From xxxxxx <[email protected]>
Subject Donald Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun
Date December 23, 2021 1:40 AM
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[ January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better
positioned to subvert the next election.] [[link removed]]

[[link removed]]


Barton Gellman
December 6, 2021
The Atlantic
[[link removed]]

[[link removed]]
[[link removed]]
* [[link removed]]

_ January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better
positioned to subvert the next election. _

, Photograph: Mel D. Cole


Technically, the next attempt to overthrow a national election may
not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence,
although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots
cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024.
Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the
required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will
be certified president-elect.

The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with
the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the
opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.

Who or what will safeguard our constitutional order is not apparent
today. It is not even apparent who will try. Democrats, big and
small _D_, are not behaving as if they believe the threat is real.
Some of them, including President Joe Biden, have taken passing
rhetorical notice, but their attention wanders. They are making a
grievous mistake.

“The democratic emergency is already here,” Richard L. Hasen, a
professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, told me in late
October. Hasen prides himself on a judicious temperament. Only a year
ago he was cautioning me against hyperbole. Now he speaks
matter-of-factly about the death of our body politic. “We face a
serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end
in 2024,” he said, “but urgent action is not happening.”

For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their
party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been
building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona,
Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states
have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election.
They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to
avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize
partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which
to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are
driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to
go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with
exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that
purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the

By way of foundation for all the rest, Trump and his party have
convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential
workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are
true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that
tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a
legitimate response.

Any Republican might benefit from these machinations, but let’s not
pretend there’s any suspense. Unless biology intercedes, Donald
Trump will seek and win the Republican nomination for president in
2024. The party is in his thrall. No opponent can break it and few
will try. Neither will a setback outside politics—indictment, say,
or a disastrous turn in business—prevent Trump from running. If
anything, it will redouble his will to power.

The Big Story: Join Barton Gellman, along with staff writer Anne
Applebaum and _Atlantic_ editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, for a
live virtual conversation about the threats to American democracy
[[link removed]] on
December 13.

As we near the anniversary of January 6, investigators are still
unearthing the roots of the insurrection that sacked the Capitol and
sent members of Congress fleeing for their lives. What we know
already, and could not have known then, is that the chaos wrought on
that day was integral to a coherent plan. In retrospect, the
insurrection takes on the aspect of rehearsal.

Even in defeat, Trump has gained strength for a second attempt to
seize office, should he need to, after the polls close on November 5,
2024. It may appear otherwise—after all, he no longer commands the
executive branch, which he tried and mostly failed to enlist in his
first coup attempt. Yet the balance of power is shifting his way in
arenas that matter more.

Trump is successfully shaping the narrative of the insurrection in the
only political ecosystem that matters to him. The immediate shock of
the event, which briefly led some senior Republicans to break with
him, has given way to a near-unanimous embrace. Virtually no one a
year ago, certainly not I
[[link removed]],
predicted that Trump could compel the whole party’s genuflection to
the Big Lie and the recasting of insurgents as martyrs. Today the few
GOP dissenters are being cast out. “2 down, 8 to go!
[[link removed]]”
Trump gloated at the retirement announcement of Representative Adam
Kinzinger, one of 10 House Republicans to vote for his second

Trump has reconquered his party by setting its base on fire. Tens of
millions of Americans perceive their world through black clouds of his
smoke. His deepest source of strength is the bitter grievance of
Republican voters that they lost the White House, and are losing their
country, to alien forces with no legitimate claim to power. This is
not some transient or loosely committed population. Trump has built
the first American mass political movement in the past century that is
ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its

At the edge of the Capitol grounds, just west of the reflecting pool,
a striking figure stands in spit-shined shoes and a 10-button uniform
coat. He is 6 foot 4, 61 years old, with chiseled good looks and an
aura of command that is undimmed by retirement. Once, according to the
silver bars on his collar, he held the rank of captain in the New York
Fire Department. He is not supposed to wear the old uniform at
political events, but he pays that rule no mind today. The uniform
tells the world that he is a man of substance, a man who has saved
lives and held authority. Richard C. Patterson needs every shred of
that authority for this occasion. He has come to speak on behalf of an
urgent cause. “Pelosi’s political prisoners,” he tells me, have
been unjustly jailed.

Patterson is talking about the men and women held on criminal charges
after invading the Capitol on January 6. He does not at all approve of
the word _insurrection_.

“It wasn’t an insurrection,” he says at a September 18 rally
called “Justice for January 6.” “None of our countrymen and
-women who are currently being held are charged with insurrection.
They’re charged with misdemeanor charges.”

Like so many others, Patterson is doing his best to parse a torrent of
political information, and he is failing. His failures leave him,
nearly always, with the worldview expounded by Trump.

Patterson is misinformed on that latter point. Of the more than 600
defendants, 78 are in custody
[[link removed]] when
we speak. Most of those awaiting trial in jail are charged with
serious crimes
[[link removed]] such as
assault on a police officer, violence with a deadly weapon,
conspiracy, or unlawful possession of firearms or explosives. Jeffrey
McKellop of Virginia, for instance, is alleged to have hurled a
flagpole like a spear into an officer’s face. (McKellop has pleaded
not guilty.)

Patterson was not in Washington on January 6, but he is fluent in the
revisionist narratives spread by fabulists and trolls on social media.
He knows those stories verse by verse, the ones about January 6 and
the ones about the election rigged against Trump. His convictions are
worth examining because he and the millions of Americans who think as
he does are the primary source of Trump’s power to corrupt the next
election. With a sufficient dose of truth serum, most Republican
politicians would likely confess that Biden won in 2020, but the great
mass of lumpen Trumpers, who believe the Big Lie with unshakable
force, oblige them to pretend otherwise. Like so many others,
Patterson is doing his best to parse a torrential flow of political
information, and he is failing. His failures leave him, nearly always,
with the worldview expounded by Trump.

We fall into a long conversation in the sweltering heat, then continue
it for weeks by phone and email. I want to plumb the depths of his
beliefs, and understand what lies behind his commitment to them. He is
prepared to grant me the status of “fellow truth-seeker.”

“The ‘Stop the Steal’ rally for election integrity was
peaceful,” he says. “I think the big takeaway is when Old Glory
made its way into the Rotunda on January 6, our fearless public
officials dove for cover at the sight of the American flag.”

What about the violence? The crowds battling police?

“The police were seen on video in uniform allowing people past the
bicycle-rack barricades and into the building,” he replies. “I
mean, that’s established. The unarmed crowd did not overpower the
officers in body armor. That doesn’t happen. They were allowed

Surely he has seen other video, though. Shaky, handheld footage, taken
by the rioters themselves, of police officers falling under blows from
a baseball bat, a hockey stick, a fire extinguisher, a length of pipe.
A crowd crushing Officer Daniel Hodges in a doorway, shouting
“Heave! Ho!”

Does Patterson know that January 6 was among the worst days
for law-enforcement casualties
[[link removed]] since
September 11, 2001? That at least 151 officers from the Capitol Police
and the Metropolitan Police Department suffered injuries
[[link removed]],
including broken bones, concussions, chemical burns, and a
Taser-induced heart attack?

Patterson has not heard these things. Abruptly, he shifts gears. Maybe
there was violence, but the patriots were not to blame.

[black and white photo of one police officer in helmet, face
contorted, surrounded and confronted by enormous crowd, with one
person brandishing an American flag]

In the mayhem of January 6, at least 151 police officers suffered
injuries, including broken bones, concussions, and chemical
burns. _Above_: A law-enforcement officer is attacked. (Mel D. Cole)

“There were people there deliberately to make it look worse than
what it was,” he explains. “A handful of ill-behaved, potentially,
possibly agents provocateur.” He repeats the phrase: “Agents
provocateur, I have on information, were in the crowd … They were
there for nefarious means. Doing the bidding of whom? I have no

“‘On information’?” I ask. What information?

“You can look up this name,” he says. “Retired three-star Air
Force General McInerney. You got to find him on Rumble. They took him
off YouTube.”

Sure enough, there on Rumble (and still on YouTube) I find a video of
Lieutenant General Thomas G. McInerney, 84, three decades gone from
the Air Force. His story
[[link removed]] takes
a long time to tell, because the plot includes an Italian satellite
and Pakistan’s intelligence service and former FBI Director James
Comey selling secret U.S. cyberweapons to China. Eventually it emerges
that “Special Forces mixed with antifa” combined to invade the
seat of Congress on January 6 and then blame the invasion on Trump
supporters, with the collusion of Senators Chuck Schumer and Mitch
McConnell, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In a further wrinkle, Pelosi, by McInerney’s account, became
“frantic” soon afterward when she discovered that her own
false-flag operation had captured a laptop filled with evidence of her
treason. McInerney had just come from the White House, he says in his
monologue, recorded two days after the Capitol riot. Trump was about
to release the Pelosi evidence. McInerney had seen the laptop with his
own eyes.

