shaped the mindset of the team, meaning Beach Island and its future neighbor Buiteneiland are more focused on sustainability than the first stage of IJburg, completed around 2012. “It’s not that every day-to-day city project has to start with the doughnut, but the model is really part of our DNA now,” she says. “You notice in the conversations that we have with colleagues. We’re doing things that 10 years ago we wouldn’t have done because we are valuing things differently.”
The city has introduced standards for sustainability and circular use of materials for contractors in all city-owned buildings. Anyone wanting to build on Beach Island, for example, will need to provide a “materials passport” for their buildings, so whenever they are taken down, the city can reuse the parts.
On the mainland, the pandemic has inspired projects guided by the doughnut’s ethos. When the Netherlands went into lockdown in March, the city realized that thousands of residents didn’t have access to computers that would become increasingly necessary to socialize and take part in society. Rather than buy new devices—which would have been expensive and eventually contribute to the rising problem of e-waste—the city arranged collections of old and broken laptops from residents who could spare them, hired a firm to refurbish them and distributed 3,500 of them to those in need. “It’s a small thing, but to me it’s pure doughnut,” says van Doorninck.https://2b19906329dde744abe99d82ff83fe55.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlThe city says the Beach Island development will prioritize balancing the needs of humans and nature Gemeente Amsterdam
The local government is also pushing the private sector to do its part, starting with the thriving but ecologically harmful fashion industry. Amsterdam claims to have the highest concentration of denim brands in the world, and that the average resident owns five pairs of jeans. But denim is one of the most resource-intensive fabrics in the world, with each pair of jeans requiring thousands of gallons of water and the use of polluting chemicals.
In October, textile suppliers, jeans brands and other links in the denim supply chain signed the “Denim Deal,” agreeing to work together to produce 3 billion garments that include 20% recycled materials by 2023—no small feat given the treatments the fabric undergoes and the mix of materials incorporated into a pair of jeans. The city will organize collections of old denim from Amsterdam residents and eventually create a shared repair shop for the brands, where people can get their jeans fixed rather than throwing them away. “Without that government support and the pressure on the industry, it will not change. Most companies need a push,” says Hans Bon of denim supplier Wieland Textiles.
Of course, many in the city were working on sustainability, social issues or ways to make life better in developing countries before the city embraced the doughnut. But Drouin, manager of Amsterdam’s volunteer coalition, says the concept has forced a more fundamental reckoning with the city’s way of life. “It has really changed people’s mindset, because you can see all the problems in one picture. It’s like a harsh mirror on the world that you face.”
Doughnut economIcs may be on the rise in Amsterdam, a relatively wealthy city with a famously liberal outlook, in a democratic country with a robust state. But advocates of the theory face a tough road to effectively replace capitalism. In Nanaimo, Canada, a city councillor who opposed the adoption of the model in December called it “a very left-wing philosophy which basically says that business is bad, growth is bad, development’s bad.”
In fact, the doughnut model doesn’t proscribe all economic growth or development. In her book, Raworth acknowledges that for low- and middle-income countries to climb above the doughnut’s social foundation, “significant GDP growth is very much needed.” But that economic growth needs to be viewed as a means to reach social goals within ecological limits, she says, and not as an indicator of success in itself, or a goal for rich countries. In a doughnut world, the economy would sometimes be growing and sometimes shrinking.https://2b19906329dde744abe99d82ff83fe55.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Still, some economists are skeptical of the idealism. In his 2018 review of Raworth’s book, Branko Milanovic, a scholar at CUNY’s Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, says for the doughnut to take off, humans would need to “magically” become “indifferent to how well we do compared to others, and not really care about wealth and income.”
In cities that are grappling with the immediate social and economic effects of COVID-19, though, the doughnut framework is proving appealing, says Joshua Alpert, the Portland-based director of special projects at C40. “All of our mayors are working on this question: How do we rebuild our cities post-COVID? Well, the first place to start is with the doughnut.” Alpert says they have had “a lot of buy-in” from city leaders. “Because it’s framed as a first step, I think it’s been easier for mayors to say this is a natural progression that is going to help us actually move out of COVID in a much better way.”
Drouin says communities in Amsterdam also have helped drive the change. “If you start something and you can make it visible, and prove that you or your neighborhood is benefiting, then your city will wake up and say we need to support them.” In her own neighborhood, she says, residents began using parking spaces to hold dinners with their neighbors during summer, and eventually persuaded the municipality to convert many into community gardens.
