A Real Awakening: The Insurrectionist I Knew
Upon reflection, it was not logical to expect the dawn of a new year to arbitrarily usher in better fortunes. Of course, given the President’s unhinged rhetoric over the past months, one last moonless night in Trumplandia was foreseeable.
More difficult to presage, however, was the image of a bare-chested burner with a Viking cap standing on the dais of the U.S. Senate chamber. The self-proclaimed Energetic Healer and Ordained Minister, Jake Angeli (aka The QAnon Shaman) will be etched in history as the visual mascot of an insurrection that overtook the Capitol building, the first time the security of those hallowed halls had been breached since the War of 1812.
The armed mob brandishing Confederate flags and plastic handcuffs, wearing Camp Auschwitz and 6MWE (Six Million Wasn’t Enough) t-shirts, was incited by the president to march to the Capitol with this word salad: “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol. And we’re gonna cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we’re probably not going to be cheering, so much for some of them, because you’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength and you have to be strong.” Evidently, by “we” the president was referring to the royal “you” as he absconded to the White House to watch his coup unfold on television.
What was the plan here, exactly? Had our bizarre horned figure, an inverted version of Borat, come to put villain-cum-hero Michael Pence in a sack and carry him off until Trump was anointed monarch for life? What suspension of reality has occurred? To what can we attribute this degree of brainwashing that inspired an event doomed to fail and, in failure, take the lives of five people, humiliate America on the world stage and, in effect, accelerate the confirmation of Biden as president?
In an effort to diagnose the mass derangement of millions of people that culminated in an attempted armed coup of the world’s oldest modern democracy, I am retracing the story of someone who was there in Washington storming the Capitol — someone I know and with whom I worked. In her story, I hope to find the nuance that the invective will not provide. Of course, I have altered her name.
• • •
Katya always had the keys to the coveted golf cart dangling from a steel snap hooked to her belt loop. It gave her a certain big-beaked prominence in the pecking order of the operations team. There were never enough gators or electric rickshaws to go around at Wanderlust festivals. Katya managed the on-site activation for a yoga mat sponsor. Her primary duties included carting the mats from the boneyard to the practice venues and commandeering a ragtag team of bedraggled volunteers to roll them out in precise rows.
Katya was a badass yogini, a biker in lycra. Tattoos snaked up her arms and her burning man-style leather tool belt slung low around her waist. The pony-tailed lasses in floral tights had nothing on Katya. She, too, could pop into a handstand on a whim but then chug a pint. Though I technically was her boss, truthfully, I was a little intimidated by her and our communication was limited. To her credit, she ran a tight ship.
After a couple of years, Katya quit to travel Southeast Asia. Wanderlust, our international yoga shindig, had a seductive allure. But perfume wears off. Behind the brilliant luster of sun salutations on mountain tops was a fluorescent-lit drudgery of certificates of insurance and vendor application processing. Eventually, the youngsters were subsumed by a real wanderlust, an innate desire to travel. I always saw it metaphorically: mirroring this outward longing to explore the world was a profound calling to peer inward, to excavate the soul and better know oneself.
After Katya left the company, I largely lost track of her. She buzzed around the periphery of my life like an outer-shell electron, every blue moon popping into my IG feed flaunting some new ink or a vegan delight. Sure, I clicked the heart.
I stumble clumsily around social media, like a forty-year old learning French. You never get the accent just right. I excavate Facebook more as a social anthropologist than “an influencer,” studying how this mass nonconsensual psychological experiment on people’s neurology unfolds.
In April 2020, Katya’s posts began flooding my feed. Peppered between images of vegetable pakora and sunset malasana were vague yet fantastical memes such as “are you ready … for the great awakening?” and “the storm is coming” with the hashtag #wwg1wga fastened to them.
As the global ship anchored into lockdown in March, Katya made off to a remote town outside of Sedona. Single and able, her needs were minimal. She rented out a 10x10 room for pennies on the dollar from a wellness center whose retreat calendar had been wiped out.