It shook me that Patterson took this video for proof. If my house had
caught fire 10 years before, my life might have depended on his
discernment and clarity of thought. He was an Eagle Scout. He earned a
college degree. He keeps current on the news. And yet he has wandered
off from the empirical world, placing his faith in fantastic tales
that lack any basis in fact or explicable logic.

McInerney’s tale had spread widely on Facebook, Twitter, Parler, and
propaganda sites like We Love Trump and InfoWars. It joined the
January 6 denialist canon and lodged firmly in Patterson’s head. I
reached the general by phone and asked about evidence for his claims.
He mentioned a source, whose name he couldn’t reveal, who had heard
some people saying “We are playing antifa today.” McInerney
believed they were special operators because “they looked like SOF
people.” He believed that one of them had Pelosi’s laptop, because
his source had seen something bulky and square under the suspect’s
raincoat. He conceded that even if it was a laptop, he couldn’t know
whose it was or what was on it. For most of his story, McInerney did
not even claim to have proof. He was putting two and two together. It
stood to reason. In truth, prosecutors had caught and charged a
neo-Nazi sympathizer who had videotaped herself taking the laptop from
Pelosi’s office and bragged about it on Discord. She was a home
health aide, not a special operator. (As of this writing, she has not
yet entered a plea.)

The general’s son, Thomas G. McInerney Jr., a technology investor,
learned that I had been talking with his father and asked for a
private word with me. He was torn between conflicting obligations of
filial loyalty, and took a while to figure out what he wanted to say.

“He has a distinguished service record,” he told me after an
otherwise off-the-record conversation. “He wants what’s best for
the nation and he speaks with a sense of authority, but I have
concerns at his age that his judgment is impaired. The older he’s
gotten, the stranger things have gotten in terms of what he’s

I tell all of this and more to Patterson. McInerney, the _Military
Times_ reported, “went off the rails”
[[link removed]] after
a successful Air Force career. For a while during the Obama years he
was a prominent birther and appeared a lot on Fox News, before being
fired as a Fox commentator in 2018 for making a baseless claim about
John McCain. Last November, he told the WVW Broadcast Network that the
CIA operated a computer-server farm in Germany that had helped rig the
presidential vote for Biden, and that five Special Forces soldiers had
just died trying to seize the evidence. The Army and U.S. Special
Operations Command put out dutiful statements that no such mission and
no such casualties had taken place.

Of course, Patterson wrote to me sarcastically, “governments would
NEVER lie to their OWN citizens.” He did not trust the Pentagon’s
denials. There are seldom words or time enough to lay a conspiracy
theory to rest. Each rebuttal is met with a fresh round of delusions.

Patterson is admirably eager for a civil exchange of views. He
portrays himself as a man who “may be wrong, and if I am I admit
it,” and he does indeed concede on small points. But a deep rage
seems to fuel his convictions. I asked him the first time we met if we
could talk “about what’s happening in the country, not the
election itself.”

His smile faded. His voice rose.

“There ain’t no fucking way we are letting go of 3 November
2020,” he said. “That is not going to fucking happen. That’s not
happening. This motherfucker was stolen. The world knows this
bumbling, senile, career corrupt fuck squatting in our White House did
not get 81 million votes.”

He had many proofs. All he really needed, though, was arithmetic.
“The record indicates 141 [million] of us were registered to vote
and cast a ballot on November 3,” he said. “Trump is credited with
74 million votes out of 141 million. That leaves 67 million for Joe;
that doesn’t leave any more than that. Where do these 14 million
votes come from?”

Patterson did not recall where he had heard those figures. He did not
think he had read Gateway Pundit, which was the first site to advance
the garbled statistics. Possibly he saw Trump amplify the claim on
Twitter or television, or some other stop along the story’s
cascading route across the right-wing mediaverse. Reuters did a good
job debunking the phony math
[[link removed]],
which got the total number of voters wrong.

[black and white profile photo of Robert Patterson]

Richard Patterson, a retired firefighter, in the Bronx. Like tens of
millions of other Trump supporters, Patterson firmly believes that the
2020 election was stolen. (Philip Montgomery for _The Atlantic_)

I was interested in something else: the worldview that guided
Patterson through the statistics. It appeared to him (incorrectly)
that not enough votes had been cast to account for the official
results. Patterson assumed that only fraud could explain the
discrepancy, that all of Trump’s votes were valid, and that the
invalid votes must therefore belong to Biden.

“Why don’t you say Joe Biden got 81 million and there’s only 60
million left for Trump?” I asked.

Patterson was astonished.

“It’s not disputed, the 74 million vote count that was credited to
President Trump’s reelection effort,” he replied, baffled at my
ignorance. “It’s not in dispute … Have you heard
that _President Trump_ engaged in cheating and fraudulent practices
and crooked machines?”

Biden was the one accused of rigging the vote. Everybody said so. And
for reasons unspoken, Patterson wanted to be carried away by that

Robert a. pape, a well-credentialed connoisseur of political
violence, watched the mob attack the Capitol on a television at home
on January 6. A name came unbidden to his mind: Slobodan Milošević.

Back in June 1989, Pape had been a postdoctoral fellow in political
science when the late president of Serbia delivered a notorious
speech. Milošević compared Muslims in the former Yugoslavia to
Ottomans who had enslaved the Serbs six centuries before. He fomented
years of genocidal war that destroyed the hope for a multiethnic
democracy, casting Serbs as defenders against a Muslim onslaught on
“European culture, religion, and European society in general.”

By the time Trump unleashed the angry crowd on Congress, Pape, who is
61, had become a leading scholar on the intersection of warfare and
politics. He saw an essential similarity between Milošević and
Trump—one that suggested disturbing hypotheses about Trump’s most
fervent supporters. Pape, who directs the University of Chicago
Project on Security and Threats, or CPOST, called a staff meeting two
days after the Capitol attack. “I talked to my research team and
told them we were going to reorient everything we were doing,” he
told me.

Milošević, Pape said, inspired bloodshed by appealing to fears that
Serbs were losing their dominant place to upstart minorities. “What
he is arguing” in the 1989 speech “is that Muslims in Kosovo and
generally throughout the former Yugoslavia are essentially waging
genocide on the Serbs,” Pape said. “And really, he doesn’t use
the word _replaced_. But this is what the modern term would be.”

Pape was alluding to a theory called the “Great Replacement.” The
term itself has its origins in Europe. But the theory is the latest
incarnation of a racist trope that dates back to Reconstruction in the
United States. Replacement ideology holds that a hidden hand (often
imagined as Jewish) is encouraging the invasion of nonwhite
immigrants, and the rise of nonwhite citizens, to take power from
white Christian people of European stock. When white supremacists
marched with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, they
chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”

Trump borrowed periodically from the rhetorical canon of replacement.
His remarks on January 6 were more disciplined than usual for a
president who typically spoke in tangents and unfinished thoughts.
Pape shared with me an analysis he had made of the text
[[link removed]] that
Trump read from his prompter.

“Our country has been under siege for a long time, far longer than
this four-year period,” Trump told the crowd. “You’re the real
people. You’re the people that built this nation.” He famously
added, “And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight
like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Just like Milošević, Trump had skillfully deployed three classic
themes of mobilization to violence, Pape wrote: “The survival of a
way of life is at stake. The fate of the nation is being determined
now. Only genuine brave patriots can save the country.”

Watching how the Great Replacement message was resonating with Trump
supporters, Pape and his colleagues suspected that the bloodshed on
January 6 might augur something more than an aberrant moment in
American politics. The prevailing framework for analyzing extremist
violence in the U.S., they thought, might not be adequate to explain
what was happening.

When the Biden administration published a new homeland-security
[[link removed]] in
June, it described the assault on the Capitol as a product of
“domestic violent extremists,” and invoked an intelligence
assessment that said attacks by such extremists come primarily from
lone wolves or small cells. Pape and his colleagues doubted that this
captured what had happened on January 6. They set about seeking
systematic answers to two basic questions: Who were the insurgents, in
demographic terms? And what political beliefs animated them and their

Pape’s three-bedroom house, half an hour’s drive south of Chicago,
became the pandemic headquarters of a virtual group of seven research
professionals, supported by two dozen University of Chicago
undergraduates. The CPOST researchers gathered court documents, public
records, and news reports to compile a group profile of the

“The thing that got our attention first was the age,” Pape said.
He had been studying violent political extremists in the United
States, Europe, and the Middle East for decades. Consistently, around
the world, they tended to be in their 20s and early 30s. Among the
January 6 insurgents, the median age was 41.8. That was wildly

Then there were economic anomalies. Over the previous decade, one in
four violent extremists arrested by the FBI had been unemployed. But
only 7 percent of the January 6 insurgents were jobless, and more than
half of the group had a white-collar job or owned their own business.
There were doctors, architects, a Google field-operations specialist,
the CEO of a marketing firm, a State Department official. “The last
time America saw middle-class whites involved in violence was the
expansion of the second KKK in the 1920s,” Pape told me.