Citizen-led groups focused on the doughnut that are forming in places including São Paulo, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur and California bring the potential to transform their own areas from the bottom up. “It’s powerful when you have peers inspiring peers to act: a teacher inspires another teacher, or a schoolchild inspires their class, a mayor inspires another mayor,” Raworth says. “I’m really convinced that’s the way things are going to happen if we’re going to get the transformation that we need this decade.”
COVID-19 has the potential to massively accelerate that transformation, if governments use economic-stimulus packages to favor industries that lead us toward a more sustainable economy, and phase out those that don’t. Raworth cites Milton Friedman—the diehard free-market 20th century economist—who famously said that “when [a] crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” In July, Raworth’s DEAL group published the methodology it used to produce the “city portrait” that is guiding Amsterdam’s embrace of the doughnut, making it available for any local government to use. “This is the crisis,” she says. “We’ve made sure our ideas are lying around.”
This appears in the February 1, 2021 issue of TIME.
We are surrounded by people with an alternate view of reality. Many veterans are suffering from what I believe may be a form of PTSD, which can affect any person in a stressful job (police, fire department, military) who is often faced with violent or traumatic situations. At the end of the article is an excellent comment.
From Navy SEAL to Part of the Angry Mob Outside the Capitol
The presence in Washington of a longtime member of the Navy SEALs who was trained to identify misinformation reflects the partisan politics that helped lead to the assault.
Jan. 26, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
In the weeks since Adam Newbold, a former member of the Navy SEALs, was identified as part of the enraged crowd that descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6, he has been interviewed by the F.B.I. and has resigned under pressure from jobs as a mentor and as a volunteer wrestling coach. He expects his business to lose major customers over his actions.
But none of it has shaken his belief, against all evidence, that the presidential election was stolen and that people like him were right to rise up.
It is surprising because Mr. Newbold’s background would seem to armor him better than most against the lure of baseless conspiracy theories. In the Navy, he was trained as an expert in sorting information from disinformation, a clandestine commando who spent years working in intelligence paired with the C.I.A., and he once mocked the idea of shadowy antidemocratic plots as “tinfoil hat” thinking.
Even so, like thousands of others who surged to Washington this month to support President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Newbold bought into the fabricated theory that the election was rigged by a shadowy cabal of liberal power brokers who had pushed the nation to the precipice of civil war. No one could persuade him otherwise.
Photos from the Capitol show Mr. Newbold wearing a black “We the People” T-shirt and straddling a Capitol Police motorcycle, just a few steps from where officers were battling with rioters.
Mr. Newbold says he did not enter the Capitol, and he has not been charged with any crimes. But his presence there reflects the volatile brew of partisan politics and viral misinformation that helped lead to the assault.
Mr. Newbold’s worldview is plain from his Facebook account. In a combative video laden with expletives that he posted a week before the riot, he repeated debunked but widely circulated claims about the election, saying that “it is absolutely unbelievable, the mountains of evidence of election fraud and voter fraud and machines and people who voted, dead people who voted.” When commenters challenged him, he responded with expletives and rejoinders like “Yeah keep laughing, you’re going to be laughing when you’re stomped down.”
One striking aspect of the angry crowd at the Capitol was how many of its members seemed to come not from the fringes of American society but from white picket-fence Main Street backgrounds — firefighters and real estate agents, a marketing executive and a Town Council member, all captivated by flimsy conspiracy theories. Mr. Newbold’s presence showed just how persuasive the rigged-election story had grown.
His experience ought to have made him hard to fool. A few years earlier, he had been on the receiving end of the same kind of baseless and potentially dangerous fervor about a supposed sinister government plot that became known as Jade Helm.
Even after the Capitol riot, though, he expressed certainty that he had not been fooled.
“I’ve been to countries all over the world that are indoctrinated by propaganda,” Mr. Newbold said in a long telephone interview last week, adding that he knew how misinformation could be used to manipulate the masses. “I have no doubts; I’m convinced that the election was not free and fair.”
He said he believed that unnamed elites had quietly pulled off a coup by manipulating election software, and warned that the country was still on the precipice of war.
Mr. Newbold, 45, lives in the rural hills of eastern Ohio, and is one of three brothers who all became Navy SEAL commandos. He spent 23 years in the elite force, Navy records show, including seven in the Naval Reserves, before retiring as a senior chief petty officer in 2017. He was given two Navy Commendation medals for valor in combat deployments, and several others for good conduct.
