Sarah Posner has reported extensively on the Christian right, the alt-right, and QAnon, and is most recently the author of Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump.
Sarah, what’s it like to see the right-wing fantasies you’ve been reporting on for years come to life?
It’s terrifying and infuriating. While I could imagine Trump’s followers wanting to do what they did on Wednesday, I did not anticipate the catastrophic law enforcement failure. Why are these people able to jump the barricades and just storm their way into the Capitol building to live out these fantasies, as you said, that they’ve been having online for years? Even though we’ve had days to process this, it’s still mind-blowing.
Did anything seem familiar from your reporting?
I have felt that sort of evil, violent energy in other events that I’ve reported on. I was in Charlottesville. I’ve covered other neo-Nazi, white supremacist events that were much smaller and not in such a prominent place as the U.S. Capitol that did not turn violent. That kind of energy felt familiar. It’s the sort of energy that starts lynchings and pogroms. It’s just a crowd that has been primed with conspiracy theories and scapegoating. And then they’re egged on, and then they egg each other on. And then you see them pounding down the doors of the Capitol building. It’s just unreal.
I covered the event right after Trump got elected in 2016 at the Reagan building in downtown Washington, where Richard Spencer solicited Nazi salutes from the crowd. That sort of white supremacist, Nazi, 20-something, 30-something bro-in-a-suit, hostile energy was very much on display there. I think the Republican Party’s position now of saying, “Oh, Trump didn’t incite them, there were some bad apples, and we denounce the violence,” is just a complete abdication of their responsibility after they stood by while Trump encouraged this for the last five years until he had stoked them to this boiling point.
If law enforcement had paid more attention to some of the smaller events that happened, taken more seriously these people’s stated intentions, maybe they would have had the force necessary to repel them.
Are you thinking of statehouse protests, like in Michigan?
Right. I mean, there were people in Michigan who plotted to kidnap the governor and execute her. We were not not warned. Law enforcement was not not warned. The idea that you shouldn’t take their rantings on social media that seriously because they couldn’t possibly have the intention of committing those kinds of acts of violence is just preposterous, especially after what happened in Michigan.
We’ve seen some evidence that law enforcement has been infiltrated by some people who are white supremacists and neo-Nazis. But I think that even among people who don’t fall into that category, there is a sense that these guys are just knuckleheads who wouldn’t be able to get their shit together enough to carry out something this terrible.
Do you think it’s odd that once they got in there, they didn’t seem to know what they were doing? They were milling around. What were they thinking when they were in there? What did they think was going to happen?
I think there were a couple of different categories of people. Some of them got in there and were just, “What am I going to do now? I think I’ll steal Nancy Pelosi’s lectern or go sit at her desk.” But there’s emerging evidence that some people knew exactly what they were doing. There was a report in Politico about people who seemed to know where Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s office was. Not his office that’s open to the public where his constituents can come talk to him, but another office that he works in, that an ordinary citizen wouldn’t know where it is. They seem to have found it and stolen his iPad. So, there’s a growing sense among some Democratic members that some of the people who overran the Capitol actually knew where they were going and what they were looking for. Although, I will grant you that the people who posted the videos and photos of themselves on social media and in the past couple of days have been arrested for doing more random acts of vandalism perhaps didn’t have a strong sense of what their purpose was.
And what will they do with the contents of Jim Clyburn’s iPad?
It’s a national security nightmare that I think we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of because we don’t know fully what else they stole. I mean, that guy was in Nancy Pelosi’s office for some time. We don’t know what other offices they were able to infiltrate. A lot more is going to eventually come out.
Let’s talk about the QAnon piece specifically. You’ve written a column for us about QAnon’s anti-Semitism but tell us a little more. Like, the guy in the horns. What was that about?
Well, he’s a fairly well-known QAnon figure from Arizona who just misappropriates a bunch of different cultural symbols to dress up in this weird outfit. You see a lot of that at right-wing events—people who’ll either dress up in some Viking outfit or some other kind of medieval figure, Knights Templar, that sort of thing. They attempt to claim that Vikings or other figures from the Middle Ages represent whiteness and white supremacy and justify reviving white supremacy in 21st century America. It’s very screwed up and crazy. Somebody like that obviously stands out in those photographs, and he’s been arrested by the FBI. But then there was another photograph of a guy from Des Moines, Iowa, who was also arrested, who was at the front of a group of people storming at this Black Capitol Police officer. He was wearing a T-shirt with Q and the QAnon motto on it.
