- Luke Mogelsonaward-winning war correspondent for The New Yorker.
We speak with The New Yorker’s award-winning war correspondent Luke Mogelson about his new book, “The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible.” The book gives an eyewitness account of right-wing extremism and growing civic unrest in the U.S. since 2020, starting with anti-lockdown protests in Michigan and culminating in the January 6 insurrection. Mogelson, who filmed the attack on the U.S. Capitol, says many of the right-wing rioters viewed the insurrection “not as a political act but as something taking place in a more timeless, kind of cosmic spiritual framework.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we spend the rest of the hour with Luke Mogelson, The New Yorker’s award-winning war correspondent, who covered the wars in Afghanistan, in Syria and Iraq before he returned to the United States in 2020 to write about right-wing extremism. He was there on January 6th. He is the one who filmed the footage, that later went viral, showing Trump supporters forcing their way into the Senate chamber.
INSURRECTIONIST 1: Knock, knock. We’re here.
INSURRECTIONIST 2: Is this the Senate? Where the [bleep] are they?
AMY GOODMAN: Before Luke Mogelson went to Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, he had already been following some of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters who were there that day. He started his reporting in Michigan on militant right-wing anti-mask militias. He lays out what he found in his new book, just published this week, titled The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible. Previously, Luke was based in Kabul as a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He’s won two National Magazine Awards, two George Polk Awards.
Luke Mogelson, welcome back to Democracy Now! Let’s begin in Owosso, Michigan. Talk about the protest on April 30th, 2020, in the Michigan Capitol right at the beginning of the pandemic. What happened? And why you feel — here you have covered wars abroad for many years — it is critical to start here in understanding what’s happening in this country now?
LUKE MOGELSON: Well, thanks so much for having me.
Yeah, in April of 2020, I had actually just returned home to Paris, where I was living at the time, from an assignment in Syria, where I had been reporting on the destruction of the city of Raqqa subsequent to American bombardments. And so, I — and that level of destruction was really shocking to me, even in the context of other American offensives that I had reported on. And, you know, just over the years, there had always been this kind of troubling disconnect between the violence that I witnessed repeatedly perpetrated by the United States in other countries and the relative peace and prosperity back home domestically, where most of the country seemed to be entirely insulated from any kind of consequences or ramifications from what was really a unprecedented — unprecedented modern destruction of other societies and communities.
So, when I saw, you know, militarized groups occupying an American statehouse with automatic — or, semiautomatic rifles and flak jackets and helmets, accosting lawmakers, that seemed to be perhaps an echo of some of the tendencies in our country that I had been reporting on abroad. And I wanted to see what that was about, so I flew to Michigan in early May.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Luke, it’s interesting that you made that decision back at that period of time. I recall on a show on Democracy Now! in a conversation with Amy, I was also struck at the time by these armed protests that were anti-COVID protests. And I want to remind readers, I said back then that I saw Trump really praising these folks as wonderful Americans. And I said at the time — I think it was on April 21st — “I don’t think we should discount the possibility that this president will declare an election that he loses as a fraud and illegitimate, and attempt to stay in power. You know, some people may say this is far-fetched. I hope it is. But I think that we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we are living in extraordinary times in the United States.” Because those armed protests were an indication to me that something major was happening in this country. And I’m wondering, as you began to cover the folks in these protests, what you came away from, in Michigan and these other places, Pennsylvania, as to what was propelling folks to resort to arms in protest against the government.
LUKE MOGELSON: Mm-hmm. Well, that was very perspicacious of you. I don’t know if I anticipated this evolving into what it eventually became at that point. But I was surprised, when I arrived in Michigan, by just the frequency, the level of outrage already. And remember, this is before George Floyd was killed. It’s before the election, before even really the campaign, and already you had large groups of people up in arms over these public health policies. And you also had mainstream Republicans, on the national level and also the state level, embracing and endorsing their outrage and telling them that they were justified and right to be — to feel that they were victims of an egregious persecution and oppression.
You know, after that initial rally at the Michigan state Capitol in Lansing, the state Senate leader, who’s a Republican, Mike Shirkey, and relatively mainstream, he condemned both the Michigan Liberty Militia and the American Patriot Council, who organized the occupation of the Capitol, and he called them “a bunch of jackasses” and disavowed their use of violence and the threat of violence to intimidate lawmakers. Well, a couple weeks later, Shirkey seemed to realize which way the wind was blowing, and actually appeared with those exact same groups on stage at a rally in Grand Rapids and told them, “We need you now more than ever.” And I was there for that and was just kind of stunned by the 180-degree reversal that this senator was willing to publicly make. And some of those people that he appeared on stage with, by the way, ended up in the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to that moment, to turn to your harrowing footage of the Capitol insurrection that The New Yorker published, showing how this violent mob broke through police lines, pounded on locked doors of the Capitol, shouting “treason!” and breached the Senate chambers looking for lawmakers to confront. We see a group of white men rifling through Senate papers, the president, Trump, and efforts by Republican Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz to overturn the Electoral College vote, pose for selfies, stand on the Senate dais for a prayer, led by QAnon conspiracy theorist Jacob Chansley. This is an extended excerpt from the video filmed by you, Luke Mogelson, on January 6th.
INSURRECTIONIST 1: Shut it down!
INSURRECTIONIST 2: Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Let’s go!
INSURRECTIONIST 3: Whose house?
INSURRECTIONISTS: Our house!
INSURRECTIONIST 4: We will not stand down. You are outnumbered. There’s a [bleep] million of us out there! And we are listening to Trump, your boss!
INSURRECTIONIST 5: Let us through!
INSURRECTIONIST 6: We’re peaceful!
INSURRECTIONIST 7: Let the people in!
OFFICER: Hey, it ain’t safe for you guys!
INSURRECTIONIST 8: We love you guys! Take it easy!
INSURRECTIONISTS: Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason! Treason!
Defend your liberty! Defend your Constitution! Defend your liberty! Defend your Constitution! Defend your liberty! Defend your Constitution!
INSURRECTIONIST 9: 1776!
INSURRECTIONIST 10: You’re afraid of antifa? Well, guess what! America showed up!
INSURRECTIONIST 11: Is this the Senate? Where the [bleep] are they?
INSURRECTIONIST 12: It’s a PR war. OK? You have to understand, it’s an IO war. We can’t lose the IO war.
INSURRECTIONIST 13: We’re better than that.
INSURRECTIONIST 14: Yeah.
INSURRECTIONIST 12: Information. Information operation.
INSURRECTIONIST 15: There’s got to be something in here we can [bleep] use against these scumbags.
JACOB CHANSLEY: Yeaaaah!
INSURRECTIONIST 16: All right, don’t [bleep] with Cruz.
INSURRECTIONIST 15: Yeah, he’s a good one. Him and Hawley, or whatever. Hawley, Cruz.
INSURRECTIONIST 16: I think Cruz would want us to do this, so —
INSURRECTIONIST 15: Yeah, absolutely.
INSURRECTIONIST 16: — I think we’re good.
JACOB CHANSLEY: [bleep] hey, man, glad to see you guys. You guys are [bleep] patriots. Look at this guy. He’s got — covered in blood. God bless you.
OFFICER: You good, sir? You need medical attention?
INSURRECTIONIST 17: I’m good. Thank you.
OFFICER: Everything all right?
INSURRECTIONIST 17: I got shot in the face.
INSURRECTIONIST 18: Where are they?
INSURRECTIONIST 17: I got shot in the face with some kind of plastic bullet.
OFFICER: Any chance I can get you guys to leave the Senate wing?
INSURRECTIONIST 17: We will. I’ve been making sure they ain’t disrespecting the place.
OFFICER: OK. I just want to let you guys know, this is like the sacredest place.
INSURRECTIONIST 19: Jesus Christ, we invoke your name! Amen!
INSURRECTIONIST 20: Let’s say a prayer. Let’s all say a prayer in this sacred space.
JACOB CHANSLEY: Thank you, heavenly father, for blessing us with this opportunity. Thank God — let me take off my hat. Thank you, heavenly father —
INSURRECTIONIST 20: Amen!
JACOB CHANSLEY: — for this opportunity to stand up for our God-given unalienable rights.
INSURRECTIONIST 20: Amen!
JACOB CHANSLEY: Thank you, heavenly father, for bringing the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs. In Christ’s holy name, we pray!