A former SEAL who served with him at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginiasaid Mr. Newbold was smart and had a good reputation in the SEAL teams, and had worked with the C.I.A. on intelligence gathering.
On Politics with Lisa Lerer: A guiding hand through the political news cycle, telling you what you really need to know.
After the Navy, Mr. Newbold moved to the small town of Lisbon, Ohio, opened a coffee shop and started a company called Advanced Training Group that taught SEAL-style tactics to members of the military and the police, and maintained a gym and shooting club for locals.
Through his company, he got involved in helping to design and conduct an eight-week military exercise in Texas and other border states in the summer of 2015 that was called Jade Helm 15.
When a PowerPoint slide summarizing the exercise was leaked, it was seized upon by fringe Facebook groups and professional conspiracy-theory promoters like Alex Jones, who began claiming that Jade Helm was a covert plot to have federal troops invade Texas, seize citizens’ guns and impose martial law. Baseless rumors circulated about “black helicopters” and Walmart stores that had supposedly been turned into detention camps.
The storm of political paranoia whipped up over a straightforward military exercise became so fierce that some members of Congress, who later questioned the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr., began demanding answers, and Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas National Guard to keep watch.
In the end, the exercise went off without a hitch. Mr. Newbold said in the interview that he and the other former special operators who planned the training exercise laughed at the paranoia, and even made T-shirts saying “I went to Jade Helm and all I got was this tinfoil hat.”
Last week, he acknowledged that the frenzy of misinformation surrounding Jade Helm could have been lethal. Local residents in Texas had been scared to the edge of violence. Three men were arrested after planning to attack the exercise with pipe bombs.
“There were actually some farmers and landowners who were making threats that if anyone was on their land, they would shoot them, so there were real concerns,” Mr. Newbold said. “It’s funny, but it’s stuff we have to take seriously.”
At the time, Mr. Newbold dismissed what he had witnessed as fringe ravings, not knowing it was a forerunner of the fantasies that came to suck in many more Americans, including military troops, police officers, members of Congress and a sitting president — not to mention Mr. Newbold.
Mr. Newbold is a longtime registered Republican who said he voted for Mr. Trump. In the past four years, as mainstream media coverage of the president grew harsher, and Mr. Newbold’s sometimes strident support on Facebook drew more rebukes, he migrated to news sources and chat rooms that shared his views.
By the late fall of 2020, he was spending time on private Facebook pages where far-right chatter proliferated. He posted long, often angry video soliloquies about how the country was being stolen. He seemed to become increasingly convinced that people were plotting not just against Mr. Trump but against the Constitution, and as a veteran it was his duty to defend it.
Mr. Newbold began holding private meetings at his shooting club with other like-minded members, according to a former member who said he quit because he was alarmed at the growing extremism.
“It became super cultlike,” said the former member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was afraid of retaliation. “I tried to reason with him, show him facts, and he just went nuclear.”
After the November election, Mr. Newbold’s Facebook posts predicting a coming war worried some people in Lisbon to the point that at least one said she alerted the F.B.I.
Last week when discussing his beliefs, Mr. Newbold dismissed the dozens of court decisions rejecting challenges to the election results, and shrugged off the logistical obstacles to rigging an election conducted by independent officials in more than 3,000 counties. Without citing evidence, he suggested it was naïve to assume the results had not been rigged.
In a long video posted late in December, the former member of the SEALs predicted a communist takeover if people did not rise up to stop it. “Once things start going violent, then I’m in my element,” he said in the video. “And I will defend this country. And there’s a lot of other people that will too.”
A week later, Mr. Newbold organized a group of his company’s employees, club members and supporters to travel in a caravan to Washington, and joined the flag-waving crowd that surged toward the Capitol on Jan. 6.
In a video posted that evening, he is seen saying that members of his group had been on the “very front lines” of the unrest. “Guys, you would be proud,” Mr. Newbold tells his viewers. “I don’t know when the last time you stormed the Capitol was. But that’s what happened. It was historic, it was necessary.” He adds that members of Congress were “shaking in their shoes.”
In the interview last week, Mr. Newbold sought to downplay his involvement in the events at the Capitol. He said that he sat on the police motorcycle only to keep vandals away from it, and that he had traveled to Washington not to incite violence but to protect the Capitol from angry liberals in the event that the Senate agreed to stop the certification of the election.
