“We patriots ought to be in that building,” Bill Dunphy, a preacher from Ohio who had just led a group in prayer, told me on January 6th, 2021, pointing at the Capitol rotunda. “That building belongs to us. That building belongs to We the People. They work for us. And here we are, barred to the point that we can’t even stand on, get on the property, within what, 120 yards?”
I shivered, burrowing into my white parka. Between this preacher and the United States Congress were dozens of Capitol Police officers, several black S.U.V.s, and lots of metal fencing. I worked for Politico at the time and was credentialed to enter the building, so I was familiar with the intense security procedures, as befit a theater of government, which I explained to him. But Dunphy shook his head incredulously. “The bottom line is, there’s enough of us to decide to move on into that building. They don’t have enough security to stop us.”
That was a refrain that I’d continue to hear for the rest of that infamous day, and it wouldn’t have been unusual, given the horror that we all know eventually unfolded, save for one thing: I heard this at 9:56 AM, hours before someone first charged the gates into the Capitol at 12:53 PM. In fact, I’d been stationed at the Capitol for that entire morning, initially filing a story with my colleague, Daniel Lippman, about Trump supporters harassing lawmakers as they showed up for work. Our first draft had been sent to our editors roughly 25 minutes before the first gate was breached (and was, naturally, never published). Dunphy’s desire to storm the gates was shocking, but not surprising to me. As someone who covered the politics of the far right, I’d been hearing about this obsession over and over for some time. For years, actually, and certainly for the previous months.
The grassroots flank of the Republican Party, after all, has been obsessed with occupying government buildings ever since the early days of the Tea Party in 2009. Over the past year of the pandemic, and increasingly after the November election, armed right-wing militias began aiming their ire at the government by protesting in front of—and sometimes, inside—state buildings. Dunphy had been urging his audience to avoid cheering on Donald Trump at the Ellipse because it was a “distraction,” in his words, from the real action inside Congress. He spoke openly and admiringly about the two-month period, a decade ago, when 100,000 labor activists occupied Wisconsin’s State Capitol building.
Dunphy’s draconian “we the people” sentiment mirrored what I’d heard relentlessly for weeks, months, years. But I didn’t quite think about the implications of his full statement until this summer, when I bought a very good white hybrid sedan (45 highway miles per gallon), packed it to the brim, and bailed from Washington, D.C. for what was supposed to be a two month road trip across the country. It was obvious that the real political story was going on far outside Washington—so far, in fact, that the traditional media was taken largely off-guard by a riot on its front steps. My plan was to use the trip to hone my instincts.
But when I left Washington, it quickly became clear that the dark, wild political fantasy that was realized for some on the right during January 6 only fueled an insatiable appetite for more. It was strange and Orwellian, and it offered a glimpse into what is coming next.
I grew up, to some extent, in the conservative movement, having come of age during the early days of the modern right in 2008. As an activist, I attended the 2008 Churchill Dinner at the Claremont Institute, back when it was still a hotbed of neoconservatism; eight years later, as a journalist, I covered Claremont again when the venerable think tank broke with its academic past by declaring allegiance to Trump. The experience has helped me report on the rise of the far right, the growing chatter about invoking the Insurrection Act to reverse election results, the increasing prevalence of militias, the rapid spread of the #StopTheSteal hashtag, and, finally, the near-religious fervor that engulfed the thousands of Trump supporters who descended on the Capitol on January 6th to prevent the peaceful transition of power.
But it took me leaving the East Coast, after more than a year of being locked inside the incest pit of Washington D.C., to begin to understand the terrifying extent to which separate portions of the country, and culture, have become fully polarized. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the shifting physical signposts that anticipate the hairpin turn from one political reality to another: Black Lives Matter posters disappear from storefronts, Blue Lives Matter flags pop up. You meet a traveling Texas couple at a campground and are regaled with the tale of the “Let’s Go Brandon” sign on their mother’s roof, which used to be red, but now has turned pink. (It was made in China.) Next thing you know, you’re standing next to a maskless man sporting a Punisher t-shirt and Three Percent tattoos, toting an AR-15 in the lobby of a Comfort Inn, and you’re not sure if the truck outside with the “Trump Won, Get Over It” bumper sticker belongs to him or someone else.