Over the following tumultuous months that included spikes in COVID, the murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing protests, Katya’s posts became an incessant stream of QAnon and Q-adjacent theories. There were constant references to the NWO (new world order) and the cabal of Democratic and Hollywood elites leading global pedophilia rings. COVID-19 was part of an elaborate orchestrated masterplan devised by Bill Gates and George Soros to mandate a micro-chipped vaccine that would surveil everyone. This dovetailed into a depopulation scheme largely executed through mass immunization and sterilization as outlined by the Rockefeller foundation. And the only line of defense against this Deep State ploy was the Light Worker-in-Chief, DJT.
The engagement on Katya’s Instagram exploded. Posts that once regularly garnered 5 or 10 comments now often had hundreds. Her followers ballooned from approximately 5,000 to well over 100,000. She was diligent, responding to every comment with a series of unicorn and rainbow emojis that belied the gravity of the subject matter.
On a scorching August afternoon, in one of my weaker moments, I added to the maelstrom of comments disputing the claim that Joe Biden was a pedophile and asking for evidence. Within minutes, I was swarmed by GIFs of sheep and Cher slapping me from a scene out of Moonstruck with overlaid text screaming “WAKE UP!” Evidently, I was just another MSM (mainstream media) zombie who hadn’t “done the research.”
During the fall, Katya regularly retweeted the president’s posts presaging the impending “rigged” election. She dangled a variety of nebulous prophecies related to a looming grand reveal both prior and after Biden’s win. “The truth is coming on [fill in the blank date].” Despite the “truth” never coming, Katya and her followers were never dissuaded from the idea that eventually Trump would be declared the winner of the election, and, in triumph, would arrest a cadre of Democratic swamp creatures. So resolute was her conviction that, on occasion, I would click through the YouTube links she provided as proof to find bejeweled mystics divining the political rapture from a moonstone.
I recount this tale because the very last post I saw from Katya was a photo from last Wednesday. She was dressed in an American flag onesie with the MAGA hat like a cherry on top, a throng of people behind her climbing the steps of the Capitol.
The caption: “Civil War!”
• • •
There are myriad components that underwrite a susceptibility for delusion. New Age notions that “everything happens for a reason” and “all things are connected” contribute to apophenia, the phenomena of seeing recognizable patterns in otherwise random or unrelated data. While there is a strange horseshoeing of left-leaning conspiritualists and alt-right white supremacists, the demographic of Q-oriented Trump loyalists of unwavering fealty is broad (if almost exclusively white). Their incessant claims of personal awakening and labeling anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their orthodoxy as “sheep” bear echoes of Jonestown and Waco.
A cult is a group of people who excessively worship an idea or individual and, in so doing, lose the ability to reason. The shifting collective fantasies espoused by this group read like a Dungeon and Dragons manual, including but not limited to the litany I’ve referred to already.
However, in the last 10 weeks since the election, the president harvested all the fever dreams into one primary silo of delusion: the election was rigged. Through a spaghetti-on-the-wall array of Twitter posts about dead voters, hacked machinery, nefarious algorithms, multiple scanned ballots, and other far-flung claims (even the late Hugo Chavez made an appearance), the president whipped up a “stop the steal” mania.
Despite 59 courts and 90 judges of all political affiliations dismissing cases of fraud, often with prejudice; despite the head of national cybersecurity declaring a secure election; despite the attorney general claiming no widespread fraud; despite Republican governors and secretaries of state vouching for legitimate results; despite multiple recounts; despite the FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation findings; despite the fact that Republicans had picked up 13 seats in the House with the same identical ballots; despite all of this, one man’s pathological narcissism convinced tens of millions of people that the election had been stolen — all while he tried to steal it himself. This obsession, once confined to digital warriors, spilled into the analog world in the form of an assault on the Capitol building, an attack that included people toting nooses specifically earmarked for the neck of the treasonous Vice President who resisted calls to overturn the election.
