hortly after the Capitol insurrection, I wrote a piece for this blog titled “How to Tell You’re in a Guerrilla War,” suggesting that we might soon look back on January 6th as a Ft. Sumter moment, when the United States awoke to the fact that we are undeniably in a counterinsurgency against domestic terrorists who intend to continue a campaign of political violence against the legitimately elected Biden administration.
In the two months since then, we have seen more and more evidence of just how deep and dangerous that threat is.
We have learned that among the insurrectionists at the Capitol were Republican lawmakers from at least seven states and at least one serving, Trump-appointed State Department official. The percentage of insurrectionists who were current or former members of the US military was revealed to be an alarming one in five, roughly triple the representation of veterans in the general population. (Vets make up a slightly smaller percentage of the first batch of 150 people arrested and charged, about 14%, which is still about double.)
Writing in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum reports that since the election, the Bridging Divides Initiative, a group that tracks domestic political violence, has noted a steep rise in the number of local politicians and public figures besieged in their own homes by armed protestors and militia members. Public health officials have been harassed and even resigned after threats from anti-maskers, while Republican officeholders who dared criticize Trump have been subjected to death threats. As Applebaum writes, “We may never know how many more Republicans in Congress might have voted for Trump’s impeachment…had it not been for the ominous messages they were receiving online.”
Hanging over all this, of course, is the fact that one of our two major political parties is openly dedicated to spreading the Big Lie that at the heart of this insurgency: the howling falsehood that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, who is rightly still President of the United States, or should be. That lie is also being relentlessly promoted by a very well-funded right wing mediasphere, with a giant nationwide audience drinking deep from its trough every day.
This, my friends, is an explosive situation. We have to face the fact that millions of our fellow countrymen are onboard with this madness. These people deny the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency and fancy themselves freedom fighters against it. The most extreme among them believe in a batshit crazy conspiracy theory involving lizard people, a Hollywood-based ring of devil-worshipping pedophiles, and a secret alliance between Donald Trump and Robert Mueller.
Applebaum reports that “In December, 34 percent of Americans said they did not trust the outcome of the 2020 election. More recently, 21 percent said that they either strongly support or somewhat support the storming of the Capitol building. As of (late January), 32 percent were still telling pollsters that Biden was not the legitimate winner.”NPR reports that an eyebrow-raising 39% of Republicans polled did say that they believed violence might be necessary to “protect America,” however that is defined.
That there haven’t yet been additional acts of political violence does not mean the danger has passed. Far from it. In an insurgency, the actual incidents of bloodshed — assassinations, bombings, riots — can be few and far between, even as the seditious movement roils and grows beneath a surface of general calm.
And make no mistake: there will be more acts of violence by the most hardcore factions within the Trumpist underground, like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers or the Boogaloo Bois or one of the many other self-styled paramilitary militias. (Canada has already declared the Proud Boys a terrorist organization.) The collapse of Parler and the de-platforming of “alt-right” movements from Facebook, Twitter, and the like have denied them a forum — which is a good thing — but also driven them to subterranean social networks where their communications and planning are harder to track.
In a New York Times piece from late January titled “How to Defeat America’s Homegrown Insurgency,” Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq mission manager, and director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 2004–06, writes:
Three weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States might be a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency program. But that is where we are.
Given impetus and, they believed, political cover by former President Donald Trump, the capering idiots who filmed themselves in the Capitol…..may be easy to identify and arrest now, but there are others — well armed, dangerous and now forewarned — who had a glimpse of what may be possible in the political environment Mr. Trump created.
Grenier goes on to describe the long American tradition of gun-toting religious conservatives gripped with xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and general White grievance — a demographic Trump has weaponized:
(T)he extremists who seek a social apocalypse….may be relatively small, but even a small slice of a nation of over three hundred million is substantial. Without a program of effective national action, they and their new adherents are capable of producing endemic political violence of a sort not seen in this country since Reconstruction.
So yeah, guerrilla war. Not an overstatement.
For almost twenty years, the United States has been fighting a grueling military campaign against foreign-born and bred terrorism, including the grinding wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as the Frommian sacrifice of civil liberties under the USA PATRIOT Act here at home. The results have been very mixed. But at the very least by now we ought to know quite a bit about how to defeat a violent insurgency, shot through with near-medieval religious fanaticism, impervious to reason, slavishly devoted to its cult leader, and engaged in asymmetrical warfare against the USA.
