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BONUS: Reflections on the January 6th Insurrection

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BONUS: Reflections on the January 6th Insurrection

On the one year anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, we’re sharing clips from six Burn the Boats interviews that delve into the causes and consequences of the attack.

Here are the guests featured in this Bonus episode, with links to their full interviews:

  1. Anne Nelson, an award-winning war correspondent and author.
  2. Congressman Jason Crow, who was in the House Gallery during the attack
  3. Christian Picciolini, a former leader in the American white power movement who now works in extremism prevention
  4. Kris Goldsmith, an Army combat veteran who is currently the CEO of an intelligence firm that specializes in the disrupting domestic extremism campaigns
  5. Dr. Kathleen Belew, the nation’s foremost expert on the involvement of military veterans in the white power movement
  6. Fred Wellman, the former Executive Director of the Lincoln Project, a PAC founded by former and present Republicans with the goal of defeating “Trumpism.”

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Rep. Jason Crow:

That happened as a result of many folks over months and even years furthering conspiracy theories, retelling and supporting the big lie. And people that know better, people that know it wasn't true still telling the big lie because it helped their own personal politics and their desire for power. And it worked people up into that frenzy.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.

Today we’ll be reflecting on the January 6th insurrection. From members of Congress, to journalists, to terrorism experts, we’ve had a number of guests on Burn the Boats speak about the attack. In order to better contextualize it, and explain what it could mean for our democracy, we’ve gathered clips from six different interviews that delve into the causes and consequences of the insurrection.

Our first clip is from my interview with Anne Nelson, who is an award-winning war correspondent and author. In this segment, she explains what was happening behind the scenes in the lead-up to the insurrection.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you talk about what was going on inside the White House, after the election, and then the run-up to January 6th and in particular that December 18 meeting.

Anne Nelson:

Well, I feel that the absolute moment of crystallization was the telephone call between Donald Trump and Brad Raffensperger in Georgia. Raffensperger was a Republican state official charged with certifying the vote in Georgia. He went to every length to count the votes correctly, and it was not the outcome he wanted, but what he found was that Biden had won Georgia indeed by some 11,000 votes. And they counted and recounted and triple counted and that was the result. Well, what you had was Trump getting on the phone with Raffensperger, along with Cleta Mitchell, who is a high ranking member of The Council for National Policy, and she's a lawyer who is expert in challenging electoral outcomes that are not to their liking. And Trump bullied Raffensperger and referred to Cleta Mitchell and said, "Find me 11,000 votes." And Raffensperger said, "They're not there. I can't fabricate votes for you Mr. President."

Now, in the aftermath you've had Raffensperger personally threatened, his family has been threatened, and there has been an ongoing situation where election officials in Georgia have been driven into hiding by threats against their lives and against their families, and you have this going on in other states, too. So you have this overt practice of trying to pass voter suppression bills in Republican legislatures. You also have a subterranean process where people are being threatened online, and in other ways, for simply carrying out their duties in democracy. This is going on in multiple states, it's going on on the state level, it's also going on down to the school board level. And you've got various paramilitary groups emerging, where ... Again, I don't think that there's a hierarchy where there's command and control at the top. I do feel that the disruption is being sewn across many platforms, and that the goal is to disrupt our entire process. And it's showing signs of working.

Ken Harbaugh:

In this clip, Congressman Jason Crow talks about being in the House Gallery during the attack, He was hailed by his colleagues in Congress as “one of the heroes of that day” for his actions guiding fellow members to safety.

Ken Harbaugh: Well, the accounts of January 6 from where you were and interviews with you report that you were preparing to fight, you were gearing up to do battle should anyone make it inside that chamber.

Rep. Jason Crow: Yeah, I was. As those who have been in combat or in fight or flight situations like that know, there's a certain change in you that you go through when you convert into that mode when you're preparing for a fight potentially in a life and death situation. And I converted back into that. I hadn't been in that kind of scenario and mindset in well over 15 years, but got back into it very quickly. And there was a moment where I was thinking about asking those officers for his gun, because if that mob had broken thro ugh the door, it would have been very, very ugly. And I was prepared to do what I needed to do to defend my colleagues and try to get us out of there alive.