This group’s belief that their freedoms are being stripped away is intractable. Yet they were able to walk, armed, into the Capitol, almost unscathed, and disrupt one of the sacred rituals of democracy while deeming it patriotic. The dissonance is deafening.
As the siege unfolded, the president continued to lobby Republican senators, calling them while they were bunkered underground. Pence apparently called in the National Guard. And two and a half hours later, the president posted a video condemning the riot while simultaneously telling the rioters that he loved them.
I suppose there is an optimistic twist in the sturdiness of our institutions that bent but never buckled. The court system held. Journalism, despite its many shortcomings, held. State election boards and officials held. And, finally, Congress held, as they returned to their chambers post-siege and fulfilled their duty as laid out in the Constitution.
Still, the proceedings were not without hiccup. Notably, Rep. Matt Gaetz stood and claimed, to the applause of other Republican Congressmen, that our burner friend, Jake, was actually a member of Antifa. The Washington Times article he cited was retracted and the publication later apologized for the mistake.
With the clarity that a few days have provided, I am reflecting on how incredibly fortunate we are. But for the incompetence of the insurrectionists, we may have lost a Vice President and all the members of the House and Senate including the first three people in the presidential line of succession. Numerous pipe bombs and improvised explosives were discovered in Washington. We have all witnessed how easy it was for the mob to penetrate Capitol security. In retrospect, a bomb could have easily been detonated inside the Capitol, killing virtually all of our nationally elected officials. By grace, this did not occur, but it could have. And it should signal a colossal warning.
How did all this happen? A full diagnosis will likely require years of blood panels, but here’s an attempt.
Sitting beside the COVID pandemic is a potentially more virulent one. We are experiencing an epidemic of psychological derangement. The genetic sequence of this collective insanity consists of weaponized misinformation, social media, and a bigger-than-life anti-hero set against a backdrop of COVID-exacerbated isolation and the profound human need for connection.
The president had 89 million Twitter followers and 35 million Facebook followers. When he tweets or retweets a claim with no basis in fact, like Dominion scanning software denying him hundreds of thousands of votes or that scores of dead people voted, those falsehoods are subsequently shared hundreds of thousands of times. The president’s most fervent online supporters become vectors for the spread of his misinformation. When someone shares a post that has no factual basis, the sensationalism of that post garners tremendous response and stokes the algorithm of the poster. It is widely understood that misinformation spreads about 6 times faster than fact. So, you have someone sharing the president’s falsehoods to their own group of followers and, subsequently, that person is getting tons of comments and likes.
This activity is opening up a reward pathway in that person’s brain. They get dopamine hits in direct proportion to the engagement of their posts. This neurological impact reinforces the behavior so, as a consequence, people continue to share content that is increasingly extreme with no regard to whether it’s true. This phenomenon, in some part, explains Trump’s passionate online following. People are literally addicted to spreading his deceit. And, as a consequence, Trump has cultivated a distribution network of lies. The result is the collapse of any sense of inter-subjective truth and the crumbling of social cohesion.
Beyond the neural rewards, propagators of these theories — many of whom of are isolated at home — find like-minded community that quenches a parched thirst for connection. There is also a gamification component afoot as people acquire status by building on baseless theories. Our crisis may be more epistemological than political.
While I certainly will never defend or justify the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who are on the thin edges of this movement, I can find empathy and compassion for Katya. Like many of us, she is lonely, searching for meaning, purpose, and community, and I know her to be, at heart, a good person. As we grope for the prescription to the diagnosis, it is important to remember that Katya and others like her are real people who should not be dehumanized if we ever hope to heal.
What to do? (Aside from pray.)
There are more questions to this question than clear answers. Yes, we obviously need to be more discerning about who we elect to public office. The degree to which Trump is a cause or a symptom of our social incoherence can be debated. Certainly, the end of his tenure should result in some attenuation of the political temperature. However, there is plenty of reason for extreme caution leading up to and after Inauguration Day.
The larger issue, both as it pertains to Trump and society in general, is how we are going to manage issues relating to censorship and First Amendment rights and their intertwined relationship with social media. Given what we’re learning about the psychological impacts of social media, can society properly function if anyone can post anything they want?