So what lessons can we take from that fight that might help us win this one?
Following September 11th, the Bush administration launched what it euphemistically called the Global War on Terror, a broad international campaign that included not only the aforementioned invasions and military operations in dozens of other countries from Somalia to Niger to Yemen and beyond — many of them still going on — but also the establishment of the Guantanamo prison complex and black sites around the world, the practice of extraordinary rendition, and a radical reimagination of domestic surveillance, heightened police presence, and curtailment of civil liberties at home.
The merits of that campaign in both scope and execution is a separate debate. But the label attached to it was both deliberately deceptive (or indicative of a wrongheaded philosophy) about the strategic goal.
“Terror” or “terrorism,” of course, is not an ideology; it is a political strategy, a method of warfare, not the cause for which the war is waged. In that sense, a war on “terror” makes no more sense than a war on trenches.
A better description of the GWOT was a global War on Violent Islamist Extremism. I very deliberately use the term “Islamist,” as opposed to “Islamic,” to connote a distorted form of the Muslim faith, and to distinguish it from the legitimate, peaceful form to which the vast majority of its mainstream adherents subscribe.
One might very well say that what we are engaged in now is a domestic War on Violent Christian Extremism.
Once again, I am taking care to distinguish the foe here as the Church of Trump, one that has hijacked the name and iconography of Christianity proper and applied it to a bloodthirsty, racist political insurgency that is in diametrical opposition to the teachings of the man from Nazareth. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, if Jesus were to turn up in tomorrow and preach what he preached in Galilee, the Capitol insurrectionists would be the first to assail him as a commie and nail him to a tree.
(I have long suspect that Christian supremacists, for all their Islamophobia, sometimes secretly envy and admire the determination of the Islamists they demonize, the way feckless Democrats sometimes admire the blind obedience and unity of obstructionist Republicans. The parallels in philosophy, method, and objective between American evangelicals and Middle Eastern theocrats like the Taliban, the Shiite mullahs of Iran, or the Wahhabists of Saudi Arabia are self-evident.)
The international front of the GWOT is not over. Al Qaeda has been destroyed as a combat effective force, but successor organizations like ISIS and others remain a threat. (What happens in the coming months in Afghanistan promises to mark a fraught new evolution.) But if we want to continue with the Bush-era nomenclature and think of the Global War on Terror as a single continuous campaign, misnamed though it is, it’s clear that it has entered a new phase, one where domestic Christian terrorists, not foreign Islamist ones, are the greatest and most urgent threat, and the US homeland, rather than Fallujah or Kabul or Mogadishu, is the primary battlespace.
As warfighters like to say, you gotta worry about the crocodiles that are closest to your canoe. And in this case, they tend not to be wearing kaffiyehs, but red baseball caps.
The US Intelligence Community has repeatedly affirmed that right wing White supremacist organizations represent far and away the most prevalent, destructive and dangerous terrorist threat facing the United States.
Let’s repeat that. The counterterrorism pros — not a group known for being bleeding heart liberals — say that White nationalists represent a greater danger than ISIS, greater than Al Qaeda, greater than MS13, greater than a reunion of the surviving members of the Eagles, greater than the skate rats who hang out in front of Wawa and hassle you for change when you’re going to buy Ben & Jerry’s.
I hate being right: Oct 2020 book proposal “Win or lose, come early 2021, the United States will find itself quite possibly facing an underground of armed white men who will start waging a clandestine war against the constitution itself in the defense of the cult of Donald Trump”
Of course, the Republican Party is engaged in Olympic figure skater-style spin to try to deny that, because it is complicit in it.
Just last week FBI director Christopher Wray testified to these facts as part of the Congressional probe into the events of January 6th, even as GOP senators like John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn and Chuck Grassley dishonestly attempted to promote the lie that left-wing extremists — “antifa,” the right’s favored quasi-fictional bogeyman — are just as much a threat, and were the alleged false flag agents provocateurs behind the Capitol insurrection.
But it just ain’t so, folks, and all the Republican gaslighting in the world won’t change that.
(Josh Hawley’s big concern, meanwhile, was the FBI allegedly violating the insurrectionists’ privacy.)
