January 6 Was Practice
The Atlantic|January - February 2022
Donald Trump is better positioned to subvert an election now than he was in 2020.
By Barton Gellman. Photographs by Philip Montgomery and 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 voters.

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.

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, 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!” Trump gloated at the retirement announcement of Representative Adam Kinzinger, one of 10 House Republicans to vote for his second impeachment.

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 cause.

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.”

Patterson is misinformed on that latter point. Of the more than 600 defendants, 78 are in custody when we speak. Most of those awaiting trial in jail are charged with serious crimes 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. (Mc Kellop 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 in.”

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 since September 11, 2001? That at least 151 officers from the Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Department suffered injuries, 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.

“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 idea.”

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

“You can look up this name,” he says. “Retired three-star Air Force General Mc Inerney. 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 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 twoand two together. It stood to reason. In truth, prosecutors had caught and charged a neo-Nazi sympathizer who had video taped 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 saying.”

I tell all of this and more to Patterson. McInerney, the Military Times reported, “went off the rails” 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, which got the total number of voters wrong.

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 story.

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 Miloševic.

Back in June 1989, Pape had been a postdoctoral fellow in political science when the late president of Serbia delivered a notorious speech. Miloševic 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 Miloševic 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.

Miloševic, 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 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 Miloševic, 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 strategy 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 sympathizers?

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 insurgents.

“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 atypical.

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 all.

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.”

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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine