But it’s not really the case that Charlottesville inexorably led to what was seen at the Capitol this week. The two events were driven by the same tools and led to similar outcomes, but varied widely in both intent and scale. And, per one of the journalists who’s most closely tracked this evolution over the past four years — CNN’s Elle Reeve — it’s the latter incident which is the most alarming, even beyond the election itself.
On Friday morning, I spoke with Reeve, who was at the Capitol as it was overrun. Her coverage of the events in Charlottesville while she worked for Vice News earned her numerous journalism awards — and elevated her profile both among the public and the right-wing groups she often covers. (Before joining Vice, Reeve and I worked together at the Atlantic Wire.)
We talked about the effort to storm the Capitol to prevent the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over Trump and about the racist demonstrations that took place in Virginia nearly four years ago. The conversation below is rife with shorthand references from online culture which are explained in the text. It has been edited for clarity throughout.
Bump: You saw how both events escalated and resolved and I just wanted to get — what’s your sense? Do you do you agree that it was like Charlottesville? Do you disagree? How is it different?
Reeve: Both the similarities and differences are really important.
The first thing to know is that while there were some of the white supremacist, alt-right* types here, they were very small in number. There were a few white supremacists here, but, for the most part, the vast majority of the people here do not think of themselves as racist. They do not like the KKK. They do not want to be Nazis. Now whether they have racial bias is a different question, but they do not think of themselves as anti-Black, anti-brown people.
* “Alt-right” is a blanket term for a loosely organized movement of fascists and white nationalists which emerged in the years before 2016.
But the mechanism that brought them here is similar and I think really important. Which is that social media works as a brainwashing machine. You start off joking about something and then, over time, that just gets repeated so much it becomes a sincerely held belief.
There’s also this element of, all of these people who’ve met online and maybe the people in their real-life social circles don’t believe in what they believe in. And that’s frustrating to them. So the energy of all these people who’ve met online finally going to be together in real life. Finally getting to meet each other.
So I was tracking a group of QAnon* supporters, about — there were about a hundred in the chat, but I think only about three dozen came. And they were all talking in this Telegram** channel I got into about how excited they were to meet each other, how they were driving up with three strangers and staying in the hotel room with three different strangers. And what joy it was to finally meet each other and then, in turn, do something that they thought was good for the country.
* QAnon is a broad conspiracy theory centered on the idea that an anonymous figure named Q is revealing information about a government effort to disrupt a massive ring of satanic pedophiles.
** A messaging platform.
Bump: You’re saying this in the context of — while the far-right ideology wasn’t exactly the same, this is similar to what happened before Charlottesville.
This is what undid the alt-right, is that they tried to take their online movement into the real world and total chaos ensued. Because they had — illusions of the Internet don’t come to fruition in real life. People who seem like leaders, who seem moral and clear-eyed on the Internet cannot pull that off in real life. And that’s what happened to the alt-right. And so you see an element of that here, going from the Internet to real life.
And then, finally, mob mentality. Mob mentality is a [bad] word because it just doesn’t get to the richness of what it feels like. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the way the emotion moves through the crowd. It’s like a current. It’s contagious. They’re so happy, but it’s also really menacing. There’s this forward momentum, like the crowd gets a goal and they are all going to do it. And individual responsibility just gets stripped away.
Bump: I was sort of struck in seeing the video of the woman who was shot to death by the fact that — in multiple videos you can see how things just sort of keep progressing and pushing forward. There’s just sort of this, both a literal and a symbolic sense of being pushed from behind. They’re at this window, these doors and this window and she’s just, the next step is just to jump through the window! I mean, part of that clearly is the sense of impunity. But clearly, part of it, too, was just this sense of, okay, we’re just — we’re still going forward with this sort of thing. This seems to me like it sort of encapsulates what you’re describing.
Reeve: Yeah. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what everyone else is doing. This is the logical next step — and, by the way, I can trust everyone here because we are warriors for a righteous cause.
Bump: Now, when you say “trust everyone here,” do you think that extended to law enforcement?
Reeve: I think that’s a really complicated question.