Yet these insurgents were not, by and large, affiliated with known
extremist groups. Several dozen did have connections with the Proud
Boys, the Oath Keepers, or the Three Percenters militia, but a larger
number—six out of every seven who were charged with crimes—had no
ties like that at all.

Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago historian and co-editor of _A
Field Guide to White Supremacy_, says it is no surprise that extremist
groups were in the minority. “January 6 wasn’t designed as a
mass-casualty attack, but rather as a recruitment action” aimed at
mobilizing the general population, she told me. “For radicalized
Trump supporters … I think it was a protest event that became
something bigger.”

Pape’s team mapped the insurgents by home county and ran statistical
analyses looking for patterns that might help explain their behavior.
The findings were counterintuitive. Counties won by Trump in the 2020
election were less likely than counties won by Biden to send an
insurrectionist to the Capitol. The higher Trump’s share of votes in
a county, in fact, the lower the probability that insurgents lived
there. Why would that be? Likewise, the more rural the county, the
fewer the insurgents. The researchers tried a hypothesis: Insurgents
might be more likely to come from counties where white household
income was dropping. Not so. Household income made no difference at

Only one meaningful correlation emerged. Other things being equal,
insurgents were much more likely to come from a county where the white
share of the population was in decline. For every one-point drop in a
county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the
likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25
percent. This was a strong link, and it held up in every state.

Trump and some of his most vocal allies, Tucker Carlson of Fox News
notably among them, had taught supporters to fear that Black and brown
people were coming to replace them. According to the latest census
projections, white Americans will become a minority, nationally, in
2045. The insurgents could see their majority status slipping before
their eyes.

The CPOST team decided to run a national opinion survey in March,
based on themes it had gleaned from the social-media posts of
insurgents and the statements they’d made to the FBI under
questioning. The researchers first looked to identify people who said
they “don’t trust the election results” and were prepared to
join a protest “even if I thought the protest might turn violent.”
The survey found that 4 percent of Americans agreed with both
statements, a relatively small fraction that nonetheless corresponds
to 10 million American adults.

In June, the researchers sharpened the questions. This brought another
surprise. In the new poll, they looked for people who not only
distrusted the election results but agreed with the stark assertion
that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden
is an illegitimate president.” And instead of asking whether survey
subjects would join a protest that “might” turn violent, they
looked for people who affirmed that “the use of force is justified
to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.”

[photo of woman in "Love" t-shirt screaming at rally, flanked by two
people holding "Women for Trump" signs and American flags]

“Stop the Steal” protesters in Detroit on November 6, 2020.
Republican county authorities later attempted to rescind their votes
to certify Detroit’s election results. (Philip Montgomery)

Pollsters ordinarily expect survey respondents to give less support to
more transgressive language. “The more you asked pointed questions
about violence, the more you should be getting ‘social-desirability
bias,’ where people are just more reluctant,” Pape told me.

Here, the opposite happened: the more extreme the sentiments, the
greater the number of respondents who endorsed them. In the June
results, just over 8 percent agreed that Biden was illegitimate and
that violence was justified to restore Trump to the White House. That
corresponds to 21 million American adults. Pape called them
“committed insurrectionists.” (An unrelated Public Religion
Research Institute survey on November 1 found that an even larger
proportion of Americans, 12 percent, believed both that the election
had been stolen from Trump and that “true American patriots may have
to resort to violence in order to save our country.”)

“This really is a new, politically violent mass movement,” Pape
told me. He drew an analogy to Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, at
the dawn of the Troubles.

Why such a large increase? Pape believed that Trump supporters simply
preferred the harsher language, but “we cannot rule out that
attitudes hardened” between the first and second surveys. Either
interpretation is troubling. The latter, Pape said, “would be even
more concerning since over time we would normally think passions would

In the CPOST polls, only one other statement won overwhelming support
among the 21 million committed insurrectionists. Almost two-thirds of
them agreed that “African American people or Hispanic people in our
country will eventually have more rights than whites.” Slicing the
data another way: Respondents who believed in the Great Replacement
theory, regardless of their views on anything else, were nearly four
times as likely as those who did not to support the violent removal of
the president.

The committed insurrectionists, Pape judged, were genuinely dangerous.
There were not many militia members among them, but more than one in
four said the country needed groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud
Boys. One-third of them owned guns, and 15 percent had served in the
military. All had easy access to the organizing power of the internet.

What Pape was seeing in these results did not fit the government model
of lone wolves and small groups of extremists. “This really is a
new, politically violent mass movement,” he told me. “This is
collective political violence.”

Pape drew an analogy to Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, at the
dawn of the Troubles. “In 1968, 13 percent of Catholics in Northern
Ireland said that the use of force for Irish nationalism was
justified,” he said. “The Provisional IRA was created shortly
thereafter with only a few hundred members.” Decades of bloody
violence followed. And 13 percent support was more than enough, in
those early years, to sustain it.

“It’s the community’s support that is creating a mantle of
legitimacy—a mandate, if you would, that justifies the violence”
of a smaller, more committed group, Pape said. “I’m very concerned
it could happen again, because what we’re seeing in our surveys …
is 21 million people in the United States who are essentially a mass
of kindling or a mass of dry wood that, if married to a spark, could
in fact ignite.”

The story of Richard Patterson, once you delve into it, is consonant
with Pape’s research. Trump appealed to him as an “in-your-face,
brash ‘America First’ guy who has the interest of ‘We the
People.’ ” But there was more. Decades of personal and political
grudges infuse Patterson’s understanding of what counts as
“America” and who counts as “we.”

Where Patterson lives, in the Bronx, there were 20,413 fewer
non-Hispanic white people in the 2020 census than in 2010. The borough
had reconfigured from 11 percent white to 9 percent.

Patterson came from Northern Irish stock and grew up in coastal
Northern California. He was a “lifetime C student” who found
ambition at age 14 when he began to hang around at a local fire
station. As soon as he finished high school he took the test to join
the Oakland fire department, earning, he said, outstanding scores.

“But in those days,” he recalled, “Oakland was just beginning to
diversify and hire females. So no job for the big white kid.” The
position went to “this little woman … who I know failed the

Patterson tried again in San Francisco, but found the department
operating under a consent decree. Women and people of color, long
excluded, had to be accepted in the incoming cohort. “So, again, the
big white kid is told, ‘Fuck you, we got a whole fire department of
guys that look just like you. We want the department to look different
because diversity is all about an optic.’ ” The department could
hire “the Black applicant instead of myself.”

Patterson bought a one-way ticket to New York, earned a bachelor’s
degree in fire science, and won an offer to join New York’s Bravest.
But desegregation had come to New York, too, and Patterson found
himself seething.

In 1982, a plaintiff named Brenda Berkman
[[link removed]] had won a lawsuit
that opened the door to women in the FDNY. A few years later, the
department scheduled training sessions “to assist male firefighters
in coming to terms with the assimilation of females into their
ranks.” Patterson’s session did not go well. He was suspended
without pay for 10 days
[[link removed]] after a judge
found that he had called the trainer a scumbag and a Communist and
chased him out of the room, yelling, “Why don’t you fuck Brenda
Berkman and I hope you both die of AIDS.” The judge found that the
trainer had “reasonably feared for his safety.” Patterson
continues to maintain his innocence.

Later, as a lieutenant, Patterson came across a line on a routine form
that asked for his gender and ethnicity. He resented that. “There
was no box for ‘Fuck off,’ so I wrote in ‘Fuck off,’ ” he
said. “So they jammed me up for that”—this time a 30-day
suspension without pay.

Even while Patterson rose through the ranks, he kept on finding
examples of how the world was stacked against people like him. “I
look at the 2020 election as sort of an example on steroids of
affirmative action. The straight white guy won, but it was stolen from
him and given to somebody else.”

Wait. Wasn’t this a contest between two straight white guys?

Not really, Patterson said, pointing to Vice President Kamala Harris:
“Everybody touts the gal behind the president, who is currently, I
think, illegitimately in our White House. It is, quote, a woman of
color, like this is some—like this is supposed to mean something.”
And do not forget, he added, that Biden said, “If you have a problem
figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t

What to do about all this injustice? Patterson did not want to say,
but he alluded to an answer: “Constitutionally, the head of the
executive branch can’t tell an American citizen what the fuck to do.
Constitutionally, all the power rests with the people. That’s you
and me, bro. And Mao is right that all the power emanates from the
barrel of a gun.”

