Jan 8, 2021 6 min read

How could we have known?

How could we have known?

On the importance of deep reporting, deep research, deep history, nuanced analysis — and listening to the people doing that work.

What happened in the Capitol on Wednesday was a lot of things.

Shocking, certainly, and surreal for those of us watching the events unfold in real time. One of the darkest days in the history of our nation? I’d say yes. And, as the death toll rose to 5 people on Thursday, a human tragedy for the country and for the individual family members of the four protesters and one capitol hill police officer who lost their lives.

It should not, however, have been a surprise.

Since long before the Trump presidency, journalists and hate studies researchers have been tracking and sounding the alarm about the individuals, groups, and demagogues whose racist, separatist, anti-government and/or conspiracist ideologies have been rolling around the web, agglomerating onto each other, picking up momentum and adherents like the world’s darkest game of Katamari Damacy, until the ball rolled into Washington DC this week, crashing through the doors of the US Capitol.

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It’s such a complicated, tangled and in some ways uncomfortable alliance of ideologies (each with layers and layers of history and narrative) that it’s neither correct nor adequate to simply wave our hands and say “oh these are just Trumpers” or “oh, this is just QAnon.”

It would be reckless to do so.

Trump and QAnon are discrete points in the timeline, and represent an immense social movement, but that movement is the furthest thing from homogenous (hence the Katamari reference) and the furthest thing from an organization galvanized by a single, specific cause. To understand — and thereby combat — the constituent ideologies, we need to look a lot deeper.

The various threads lead in dozens of directions and most of them stretch back long before Trump was anything more than a gameshow host.  They stretch back beyond the reopen protests of this summer and the militia activity that happened in the wake of the George Floyd protests.

Some run through the occupation and standoff in Eastern Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016, a “dress-rehearsal” of sorts for Wednesday. And, as journalist and RANGE-friend Leah Sottile reminds us today, the group’s acquittal in October 2016 demonstrated that, before Trump, the general public (in the form of the jury who acquitted them) was already very open to the Bundy’s ideology.

That thread leads back further still, to the 2014 standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada that first gave the Bundy family a national platform and the image of a sniper with his  sights trained on federal agents should have been a wakeup call for how serious these people are..

The thread also carries forward: that sniper, Erik Parker, ran for Idaho State Senate in 2020. He lost the election, but still got over 43% of the vote.

Sometimes the members of a bunch of different groups (militias, the proud boys) find themselves all talking about how cool it’d be to kick off a second civil war, and end up creating a new movement all together (Listen to Sottile talk about the Boogaloo movement on RANGE Episode 013).

Meanwhile, as we heard from hate researcher Kate Bitz in November (Episode 017: Going to Extremes), white supremacy is coded into the very DNA of our region — justifying the genocide and land theft of the settler project in the Northwest in a unique and specific way — making a fertile territory for the white nationalist,  Christian Identity, and militia movements that began re-settling the Inland Northwest as early as the 1970s, and subsequent waves of aggrieved white settlement (those who followed Mark Fuhrman to Kootenai County; the adherents of the Redoubt Movement who see their move to N. Idaho as akin to the Puritan exodus from Europe).

These movements and others (like Stevens County’s Marble Country Fellowship) have supported politicians like Spokane Valley’s Matt Shea, who has argued for a violent holy war and who has become closely aligned with the Bundy’s since they began their own crusade. Shea is a key organizer in both the weekly harassment outside Spokane’s Planned Parenthood office and one of the masterminds behind our local anti-lockdown protests — protests that have been documented as being funded by groups associated with the Koch brothers and the DeVos family. (As a terrifying aside, before being deplatformed in the State Legislature, Shea considered using GPS trackers to tail his fellow lawmakers.)

And almost all of the above draws direct or indirect inspiration from events like Ruby Ridge, Waco and of course the Oklahoma City bombing.

The point is this:

it’s clear that all of these groups found not just an ally in Trump, but an enabler and even a quasi-spiritual figure — QAnon goes beyond conspiracy theory, taking on many of the trappings of a cult.  Make no mistake, though:

These movements fueled Trump’s rise, not the other way around.

They did benefit massively from his celebrity, though, and as Trump inevitably moves from messiah figure to martyr, there’s zero chance these movements die off when he leaves office on January 20.

So, while certain erstwhile allies are making a very public show of distancing themselves from Trump:

People like Betsy DeVos certainly haven’t in any way distanced themselves from the movements that empower and bankroll people like Shea.

You cut off one head, the hydra slithers on.

“All Bets Are Off”

Leah a wrote a staggering, beautiful essay on Thursday (subscribe to her newsletter asap) about how a single phrase she heard during her reporting — “All bets are off,” uttered by a Utah man who had tried to blow up a federal building — has been echoing through her head for over two years as momentum built toward this week’s events.

But even if the attack on the Capitol sends adherents scattering from open violence, the movements they represent have infiltrated our institutions, local and national.

We now have two QAnon-aligned congresspeople, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert. Boebert, who had just been sworn in to Congress on Jan. 3 representing Colorado’s 3rd district, tweeted this on Wednesday:

Meanwhile, we have heard that police departments around the nation are struggling to deal with officers who have also succumbed to QAnon — and it seems as though off-duty police officers who took part in the riots used their badges to try and gain access to the capitol building.

That’s a scary new wrinkle, especially given how hard neo-Nazi and other fascist groups have tried to infiltrate law enforcement.

All the while, the people studying these groups having been railing against the conventional wisdom that the people are cranks or “lone wolves” or have no real power — and warning about what might happen if we don’t take these movements seriously.

And even as they fight to get society at large to recognize the complicated context of what has already happened, those same experts are pushing even further, trying to get the culture at large to look at other troubling signs ahead.

We’ll have an essay from Braune on this topic in the newsletter soon and an interview on the podcast as well. We recorded our conversation on Tuesday evening and it was all I could think about as I watched Wednesday unfold.

We’re already seeing a swift pushback against what happened. But we’re also seeing simultaneous attempts to diminish the overall danger by compartmentalizing the event, and an attempt to diminish the actions of the right by engaging in both-sides-ism about this in comparison to the protests of the summer and other movements on the left.

As Joan hints above, people who study hate for a living fear that indiscriminate crackdowns on vague ideas like “extremism” will splash back just as hard on liberation movements (if not harder) and other progressive causes than they will on the right.

It’s a fear rooted in observation and deep study. It’s a fear made more pressing because it’s happened before, and there’s a narrow window to heed their warnings before it happens again.

It’s long past time we started listening more closely.

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