INSURRECTIONIST 21: Awomen!
OFFICER: This way. This way.
INSURRECTIONIST 22: We support you guys, OK? We support you guys. We support you guys. And we appreciate what you’re doing. We know you’re doing your job.
INSURRECTIONIST 23: There you go! You won’t report, the media! Now you can’t!
INSURRECTIONIST 24: Torch it!
INSURRECTIONIST 25: Anybody got, like, some alcohol?
INSURRECTIONIST 26: Hey, everybody, CNN is hiding out behind Union Station, or their headquarters is over there.
INSURRECTIONIST 27: I don’t know where that is, though. I’m not from here.
INSURRECTIONIST 28: Start making a list! Put all those names down! And we start hunting them down, one by one!
INSURRECTIONIST 29: Traitors get guillotined!
INSURRECTIONIST 30: We are at war!
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it here. And that’s this white mob attacking — I think it’s AP’s media equipment, and talking about CNN before that. You see the QAnon conspiracy theorist Jacob Chansley take off his horns on the Senate dais to lead prayer. So, I was wondering if you could talk, Luke Mogelson, about how you were accepted by them to film in the midst of them? Did you climb through the window to get there? And then talk about them praying, not to mention attacking everything they saw.
LUKE MOGELSON: Yeah. Well, as far as how I was able to record that video, it was surprisingly easy, actually, just because so many of the rioters themselves were taking selfies and filming. And, you know, there was a real performative quality to the attempted insurrection, in which I really had the sense that they were enacting a kind of demonstration of dominance over their adversary for one another and for themselves. And this is something that you see in all kinds of mob violence throughout history.
And I think that that was most kind of vividly on display inside the Senate chamber with Jacob Chansley, as you mentioned, taking off his horns and standing at the dais and leading everybody in prayer. You know, he was clearly hamming it up, and even when he saw me filming with my phone, at one point, you know, was directing some of his oratory towards me and the camera. He also handed his phone to another rioter and asked him to take pictures of him flexing his biceps while sitting in the vice president’s chair. So, you know, they weren’t, by any means, reluctant to be filmed. On the contrary, you know, they were eager to have their actions — which they sincerely believed were righteous — documented, both for themselves and for other Americans who share their worldviews.
And as far as your question about the prayer and the religious aspect of the violence, that also was quite striking to me. Inside the Senate chamber at one point, you know, after thanking God and Jesus for allowing them to achieve this victory, one of the rioters yelled out, “This is how Trump gets elected.” And I think, again, some of them really believed that. On January 5th, the day before the riot, there had been speeches on Freedom Plaza, and Roger Stone had told a lot of the Trump supporters who had to come to D.C. and who would the next day storm the Capitol that this was nothing less than a battle between light and dark, the godly and the godless. And I do believe that that’s how many of the participants in the insurrection viewed their actions, not as a political act but as something taking place in a more timeless, kind of cosmic, spiritual framework.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Luke, will only have about a minute or so left, but I wanted to — if you can go back before January 6th? In your book, you talk about the protest, the November 7th protest at the Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg, when you began to first realize that there could be violence. This was the Stop the Steal rally that occurred there. I’m wondering if you could talk about that and the fervor that drove some of these folks around the issue, the bogus issue, that the election was stolen?
LUKE MOGELSON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that was the day that all of the national news networks called the election for Biden. And you had a large gathering of Trump supporters, many of them belonging to the Pennsylvania Three Percenter militia, heavily armed at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. And the moment the election was called, they were already calling for violence — and not just them, by the way, but elected officials, as well. Congressman Dan Meuser was. Doug Mastriano was there. Other Trump campaign surrogates were there. And there was just no question that they were going to accept the results of the election. But it wasn’t just November 7th. It went back to previous rallies, even before all of the results had come in, in various swing states, which I witnessed, for example, in Detroit on Election Day. There was a mob at the TCF Convention Center.
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, Luke.
LUKE MOGELSON: Yeah, so, January 6th was not a surprise. It was foretold.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Mastriano is running for governor of Pennsylvania right now, the Republican candidate. Luke Mogelson, The New Yorker’s award-winning war correspondent. His new book, out this week, is titled The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible.
And that does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.