Many people I encountered were utterly convinced that the election had, indeed, been stolen. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I mingled with hundreds of the MAGA faithful at Mike Lindell’s harebrained Cyber Symposium, in which the MyPillow C.E.O. attempted to present evidence that China had hacked into voting machines during the 2020 presidential election. In rural Washington State, I attended a Patriot Church sermon in which the pastor compared Biden to King Ahab and Kamala Harris to Jezebel. In Tulsa, I met the new chairman of Oklahoma’s G.O.P., an ex-Marine who is trying to oust Republican Senator James Lankford for failing to indulge Trump’s most delusional voter fraud fantasies.
More profound, however, were the masses of ordinary people who felt compelled to confide in me their sense that something was fundamentally, irredeemably wrong with Trump out of power. There were the usual partisan complaints: Rising gas prices in Arizona? Biden’s fault. Empty supermarket shelves in Spokane? Biden’s fault. Omicron? Labor shortage? Rising crime? Of course, people always blame the sitting president for anything that goes awry in their lives, most of all when they’re members of the opposing party. But among many of them, especially those who have rejected establishment media for red-pill alternatives, I began to detect darker, more conspiratorial undercurrents.
The further I drove away from D.C.’s high-powered zip codes, the more I saw how elite conservative institutions—not only Fox News and the G.O.P., but also bomb-throwers like Tucker Carlson, were late to their own ball game. I was intrigued by Carlson’s November documentary about how January 6th wasn’t as bad as everyone claimed—not by the fact he’d produced it at all, but that it had taken him so long to catch up with the trends on the right, where the insurrection was consistently downplayed. At the Cyber Symposium, a speaker accused Carlson of not joining their side immediately, predicting that he would, eventually, join their movement out of opportunism: “[He] knows which way the wind blows.”
Perhaps most telling, I found, was the extent to which even Fox News, an outlier among cable news for its anti-mask hostility, had failed to keep pace with the velocity of Covid-inspired paranoia enveloping the far right. The conservative network reported dutifully on lockdown protests and anti-mandate uprisings sweeping the country, but unlike during the Trump years, its double-vaxxed anchors in New York and Washington seemed to be chasing after the grassroots rather than inspiring it.
Early on in my trip, I met a MAGA podcaster who was attending the Cyber Symposium. We chatted for a bit outside the building (he seemed nice), and after we wrapped our conversation, I turned to enter the building and started to pull my mask back on. I wouldn’t do that if I were you, he warned me. People won’t talk to you if you wear that. Five months ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about donning my mask before stepping into the hallway outside my apartment to take out the trash—we were, and still are, in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than 800,000 people. But when one’s beat is the Republican multiverse, the simple act of wearing a mask while reporting is like flashing an A.O.C. tattoo. During my travels, I’ve had people hand me pamphlets detailing why masks don’t work, when they’re not screaming in my face. I’ve had QAnon influencers tell me that they can’t trust mask-wearers, or, if they’re kinder, warn me not to wear a mask in front of others. After the sermon at the Patriot Church, a woman thanked me for not wearing a mask in her presence.
But if a mask betrays your bias, being vaccinated is, in certain circles, akin to being an undercover suicide bomber. Indeed, in an era when a majority of Republicans see no reason to investigate the Jan. 6 riot, vaccination has become the one issue that consistently divides germ-wary party elders (yes, even the Trumpists) from an increasingly fanatical base. The more measured stance—I don’t particularly care if you get the vaccine, just don’t make me get one—reflects an increasingly rare, anti-mandate libertarianism. Meanwhile, rabid conspiracy theories about how they’re trying to take control of us abound in the concentric circles of Mike Lindell and America’s Frontline Doctors supporters, who also happen to be the biggest proponents of the “stolen election” theory. (One prominent member, Judy Mikovits, has been on a campaign to educate the MAGA masses about “vaccine shedding,” which can, according to the discredited former research scientist, cause infertility in the people around them.)