I think QAnon was a significant driver of a lot of the people who showed up there. It crosses different realms of the right. It crosses over into evangelical Christianity. It crosses over into these openly Nazi and white supremacist realms, and in a lot of ways it was the common thread. The woman who was shot and later died trying to break into the speaker’s lobby, Ashli Babbitt—she was an avid QAnon adherent, believing that there is a deep state that was out to get Trump, of Satanic pedophiles who were trying to undermine Trump’s presidency and who stole the election from him. These people became unhinged by the idea that they needed to save America from that deep state, from the traitors who had stolen it from Trump.
Do you think if they found Congresspeople or Senators, they would have done something violent? Is that in their playbook?
Yes. I think we were very close to a mass casualty event. I have no doubt about it.
There was a report about somebody arrested outside the Capitol area, but I think near his DC hotel, he had hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his car and several weapons. Several automatic weapons. He had kept them in his car, his trailer, because he knew that the DC law is you cannot carry a gun without a license. Nonetheless, he had texted friends or posted on social media that he wanted to shoot Nancy Pelosi in the head or run her down with a car. Which, of course, was the same playbook as in Charlottesville, where a Nazi ran down Heather Heyer with a car. The car-ramming is definitely a thing in these far-right circles. These people openly expressed their intention to assassinate Pelosi and even assassinate Pence, who supposedly is their ally.
Where does Christian right-wing ideology fit into all this, if at all?
Well, you saw people praying or exhibiting other signs of purporting to be Christian. I think what we’re seeing now is a spilling over into evangelical circles of a combination of QAnon and that more generalized sense among Trump supporters that the election was stolen from him, the belief in the election fraud lies, and that Antifa, or the far left, or the socialists, or the Squad, or whoever their enemies are, are trying to steal the election from Donald Trump. And so how much that gets mixed in with all of this, it’s really hard to say. The insurrectionists who actually broke down the barricades and went inside the Capitol, where were they radicalized? We don’t know for sure. Because a lot of this rhetoric is being put out there by Christian right organizations or Christian right leaders or evangelical pastors or televangelists and so forth. That the election was stolen was an article of faith—literally—for months. And because the Christian right has seen Trump and created this iconography around Trump that he is a divinely anointed president whose enemies are literally Satanic. This is why the QAnon conspiracy theory played so prominently among evangelicals, why it was so easy for them to absorb it. The idea that the enemies of their anointed leader were Satanic or pedophiles, which is something that they have long thought about Muslims and homosexuals, fit very easily into their worldview.
I don’t know that we have a lot of reporting on the actual religious beliefs of the people who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, but there’s no doubt in my mind that people in evangelical circles, and also I would say some right-wing Catholic circles, were inundated with this kind of propaganda about Trump being a divine figure and his enemies being Satanic. When people act the way they did on January 6, you can’t ignore the fact that they’ve been indoctrinated for four and a half years with the idea that Trump is somebody that God put in the White House.
You’ve written about how, when he didn’t win the election, initially that posed quite a challenge to “Q” and the prophecies, and they had to sort of reboot.
Well, when he didn’t win re-election, the “Q” conspiracy theory kicked into high gear because, if he didn’t win, that must mean that there was some deep state conspiracy to steal it from him. The thing about these kinds of conspiracy theories is that they’re retooled for every new development. The retooling now is the attempt to say that it wasn’t really Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, but rather Antifa who stormed the Capitol and they were posing as MAGA people. Even though the FBI has said there’s no evidence that Antifa was involved with this in any way, that doesn’t matter. I was reading a newsletter of a Christian right organization over the weekend and they had a lengthy discussion of how at least some of the people who were in the Capitol on Wednesday were Antifa posing as MAGA.
So that’s incorporated into the faith?
Talk about how anti-Semitism plays into all this. You mention conspiracy theories constantly changing to fit the new situation. That’s something that’s often pointed out about anti-Semitic tropes. Where does that fit in with QAnon?
Anti-Semitism has always been a key part of these white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements in the United States that we now lump together as the alt-right. Their central idea is that diversity is causing white genocide, and one of their big grievances is that Jews get so much advantage from that: “They get to say that Hitler tried to wipe them out, but what about us? We’re the ones who are being deprived of our homeland.” That morphs into Holocaust denial. Like, “Germans are always having to apologize for the Holocaust, but the Holocaust didn’t really happen. The gas chambers were used for delousing,” etc. All the oldest Holocaust denial tropes in the book. I’ve had people I’ve interviewed at events say that to me. That the gas chambers weren’t used to kill people, or that six million Jews didn’t really die. And comments like “Why do we always have to constantly be apologizing for the Holocaust? What’s happening to white people in America is the actual genocide.” That’s always been a core of it.