Did he own a gun himself? “My Second Amendment rights, like my
medical history, are my own business,” he replied.

Many of Patterson’s fellow travelers at the “Justice for January
6” protest were more direct about their intentions. One of them was
a middle-aged man who gave his name as Phil. The former Coast Guard
rescue diver from Kentucky had joined the crowd at the Capitol on
January 6 but said he has not heard from law enforcement. Civil war is
coming, he told me, and “I would fight for my country.”

Was he speaking metaphorically?

“No, I’m not,” he said. “Oh Lord, I think we’re heading for
it. I don’t think it’ll stop. I truly believe it. I believe the
criminals—Nancy Pelosi and her criminal cabal up there—is forcing
a civil war. They’re forcing the people who love the Constitution,
who will give their lives to defend the Constitution—the Democrats
are forcing them to take up arms against them, and God help us all.”

Gregory Dooner, who was selling flags at the protest, said he had been
just outside the Capitol on January 6 as well. He used to sell ads for
AT&T Advertising Solutions, and now, in retirement, he peddles MAGA
gear: $10 for a small flag, $20 for a big one.

Violent political conflict, he told me, was inevitable, because
Trump’s opponents “want actual war here in America. That’s what
they want.” He added a slogan of the Three Percenters militia:
“When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.” The
Declaration of Independence, which said something like that, was
talking about King George III. If taken seriously today, the slogan
calls for a war of liberation against the U.S. government.

“Yo, hey—hey,” Dooner called out to a customer who had just
unfurled one of his banners. “I want to read him the flag.”

[3 photos: men on steps, one holding flag; closeup of couple's arms
holding hands next to a holstered pistol; man facing away toward crowd
with long gun, pistol, and gas mask]

Protesters rally in Michigan in the days after the election. (Philip

He recited the words inscribed on the Stars and Stripes: “A free
people ought not only to be armed and disciplined but they should have
sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence
from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their
own government.”

“George Washington wrote that,” he said. “That’s where we’re
at, gentlemen.”

I looked it up. George Washington did not write anything like that
[[link removed]].
The flag was Dooner’s best seller, even so.

Over the course of Trump’s presidency, one of the running debates
about the man boiled down to: menace or clown? Threat to the republic,
or authoritarian wannabe who had no real chance of breaking
democracy’s restraints? Many observers rejected the dichotomy—the
essayist Andrew Sullivan, for instance, described the former president
as “both farcical _and_ deeply dangerous
[[link removed]].”
But during the interregnum between November 3 and Inauguration Day,
the political consensus leaned at first toward farce. Biden had won.
Trump was breaking every norm by refusing to concede, but his made-up
claims of fraud were getting him nowhere.

In a column headlined “There Will Be No Trump Coup
[[link removed]],”
the _New York Times_ writer Ross Douthat had predicted, shortly
before Election Day, that “any attempt to cling to power
illegitimately will be a theater of the absurd.” He was responding
in part to my warning in these pages that Trump could wreak great harm
in such an attempt.

_The Ticket_ podcast: Barton Gellman on how Trump could tamper with
the 2020 vote
[[link removed]]

One year later, Douthat looked back. In scores of lawsuits, “a
variety of conservative lawyers delivered laughable arguments to
skeptical judges and were ultimately swatted down,” he wrote, and
state election officials warded off Trump’s corrupt demands. My own
article, Douthat wrote, had anticipated what Trump _tried_ to do.
“But at every level he was rebuffed, often embarrassingly, and by
the end his plotting consisted of listening to charlatans and cranks
proposing last-ditch ideas” that could never succeed.

Douthat also looked ahead, with guarded optimism, to the coming
presidential election. There are risks of foul play, he wrote, but
“Trump in 2024 will have none of the presidential powers, legal and
practical, that he enjoyed in 2020 but failed to use effectively in
any shape or form.” And “you can’t assess Trump’s potential to
overturn an election from _outside_ the Oval Office unless you
acknowledge his inability to effectively employ the powers of that
office when he had them.”

That, I submit respectfully, is a profound misunderstanding of what
mattered in the coup attempt a year ago. It is also a dangerous
underestimate of the threat in 2024—which is larger, not smaller,
than it was in 2020.

It is true that Trump tried and failed to wield his authority as
commander in chief and chief law-enforcement officer on behalf of the
Big Lie. But Trump did not need the instruments of office to sabotage
the electoral machinery. It was citizen Trump—as litigant, as
candidate, as dominant party leader, as gifted demagogue, and as
commander of a vast propaganda army—who launched the insurrection
and brought the peaceful transfer of power to the brink of failure.

All of these roles are still Trump’s for the taking. In nearly every
battle space of the war to control the count of the next
election—statehouses, state election authorities, courthouses,
Congress, and the Republican Party apparatus—Trump’s position has
improved since a year ago.

To understand the threat today, you have to see with clear eyes what
happened, what is still happening, after the 2020 election. The
charlatans and cranks who filed lawsuits and led public spectacles on
Trump’s behalf were sideshows. They distracted from the main event:
a systematic effort to nullify the election results and then reverse
them. As milestones passed—individual certification by states, the
meeting of the Electoral College on December 14—Trump’s hand grew
weaker. But he played it strategically throughout. The more we learn
about January 6, the clearer the conclusion becomes that it was the
last gambit in a soundly conceived campaign—one that provides a
blueprint for 2024.

The strategic objective of nearly every move by the Trump team after
the networks called the election for Joe Biden on November 7 was to
induce Republican legislatures in states that Biden won to seize
control of the results and appoint Trump electors instead. Every other
objective—in courtrooms, on state election panels, in the Justice
Department, and in the office of the vice president—was instrumental
to that end.

Electors are the currency in a presidential contest and, under the
Constitution, state legislators control the rules for choosing
them. Article II provides
[[link removed]] that
each state shall appoint electors “in such Manner as the Legislature
thereof may direct.” Since the 19th century, every state has ceded
the choice to its voters, automatically certifying electors who
support the victor at the polls, but in _Bush v. Gore_
[[link removed]] the Supreme
Court affirmed that a state “can take back the power to appoint
electors.” No court has ever said that a state could do that after
its citizens have already voted, but that was the heart of Trump’s

Every path to stealing the election required GOP legislatures in at
least three states to repudiate the election results and substitute
presidential electors for Trump. That act alone would not have ensured
Trump’s victory. Congress would have had to accept the substitute
electors when it counted the votes, and the Supreme Court might have
had a say. But without the state legislatures, Trump had no way to
overturn the verdict of the voters.

Trump needed 38 electors to reverse Biden’s victory, or 37 for a tie
that would throw the contest to the House of Representatives. For all
his improvisation and flailing in the postelection period, Trump never
lost sight of that goal. He and his team focused on obtaining the
required sum from among the 79 electoral votes in Arizona (11),
Georgia (16), Michigan (16), Nevada (6), Pennsylvania (20), and
Wisconsin (10).

Nothing close to this loss of faith in democracy has happened here
before. Even Confederates recognized Lincoln’s election; they tried
to secede because they knew they had lost.

Trump had many tactical setbacks. He and his advocates lost 64 of 65
challenges to election results in court, and many of them were indeed
comically inept. His intimidation of state officials, though it also
failed in the end, was less comical. Trump was too late, barely, to
strong-arm Republican county authorities into rejecting Detroit’s
election tally (they tried and failed to rescind their “yes” votes
after the fact
[[link removed]]),
and Aaron Van Langevelde, the crucial Republican vote on Michigan’s
Board of State Canvassers, stood up to Trump’s pressure to block
certification of the statewide results. Georgia Secretary of State
Brad Raffensperger refused the president’s request to “find”
11,780 votes for Trump after two recounts confirming Biden’s win.
Two Republican governors, in Georgia and Arizona, signed certificates
of Biden’s victory; the latter did so even as a telephone call from
Trump rang unanswered in his pocket
[[link removed]].
The acting attorney general stared down Trump’s plan to replace him
with a subordinate, Jeffrey B. Clark, who was prepared to send a
[[link removed]] advising
the Georgia House and Senate to reconsider their state’s election

Read: How close did the U.S. come to a successful coup?
[[link removed]]

Had Trump succeeded in any of these efforts, he would have given
Republican state legislators a credible excuse to meddle; one success
might have led to a cascade
[[link removed]].
Trump used judges, county boards, state officials, and even his own
Justice Department as stepping-stones to his ultimate target:
Republican legislators in swing states. No one else could give him
what he wanted.