After the attack on the Capitol, he deleted some of his more incendiary online posts. But what happened in Washington has apparently not prompted him to question his beliefs. He said that he was still sure the election had been stolen and that the country was on a path toward global autocracy.
And in a video posted six days after the riot, when it was known that people had died, Mr. Newbold said that at the Capitol he had felt “a sense of pride that Americans were finally standing up.” He did not rule out turning to violence himself.
“I make no apologies for being a rough man ready to do rough things in rough situations,” he said. “It is absolutely necessary at times, and has been throughout our history.”
Dave Philipps covers veterans and the military, and is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Since joining the Times in 2014, he has covered the military community from the ground up. @David_Philipps • FacebookBelow is the best COMMENT on this article: 2 Replies482 RecommendShareFlagRickNYC commented 2 hours agoRRickNYCBrooklyn2h agoTimes Pick
There is a real tendency in this country to automatically apply hero status to anyone in uniform. Here in New York, post 9/11 cops were afforded hugely outsized reverence, regardless of who the individual was behind the badge. This aura only grows when describing somebody as well trained and disciplined as a Navy Seal. That rare position has mythical status, automatically exalting the person. It is dangerous to forget that, regardless of rank or title, these are just people. People can be susceptible. People can be prone to fantasy, or delusions. I secretly reject the automatic hero status & credibility these titles impart, because it lets bad apples off the hook. Maybe this guy is a Seal, but to me he’s a dangerously well trained conspiracy theorist who should be regarded as such, full stop.
Democrats Have a Values Problem. But Here’s How They Can Fix It.
Americans say they prize freedom more that equality, which means Democrats need to find the right words to convince people to support their equality-boosting agenda.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speak during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Feb.11, 2020. | Alex Brandon/AP Photo
By JAMES PILTCH
01/24/2021 06:48 AM EST
James Piltch is a writer focused on civic life. He worked as a speechwriter on a Democratic Senate campaign in 2020.
As Democrats begin their unified control of Washington with the slimmest possible majority in the Senate and barely a majority in the House, they must accept and address a difficult truth: Republicans have won the fight to define American ideals.
In the fall of 2017, I set out on a 9,000-mile road-trip to talk to people about what it means to be an American and a good citizen. Stopping in churches and on college campuses, in rural towns and large cities, I spoke with over 200 Americans, liberal and conservative and in between. I talked to 60 Clinton voters, 55 Trump voters, and a significant number of people who could not vote because of immigration status, voter disenfranchisement or age. My goal was to figure out what values, if any, unite Americans.https://31b5c8a4cab866562aa4f9c87bc25269.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
My conversations contained bad news for Democrats. When I asked the people I spoke with about a value that matters to their identity as a citizen or the country’s culture, more than 60 percent of them discussed the importance of “freedom,” the ideal Republicans push relentlessly. But less than 5 percent talked about “equality,” the ideal at the core of Democrats’ priorities and policies.
The challenge for Democrats, rather, is rhetorical. If Americans prize “freedom” more than “equality,” Democrats need to find the right words to convince people to support equality-furthering policies. With such a tenuous grip on both parts of Congress and without Trump as an easy foil to turn out Democrats’ base and turn independent voters away from the GOP, the success of the party’s long-term agenda and their hold on power will depend on their doing so. It also might just help unify the party in the process.
The parties’ respective relationships to the values of “freedom” and “equality” take on different forms. Republicans have made freedom front-and-center to most every political conversation, from saying any limitation of gun rights is a disregard for freedom to framing critiques of government-run health care around the danger these program would pose to Americans’ freedom. In the GOP’s telling, it is the defender of Americans’ freedom from Democratic attacks.
The Democrats’ relationship to equality is more complex. During the Civil Rights Era, Democrats became the party of rights and equality as activists marched through the streets demanding justice for Black Americans. The party passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act while Republicans rallied around the anti-rights, anti-equality messaging of Barry Goldwater. Democrats also launched the Great Society, an effort to alleviate the suffering and economic inequity that affected millions of Americans.
In the decades that followed,the party largely abandoned the language of and commitment to equality. Calls for equal rights and a fairer economy were replaced with Bill Clinton’s freedom-driven Third Way and an insistence on the power of markets and opportunity. In choosing freedom rather than equality as the party’s defining value for a time, the Democrats helped Republicans define the political conversation for decades.