Of course, it’s no wonder that Cruz, Hawley, et al would like to promulgate this illusion, given that they were personally implicated in fomenting the bloody events of that January day, and — like much of the GOP — remain accomplices in spreading Trump’s toxic lies that threaten to undermine American democracy full stop. The week before, both men were among those who voted against confirming Merrick Garland as AG, which is as you might expect, given that Merrick Garland — who prosecuted Timothy McVeigh — might soon be prosecuting them.
The GOP’s Sedition Caucus represents a very worrying turn, unprecedented in modern American history. When the House Minority Whip Steve Scalise refuses to say point blank that Joe Biden won the election, when Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley continue to sit in the US Senate instead of in the dock as criminal defendants charged with inciting an insurrection, when gun nuts and QAnon believers like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are right wing media darlings, we are in dangerous and uncharted political waters.
Donald Trump sees himself as president-in-exile, and commands a fanatical army of violent supporters who are ready at his order (or more likely, his vague, plausible-deniability-laced suggestion) to engage in paramilitary revolt against the government of the United States.
Don’t think so? Please note that Trump refuses to be referred to as a “former” president, insisting instead on being called “the 45th President of the United States”…..which is technically accurate, but insidiously implies the present tense. It’s as if the Kansas City Chiefs went around calling themselves “Super Bowl champions.” (They were….in 2020. But not this year.)
Heather Cox Richardson describes Trump’s recent appearance at CPAC, where his “supporters doubled down on the lie that Biden stole the 2020 election” while speaking “from a stage shaped like a piece of Nazi insignia.”
Trump himself packaged this lie in words that sounded much like the things he said before the January 6 insurrection. He claimed that he had won the election, that the election was “rigged”……He attacked the Supreme Court in language that echoed the attacks on his vice president, Mike Pence, that had rioters searching him out to kill him. “They didn’t have the guts or the courage to make the right decision,” Trump said of the justices.
This is not the language of a Florida retiree content to play golf and cheat on his wife. This is the language of a demagogue who incited one violent putsch, suffered no legal or political repercussions from its failure, and is now firing his followers up for another try, with the senior leadership of the Republican Party abetting the cause.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the possibility that Trump might run again in 2024. He might or he might not; we’ll see. But the idea that a garden variety presidential campaign by Trump or a Trump acolyte is our biggest worry is wildly misplaced.
Republicans have made it clear that they intend to seize power once more, through legal means or not. The 2024 election may be only windowdressing for a party that has once tried to seize power through violent means, and not only has failed to punish the seditionists, but actually bowed to them and instead censured their critics within the GOP. Do we really think that after all that, four years from now the Republican Party is going to content itself with a peaceful presidential election process that it might very well lose?
As Bill Kristol wrote in The Bulwark:
(O)ur democracy faces an internal crisis.
After all, we did just fail to have a traditionally peaceful transfer of power. One of our two major parties — having failed in a coup attempt — now claims that the current administration is illegitimately elected, the result of massive, coordinated fraud. The logical extension of this position would seem to be that the American constitutional order deserving of our allegiance no longer exists.
So we are at the edge of crisis, having repulsed one attempted authoritarian power grab and bracing for another.
Skinny-Dipping in the Dead Sea
The CIA veteran Robert Grenier proposes a three-pronged counteroffensive to fight the Trumpist insurgency.
The first and most obvious element is a law enforcement one, to find and prosecute those who have committed or are planning to commit violent acts. Pointedly, he argues we have the mechanisms to do so without abrogating civil liberties or the need to “import terrorist designations that should apply only to foreign groups beyond the reach of domestic law.”
The second prong is to isolate the far right insurgents from the support of the general population, and specifically, of mainstream or moderate Republicans who might otherwise give them cover.
The active insurrectionists are just the vanguard. In Mao’s overworked dictum, the people are the sea which the guerrilla fish swim……and in America right now, there is an ocean of right wing Know Nothingism in which the Proud Boys and their fellow travelers are doing the backstroke. Grenier:
Just as Al Qaeda in Iraq depended on a much larger community of disaffected Sunnis for tacit support and recruitment, we face the prospect of there being a mass of citizens — sullen, angry and nursing their grudges — among whom the truly violent minority will be able to live undetectably, attracting new adherents to their cause.