What I remember when I got home, in the hotel, was just seeing this line of stone-faced cops and more and more behind them, because they were preparing to clear the upper terrace. And they were not messing around.
But when I went back to my footage, I had interviewed — I didn’t even remember at that moment, that people were saying, “Yeah, when we broke in, some of the cops beat us with batons but some of the cops were cool with it.”
Bump: So to what extent do you think there’s a line that can be drawn from Charlottesville to this? Is it, both stem from the same sort of online casual organizing? Or was Charlottesville a necessary precursor for what happened this week?
Reeve: Stop thinking about it ideologically and think about it mechanically. Think about how the Internet is a brainwashing machine. It’s this machine that convinces people of these crazy beliefs and what was once insane becomes normal.
It’s like in Scientology. Day one of Scientology, they don’t tell you that it’s about aliens in 747s*. You’ve got to get worked up from that. And the Internet works the same way.
* Reeve is referring to reports about the most secretive belief systems of Scientology.
A big lesson from Charlottesville is most of the nation recoiled from that. Most people do not want to be Nazis. Racial dog-whistles, they do have to be dog whistles now. People don’t want to be the Klan. So for a fringe radical extremist movement to get power, it has to be more palatable. With QAnon, which was very well represented here, the enemy is not all people with dark skins, the enemy are these nefarious pedophiles who are eating babies.
Bump: When you say it was very well represented, I’ve seen a lot of people — I mean, some of the first people I saw charging the cops were wearing Q shirts. What’s your sense in terms of rough percentages, not necessarily numbers, but percentages of — what percent of the total crowd ended up getting on to Capitol property? And what percentage of those that got onto Capitol property would you guess is QAnon versus just broad Trump?
Reeve: A lot of the people who were there for the speech went home and did not go to the Capitol. For example, I was following this [QAnon] group that was going to come here. When that stuff started happening, they went home. The guy texted me that he thought it was disgusting and embarrassing. And those people were Q-positive, so, it’s not everyone.
The way I prepared for this was just to call every MAGA* source that I had in all my stories this entire year just to get a sense of whether they were coming. And everyone I talked to was either going or wanted to go.
* “MAGA” stands for “make America great again” and is used as a shorthand for the community of Trump supporters.
One of the people I talked to was saying pretty intense stuff. He was warning me not to go there. He was warning me that there was a lot of angry people with guns and an agenda. This guy kind of talks a big talk so I wasn’t sure if he was just trying to scare me, just blowing smoke, just trying to look cool. I wasn’t sure, but I knew that at least some people … I knew that at least for some people, it was in their minds that there could be storming.
Bump: This gets back to the online versus real. Online is, it’s the difference between role-playing and LARPing*. There’s always this element of, there are people there who are enacting their fantasies and the question of when the line gets crossed.
* “LARP” is short for live-action role-playing, a hobby where people dress up and act as fantasy characters.
It seems to me there were three groups there. There were the general MAGA people, with some QAnon people in there as well, who were there because they thought the election was being stolen. There was a secondary group of people who were in that same camp, but also felt like this was a time for war and they were going to put on their shields and their Captain America outfits and all that stuff and came there representing as soldiers, but just sort of playing like we’re revolutionaries.
And then there was a small group, but we don’t know how big they are or what their intentions were, but actual hardcore military, boogaloos*, I don’t know who but who actually came there with the intent and strategy of doing something much more nefarious. Now, maybe that was five or six people, compared to the LARPers, which was 3,000 people or whatever it happens to be, but do you feel like that’s a fair dichotomy or am I drawing lines that don’t actually exist?
* “Boogaloo” is a reference to a militaristic movement aimed at fomenting a second civil war.
Reeve: I interviewed people who were like, “Hey, if Joe Biden gets certified, I’m sad, but I’m going home.” I did talk to people who said that. Most people did not say that. Most people expected some action in their favor.
I interviewed a man who claims he was one of the first people who broke through the barrier. That guy, he had tears in his eyes as he was screaming at me. He was the first person I talked to on the scene and one of the things that’s really striking about that was, in that moment, was that I asked him why he was doing this, what was the point?
He was really offended by that question, because he was surprised I wasn’t already inside the ideology. I said, just explain it to me, explain it to me, explain it to the people. He was saying, we have no choice. This is the only thing we can do. No one has our backs. And they really, really believe that. They really, really believe that the only person who has their back is Donald Trump.
Bump: That’s different than Charlottesville in the sense that Charlottesville wasn’t really about Trump, it was about taking advantage of a moment. It was about taking advantage of a moment that Donald Trump helped create and expand. Those people in Charlottesville were there on behalf of an ideology that wasn’t centered on Trump. The people there this week were. Is that a fair thing to say?
Reeve: 100 percent. Charlottesville, most of those people, they liked Trump, but they saw him cynically as a tool they could use to further their cause. These people are not cynical about Trump at all.
Bump: Was there a sense from the people that you spoke with that they literally believed that somehow Trump was going to pull this out, or that he was going to present some sort of evidence or — what were they expecting would happen?
Reeve: Some people expected it not to be certified. They thought that Trump was going to pull it off. They were a little unclear on the specifics. Some people thought Vice President Pence would be able to do something, and I would say, well, then why didn’t Al Gore do it in 2000? They thought that wasn’t a disputed election.
There was one man I talked to, he didn’t want to talk to me. CNN is a foreign enemy. Enemy number one. But he was talking to me with this conviction like he was doing the right thing for his cause to speak out for his people. It’s just so strange: He’s trying to be respectful of me, even though he didn’t respect what I did. He thought what I do for a living is awful. And explaining to me, not only did he think that Trump would be sworn into a second term, but that there would be a military tribunal of Joe Biden and other Democrats for their crimes.
Bump: This is a Q person or a non-Q person?
Reeve: It’s kind of a spectrum of Q to at this point, people who are like, “no, I’m not that deep into Q, but who can’t get behind taking out pedophiles? No one likes pedophiles!”
Bump: There is this group of sort of Q-agnostic people who recognize that there are things they like about it. Like people who — I believe in God, I just don’t believe in organized religion. Sort of like that in my experience to some extent.
Reeve: Yes. And the vision of Trump as this noble leader who is fighting a corrupt, morally bankrupt state with only a few allies on the inside. A lot of people think that.
Last night we went for a walk on the national Mall. And as we got back to our hotel, this guy started talking to us. … On the corner where we were standing, they were building yet another fortification around the White House, yet another giant metal fence going up. And this guy was like, “I think he’s got a plan. You know? Who’s putting these fences here? They’re preparing for something.” He still — still thinks Trump’s going to pull it off!
You know what else this guy said to me, Philip? He’s like, “What do you guys think of 9/11?” Quite an icebreaker, right? “We are to the left of the liberals now. We are to the left of all y’all. Y’all don’t even doubt 9/11. Y’all don’t even think 9/11 was an inside job.” And this is a person wearing pretty expensive clothes, well-dressed, physically fit, well-spoken. People think of conspiracy theorists as Ted Kaczynskis out in the woods. These are regular people with jobs, families, they’re part of society.
Bump: Who would you say were the bigger group of true believers between Charlottesville and this week? Recognizing that the belief system is different. But who was more invested in the moment?
Reeve: Oh, my God. This one. Obviously. This is much more massive. Much more. Yes. This one.
That’s what I’m trying to say. This version of extremism is much more palatable to many more people than goose-stepping, Hitler-hailing Nazism. Way more people can get on board with taking out pedophiles, saving the children, than thinking the Holocaust is cool. No one likes that.
Bump: It’s sort of interesting, actually, in the coverage since that so much emphasis has been put on the dude in the Camp Auschwitz shirt and the “six million wasn’t enough” shirts* and so on, while all of these people in Q shirts ranked so little attention. It seems to me part of that is probably the history of neo-Nazis overlapped with violence, but this week should sort of disabuse people of the idea, they have still had it for some reason, that there wasn’t this undercurrent to QAnon as well.
* A reference to the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.
Reeve: Okay, first? Fact check? The “six million wasn’t enough?” That’s from a different rally. I saw a few people with flags for Kekistan, that’s their reference to 4chan*.