Ken Harbaugh:

You get a lot of credit for that from your colleagues. There are, gosh, hundreds of images that are seared into the collective consciousness from that day, but one of them for me really stands out. And it's of you behind, I think, a bench comforting one of your colleagues, Representative Wild from Pennsylvania. What were you thinking at that moment? Can you, I guess, first of all, since this is a podcast, can you describe that image and then talk us through what was going through your head?

Rep. Jason Crow: Yeah. So what was happening at that point? There was about two dozen, roughly two dozen members of Congress who had been trapped in the House gallery. And the House gallery is that seating area up above the House floor. They had already evacuated everybody from the House floor, but they didn't evacuate us. We were trapped up there because it's a separate entrance and the mob had already overtaken the stairwell and that part. So we were there and we had locked the doors. The main doors on the floor of the chamber had been barricaded. The police had their guns drawn. The mob was surrounding us and they were trying to ram the doors down. We could hear the bangs as they were breaking the glass and trying to break through the doors. We heard a gunshot in the speaker's lobby as one of the officers killed one of the rioters. And that was what was going on. We were up there. I didn't know how we were going to make it out. I was preparing to fight and I saw Susan had just got off of FaceTiming her son. And she was very distraught, so I just reached out and grabbed her hand and held it and told her that I was going to do everything necessary to make sure she was safe. And we made it out of there.

Ken Harbaugh:

Is there a community of support among those of you who lived through that? I've been in similar situations and it bonds you in a way that frankly, no one wishes to be connected to another person, but it's kind of an inseverable bond forever.

Rep. Jason Crow:

Yeah, it is, Ken. And as you know well, those foxhole friendships are very deep and very strong. And we have come together as a group. So that group of members, we actually have called ourselves The Gallery Group and have this chat group that we are on. We chat with each other pretty frequently via text almost every day. We've gotten together to bond over the experience. And we've had a couple of Zooms as well, and we have really come together. It’s a group of members that we all have come from very different backgrounds, very different districts, have different politics as well. But we're always going to be bonded over that moment. And that's a really important thing. And obviously veterans are going to understand that I think in a really unique way.

Ken Harbaugh:

As encouraging as that sounds, it's got to be complicated by the fact that there were members in the House that day who, if not complicit in what happened, certainly abetted it in their words, if not deeds. That's got to really affect the working environment.

Rep. Jason Crow:

Yeah. Well, that might be the understatement of the year, Ken. It's hard. It's really hard. And there's a couple of things I think listeners should understand about that day. One is those rioters, those insurrectionists, I think the vast majority of them truly believed that the election had been stolen despite the fact that all the evidence points to the contrary and 60 plus courts just unilaterally dismissed the lawsuits. They believed the big lie that they had been told. And of course, that drove them to attack the Capitol that day. So that's number one. Number two is that that doesn't happen on its own, right? It doesn't happen overnight. That happened as a result of many folks over months and even years furthering conspiracy theories, retelling and supporting the big lie. And people that know better, people that know it wasn't true still telling the big lie because it helped their own personal politics and their desire for power. And it worked people up into that frenzy. That's a hard realization to come to. And then the second piece is that this is our place of work, right? And just imagine, if you will, to the listeners out there today, just imagine being at your business, your place of work, and it's violently attacked by a mob, police officers are killed, over 140 brutally beaten. The mob was trying to take your life and they came very close to doing it. And then afterwards, your colleagues, the people you work with, not only had they incited and helped further that mob, but they continue to support it. And then they even try to bring guns themselves into the place of work and continue to make threats and intimidate folks. And your employer can't do anything about it. Can't fire those people. Can't take really any corrective measures. That's kind of the scenario that we're facing in Congress. And it's very, very difficult.



Ken Harbaugh:

In this interview with Christian Picciolini, we talk about his experience as a former leader in the American white power movment. He now runs the Free Radicals Project, which is dedicated to extremism prevention and disengagement.