Even as these efforts foundered, the Trump team achieved something
crucial and enduring by convincing tens of millions of angry
supporters, including a catastrophic 68 percent of all Republicans in
a November PRRI poll
[[link removed]],
that the election had been stolen from Trump. Nothing close to this
loss of faith in democracy has happened here before. Even Confederates
recognized Abraham Lincoln’s election; they tried to secede because
they knew they had lost. Delegitimating Biden’s victory was a
strategic win for Trump—then and now—because the Big Lie became
the driving passion of the voters who controlled the fate of
Republican legislators, and Trump’s fate was in the legislators’

[photo of woman grimacing with eyes closed waving American flag with
2nd Amendment text printed in the white strips]

A woman bears a flag inscribed with the Second Amendment at a
gun-rights rally in Virginia in 2020. (Philip Montgomery)

Even so, three strategic points of failure left Trump in dire straits
in the days before January 6.

First, although Trump won broad rhetorical support from state
legislators for his fictitious claims of voter fraud, they were
reluctant to take the radical, concrete step of nullifying the votes
of their own citizens. Despite enormous pressure, none of the six
contested states put forward an alternate slate of electors for Trump.
Only later, as Congress prepared to count the electoral votes, did
legislators in some of those states begin talking unofficially about
“decertifying” the Biden electors.

The second strategic point of failure for Trump was Congress, which
had the normally ceremonial role of counting the electoral votes. In
the absence of action by state legislatures, the Trump team had made a
weak attempt at a fallback, arranging for Republicans in each of the
six states to appoint themselves “electors” and transmit their
“ballots” for Trump to the president of the Senate. Trump would
have needed both chambers of Congress to approve his faux electors and
hand him the presidency. Republicans controlled only the Senate, but
that might have enabled Trump to create an impasse in the count. The
trouble there was that fewer than a dozen Republican senators were on

Trump’s third strategic setback was his inability, despite all
expectations, to induce his loyal No. 2 to go along. Vice President
Mike Pence would preside over the Joint Session of Congress to count
the electoral votes, and in a memo distributed in early January,
Trump’s legal adviser John Eastman claimed, on “very solid legal
authority,” that Pence himself “does the counting, including the
resolution of disputed electoral votes … and all the Members of
Congress can do is watch.” If Congress would not crown Trump
president, in other words, Pence could do it himself. And if Pence
would not do that, he could simply disregard the time limits for
debate under the Electoral Count Act and allow Republicans like
Senator Ted Cruz to filibuster. “That creates a stalemate,”
Eastman wrote, “that would give the state legislatures more time.”

_Time._ The clock was ticking. Several of Trump’s advisers, Rudy
Giuliani among them, told allies that friendly legislatures were on
the brink of convening special sessions to replace their Biden
electors. The Trump conspiracy had made nowhere near that much
progress, in fact, but Giuliani was saying it could be done in “five
to 10 days.” If Congress went ahead with the count on January 6, it
would be too late.

On the afternoon of January 5, Sidney Powell—she of the
“Kraken” lawsuits, for which she would later be sanctioned in one
court and sued in another—prepared an emergency motion addressed to
Justice Samuel Alito
[[link removed]].
The motion, entered into the Supreme Court docket the next day, would
go largely unnoticed by the media and the public amid the violence of
January 6; few have heard of it even now. But it was Plan A to buy
Trump some time.

Alito was the circuit justice for the Fifth Circuit, where Powell, on
behalf of Representative Louie Gohmert, had sued to compel Mike Pence
to take charge of validating electors, disregarding the statutory role
of Congress. The vice president had “exclusive authority and sole
discretion as to which set of electors to count or even whether to
count no set of electors,” Powell wrote. The Electoral Count Act,
which says quite otherwise, was unconstitutional.

Powell did not expect Alito to rule on the merits immediately. She
asked him to enter an emergency stay of the electoral count and
schedule briefs on the constitutional claim. If Alito granted the
stay, the clock on the election would stop and Trump would gain time
to twist more arms in state legislatures.

Late in the same afternoon, January 5, Steve Bannon sat behind a
microphone for his live _War Room_ show, backswept gray hair
spilling from his headphones to the epaulets on a khaki field jacket.
He was talking, not very guardedly, about Trump’s Plan B to buy time
the next day.

“The state legislatures are the center of gravity” of the fight,
he said, because “people are going back to the original
interpretation of the Constitution.”

And there was big news: The Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania
Senate, who had resisted pressure from Trump
[[link removed]] to
nullify Biden’s victory, had just signed their names to a letter
averring that the commonwealth’s election results “should not have
been certified by our Secretary of State.” (Bannon thanked his
viewers for staging protests at those legislators’ homes in recent
days.) The letter, addressed to Republican leaders in Congress, went
on to “ask that you delay certification of the Electoral College to
allow due process as we pursue election integrity in our

For weeks, Rudy Giuliani had starred in spurious “fraud” hearings
in states where Biden had won narrowly. “After all these
hearings,” Bannon exulted on air, “we finally have a state
legislature … that is moving.” More states, the Trump team hoped,
would follow Pennsylvania’s lead.

Meanwhile, the Trumpers would use the new letter as an excuse for
putting off a statutory requirement to count the electoral votes “on
the sixth day of January.” Senator Cruz and several allies proposed
an “emergency” 10-day delay
[[link removed]], ostensibly for
an audit.

This was a lawless plan on multiple grounds. While the Constitution
gives state legislatures the power to select electors, it does not
provide for “decertifying” electors after they have cast their
ballots in the Electoral College, which had happened weeks before.
Even if Republicans had acted earlier, they could not have dismissed
electors by writing a letter. Vanishingly few legal scholars believed
that a legislature could appoint substitute electors by any means
after voters had made their choice. And the governing statute, the
Electoral Count Act, had no provision for delay past January 6,
emergency or otherwise. Trump’s team was improvising at this point,
hoping that it could make new law in court, or that legal niceties
would be overwhelmed by events. If Pence or the Republican-controlled
Senate had fully backed Trump’s maneuver, there is a chance that
they might in fact have produced a legal stalemate that the incumbent
could have exploited to stay in power.

Above all else, Bannon knew that Trump had to stop the count, which
was set to begin at 1 p.m. the next day. If Pence would not stop it
and Alito did not come through, another way would have to be found.

“Tomorrow morning, look, what’s going to happen, we’re going to
have at the Ellipse—President Trump speaks at 11,” Bannon said,
summoning his posse to turn up when the gates opened at 7 a.m. Bannon
would be back on air in the morning with “a lot more news and
analysis of exactly what’s going to go on through the day.”

Then a knowing smile crossed Bannon’s face. He swept a palm in front
of him, and he said the words that would capture attention, months
later, from a congressional select committee
[[link removed]].

“I’ll tell you this,” Bannon said. “It’s not going to happen
like you think it’s going to happen. Okay, it’s going to be quite
extraordinarily different. All I can say is, strap in.” Earlier the
same day, he had predicted, “All hell is going to break loose

Bannon signed off at 6:58 p.m. Later that night he turned up in
another war room, this one a suite at the Willard Hotel, across the
street from the White House. He and others in Trump’s close orbit
[[link removed]],
including Eastman and Giuliani, had been meeting there for
days. Congressional investigators have been deploying subpoenas
[[link removed]] and
the threat of criminal sanctions—Bannon has been indicted for
contempt of Congress
[[link removed]]—to
discover whether they were in direct contact with the “Stop the
Steal” rally organizers and, if so, what they planned together.

Shortly after bannon signed off, a 6-foot-3-inch mixed martial artist
named Scott Fairlamb responded to his call. Fairlamb, who fought under
the nickname “Wildman,” reposted Bannon’s war cry to Facebook:
“All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” The next morning,
after driving before dawn from New Jersey to Washington, he posted
again: “How far are you willing to go to defend our Constitution?”
Fairlamb, then 43, answered the question for his own part a few hours
later at the leading edge of a melee on the West Terrace of the
Capitol—seizing a police baton and later punching an officer in the
face. “What patriots do? We fuckin’ disarm them and then we storm
the fuckin’ Capitol!” he screamed at fellow insurgents.

Less than an hour earlier, at 1:10 p.m., Trump had finished speaking
and directed the crowd toward the Capitol. The first rioters breached
the building at 2:11 p.m.
[[link removed]] through
a window they shattered with a length of lumber and a stolen police
shield. About one minute later, Fairlamb burst through the Senate Wing
Door brandishing the baton, a teeming mob behind him. (Fairlamb
pleaded guilty to assaulting an officer and other charges
[[link removed]].)

Another minute passed, and then without warning, at 2:13
[[link removed]],
a Secret Service detail pulled Pence away from the Senate podium,
hustling him out through a side door and down a short stretch of

Pause for a moment to consider the choreography. Hundreds of angry men
and women are swarming through the halls of the Capitol. They are
fresh from victory in hand-to-hand combat with an outnumbered force of
Metropolitan and Capitol Police. Many have knives or bear spray or
baseball bats or improvised cudgels. A few have thought to carry
zip-tie wrist restraints. Some are shouting “Hang Mike Pence!”
Others call out hated Democrats by name.