It can certainly be argued that Trump’s influence is more buttressed by Twitter than by the Oval Office. The de-platforming of Trump should temporarily dam one significant tributary of misinformation — but at what greater societal cost or benefit? It may be that Facebook and YouTube will need to become more like publishers with journalistic codes of ethics and greater accountability. Certainly, the algorithms that promote radicalization need to be addressed and likely regulated.
With regards to censorship, the First Amendment does not grant unfettered rights to free speech. And it bars only the government’s ability to abridge free speech. It does not apply to private companies. The First Amendment also prohibits the government from regulating the free speech policies of private companies.
It is generally agreed that when rights are abused, they are lost. To employ a tired example, you cannot falsely yell fire in a crowded theater. While this Oliver Wendell Holmes quote is somewhat useful in communicating the limits of free speech, it falls short of explaining current law as rendered in the 1969 Supreme Court decision Brandenburg vs. Ohio. There, the Court held that inflammatory speech — and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan — is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” One might argue that Twitter, while it is not bound to the same restrictions as the government, is currently applying the same criteria.
More broadly, the guarantee of free speech is meant to both protect and foster a healthy marketplace of ideas such that the best ones can cream to the top. And we must defend and promote vigorous public discourse. However, a person’s rights end when they endanger the rights of others. Rights such as free speech don’t come for free and we must consistently earn them through moral and ethical work and action. Of course, who is the arbiter of what is acceptable free speech and what constitutes hate speech or incites danger will be a major cultural discussion.
We must establish trusted media outlets that are truly fair and balanced, that don’t simply appeal to one core demographic that they never risk pissing off. The ad-revenue media model makes this reality very difficult to achieve and I will address it in a separate essay.
One thing is abundantly clear. We desperately need to unify to solve COVID, not only to save lives, but also to re-instantiate our ability to commune. We have certainly improved our capacity to find intimacy on Zoom. But the scarcity of in-real-life contact we once enjoyed at churches, gyms, yoga studios, restaurants, and festivals has atomized us. In isolation and uncertainty, our minds too easily default to fear. In fear, our ability to reason is compromised. In community, we naturally moderate toward mutual understanding and a middle path.
Most likely, you aren’t Jack Dorsey’s right hand. Maybe you’re a health care professional and, if you are, the world owes you a great debt. For the rest of us, it’s easy to feel paralyzed by the enormity of this problem. But the world is not something happening to you. You are an active part of it.
We need tough, bristly conversation and to cultivate tools of non-violent communication. It’s hard to hate up close, even for people who you believe are hateful. I implore you to reach out to folks with whom you disagree and ask to get on the phone. Organize Zoom calls with people in your local community. As part of these efforts, let us try to migrate the discussion toward policy and away from politics, toward solutions and away from grievances, wherever we can.
We need compassion.
Stop rolling your eyes. I see you. I know how angry people are right now. I am not remotely above it. But Katya is not going to respond to your finger-pointing or ceaseless fact-checking. Cults disband quicker when its members know that they have refuge and belonging. The prophecies won’t stop but they will likely dwindle and those who have been screaming “wake up” from a slumber will themselves awaken. We will need to be there to help them re-assimilate.
For others and ourselves, we need to help instantiate a real awakening — an ability to think critically in the service of understanding reality. When you are awake, you respond thoughtfully to an event, you don’t react to your judgment of it. You leverage the pre-frontal cortex, the center of rational thought and reason and move out of your amygdala, the center of fear. Awakening emerges from self-reflection, meditation, reading, and conversation. It is grounded in observation, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the humility to change your hypothesis based on this process. Awakening leads you toward clarity, serenity, and peace.
Unfortunately, humanity, like humans, often needs a crisis to “wake up.” Alcoholics need to hit rock-bottom, a place where there is nothing lower, before they can recover. I pray our country has hit that place and now we can begin to recover a common understanding of the world.
Jeff Krasno is host of the Commune Podcast.