Ken Harbaugh:

The January 6th insurrection was just such a confusing cacophony. On one hand, you had the neo-Nazis there, and the people wearing Auschwitz T-shirts. On the other, you had people who said they were there out of love for their country. I'm just trying to reconcile the two. The father, for example, who told his kids that he might not come back, but he was going to storm the Capitol for them. I don't know what to do about that. How do you combat that kind of zealousness?

Christian Picciolini:

The vision of America that they're fighting for is one that was promoted to them by extremist groups. The fact that they've been now fooled into thinking that's being taken away is very scary and very real for them. It's important to paint that all those groups that we saw there, while they seem very different, are all very adjacent to each other. Whether we're talking about Q-Anon, or Proud Boys, or Neo-Nazis, or the Oath Keepers, and 3%ers and militia groups, or even the ultra-conservative Trump supporters that were there. They're all adjacent to each other. While they may not believe the same thing that the Holocaust didn't happen, or that the Jews control t he world like some of those groups believe, they're starting to overlap now. The sources of their propaganda is very central. It's starting to become much, much better at curating propaganda for those in each group, while allowing them to overlap a little bit. So they don't see a problem standing next to them. You would think, "Why is a Republican standing next to a guy in a Camp Auschwitz shirt and okay with that?" That's because they see themselves not as the same, but as allies in this fight against this corrupt secret government. This is part of the DNA of white supremacists and extremists. It is all eventually leading to the point of trying to attempt the collapse of the government and democracy.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think it's almost as if what binds these groups is not so much what they believe, but who their enemy is. They are defined by a common enemy.

Christian Picciolini:

And fueled by uncertainty.

Ken Harbaugh:

And fueled by uncertainty. If you draw that out, the inevitable conclusion is that they're defined by hate.

Christian Picciolini:

Right. If you ask Q-Anon, or maybe Republicans who is the enemy, they'll say the Deep State. Or Democrats, or liberals. If you ask Nazis who the enemy is, it's that same Deep State, but it's the Jews and the Deep State. Yes, you're correct in saying that it is all about this common enemy, that's now a very general enemy as just the other that's not them. It's always underpinned and fueled by this uncertainty, fake news, propaganda, false facts. Pandemic really fueled that, because now it created an avenue for more uncertain narratives about vaccines and who created it, this and that. Extremism always thrives in uncertainty. Right now, that really is the key ingredient driving all of this.

Ken Harbaugh:

A lot of folks look at January 6th and they say, "Glad that's over. That was a wake up call. We're going to round these folks up." I assume that's not how you see it.

Christian Picciolini:

No, that's not how I see it. I think what the world saw on January 6th was just the very, very tip of a very large iceberg. One that we can't see because we still can't agree on if we have a problem. One that I think is going to really cause the next 10 or 20 years to be very, very difficult for not just the United States, but the world. There is a growing trans-national fascism that is coalescing right now. Whereas, in the past, countries like Poland or Germany had a very nationalistic view, they're now dropping that and seeing their unity as the white race. What's happening across Europe, and what's happening in the United States with all of these adjacent groups coming together under the same enemy, even though you ask a Q-Anon person if they like a Nazi and they'll say no. You ask a Nazi if they like a Q-Anon person, they'll say they're crazy. They're still working together in this common cause. So I think what we're seeing is a very scary rise of extremism and fascism over the next 10 years, that if we're not careful, right this very moment about doing something about correcting it, it's going to be very dangerous for us.

Ken Harbaugh:

You're not alone in this assessment. What does the FBI say?

Christian Picciolini:

The FBI says this is the greatest domestic threat at the moment. They're also seeing a trans-national connection. I would say that historically people within DHS and the FBI, in the past, have also raised this flag as far back as 2006 and nothing was really done about it. The words are great, but I need to see action, that this is actually being taken seriously. Right now, we're still, again, arguing whether white supremacy is a problem or not.

Ken Harbaugh:

Here I talk to Kris Goldsmith about how veterans in particular can become indoctrinated into hate groups via the internet. Kris is an Army Combat veteran who served in Iraq, but he is currently the CEO of Sparverius, an intelligence firm that specializes in the detection and disruption of domestic extremism and disinformation campaigns.