* 4Chan, like 8chan and 8kun, mentioned below, are online message boards. “Kek” is 4chan slang which was adopted as an identifier.
Here’s how you need to understand the cross-pollination. 4chan became the cauldron where the alt-right ideology of nouveaux Internet racism became what it is. It’s also where Q first started posting. Q was kicked off 4chan, went to 8chan. 8chan goes down, it’s now 8kun. So that’s the overlap.
But among the remaining Nazis of the Charlottesville era? They think Q is lame, stupid boomer stuff. Being a baby boomer is one of their greatest insults. So there’s not a huge amount of overlap.
Bump: It’s just — it seems to me that a lot of the attention being paid to neo-Nazis or white supremacists at the Capitol was a function of this historic danger that’s associated with them. And while there have been dangerous incidents related to Q supporters that there isn’t, I think, that association. They’re just sort of seen as wackos and not like, you know, not Nazis, right? To what extent do you think that that is even a fair distinction to draw?
Reeve: I think the distinction between the two groups is important, but people are drawing the wrong conclusion. The Nazis have a more disgusting ideology, but they don’t have the numbers. So Q has the numbers to take action. The guys at Charlottesville — maybe 600? 800? The numbers aren’t clear. This was many times that. The Charlottesville guys could not have stormed the Capitol.
Bump: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s one of the things that kind of gets lost here, is that it was simply the scale that allowed this to happen to a large extent.
Reeve: Yes. The fact that Q is more palatable to more people makes it much more dangerous. Because it means, of the huge group that believes in it, the small number who are willing to take violent action will be like an absolute larger number.
Bump: The analogy that comes immediately to mind is the new strain of the virus, right? It is more contagious, no more deadly. But because it’s more contagious, it’s going to kill a lot more people.
Bump: So let’s go back to the Internet. One of the things when you talk about how it’s a brainwashing machine — obviously, I don’t disagree with that — but you’re also removing some agency here, right? I mean, it’s not that the Internet — it is an effective tool for brainwashing, but it’s not doing the brainwashing.
Reeve: If you think about a cult, a traditional cult has one charismatic leader [who] tells people what to think. And I don’t think we really appreciate yet the way the Internet works as a cult where everyone is policing each other’s beliefs.
So we want to within that group and I think that within many groups it is, how do we enforce it? Because you’re talking to all your friends, who you like, and they’re telling you what to think. And then if you say something a little bit out of line, they’re going to slap you down.
For example, the person I was talking to in this group, he had agreed to give me an interview and then backed out because he was afraid of what the rest of the group would think of him associating with me. He was pleading with me at one point: “These are conspiracy theorists, if you go where our hangout spot is going to be — if you show up here, it’s going to be a scene.” This is a big grown man. He was pleading with me not to show up because of what it would do in his social circle. And I was like, “Are you afraid of them? Are they violent people?” He said, “No.”
So I just think that that’s important. And I don’t think that we have the language to describe it all yet.
Bump: One of the things that I think is underrecognized about Trump’s presidency is that he is president because he came from the far-right conservative thought world. He was on Fox News every week. He consumed Fox News. He watched Breitbart and he was willing to get up in 2015 and say the things that were being said on Fox News that a Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz wouldn’t because they were seen as being prohibitive toward winning elections.
And so then all these people, once they become aware of what he’s saying about immigrants and so forth, get super excited about it and they rally around him, and he’s so immersed in this fringe-y culture around the Republicans that — not to use a totally hackneyed Bane analogy, but, you know, he was born in it. He did grow up in it. He does speak the language in a very real way because he is a boomer who watches a lot of Fox News.
There is that cultivation. He was cultivated more through cable television than through the Internet, but I think it’s important to recognize that A) he’s part of that and speaks that language, but also B) that there are other mechanisms at play here beyond just Telegram and online chat rooms.
Reeve: Yeah. That’s what they say about him. He’s like us. He talks like us. And you can say, he is an American aristocrat. He grew up in great wealth. He went to private schools. He is an elite.
They say, “No, no, no, no. Elites are pseudo-intellectuals. He’s not an elite. He’s like us and he’s fighting for us.”