Even today, the party avoids explicitly owning equality as their defining value. The party’s leadership and voters rejected Bernie Sanders, the most explicitly pro-equality candidate in decades, in the primary despite the popularity of much of his agenda, while many of Democrats in purple states, like Mark Kelly, ran on pro-tax cut agendas. Biden, in his inaugural speech, did not mention equality as a defining value for his agenda or for the country.
But essentially all of the party’s current goals—health care for all, workers’ rights, voting rights, equal rights for women and members of the LGBTQ community, lowering student debt and college tuition, an economy and justice system free of systemic racism—would further equality. And achieving these goals without significant political backlash depends upon people believing in equality as a core American value.
Of course, the choice between equality and freedom is on some level a false one. For freedom to exist there must be a baseline of equality. But these values are often treated as in competition in American political discourse—in the debates about taxation to address income inequality, and religious freedom versus the obligation to serve LGBTQ individuals equally, for example. And most Americans I met, both Republicans and Democrats alike, reserved their most aspirational words and beliefs for just one of them: freedom.
Terri, the owner of a Christian candle shop in Waukesha, Wisc., exemplified the celebration of freedom that was common in my interviews. “I feel very blessed to be an American,” she said. “It means freedom—freedom of religion, freedom of choice, freedom of speech.” Dolly, a self-described “Trump-lover” in Pittsburgh told me, “This, to me, is the greatest country on Earth. … This is the country of freedom.”
That Republicans would use this language was not surprising. But this rhetoric appeared in conversations with Democrats, too. Take Taj, a Sudanese refugee from Dubuque, Iowa. Though Taj declined to share whom he voted for in 2016, our conversation suggested that his politics lean left. When I asked what he sees as America’s core values, he told me, “This country works well for me because of the liberty.” He also discussed how the founders “created a world that didn’t exist yet—in terms of freedom of speech.” In fact, most anyone who mentioned the Founding mentioned only freedom as a founding ideal.
Melvin, then and still a city council member in Jackson, Miss., is the type of person Democrats might expect to prize equality as much as freedom. Melvin, who is Black, is a staunch Democrat who spoke at length about the need for change in America. He grew up in Jackson, attended Harvard, and returned to serve his community in a deep red state.
When I asked Melvin what it means to be an American, he told me a sense of optimism, a belief in rights—a potential nod to equality, though revealing that he didn’t use the word itself—and the law, and a certain pride. Core to all of those and to American life? Freedom. He said: “I believe that being an American means you believe in freedom or liberty, even if you disagree with other people’s use of them.”
National polling suggests my anecdotal observations were not a coincidence. The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute undertook an American values survey in 2012 in which they asked people, among other questions, “Which, if any of these factors, do you think contributes to America having stronger values than other places in the world?” Participants were asked to select all the ideas listed that applied. Fifty percent of over 2,000 respondents cited “Principles of equality,” tied with free enterprise and the system laid out in our Constitution for third. Ranking ahead of it? “Freedom of speech” with 67 percent and “freedom of religion” with 61 percent.
But my interviews—and policy shifts over the past several years—indicate that there might be a way for the Democrats to rebuild the party’s and build the country’s rhetorical and philosophical commitment to equality while also helping their policies’ popularity and candidates’ electoral chances in 2022. That path requires Democrats to focus on two values that my conversations suggest are still widely embraced and also are essential parts of an enduring national commitment to equality: fairness and community.
Fairness is an ideal central to the American Dream. The notion that every American deserves “a fair shot at a better life” was frequently seen as a foundational part of American society in my conversations, even among conservatives I met. By focusing on fairness, Democrats can move an equality-driven agenda forward while simultaneously providing a popular competing ideal to Republicans’ arguments about economic and legal freedom.
When it comes to civil rights, the sense that our justice system has not been working fairly led majorities in both parties to say in 2018 that they supported prison and sentencing reforms. Voters act on this belief, too: In Florida in 2018, more than 60 percent of people voted to restore former felons’ voting rights. In a country whose criminal justice system is still in many ways defined by systemic racism, emphasizing legal fairness may well be a pathway to broader discussions of societal equality.