Kris Goldsmith:

Yeah. So, my introduction to extremism within the military and veterans communities came through my introduction to disinformation. So after a few years of being a veteran's advocate, I was eventually hired by Vietnam Veterans America, a major congressionally chartered veteran service organization. And the average member, the average employee at the time was in their early to mid 70s. And being a millennial, I was helping communication staff with their social media. And in doing that, I came across a fake version of our organization that was actually much more successful online than we were. This is an organization that's older than I am. And it's had a Facebook presence up to that point for 10 years. And this fake version of the organization, which was using the name, and using our logo, and pictures of the president of the organization on their Facebook page had over a quarter of a million followers when I found it.

And one of the things that made their growth so fast was that they were using our real veterans organizations image, presence, personality to push things like racist political commentary. And they were producing original pieces of propaganda, like a real news clip about a veterans monument being vandalized. They would racialize it, and take that 58 second clip, and turn it into a four hour thing on repeat, taking advantage of Facebook's algorithm. So that they get hundreds of thousands of views and stirring people up into fighting about the value of black veterans. They were sending out messages that were directly contradictory to, not just VBA, but all veterans service organizations.

We, in veteran service organizations, have served alongside undocumented immigrants. One of my best buddies in my unit was undocumented. Unfortunately left the Army still undocumented after years of service, two deployments. The Army and his chain of command never saw it fit to help them become a citizen. So we wouldn't push a message like veterans, not illegals, or veterans before refugees. So that discovery turned into a two year investigation, which turned into a 200 page report that I prepared for Congress, and the general public, and intelligence agencies to help them understand the ways that service members and veterans are being targeted by foreign entities online, not just for radicalization and to push extremist and racist messaging. But to engage in romance scams, and to fundraise to promote political candidates, and have people sending their, what they think are political donations, to people in Macedonia.

So, my instruction, when preparing a report, was to focus on foreign entities. And unfortunately, I got laid off by VBA due to COVID, and that allowed me to just chase my interests. And I started to realize over time that the bigger threat is not just this foreign born disinformation campaign, but the effect that it was having on Americans, and the danger that it was stoking. And a friend of mine, who I served with in the Army, came to tell me about a domestic extremist group that I had never heard of before, and basically gave me a quick instruction on the fact that there is an active explicitly self described fascist movement in this country. And since discovering these people, who literally think that my wife should be killed, if not sent out of the country, and same thing for most of my friends and family, these people are literal Neo Nazis.

And I feel like a lot of people hear things like that, and they think it's hyperbolic. I'm not talking about Trump supporters and calling them Nazis. I'm not talking about conservatives, even hard line, people who consider themselves extreme right wing. I'm talking about people who actually read fascist propaganda, who actually idolize Hitler and want to do everything that they can to see democracy as it exists in the United States come to an end. And basically build a white ethnostate.

Ken Harbaugh:

Why should we take these groups seriously, if they are relegated to the fringes, if they conduct themselves clownishly? Is it like any other extreme fringe group that makes a lot of noise, but there's not much there? Or has something changed?

Kris Goldsmith:

Well, these extreme fringe groups, they operate in ways that the average person, I think, might not expect. And they use terms like propaganda to describe the media that they produce. They are very deliberate in their attempts to radicalize other Americans, to push mainstream conversations into fringe territory. And frankly, we've seen that.

One of the most infamous things was the rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. The person who killed Heather Heyer, who ran their car into a crowd of peaceful protestors unprovoked, was a member of Vanguard America. Vanguard America no longer exists in the form that it once did, but was a massive organization, with members, predominantly young Americans from all around the country, who called themselves fascists. And they managed to convince one of their members to do a vehicular attack like that. But it's not the only example. In Massachusetts just a few weeks ago this happened again with an extremist targeting black people.

We saw January 6th with these extremist organizations that most people have never heard of before this year, The Three Percenters, The Oath Keepers, The Proud Boys. They attacked the citadel of democracy. They, during broad daylight and mostly without concealing their identities, attacked police officers. In many cases, they videotaped themselves doing it because they have been so radicalized that, what they were doing, they thought was right. They didn't think that they were committing a crime when they were trying to kill cops. And that, what we saw on January 6th, was not the crescendo, was not the end, it was not the fascism breathing its last breath in the United States. It was just the beginning.

