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Pro-Trump protesters gathered during the “Million MAGA March” from Freedom Plaza to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, 2020.

Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

I spent the last year talking with people from militant groups on the American right and always driving toward the same question: And then what? You’re armed and trained and linked up with your outfit. And then what? You’re ready to stand up to the leftist mob or defend Donald Trump from the inevitable attempt to steal the election. And then what? You’ll fight if you have to. OK, and then what?

I keep pushing down this path because in the end, it leads to war and I want to have a discussion about what that means. Because I hope that behind all the prepping and posturing from that side — and the level 11 hysteria that pervades America generally — we all realize that we’re comfortable and fat and free, and that real war means your house will get wrecked and your kids or your neighbor or the cashier you trade hellos with at your fully stocked supermarket will die. My fear is not that some people somewhere will start a real conflict intentionally, having first grappled with the consequences of that and thought it all through, but that they’ll keep taking that next step toward one without ever understanding what they’re really asking for.

My fear is not that some people will start a real conflict intentionally, but that they’ll keep taking that next step toward one without ever understanding what they’re really asking for.

What happened at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday is not a militia story; they were there but so was every other part of Trump’s coalition. Yet it was the next blind step toward an outcome no one wants, led by people who can’t answer that same basic question: And then what? Trump was never going to accept the election if he lost. What set the nation on this course was so many Republicans deciding to back his claims that it was stolen. It lent the narrative crucial layers of legitimacy and gave people the sense that if they resisted the transfer of power, they’d have establishment backing. First Trump’s enablers were just going to let him have his days in court. OK, and then what? Then they were going along with efforts to block or delay certification in the states. And then there was Sidney Powell alleging an international globalist-Marxist conspiracy in a press conference at the Republican National Committee. There was the suit alleging widespread fraud backed by 17 Republican attorneys general and 126 Republican members of Congress. Then there was Wednesday’s ploy to challenge the Electoral College vote and the rally and the Trump speech and the mob.

The nation dodged a bullet because the people who broke into the Capitol, most of them at least, never seemed to get past that same “and then what” dilemma. They threatened lawmakers, killed a police officer, and delayed the count but didn’t make a serious effort to hold their ground. If they’d pressed their advantage and made it an occupation, it could have grown into something much larger. As it played out, I texted one of the more ardent militiamen I know to see if he was participating. He was at home in Virginia, debating whether to make the drive to Washington, D.C. “I might be heading that way shortly,” he replied. “Without someone to take charge of those people and lead them to follow through with taking the Capitol building, they’ll most likely lose the initiative.”

He stayed put because it was over quickly. If it had dragged on, men like him might have rushed over — there are more than enough of them in Virginia alone to give authorities real difficulty, especially if they were mixed in with unarmed protesters — or they could have started sister occupations in state capitals or more obscure government buildings in places where law enforcement and the population are more sympathetic. Any space can become symbolic quickly through the narrow lenses of TV cameras and social media feeds. That’s how a dispute over cattle-grazing rights at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada mushroomed into a seminal event for the militant right in 2014. A successful standoff with federal authorities there inspired the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, whose leader hoped it would inspire a wider movement.

Some version of that could still happen. Trump and his onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn, whom many in the militant movement see as a natural leader, have so far stopped well short of the kind of clear provocations that could incite it. There’s also the chance that the outcry over the Capitol riot — and the fact that rioters are facing criminal charges and doxxing campaigns and losing their jobs — could suck the momentum from the movement and force people to realize that they don’t want to upend their lives. I think it depends on how many officials in the Republican Party continue to lend credibility to the idea that the election was stolen either by outright support for Trump’s conspiracy theories or by winks and nods or by silence. Because there’s a caveat to my idea that the vast majority of people still know, somewhere beneath all the layers of unreality, that they’re too comfortable and free to put everything on the line. If they manage to become convinced — really, truly convinced — that they’re not free anymore, then for some of them being comfortable doesn’t matter. People are paying attention, and they know how to read the signals they’re being sent. Not long after Kelly Loeffler announced on the Senate floor that, thanks to the riot, she’d changed her mind about challenging the election result, I received a flurry of texts about it from a Georgia militia leader named Justin Thayer. He’d run “security” at a Loeffler rally over the summer as the Senate’s wealthiest member pandered to pro-gun hard-liners during her failed campaign, but told me defiantly that he’d no longer be backing her.

He was at the Capitol but hadn’t gone inside because of the lack of planning; he said it could easily have turned into “a kill box.”

“So what’s next?”

“Pray and prepare for the 20th.”

“Any plans or just watching the inauguration on TV?”

“We will be there.”

During a prolonged period of breakdown, every month seems to be the moment just before the boiling point, or pick your cliché. It was a year of people making tinderbox analogies. But there’s always the next event on the horizon in which the country could devolve even further.

In October, I was talking with a longtime member of the militant movement who says he’s a veteran of the elite special operations community. This is an older but still formidable man has always been genial with me. We were talking about the upcoming election and his conviction that there would be massive fraud when he changed his tone and veered off into a very dark place. “What ultimately happens is some people stand with Trump and some people stand against the country. Some people stand with the coup, some people stand against the coup, and nobody stands with the law or morality at that point, and that’s where the war begins,” he said. “When we actually get involved, we’re going to kill Democrats, liberals, and communists at a rate that will defy anything that’s occurred in history, and when that happens, we’re going to make sure that it’s done so thoroughly that we don’t ever have to have this argument again. … It’s going to be so ugly and ruthless. … We’re going to go to the homes of the tank operators [who would be called in to put down an insurrection] and kill their wives and their children and nail them to the walls.”

“Some people stand with the coup, some people stand against the coup, and nobody stands with the law or morality at that point, and that’s where the war begins.”

I told him I didn’t believe him. I still don’t believe him. But I’ve been thinking about what he said. And I’ve been calling him since the election with no answer. I never spoke with Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran in her 30s who was fatally shot by a police officer as she tried to break through a door inside the Capitol on Wednesday, but I’ve had a lot of long conversations with veterans on this part of the right. I imagine she believed, as many of them do, that she swore an oath to protect this country; that there are dark forces trying to undermine it; and that they really did steal the vote. She may have seen storming the Capitol as part of her duty, even if no one could say where it would lead. I suspect that many people who subscribe to the same worldview have been watching the graphic video of her killing and thinking they have their first martyr. And just hours after she died, eight Republican senators and 139 Republican members of Congress went ahead with a vote that, however they might justify it, validates and gives further life to all the false narratives that had her jumping and shouting in rage just before she was shot.

So now what? These politicians still seem to be playing only to the next fundraising appeal and convoluted political ploy. They are the most decadent of us all, unable to grapple with the real-world effects of what they’re doing even after they were forced to lie down on the floor in their suits and gas masks as the alarms sounded of a Capitol on lockdown and blood spilled onto its marble floors. Trump seems to be planning only as far as the chaos he can cause the next day.

I witnessed successful coups in two countries, and the conspirators came heavily armed with well-laid plans so that by the time people realized what was happening, it was done. I’ve also seen a country tipped into civil conflict by people who just kept taking that next blind step until they were trapped in their own momentum. But it’s naive to see America’s worst failings through the lens of foreign nations. What I saw in all the pained and screaming faces in the Capitol — in the half-naked QAnon disciple dressed in furs and also in the state lawmaker and sheriff’s deputy and schoolteacher and disenchanted veteran — was uniquely American. It wasn’t the start of something or the end of something, just the next step.