At 2:26, the Secret Service agents told Pence again that he had to
move. “The third time they came in,” the vice president’s chief
of staff told me, “it wasn’t really a choice.”

These hundreds of rioters are fanning out, intent on finding another
group of roughly comparable size: 100 senators and 435 members of the
House, in addition to the vice president. How long can the one group
roam freely without meeting the other? Nothing short of stunning good
luck, with an allowance for determined police and sound evacuation
plans, prevented a direct encounter.

The vice president reached Room S-214, his ceremonial Senate office,
at about 2:14 p.m. No sooner had his entourage closed the door, which
is made of opaque white glass, than the leading edge of the mob
reached a marble landing 100 feet away. Had the rioters arrived half a
minute earlier, they could not have failed to spot the vice president
and his escorts speed-walking out of the Senate chamber.

Ten minutes later, at 2:24, Trump egged on the hunt. “Mike Pence
didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect
our Country and our Constitution,” he tweeted.

Two minutes after that, at 2:26, the Secret Service agents told Pence
again what they had already said twice before: He had to move.

“The third time they came in, it wasn’t really a choice,” Marc
Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, told me. “It was ‘We
cannot protect you here, because all that we have between us is a
glass door.’ ” When Pence refused to leave the Capitol, the
agents guided him down a staircase to a shelter under the visitors’

In another part of the Capitol, at about the same time, a 40-year-old
businessman from Miami named Gabriel A. Garcia turned a smartphone
camera toward his face to narrate the insurrection in progress. He was
a first-generation Cuban American, a retired U.S. Army captain, the
owner of an aluminum-roofing company, and a member of the Miami
chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a penchant for
street brawls. (In an August interview, Garcia described the Proud
Boys as a drinking club with a passion for free speech.)

In his Facebook Live video
[[link removed]], Garcia wore a thick
beard and a MAGA cap as he gripped a metal flagpole. “We just went
ahead and stormed the Capitol. It’s about to get ugly,” he said
[[link removed]]. He weaved
his way to the front of a crowd that was pressing against outnumbered
police in the Crypt, beneath the Rotunda. “You fucking traitors!”
he screamed in their faces. When officers detained another man who
tried to break through their line, Garcia dropped his flagpole and
shouted “Grab him!” during a skirmish to free the detainee.
“U.S.A.!” he chanted. “Storm this shit!”

Then, in an ominous singsong voice, Garcia called out, “Nancy, come
out and play!” Garcia was paraphrasing a villain in the 1979
urban-apocalypse film _The Warriors_. That line, in the movie,
precedes a brawl with switchblades, lead pipes, and baseball bats.
(Garcia, who faces six criminal charges including civil disorder, has
pleaded not guilty to all counts.)

“It’s not like I threatened her life,” Garcia said in the
interview, adding that he might not even have been talking about the
speaker of the House. “I said ‘Nancy.’ Like I told my lawyer,
that could mean any Nancy.”

Garcia had explanations for everything on the video. “Storm this
shit” meant “bring more people [to] voice their opinion.” And
“‘get ugly’ is ‘we’re getting a lot of people coming
behind.’ ”

But the most revealing exegesis had to do with “fucking traitors.”

“At that point, I wasn’t meaning the Capitol Police,” he said.
“I was looking at them. But … I was talking about Congress.” He
“wasn’t there to stop the certification of Biden becoming
president,” he said, but to delay it. “I was there to support Ted
Cruz. Senator Ted Cruz was asking for a 10-day investigation.”

Delay. Buy time. Garcia knew what the mission was.

Late into the afternoon, as the violence died down and authorities
regained control of the Capitol, Sidney Powell must have watched
reports of the insurgency with anxious eyes on the clock. If Congress
stayed out of session, there was a chance that Justice Alito might
come through.

He did not. The Supreme Court denied Powell’s application the next
day, after Congress completed the electoral count in the early-morning
hours. Plan A and Plan B had both failed. Powell later expressed
regret that Congress had been able to reconvene so quickly, mooting
her request.

For a few short weeks, Republicans recoiled at the insurrection and
distanced themselves from Trump. That would not last.

Ballroom a at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas is
packed with college Republicans. There is a surfeit of red ties,
vested suits, and pocket squares. A lot more young men than women. Two
Black faces in a sea of white. No face masks at all. None of the
students I ask has received a COVID vaccine.

The students have gathered to talk about the Second Amendment, the job
market, and “how to attack your campus for their vaccine
mandates,” as incoming Chair Will Donahue tells the crowd.
Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, a featured speaker, has another
topic in mind.

“Let’s talk about January 6,” he proposes, and then, without
further preamble: “Release the tapes!”

There is a scattering of applause, quickly extinguished. The students
do not seem to know what he is talking about.

“The 14,000-plus hours,” Gosar says. “Let’s find out who
actually—who caused the turmoil. Let’s hold accountable. But
let’s also make sure that the people who are innocently charged are
set free. But let’s also hold those responsible for what happened

Gosar is not a natural orator, and it is often difficult to parse what
he is saying. He bends at the waist and swings his head as he speaks,
swallowing words and garbling syntax. No one in the Las Vegas audience
seems to be following his train of thought. He moves on.

“We’re in the middle of a verbal and cultural war,” he says.
“Very much like a civil war, where it’s brother against brother
… We are the light. They are the darkness. Don’t shy away from

A little sleuthing afterward reveals that 14,000 hours is the sum of
footage preserved from the Capitol’s closed-circuit video cameras
between the hours of noon and 8 p.m. on January 6. The Capitol Police,
according to an affidavit from their general counsel, have shared the
footage with Congress and the FBI but want to keep it out of public
view because the images reveal, among other sensitive information, the
Capitol’s “layout, vulnerabilities and security weaknesses.”

Gosar, like a few fellow conservatives, has reasoned from this that
the Biden administration is concealing “exculpatory evidence”
about the insurrectionists. The January 6 defendants, as Gosar
portrays them in a tweet, are guilty of no more than a “stroll
through statuary hall during non-business hours.” Another day he
tweets, baselessly, “The violence was instigated by FBI assets.”

This is the same Paul Gosar who, in November, tweeted an anime video,
prepared by his staff, depicting him in mortal combat with
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In it he raises a sword and
kills her with a blow to the neck. For incitement of violence against
a colleague, the House voted to censure Gosar and stripped him of his
committee assignments. Gosar, unrepentant, compared himself to
Alexander Hamilton
[[link removed]].

It’s the same Paul Gosar who, twice in recent months, has purported
to be in possession of secret intelligence about vote-rigging from a
source in the “CIA fraud department,” which does not exist, and
from the “security exchange fraud department,” and also from
someone “from Fraud from the Department of Defense,” all of whom
were somehow monitoring voting machines and all of whom telephoned to
alert him to chicanery.

Gosar has become a leading voice of January 6 revisionism, and he may
have more reason than most to revise. In an unguarded video on
Periscope, since deleted but preserved by the Project on Government
Oversight, Ali Alexander, one of the principal organizers of the
“Stop the Steal” rally
[[link removed]],
said, “I was the person who came up with the January 6 idea with
Congressman Gosar” and two other Republican House members. “We
four schemed up putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were

[photo of balding man in tactical vest with an American flag face mask
wrapped tightly around his head]

A participant in a September 2020 Proud Boys rally in Portland,
Oregon, in support of Donald Trump (Philip Montgomery)

“Stop the Steal” organizers created and later tried to delete a
website called Wild Protest that directed supporters to trespass on
the Capitol steps, where demonstrations are illegal: “We the People
must take to the US Capitol lawn and steps and tell Congress
#DoNotCertify on #JAN6!” Gosar was listed on the site as a marquee
name. In the final days of the Trump administration, CNN reported that
Gosar (among other members of Congress) had asked Trump for a
preemptive pardon for his part in the events of January 6. He did not
get one. (Tom Van Flein, Gosar’s chief of staff, said in an email
that both the pardon story and Alexander’s account were
“categorically false.” He added, “Talking about a rally and
speeches are one thing. Planning violence is another.”)

Assembled in one place, the elements of the revisionist narrative from
Gosar and his allies resemble a litigator’s “argument in the
alternative.” January 6 was a peaceful exercise of First Amendment
rights. Or it was violent, but the violence came from antifa and FBI
plants. Or the violent people, the ones charged in court, are patriots
and political prisoners.

Or, perhaps, they are victims of unprovoked violence themselves.
“They get down there, and they get assaulted by the law-enforcement
officers,” Gabriel Pollock said in an interview from behind the
counter at Rapture Guns and Knives in North Lakeland, Florida,
speaking of family members who are facing criminal charges. “It was
an ambush, is really what it was. All of that is going to come out in
the court case.”