Ken Harbaugh:

And you've made this your new mission. Can you tell us about your work now in exposing, and if you're able to share it, taking down one of these organizations?

Kris Goldsmith:

So what I do is I both monitor fringe social media platforms, and message boards, and I apply for and join some of these extremist organizations so that I can document what they're up to and expose it to the world. So, one of the organizations that I joined last year as part of this goal of taking down a fascist organization was called Patriot Front. It is the rebranded Vanguard America. So the newer version of the organization whose member killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. So these are people who, despite the fact that one of their members, one of their affiliates actually killed someone, committed a terrorist attack, they decided, "Well, we'll just rebrand, put a little more red, white and blue on it, and call it Patriot Front, and keep doing what we're doing."

So, this is an organization that the SPLC, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti Defamation League have deemed as the most active hate group in America. And sadly, most Americans are unaware of it. Everybody's heard of the KKK, which hardly exists a little bit today, but they're irrelevant. Groups like the Patriot Front are almost entirely generation Z. They are our young boys and men who are looking towards the goal of seeing American democracy replaced with fascism and the creation of a white ethnostate. And while that may seem totally crazy and not realistic, and to a certain extent, it absolutely is, it's only unrealistic and it's only crazy if we stop them from trying to do what they're doing. And with everything that they do, they're taking advantage of the fact that hardly anyone has ever heard of them.

Some of your listeners might be familiar with the events on the 4th of July in Philadelphia, where they may have seen headlines about fascists getting chased out of town by half a dozen pissed off Philly residents. And that is what happened. But they got hundreds of members to commit to secretly traveling from across the country to meet in Philadelphia, to rent a bunch of moving trucks, to pack all in there, and then basically do a flash mob style march through the city of Philadelphia and engage in organized violence. These people are doing these acts of propaganda, expecting people to reject their racist messaging, and luring people into what amounts to their marching formation so that they can try to beat the hell out of them. They film it from just their desired angles, and then they produce propaganda for Telegram, and for Gab, and for other fringe social media network. And they use that to make their goal of presenting a white gang as something that's alluring to basically lonely losers on the internet who want to join a boys' and mens' club.

Ken Harbaugh:

It sounds so eerily similar to the ISIS MO.

Kris Goldsmith:

It is. Yeah, and they have studied these fascist movements and they are basically, just like ISIS, taking the 20th century propaganda styles, stunts, and materials, and producing it with a 21st century high production skill set. And it's proven to be effective. I mean, we saw ISIS create its own state, it's so nation state over the course of just a couple years. And Patriot Front looks at that type of thing, and says, "Hell, we can do that in the western world too."



Ken Harbaugh:

Our 5th clip comes from my interview with Dr. Kathleen Belew, the nation’s foremost expert on the involvement of military veterans in the white power movement. Here, she explains the strategy and danger of militarized white supremisist groups, like the ones that attacked the capitol on January 6th. She also discusses the relationship between so-called ‘lone wolf’ domestic terrorism, and the movement as a whole.

Ken Harbaugh:

The emergence of this lone wolf archetype, it's really a misnomer. It's not an archetype. It's not just a function of insufficient journalistic interrogation or sloppy reporting. It's intentional on the part of the movement, right? This is a strategy that ascribes to this notion of leaderless resistance. Can you explain why it's intentional, why the lone wolf myth is part of their approach to insurgency?