So, when you have an event like Wednesday, January 6th, it’s inevitable that you’re going to find people who are advancing those kinds of anti-Semitic tropes. Everyone saw the photograph of the guy with the sweatshirt that said Camp Auschwitz. That wasn’t surprising at all to me because that’s such a core feature of their ideology. We shouldn’t lose sight of how, in the immediate days or even minutes that the riot was going on, the election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia further incited these people, who were already racist and anti-Semitic, and the idea that those two candidates got elected in the Deep South, I’m sure, was also part of the equation that we haven’t really explored. It wasn’t really fully articulated by the rioters themselves, but I can’t help but think that that was part of what was happening.
I suspect that some of these people don’t even know the calculus of who controls the Senate and that control of the Senate hinged on that election. It’s just the idea that a Black man and a Jewish man in the Deep South got elected.
Just to make this more complicated, there were occasional Israeli flags spotted. Not in the Capitol, per se, but in the demonstrations that then became riots. Is there an element of the Jewish far-right involved in this, too? And if so, how does that work?
There was reporting on a young man who participated in the riots at the Capitol who turned out to be the son of a prominent state supreme court judge in New York. I don’t know what was going on there. I suspect that the Israeli flags were carried by Christian Zionists. This is a huge thing in evangelical circles, that Trump has been the most pro-life, the most pro-religious freedom, and the most pro-Israel president ever. For a lot of these people, their messianic ideas of Trump are very bound up in Israel as well. There is rarely an evangelical event that doesn’t have somebody carrying an Israeli flag or boasting some other kind of symbol, blowing a shofar, for example, or wearing a Star of David.
How does that coexist with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories?
A lot of evangelicals who have fallen for the QAnon conspiracy theory would not recognize that it is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory because they’re just not familiar with, say, the blood libel. I mean, the blood libel is the heart of the QAnon conspiracy theory: That Christians, or righteous people, righteous Americans, are being prevented from holding power by people who literally abuse and murder children. But I doubt very much that evangelical Christians who buy into it recognize it as an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, mostly because they’re not very well-educated about anti-Semitism, and they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that all anti-Semitism comes from the left and is found in just being either anti-Israel or critical of the Israeli government’s policies. There’s very little willingness to acknowledge that within Trump’s base of support there are a lot of right-wingers who are virulently anti-Semitic. They would consider that fake news. I think, say, the Camp Auschwitz T-shirt, they would either say that that’s fake news or that he was just some weird outlier who doesn’t really represent Trump’s base.
How are they going to incorporate these events into their worldview?
I think they will view Wednesday, January 6th, as a day of great victory and triumph because they were able to actually get in and occupy the Capitol for a while. They will view Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot and later died, as a martyr. And they will come back. Not just to Washington, but probably to governors’ mansions and statehouses. I think the genie is out of the bottle in terms of the violent people unless law enforcement just completely cracks down on them and arrests people before they’re actually able to do things. It’s very scary, because these people, they’ve been let loose.
Is there any segment of this community that will be shocked and horrified by this and get off the bus? Will it be a smaller group after this?
I don’t know. The belief that the election was stolen from Trump runs so deep now. Because people who live in the Fox News, Newsmax, OAN ecosystem have heard nothing else. It’s taken on a life of its own. It’s almost like they don’t need Trump anymore. He’s fulfilled his mission in a way. They don’t need him to incite them anymore—they’re already incited. He’s done what he set out to do.
The people who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday believe that they’re acting on his behalf. So, Twitter banning him only makes them feel more aggrieved. The belief that Silicon Valley and big tech are censoring conservatives and only conservatives, those conspiracy theories have also been running rampant through the right for the last four years. He doesn’t have the ability to send out a tweet and instigate to 80 some million people or to put a post on Facebook that can be shared hundreds or thousands or millions of times. But just the fact that he can’t do it, for a lot of people, itself will be an inciting event.
Do you think Trump has a future going to some other platform and starting to lead these people again?
Only if he can make money doing it.
What comes next? What are you reporting on right now?
I’m tracking mostly the Christian right reaction to this because they are the constituency that made Trump’s election possible. They are basically the core of the Republican Party. How they grapple with what happened on Wednesday is going to be very interesting. I think there is an element of, as we said, blaming it on Antifa or fake news or what have you. But I think the stronger strand that’s emerging right now is the idea that those people who stormed the Capitol don’t represent us, Trump was the greatest president ever, and he did not incite them.
At least they think it’s a problem.
Right, but they don’t think it’s their problem.
Do you think there are any people of goodwill in those groups who will just say, “Enough”?
There will be. But will it be enough? And will it be a critical mass of them? I don’t know.
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