The most potent symbol of the revisionists is Ashli Babbitt, the
35-year-old Air Force veteran and QAnon adherent who died from a
gunshot wound to the left shoulder as she tried to climb through a
broken glass door. The shooting came half an hour after the mob’s
near-encounter with Pence, and was an even closer call. This time the
insurgents could see their quarry, dozens of House members clustered
in the confined space of the Speaker’s Lobby. Rioters slammed fists
and feet and a helmet into the reinforced glass of the barricaded
doorway, eventually creating a hole big enough for Babbitt.

Whether the shooting was warranted is debatable. Federal prosecutors
cleared Lieutenant Michael Byrd of wrongdoing
[[link removed]],
and the Capitol Police exonerated him
[[link removed]],
saying, “The actions of the officer in this case potentially saved
Members and staff from serious injury and possible death from a large
crowd of rioters who … were steps away.” The crowd was plainly
eager to follow Babbitt through the breach, but a legal analysis
[[link removed]] in _Lawfare_ argued
that the unarmed Babbitt personally would have had to pose a serious
threat to justify the shooting.

Gosar helped lead the campaign to make a martyr of Babbitt, who was
shot wearing a Trump flag as a cape around her neck. “Who executed
Ashli Babbitt?” he asked at a House hearing in May, before Byrd’s
identity was known. At another hearing, in June, he said the officer
“appeared to be hiding, lying in wait, and then gave no warning
before killing her.”

“Was she on the right side of history?” I asked Gosar this summer.

“History has yet to be written,” he replied. “Release the tapes,
and then history can be written.”

As word spread in right-wing circles that the then-unidentified
officer was Black, race quickly entered the narrative. Henry
“Enrique” Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys, shared a Telegram
[[link removed]] from
another user that said, “This black man was waiting to execute
someone on january 6th. He chose Ashli Babbitt.” An account called
“Justice for January 6” tweeted that Byrd “should be in jail for
the execution of Ashli Babbitt, but instead he is being lauded as a
hero. The ONLY racial injustice in America today is antiwhiteism
[[link removed]].”

Ibram X. Kendi: “Anti-white” and the mantra of white supremacy
[[link removed]]

The penultimate stage of the new narrative held that Democrats had
seized upon false accusations of rebellion in order to unleash the
“deep state” against patriotic Americans. Dylan Martin, a student
leader at the Las Vegas event at which Gosar spoke, adopted that view.
“The Democratic Party seems to be using [January 6] as a rallying
cry to persecute and completely use the force of the federal
government to clamp down on conservatives across the nation,” he
told me.

Trump himself proposed the final inversion of January 6 as a political
symbol: “The insurrection took place on November 3, Election Day.
January 6 was the Protest!” he wrote in a statement released by his
fundraising group in October.

It is difficult today to find a Republican elected official who will
take issue with that proposition in public. With Trump loyalists
ascendant, no room is left for dissent in a party now fully devoted to
twisting the electoral system for the former president. Anyone who
thinks otherwise need only glance toward Wyoming, where Liz Cheney, so
recently in the party’s power elite, has been toppled from her
leadership post and expelled from the state Republican Party for

In the first days of January 2021, as Trump and his legal advisers
squeezed Pence to stop the electoral count, they told the vice
president that state legislatures around the country were on the cusp
of replacing electors who’d voted for Biden with those who would
vote for Trump. They were lying, but they were trying mightily to make
it true.

Marc Short, Pence’s closest adviser, did not think it would happen.
“In any sort of due diligence that we did with a Senate majority
leader, a House minority leader, or any of those people, it was clear
that they had certified their results and there was no intention of a
separate slate of electors or any sort of challenge to that
certification,” he told me. Trump might have support for his
maneuver from “one or two” legislators in a given state, “but
that was never something that actually garnered the support of a
majority of any elected body.”

The letter from wavering Pennsylvania state senators suggests that the
situation wasn’t quite so black-and-white; the dams were beginning
to crack. Even so, Trump’s demand—that statehouses fire their
voters and hand him the votes—was so far beyond the bounds of normal
politics that politicians found it difficult to conceive.

With the passage of a year, it is no longer so hard. There is
precedent now for the conversation, the next time it happens, and
there are competent lawyers to smooth the path. Most of all, there is
the roaring tide of revanchist anger among Trump supporters, rising up
against anyone who would thwart his will. Scarcely an elected
Republican dares resist them, and many surf exultantly in their wake.

A year ago I asked the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse
[[link removed]] how
he explained the integrity of the Republican officials who said no,
under pressure, to the attempted coup in 2020 and early ’21. “I
think it did depend on the personalities,” he told me. “I think
you replace those officials, those judges, with ones who are more
willing to follow the party line, and you get a different set of

Today that reads like a coup plotter’s to-do list. Since the 2020
election, Trump’s acolytes have set about methodically identifying
patches of resistance and pulling them out by the roots. Brad
Raffensperger in Georgia, who refused to “find” extra votes for
Trump? Formally censured by his state party, primaried, and stripped
of his power as chief election officer. Aaron Van Langevelde in
Michigan, who certified Biden’s victory? Hounded off the Board of
State Canvassers. Governor Doug Ducey in Arizona, who signed his
state’s “certificate of ascertainment” for Biden? Trump has
endorsed a former Fox 10 news anchor named Kari Lake to succeed him,
predicting that she “will fight to restore Election Integrity (both
past and future!).” _Future_, here, is the operative word. Lake
says she would not have certified Biden’s victory in Arizona, and
even promises to revoke it (somehow) if she wins. None of this is

Arizona’s legislature, meanwhile, has passed a law forbidding Katie
Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of state, to take part in election
lawsuits, as she did at crucial junctures last year. The legislature
is also debating an extraordinary bill
[[link removed]] asserting
its own prerogative, “by majority vote at any time before the
presidential inauguration,” to “revoke the secretary of state’s
issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of
election.” There was no such thing under law as a method to
“decertify” electors when Trump demanded it in 2020, but state
Republicans think they have invented one for 2024.

In at least 15 more states
[[link removed]],
Republicans have advanced new laws
[[link removed]] to
shift authority over elections from governors and career officials in
the executive branch to the legislature. Under the Orwellian banner of
“election integrity,” even more have rewritten laws to make it
harder for Democrats to vote. Death threats and harassment from Trump
supporters have meanwhile driven nonpartisan voting administrators to
contemplate retirement.

Vernetta Keith Nuriddin, 52, who left the Fulton County, Georgia,
election board in June, told me she had been bombarded with menacing
emails from Trump supporters. One email, she recalled, said, “You
guys need to be publicly executed … on pay per view.” Another, a
copy of which she provided me, said, “Tick, Tick, Tick” in the
subject line and “Not long now” as the message. Nuriddin said she
knows colleagues on at least four county election boards who resigned
in 2021 or chose not to renew their positions.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, excommunicated and primaried at Trump’s
behest for certifying Biden’s victory, nonetheless signed a new law
in March that undercuts the power of the county authorities who
normally manage elections. Now a GOP-dominated state board, beholden
to the legislature, may overrule and take control of voting tallies in
any jurisdiction—for example, a heavily Black and Democratic one
like Fulton County. The State Election Board can suspend a county
board if it deems the board to be “underperforming” and replace it
with a handpicked administrator. The administrator, in turn, will have
final say on disqualifying voters and declaring ballots null and void.
Instead of complaining about balls and strikes, Team Trump will now
own the referee.

“The best-case scenario is [that in] the next session this law is
overturned,” Nuriddin said. “The worst case is they start just
pulling election directors across the state.”

The Justice Department has filed suit to overturn some provisions of
the new Georgia law
[[link removed]]—but
not to challenge the hostile takeover of election authorities.
Instead, the federal lawsuit takes issue with a long list of
traditional voter-suppression tactics that, according to Attorney
General Merrick Garland, have the intent and effect of disadvantaging
Black voters. These include prohibitions and “onerous fines” that
restrict the distribution of absentee ballots, limit the use of ballot
drop boxes, and forbid handing out food or water to voters waiting in
line. These provisions make it harder, by design, for Democrats to
vote in Georgia. The provisions that Garland did not challenge make it
easier for Republicans to fix the outcome. They represent danger of a
whole different magnitude.

The coming midterm elections, meanwhile, could tip the balance
further. Among the 36 states that will choose new governors in 2022,
three are presidential battlegrounds—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and
Michigan—where Democratic governors until now have thwarted attempts
by Republican legislatures to cancel Biden’s victory and rewrite
election rules. Republican challengers in those states have pledged
allegiance to the Big Lie, and the contests look to be competitive. In
at least seven states, Big Lie Republicans have been vying for
Trump’s endorsement for secretary of state, the office that will
oversee the 2024 election. Trump has already endorsed three of them,
in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan.