Dr. Kathleen Belew:

Yes, absolutely. So in 1983, this movement declared war on the federal government. This is the breaking point where this stopped being about just vigilante violence and this started being an attack on the United States. And it has been since 1983, very consistently. And to carry out this revolutionary project, they adopted two new strategies. One of them is leaderless resistance, which many people will recognize as simply cell-style terrorism. The idea is that one or a few activists would work towards a set of common goals, but without communication with other cells, and without communication directly with movement leadership. And they took this on actually because they were frustrated with the number of undercover informants who had infiltrated these groups during the civil rights era. They had been a big problem for the Klan particularly, and had created a lot of expensive problems. And then of course, it also was designed to make it more difficult to prosecute these people when they were arrested. But the bigger legacy and one that the movement realized was going to be a boon almost immediately is that when there were apprehensions of white power actors, they were usually treated as lone wolves or a few bad apples. And we got this record of just one or a few disaffected people or crazy people rather than a view of the movement as a whole. So what it really allowed was for the whole white power movement to disappear. And we see the movement itself talking about this and writing about this. Even the phrase “lone wolf” comes from the white power movement. And I don't want to be overly prescriptive about this. Surely, there are in our society acts of terror and violent actions that are really lone wolf actions. There are shootings that are not connected to a political ideology. There are all kinds of problems of mass violence in our society. But within the white power movement, this is all coordinated. This is part of a coordinated thing. And the other strategy that they adopted in 1983, I think gives us the other half of that story. And that is the adoption of the early internet to coordinate these groups in social network activism. This happened in 1983, '84. So they've really been doing social network activism and pioneering those strategies I mean for decades, if not generations.

Ken Harbaugh:

So you have established through your research, through I would imagine countless interviews, that this is an organized movement? The lone wolf thing is just a diversionary tactic. And yet - and I want to make sure I ask this in a sensitive way - the largest mass casualty event this movement was able to pull off was decades ago, with I believe 168 casualties. What is your assessment of their actual ability to bring to fruition their dreams as laid out in The Turner Diaries? Or is this just a fantastical mindset that has no chance of becoming reality?

Dr. Kathleen Belew:

I see what you mean and I appreciate the care with the question. I think that there's two parts to that that I think are worth thinking through. One of them is about, can they really provoke a nuclear war, kill everyone except white people, and have an all-white planet? I find that fantastical, and I would imagine that many of them also find that fantastical. But there are a whole bunch of intermediary goals, including mass casualty attacks, that I think are well within their grasp. And I think that many damaging things can happen between here and a world genocide of people of color.

So one of the things I would note is that I am not a security studies expert by any stretch. But the Department of Homeland Security has now told us, and the FBI has now told us that this is the greatest terrorist threat to the United States that we are living with today. Larger than radical Islamic terror, and much, much, much larger than what some people refer to as Antifa or even Antifa and the violent left, which has at this point, I think has a fatality count of two, compared to several hundred on the right. Now, I take your point that if we're comparing to 9/11, or if we're comparing to Pearl Harbor, a casualty count of 168 is not a huge number of people. But there's two things that we have to keep in mind. One is that when we're thinking about terroristic violence, the number of people killed is only part of the story. And we might instructively think about a lynching as a counter example. When one person was lynched in a community throughout the long run of American history, the purpose was not just the killing of that one person. It's about implementing a regime of terror that quells life throughout an entire community. And an act like Oklahoma City is envisioned to cause terror throughout an entire country. Oklahoma City also was supposed to not stand for itself - the point of Oklahoma City for Timothy was not just to kill those people that day. The point was to 'awaken' other people to this cause and bring them into the movement. That's definitely how people have been thinking about January 6th. We saw an upsurge in accelerationist activity among Stop the Steal and MAGA websites. We see them reaching out trying to radicalize and recruit in the aftermath of events like that. So we have to think about the totality of how they're working and not just a single event. But I take your point that right now, they haven't done some of their more violent actions, like plots. They at one point had 400 pounds of cyanide they were going to use to poison the water supply of a city. That would have been several thousand people killed probably. And they were apprehended before they were able to do it. So hooray for the FBI in that case, I suppose. They have not been able to do things like sabotage nuclear power plants in order to create nuclear accidents that would harm a larger number of people. So instrumentally, I take your point that they have not created mass casualties on the scale of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.

Ken Harbaugh:

For the record, I raise it not as my point, but as an opportunity for you to illustrate the threat. Because I agree with you. And you didn't draw this thread explicitly, but I'm going to - the comparison of lynching, which was if not always state-sanctioned, than at least in many communities obliquely supported by the state, right?

Dr. Kathleen Belew:

Absolutely.