The idea that there should be a degree of economic fairness has broad support, too. Even as Florida voted for Trump this cycle, its voters also supported a ballot measure for a $15 minimum wage, while a wealth tax—a way to ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their share—has support from even a near majority of Republicans. And when it comes to health care, Americans believe that every American should have a baseline of care: At least 70 percent of Americans approve of a Medicare for All who want it-type plan. An appeal to the idea that every American needs certain things to build a better life can move the needle for Democrats against Republican policies and rhetoric.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Democrats need to affirm the importance of community. More Americans will believe everyone deserves political and economic security and equality when they see one another as members of the same political community.
Community was the only ideal that came up in more of my interviews than freedom. Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs talked about how good citizenship means serving one’s community and about how their communities are struggling and need help. Polling suggests this trend is consistent nationwide: More than 60 percent of Americans say community involvement is very important to them. And policies that strengthen community foundations like public internet and infrastructure investment hold broad appeal, too.
The challenge to using the idea of community to build political coalitions is that many people see their community as those who are only like them. On my travels, many white Americans implied immigrants and Black Americans need to “assimilate” for communities and the country to thrive. This isn’t surprising given America’s history of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. Nor is it surprising that many people I met believed members of the other party would not see them as good Americans given increased inter-party animosity.
The Democrats’ task then, if they want to build a deep and broad support for equality, is to expand more voters’ notion of the American community. In his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama declared, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.” Democrats need to revive this sort of rhetoric, not to win empty points for bipartisanship from pundits, but because appealing to a shared sense of community will help them connect with Americans now and increase support for equality-based messages and policies later.
For Democrats, there would likely be short-term benefits to these new rhetorical and policy focuses given the work both wings of the party need to do. Moderate Democrats need to rebuild the credibility they lost in failing to fight for equality and need to find a defining message. The left wing of the party needs to develop a strategy to build long-term, wider-spread support for their ideas. Fairness and community may well be the ideals that unite the party’s two wings rhetorically, give the party a clear identity and sustain popularity for their policies. If Biden wants to heal the soul of the nation and build back better, he has a place to start.
The Trump administration is winding down as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prepare to take office on Wednesday.
Trump will leave office with an approval rating of 34%, dismal by any measure. He is the first president since Gallup began polling never to break 50% approval. After the attack on the Capitol on January 6, the House of Representatives impeached him for a second time, and a majority of Americans think he should have been removed from office.
In the last days of his term, the area of Washington, D.C., around our government buildings has been locked down to guard against further terrorism. Our tradition of a peaceful transition of power, established in 1800, has been broken. There is a 7-foot black fence around the Capitol and 15,000 National Guard soldiers on duty in a bitterly cold Washington January. There are checkpoints and road closures near the center of the city, and 10,000 more troops are authorized if necessary. Another 4,000 are on duty in their states, protecting key buildings and infrastructure sites.
In the past two days, there have been more indications that members of the Trump administration were behind the January 6 coup attempt. Yesterday, Richard Lardner and Michelle R. Smith of the Associated Press broke the story that, far from being a grassroots rally, the event of January 6 that led to the storming of the Capitol was organized and staffed by members of Trump’s presidential campaign team. These staffers have since tried to distance themselves from it, deleting their social media accounts and refusing to answer questions from reporters.
A number of the arrested insurrectionists have claimed that they were storming the Capitol because the president told them to. According to lawyers Teri Kanefield and Mark Reichel, writing in the Washington Post, this is known as the “public authority” defense, meaning that if someone in authority tells you it’s okay to break a law, that advice is a defense when you are arrested. It doesn’t mean you won’t be punished, but it is a defense. It also means that the person offering you that instruction is more likely to be prosecuted.
The second impeachment, popular outcry, and continuing stories about the likely involvement of administration figures in the coup attempt seem to have trimmed Trump’s wings in his last days in office. He is issuing orders that Biden vows to overturn, and contemplating pardons (stories say those around him are selling access to him to advocate for those pardons), but otherwise today was quiet.
He has tried to install a loyalist as the top lawyer at the National Security Agency, either to burrow him in or to get the green light for dumping NSA documents before he leaves office; Biden’s team will fight what is clearly an attempt to politicize the position. Tonight, Census Director Steven Dillingham resigned after whistleblowers alleged that he and other political appointees were putting pressure on department staffers to issue a hasty and unresearched report on undocumented immigrants.