The fantasy that the presidency was stolen from Mr. Trump, which has gripped so much of the country, will not easily be broken. (But) We must establish, undeniably, what actually happened in the election. That requires neither new laws nor a thought police: It’s not something for the government, but for all of the nation. We must all earnestly engage in an effort to listen to others’ ideas, no matter how daft they may seem; to understand where such ideas come from, no matter how hateful the source; to meet assertion with reason and evidence, not counterassertion.
I’ll admit I am skeptical about this point. Grenier himself concedes that he is not “saying that all thoughts and ideas have equal validity: They do not.” And we all know that hardcore Trumpists are impervious to facts, no matter how respectfully conveyed.
But if I read this correctly, Grenier seems to be suggesting that if we can calmly, slowly make inroads with the more reasonable swath of Republicans (it’s a sliding scale), we can begin to deny the extremists the support and cover they need.
Maybe. But it will be hard when, per above, the GOP has become the barely legitimate political front organization for a nationwide terrorist movement. (I’d make the comparison to Sinn Fein, except that Sinn Fein was at least fighting for a defensible political goal, even if the methods that its clandestine military wing employed were questionable at best.)
Brother, Can You Aid a Crime?
When it comes to the dangers of a supportive community for would-be insurgents, the extent of White nationalism within the military is particularly concerning — so much so that the new SecDef Lloyd Austin ordered a training pause to address it. Two days of getting yelled at by the First Sergeant not to be a Klansman will not solve the problem, but it’s evidence that the Biden DOD is at least taking it seriously.
Which is good because this past week we learned that in the midst of the January 6th assault on Congress, amid desperate pleas for help from Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, from the Chief of the Capitol Police Steven Sund, and from the commander of the DC National Guard Major General William Walker, the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Lieutenant General Charles Flynn — Mike Flynn’s brother — was on the phone from the Pentagon arguing against sending in National Guardsmen, on the grounds that it wouldn’t look good.
One might say that was a purely tactical opinion and didn’t reflect any shared politics between the Flynn brothers….but why then did the Army flat out lie that Charlie Flynn was even on the call, until the truth was forced out? Doesn’t look good, fellas.
(Since then Flynn has been awarded a fourth star and a primo assignment as the commander of US Army Pacific.)
The possibility that Trumpism commands sympathy if not active allegiance from a significant chunk of the rank-and-file, to say nothing of key leaders, is understandably alarming. I was somewhat encouraged to read recently about a new movement to convince American veterans to take the credibility and “moral capital” conferred by their service and lend it to the anti-extremist cause. But last week I also learned that two friends of mine — Trump supporters — have sons headed to West Point. Of course there is no guarantee that the sons share their fathers’ views, but they very well might. And intellectually, of course, I already understood that a goodly percentage of USMA cadets might be right of center, and didn’t need this anecdotal affirmation to worry me further. But the personal nature of it really drives the point home.
Does being a Trump supporter automatically equate to being a violent seditionist? Maybe not, but it doesn’t exactly imply deep and abiding respect for the rule of law.
Preludes (Not by T.S. Eliot)
This brings us to the third prong of Mr. Grenier’s strategy, which is to destroy the influence of the insurgents’ Dear Leader, a logical pressure point when dealing with such an extreme cult of personality.
Trump, Grenier writes, has made the “transition from mere subversion of the constitutional order to open incitement of mass violence.”
By shamelessly espousing the politics of white grievance and convincing so many that he actually won re-election, Mr. Trump has created the conditions necessary for the extremists’ success. They know better than to take his recent, ritualistic admonitions against violence at face value, and so should we. He will continue to be their champion, and his self-serving lies will be their most potent enabler.
In January, Grenier suggested that a conviction in Trump’s second impeachment trial would help, calling it “not only a just punishment for his crimes but also a national security imperative.”
Ahem. No doubt.
He also noted that exoneration would have the opposite effect: “Those of us versed in counterinsurgency know that in violent extremism nothing succeeds like success, and that the opposite is also true.”
Or to put it another way, as the meme says, a failed putsch with no consequences is more correctly referred to as “a dry run.”
In the second part of this essay, coming soon, we will look at the “soft power” and “nationbuilding” sides of combatting the Trumpist insurgency, and whether it is possible to win an information war against people who don’t feel any loyalty to objective reality.