Ken Harbaugh:

To the tacit support that the insurrectionists received and continue to receive from either state organs or influential politicians. And that I think is something different about the Oklahoma City bombing, and even more alarming. And I would posit that the nightmare scenario is not scattered 'lone wolf' actions, but the political cover slowly cloaking these movements with legitimacy and injecting their ideologies into the mainstream. I mean, the raised fist from Josh Hawley should send tremors down the spine of anybody who understands the history of lynching in these movements, and other signals like that should terrify us.

Dr. Kathleen Belew:

I think that's absolutely right. I mean, I think there are multiple nightmare scenarios here. Like, I think one nightmare scenario is a sustained campaign of asymmetrical violence by a fringe movement against the American body politic over time. The other nightmare scenario is what happens if it becomes part of our mainstream politics. And I think the militia movement is one of the main points of concern in this regard, I think, because it's the place where these groups are claiming a cloak of legitimacy. And I think it's one of the places that people are the most, I guess, sympathetic. And I should just clarify that when I'm talking about militias on this podcast, I'm talking about extralegal militia activity. I'm not talking about guard units at the national or state level. But extralegal militia activity where private armies are created, trained, and then brought in to 'keep order' with the results being uniformly that they create terror and civilian casualties.

Ken Harbaugh:

Our 6th and final clip comes from my interview with Fred Wellman. Fred is the former Executive Director of the Lincoln Project, a political action committee that was founded by former and present Republicans with the goal of preventing the re-election of Donald Trump, and defeating ‘Trumpism’.

Fred Wellman:

This morning I was looking at a ... I think it was a ... Yeah, it was a tweet from one of the right wing guys, Eric Ericson, and literally every reply, his poll was showing the Youngkin is up by two points, and literally every response was, "You don't think the Democrats will allow that. They're going to steal it. They're going to stop it." This ridiculous belief that somehow elections are easy to steal, or they're commonly stolen has become such- Again, Walter Shaub, who I love dearly, a government ethics lawyer, has been really, really hitting President Biden hard, and his criticism and it's hard to disagree is that Biden's only given one speech on voting rights. I like the Build Back Better plan. I like all of it, but all this is moot. Every single one of these spending packages and programs can be turned back in a heartbeat if we can't get people to vote. My colleagues at the Lincoln Project really say it well. Steve Schmidt, which you said in your interview before, Steve and Reed talk about a lot is in many ways, the Republican party right now, in the form that it's in now is like a shrinking star. It's like a dying star. It's shrinking. It's getting smaller. The minority rule is what they need as the majority of their voters shrinks essentially, but if you know anything about astrophysics, you know that as a star shrinks, it gets hotter, more radioactive, and more dangerous until it freaking explodes.

I think a lot of people kind of fool themselves into believing that perhaps that explosion was January 6th and I'm here to tell you, that was nothing. That was a solar flare. What scares me is as they're party desperately holds onto power, as they undermine our Democratic institutions unfettered, it could lead to an explosion that nobody dreamed could possibly happen in America, but then again, none of our founding fathers dreamed a President like Donald Trump, who simply just didn't care about traditions, and ignored them. It really showed how many of our institutions were unprepared for this moment.

Ken Harbaugh:

Get specific for us. What's the worst case scenario? What do you really mean when you say a political supernova?

Fred Wellman:

Well, I mean violence obviously. A larger violence. A large-scale violence. Violence at state houses across the country. Actual murders, actual coordinated assaults on our democracy. Maybe the next assault on Congress is more successful. In a subtle framework, it's simply throwing out elections they don't like. In theory, the Georgia legislature could just throw out an election. "Well sorry, it's tainted. We're getting rid of the election people." I mean literally the ability to throw out election results they don't like is what many of these people are poaching for like in Arizona and elsewhere.