According to news reports, Trump is planning to leave Washington on the morning of January 20 and should be at his Florida club Mar-a-Lago by the time Biden and Harris are sworn in. The last president to miss a successor’s inauguration was Andrew Johnson, who in 1869 refused to attend Ulysses S. Grant’s swearing-in, and instead spent the morning signing last-minute bills to put in place before Grant took office.
There is a lot of chatter tonight about the release today of the 1776 Report guidelines on American history. This is the administration’s reply to the 1619 Project from the New York Times, which focused on America’s history of racism. As historian Torsten Kathke noted on Twitter, none of the people involved in compiling today’s 41-page document are actually historians. They are political scientists and Republican operatives who have produced a full-throated attack on progressives in American history as well as a whitewashed celebration of the U.S.A. Made up of astonishingly bad history, this document will not stand as anything other than an artifact of Trump’s hatred of today’s progressives and his desperate attempt to wrench American history into the mythology he and his supporters promote so fervently.
But aside from the bad history, the report is a fascinating window into the mindset of this administration and its supporters. In it, the United States of America has been pretty gosh darned wonderful since the beginning, and has remained curiously static. “[T]he American people have ever pursued freedom and justice,” it reads, and while “neither America nor any other nation has perfectly lived up to the universal truths of equality, liberty, justice, and government by consent,” “no nation… has strived harder, or done more, to achieve them.”
America seems to have sprung up in 1776 in a form that was fine and finished. But, according to the document’s authors, trouble began in the 1890s, when “progressives” demanded that the Constitution “should constantly evolve to secure evolving rights.” It was at that moment the teaching of history took a dark turn.
The view that America was born whole, has stayed the same, and is simply a prize worth possessing reminds me of so much of the world of Trump and the people around him, characterized by acquisition: buildings, planes, yachts, clothing, bank accounts. Trump and his people seem to see the world as a zero-sum game in which the winners have the most stuff, and America is just one more thing to possess.
But there is a big difference in this world between having and doing.
America has never fully embodied equality, liberty, and justice. What it has always had was a dream of justice and equality before the law. The 1776 Report authors are right to note that was an astonishing dream in 1776, and it made this country a beacon of radical hope. It was enough to inspire people from all walks of life to try to make that dream a reality. They didn’t have an ideal America; they worked to make one.
The hard work of doing is rarely the stuff of heroic biographies of leading men. It is the story of ordinary Americans who were finally pushed far enough that they put themselves on the line for this nation’s principles.
It is the story, for example, of abolitionist newspaperman Elijah P. Lovejoy, murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837, and the U.S. soldiers who twenty-four years later fought to protect the government against a pro-slavery insurrection designed to destroy it. It is the story of Lakota leader Red Cloud, who negotiated with hostile government leaders on behalf of his people, and of his contemporary Booker T. Washington, who tried to find a way for Black people to rise in the heart of the South in a time of widespread lynching. It is the story of Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryan, who gave voice to suffering farmers and workers in the 1890s, and of Frances Perkins, who carried his ideas forward as FDR’s Secretary of Labor and brought us Social Security. It is the story of the American G.I.s, from all races, ethnicities, genders, and walks of life who fought in WWII. It is the story of labor organizer Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who faced down men bent on murdering her and became an advocate for Black voting. It is the story of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who 60 years ago this week warned us against the “military-industrial complex.”
And it is, of course, the story of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we celebrate today. King challenged white politicians to take on poverty as well as racism to make the promise of America come true for all of us. “Some forty million of our brothers and sisters are poverty stricken, unable to gain the basic necessities of life,” he reminded white leaders in May 1967. “And so often we allow them to become invisible because our society’s so affluent that we don’t see the poor. Some of them are Mexican Americans. Some of them are Indians. Some are Puerto Ricans. Some are Appalachian whites. The vast majority are Negroes in proportion to their size in the population…. Now there is nothing new about poverty. It’s been with us for years and centuries. What is new at this point though, is that we now have the resources, we now have the skills, we now have the techniques to get rid of poverty. And the question is whether our nation has the will….” Just eleven months later, a white supremacist murdered Dr. King.
These people did not have a perfect nation, they worked to build one. They embraced America so fully they tried to bring its principles to life, sometimes at the cost of their own. Rather than simply trying to own America, the doers put skin in the game.
Today, the Trump administration issued the 1776 Report that presented the United States of America as a prize to be possessed. And yet, the country is demonstrably still in the process of being created: tonight, there are 15,000 soldiers in the cold in Washington, D.C., defending the seat of our government against insurgents.