Down in the enlisted ranks, Trump’s army of the dispossessed is
hearing language from Republican elected officials that validates an
instinct for violence. Angry rhetoric comparing January 6 to 1776
(Representative Lauren Boebert) or vaccine requirements to the
Holocaust (Kansas House Representative Brenda Landwehr) reliably
produces death threats by the hundreds against perceived
enemies—whether Democratic or Republican.

The infinite scroll of right-wing social media is relentlessly
bloody-minded. One commentator on Telegram posted on January 7 that
“the congress is literally begging the people to hang them.”
Another replied, “Anyone who certifies a fraudulent election has
commited treason punishable by death.” One week later came, “The
last stand is a civil war.” In response, another user wrote, “No
protests. To late for that.” The fire burns, if anything, even
hotter now, a year later.

Amid all this ferment, Trump’s legal team is fine-tuning a
constitutional argument that is pitched to appeal to a five-justice
majority if the 2024 election reaches the Supreme Court. This, too,
exploits the GOP advantage in statehouse control. Republicans are
promoting an “independent state legislature” doctrine, which holds
that statehouses have “plenary,” or exclusive, control of the
rules for choosing presidential electors. Taken to its logical
conclusion, it could provide a legal basis for any state legislature
to throw out an election result it dislikes and appoint its preferred
electors instead.

Elections are complicated, and election administrators have to make
hundreds of choices about election machinery and procedures—the
time, place, and manner of voting or counting or canvassing—that the
legislature has not specifically authorized. A judge or county
administrator may hold polls open for an extra hour to make up for a
power outage that temporarily halts voting. Precinct workers may
exercise their discretion to help voters “cure” technical errors
on their ballots. A judge may rule that the state constitution limits
or overrides a provision of state election law.

Four justices—Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence
Thomas—have already signaled support for a doctrine that disallows
any such deviation from the election rules passed by a state
legislature. It is an absolutist reading of legislative control over
the “manner” of appointing electors under Article II of the U.S.
Constitution. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s last appointee, has
never opined on the issue.

The question could arise, and Barrett’s vote could become decisive,
if Trump again asks a Republican-controlled legislature to set aside a
Democratic victory at the polls. Any such legislature would be able to
point to multiple actions during the election that it had not
specifically authorized. To repeat, that is the norm for how elections
are carried out today. Discretionary procedures are baked into the
cake. A Supreme Court friendly to the doctrine of independent state
legislatures would have a range of remedies available to it; the
justices might, for instance, simply disqualify the portion of the
votes that were cast through “unauthorized” procedures. But one of
those remedies would be the nuclear option: throwing out the vote
altogether and allowing the state legislature to appoint electors of
its choosing.

Trump is not relying on the clown-car legal team that lost nearly
every court case last time. The independent-state-legislature doctrine
has a Federalist Society imprimatur and attorneys from top-tier firms
like BakerHostetler. A dark-money voter-suppression group that calls
itself the Honest Elections Project has already featured the argument
in an amicus brief
[[link removed]].

“One of the minimal requirements for a democracy is that popular
elections will determine political leadership,” Nate Persily, a
Stanford Law School expert on election law, told me. “If a
legislature can effectively overrule the popular vote, it turns
democracy on its head.” Persily and UC Irvine’s Hasen, among other
election-law scholars, fear that the Supreme Court could take an
absolutist stance that would do exactly that.

One sign that legislative supremacy is more than a hypothetical
construct is that it has migrated into the talking points of
Republican elected officials. On ABC’s _This Week_, for example,
while refusing to opine on whether Biden had stolen the election,
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise explained in February 2021, “There
were a few states that did not follow their state laws. That’s
really the dispute that you’ve seen continue on.” Trump himself
has absorbed enough of the argument to tell the _Washington
Post_ reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, “The legislatures
of the states did not approve all of the things that were done for
those elections. And under the Constitution of the United States, they
have to do that.”

There is a clear and present danger that American democracy will not
withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it. Our
two-party system has only one party left that is willing to lose an
election. The other is willing to win at the cost of breaking things
that a democracy cannot live without.

Democracies have fallen before under stresses like these, when the
people who might have defended them were transfixed by disbelief. If
ours is to stand, its defenders have to rouse themselves.

Joe Biden looked as though he might do that on the afternoon of July
13. He traveled to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia,
which features on its facade an immense reproduction of the Preamble
in 18th-century script, to deliver what was billed as a major address
on democracy
[[link removed]].

What followed was incongruous. Biden began well enough, laying out how
the core problem of voting rights had changed. It was “no longer
just about who gets to vote” but “who gets to count the vote.”
There were “partisan actors” seizing power from independent
election authorities. “To me, this is simple: This is election
subversion,” he said. “They want the ability to reject the final
count and ignore the will of the people if their preferred candidate

He described the means by which the next election might be stolen,
though vaguely: “You vote for certain electors to vote for somebody
for president” and then a “state legislator comes along … and
they say, ‘No, we don’t like those electors. We’re going to
appoint other electors who are going to vote for the other guy or
other woman.’ ”

And he laid down a strong marker as he reached his rhetorical peak.

“We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the
Civil War. That’s not hyperbole,” he said. “I’m not saying
this to alarm you. I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.”

Donald Trump came closer than anyone thought he could to toppling a
free election a year ago. He is preparing in plain view to do it

But then, having looked directly toward the threat on the horizon,
Biden seemed to turn away, as if he doubted the evidence before his
eyes. There was no appreciable call to action, save for the bare words
themselves: “We’ve got to act.” Biden’s list of remedies was
short and grossly incommensurate with the challenge. He expressed
support for two bills—the For the People Act and the John Lewis
Voting Rights Advancement Act—that were dead on arrival in the
Senate because Democrats had no answer to the Republican filibuster.
He said the attorney general would double the Department of Justice
staff devoted to voting-rights enforcement. Civil-rights groups would
“stay vigilant.” Vice President Kamala Harris would lead “an
all-out effort to educate voters about the changing laws, register
them to vote, and then get the vote out.”

And then he mentioned one last plan that proved he did not accept the
nature of the threat: “We will be asking my Republican friends—in
Congress, in states, in cities, in counties—to stand up, for God’s
sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our
elections and the sacred right to vote.”

So: enforcement of inadequate laws, wishful thinking about new laws,
vigilance, voter education, and a friendly request that Republicans
stand athwart their own electoral schemes.

Conspicuously missing from Biden’s speech was any mention even of
filibuster reform, without which voting-rights legislation is doomed.
Nor was there any mention of holding Trump and his minions
accountable, legally, for plotting a coup. Patterson, the retired
firefighter, was right to say that nobody has been charged with
insurrection; the question is, why not? The Justice Department and the
FBI are chasing down the foot soldiers of January 6, but there is no
public sign that they are building cases against the men and women who
sent them. Absent consequences, they will certainly try again. An
unpunished plot is practice for the next.

Donald trump came closer than anyone thought he could to toppling a
free election a year ago. He is preparing in plain view to do it
again, and his position is growing stronger. Republican acolytes have
identified the weak points in our electoral apparatus and are
methodically exploiting them. They have set loose and now are driven
by the animus of tens of millions of aggrieved Trump supporters who
are prone to conspiracy thinking, embrace violence, and reject
democratic defeat. Those supporters, Robert Pape’s “committed
insurrectionists,” are armed and single-minded and will know what to
do the next time Trump calls upon them to act.

Democracy will be on trial in 2024. A strong and clear-eyed president,
faced with such a test, would devote his presidency to meeting it.
Biden knows better than I do what it looks like when a president fully
marshals his power and resources to face a challenge. It doesn’t
look like this.

The midterms, marked by gerrymandering, will more than likely tighten
the GOP’s grip on the legislatures in swing states. The Supreme
Court may be ready to give those legislatures near-absolute control
over the choice of presidential electors. And if Republicans take back
the House and Senate, as oddsmakers seem to believe they will, the GOP
will be firmly in charge of counting the electoral votes.

Against Biden or another Democratic nominee, Donald Trump may be
capable of winning a fair election in 2024. He does not intend to take
that chance.

_Joe Stephens contributed research and reporting._

_This article appears in the January/February 2022
[[link removed]] print edition
with the headline “January 6 Was Practice.” It has been updated to
clarify that the group formed in 1969 was the Provisional IRA (the
original IRA was created in 1919)._

_Barton Gellman
[[link removed]] is a staff
writer at The Atlantic and the author of Dark Mirror: Edward
Snowden and the American Surveillance State
[[link removed]] and Angler: The Cheney
Vice Presidency [[link removed]]._

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