They're literally trying to make it so that the Republican legislator can simply say, "Well no obviously we have our doubts. We're not going to take that election. We're going to throw it out." Until they get the results they want. Literally, voting would be meaningless in our country. For me, I do have fear. I have great fear of actual violence. I don't think people are paying attention to what happened on January 6th. I don't think they are paying attention to the growing movement of those who say, "Well, I think violence is the answer." You can't ignore the people. At what point do you have to take it seriously when people- When do you listen? When they say they're going to shoot Joe Biden? When they say they're going to- At what point do you take them seriously, that somebody's going to do it? I just don't recall this level of threats, and what bothers me the most is just how many people just want to ignore it like it isn't real. "Oh, that's just talk." Is it, because you read this Washington Post series right now about January 6th, and you should be horrified because there were a billion red flags going off, and it's ignored because people just couldn't believe it. I'm just saying a lot of us are out here saying, "Believe it. You have to believe it." I know it sounds outrageous, that the American Democracy could die in violence, but why would that be outrageous? It's happened throughout history. Why are we any different? Why are we so much more immune to it than anyone else throughout history has been? If you believe that we're that special that we're immune to that, I think you're going to be ... I mean January 6th should dissuade you of that notion in every way possible.

Ken Harbaugh:

How do you divide the moral culpability for all of this? Of course, you've got the foot soldiers, the agitators, the ones who actually stormed the Capitol, and they need to be held accountable. The FBI has to do what it's got to do. Then, there are those who held back, who know where the legal lines are, who fist-bumped them on. I've got to think that you have considered how to lay blame fairly between those who actually carried the flag poles and beat the cops, and those who stood back and cheered them on, but with language that they could disavow if they had to.

Fred Wellman:

100%. I mean they've gotten very good at that. A lot of these guys, that's how they've managed to make it this far. They've managed to keep their fingerprints off of it, but you have to believe, at what point do we say that this was encouraging violence? This is a sign of sedition. We just found out yesterday, Marjorie Taylor Greene spent $25,000 for ads on Parler, encouraging people to come to the January 6th rallies. Where does a person who just got seated in Congress like three days before that event, find that money, and put that … There's real questions that had to be asked of those who organized these events, and the delusions that they had nothing to do with the violence. The violence was encouraged. I am frustrated by the pace of the investigations but I am hopeful. I know Denver Riggleman, who's now working for the January 6th committee, and I know the folks involved in that. I have faith that they understand the stakes that are in play here.

At what point do we recognize the organizers and those who encourage it- and then what's disheartening is the media, the propaganda. We now see Fox in a fallen effort to convince us the whole thing was fake. We've really got a very dangerous situation in America. There's so many institutions that should be scared. Our political press is failing us in every possible way right now in their inability to avoid that ‘both side’-ism. Our institutions like our government ethics watchdogs are completely failing us because they have no idea how to deal with the things we're seeing and the rules that we have in place are not being adjusted. Our electoral system is failing us because it can be manipulated by legislatures now. I think so many pieces of the puzzle that built this country and made it great, were situated on people of good character, and moral being, being the people in power, and we were unprepared for a moment where people who just want raw power, and care nothing for the rules, who's sole functionality in life is to find holes in the rules are still in power.

Look at Kellyanne Conway. Kellyanne Conway broke the Hatch Act like 60, 70 times. Nothing happened. Nothing, because the system was designed so that her boss would be mad about that. Her boss said, "Great. Go for it." They don't care. I think a lot of us get nervous when we realize that so much of our country was built on infrastructure and institutions that were never prepared for the modern world, never prepared for social media, never prepared for many ecosystems that are separate from the rest. I don't know. Maybe I sound like I'm freaking out, but it's possibly that I am. For a guy, like in my position, the work I've done when I was the executive director of Lincoln Project, especially when we had our own crisis, the death threats, the kind of violent rhetoric that's thrown at us, it makes you really think, "At what point does someone actually take it seriously? At what point does someone say, 'You know what, everybody forgets the whole QAnon thing started with the whole guy at Ping Pong Pizza and shooting up a pizza shop because Hillary Clinton had kids in the basement of a restaurant that didn't have a basement. It's a miracle to me that more of those haven't occurred, but I do believe that day of reckoning may come sooner than we like.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks for listening to this bonus episode of Burn the Boats. Full versions of all the interviews you’ve heard today can be found wherever you listen to podcasts, or via the links in the show notes.

If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.





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