This insanity has even outpaced Trump, who was remarkably consistent in an interview with the anti-vax commentator Candace Owens: “Look, the results of the vaccine are very good, and if you do get it, it’s a very minor form,” Trump told Owens. “People aren’t dying when they take the vaccine.” After a crowd booed him when he said he’d taken the booster during an interview with Bill O’Reilly, Trump doubled down, adding that Project Warp Speed had started during his administration and had succeeded in creating a vaccine quickly. (“There’s a very tiny crowd over there,” he said, regarding the jeering.)
The reasons behind Trump’s boosterism are unknowable. It could be motivated by narcissism over someone taking credit for Project Warp Speed, or a newfound concern for the health of the general public, or, as Allahpundit at Hot Air suggested, a political calculation to appeal to a coalition of vaccinated swing voters, vaccinated Republicans, and forgiving Trump superfans in the event that Ron DeSantis attempts to challenge him in two years.
Regardless, Trump’s vaccine advocacy suggests that the former president, despite his command of the G.O.P., could find himself out of step with the Republican base. While even anti-mask protesters will sometimes wear masks themselves, a substantial portion of self-identifying Republicans refuse to get the jab. On the ground, a growing number of Republican states are beginning to recognize this constituency: at the moment, people who refuse the vaccine and lose their jobs are now eligible for jobless benefits in five G.O.P.-led states, with several more potentially following suit. A smaller but still significant number are suspicious, if not outwardly hostile, to those who are vaccinated. Responses to learning my status—I’m boosted to the heavens—have run the gamut from well, it’s your choice to genuine concern for my future health.
The insurgents who stormed the Capitol a year ago have helped divide our two parties by the widest chasm in generations. But the reality is that while the MAGA wing of the G.O.P. wants to take on the Democrats, it will attempt to eat its own first. Some time ago, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that if the Republicans took the House in the midterms, as is predicted, she and her ideological allies would rally against Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive future Speaker of the House. “He doesn’t have the votes that are there, because there’s many of us that are very unhappy about the failure to hold Republicans accountable, while conservatives like me, Paul Gosar, and many others just constantly take the abuse by the Democrats,” she told Rep. Matt Gaetz on his podcast back in November, adding: “The American people aren’t going to have it.”
While I’m not quite sure about whether enough MAGA candidates will win primaries against incumbent Republicans, and then win races against Democrats, and then side with her during Speaker elections, I think the second part of Greene’s statement is absolutely true. Sure, there are Glenn Youngkin-types who win gubernatorial races in swing states, and Democrats who can win their seats by hewing to the center. But if the trends I’m seeing on the road continue—if more extreme candidates try to unseat Republicans they view as insufficiently populist, if more MAGA-leaning activists take over state parties and win local elections and overtake school boards and become Secretaries of State—the red states are not just turning redder: they’re turning into sun-bleached, Let’s Go Brandon-flag pink.
Maybe that won’t happen immediately, and in some cases, maybe it won’t happen at all. After all, incumbents have the benefits of name recognition, longstanding relationships in their respective communities, and the flexibility to dabble in MAGA-speak, if needed. And perhaps deplatforming these figures from social networks with massive market shares, like Twitter, does work. Frankly, at the moment I can’t predict how these midterm primaries are going to go, either in swing states or in red ones. And apart from this week, not many people I’ve met on the road are talking about election fraud.
But, similar to what Dunphy, the preacher, noted a year ago, the numbers don’t lie. There’s still enough people out there to turn people against Biden and therefore the Democrats. Life still sucks here in West Texas, where I’m writing this piece: there’s still a labor shortage, there’s still obscenely high gas prices, and there’s a lot of restaurants and businesses closed because Omicron has, finally, come rushing inward from the coasts.
I have the feeling it’ll be equally bad when I drive back to D.C. through Tennessee and Arkansas, where I’m supposed to meet people for dinner, and they’re stubbornly insisting that we go to a restaurant, because Fuck covid. And the moment I return to D.C., to quarantine myself in a stupid luxury condo, shopping at the Whole Foods that’s right down the street from my apartment, I worry that whatever tactile knowledge I’ve gained will not be enough to keep up with where politics will go, how unhinged it will become—or how fast we’ll get there.