Ever since Donald Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” he’s remained the center of America’s political universe. But at least one former congressman believes the continued fixation on the 45th president is now a distraction. He’s only part of the story, especially now that Trumpism has grown larger than Trump himself.
On Friday, the House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol formally subpoenaed Trump, which seems to be the minimum amount of red meat the Democratic base demanded from the panel. While the big reveal of the subpoena—which was leaked to NBC News during the panel’s final hearing earlier this month—garnered headlines and TV hits, it overshadows the misunderstood and still-unfolding story of the digital machinations that fueled the attack and are poised to remake America for years to come, if not forever.
The US has entered an era of algorithmic political warfare, according to former Republican congressman Denver Riggleman. Until this spring, he served as a senior advisor to the January 6 committee, which he recounts in his new book, The Breach: The Untold Story of the Investigation into January 6th. A former Air Force intelligence officer, Riggleman cofounded a successful data mining and analysis military contracting firm before his election to the House in 2018. While the special panel conducted hundreds of interviews, Riggleman says, they’ve been lapped.
“The information war moves at the speed of electrons, not at the speed of interviews. That’s it. We’re in a new world,” Riggleman says. “The committee did a great job, but we have to move faster. We have to be more aware of how data can help any investigation into these types of activities when it comes to domestic terrorism or the radicalization pipeline.”
Riggleman says it’s unfortunate that the select committee devoted the bulk of its time and resources looking backward. He fears they missed what’s afoot—and still to come. “We’re trying to solve today’s problems tomorrow with yesterday’s technology. We’re in an information warfare battlespace,” Riggleman contends. “They’ve already changed their tactics. Deplatforming didn’t work. They just go to other platforms.”
Riggleman, a conservative who left the Republican Party after he was primaried out of office in 2020 for officiating a same-sex wedding, had asked the committee for a budget of $3.2 million for his digital sleuthing, but he says he was allocated just a fraction of that.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Still, he was granted a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse into not just the January 6 attack. He also believes he identified the insurrection’s central player: Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows. Riggleman handed the special committee 2,319 text messages Meadows sent or received from the election through Biden’s inauguration, which he says reveals how deeply conspiracies have now “metastasized” in today’s Republican Party.
“What it shows is that QAnon conspiracy theories have saturated every level of the GOP,” Riggleman says.
The coordination included members of Congress, the wife of a Supreme Court justice, myriad lawyers, little-known aides, and, of course, Trump’s most ardent supporters. Riggleman also revealed a mysterious nine-second phone call placed from the White House switchboard at 4:34 pm on January 6 to 26-year-old Anton Lunyk, who has since pleaded guilty to entering the Capitol. Despite these findings, the former intel officer bemoans not being able to go all the way down the meme- and hashtag-laden rabbit hole.
“Thousands of documents are great, but millions of lines of data are better. And so when you look at call detail records or open source intelligence research or you look at social media, those types of things can tell you a lot,” Riggleman says. “And I think it can actually direct the way that you investigate more than bringing people in who lie, plead the Fifth, or sometimes conveniently forget things.”
The real story, Riggleman contends, isn’t Trump. (“If you indict Trump, his polling numbers are going to go up,” he says. “So good luck.”) Trumpism is now gospel to an online army of devotees, hundreds of whom are now running for state and local offices. No matter which party comes out in control of Congress once the dust settles on Election Night, the next Congress is guaranteed to have Donald Trump’s stamp on it. The GOP candidates on the ballot next month include 291 who say they wouldn’t have certified Biden’s 2020 victory, according to the Washington Post. Of those, 171 are running in safely Republican districts.
As a former member of the House Freedom Caucus who has deep libertarian leanings (he farms his own hemp), Riggleman is worried about the digital takeover of a party he used to love, respect, and doggedly fight for. “You also have to figure out who the hell is pushing these radicalizing ideas over digital channels because that’s where it’s happening too,” Riggleman says.
Thousands of Trump supporters took his post-January 6 deplatforming as their cue to follow their leader off Twitter and Facebook and into a new world of almost-anything-goes social media apps, like Trump’s own struggling Truth Social, or Parler, which Kanye “Ye” West plans to buy. Those apps suck up the most recent coverage, but other apps continue to attract new and frustrated users.
There’s Gab (where QAnon devotees feel safe discussing ever-evolving conspiracy theories), GETTR (a “free speech”-focused app founded by former Trump aide Jason Miller), Rumble (think YouTube for the far right), MeWe (think Facebook for Trump Republicans), and CloutHub (if Twitter and Facebook had a baby). Even Reddit is helping Trump successfully spread ungrounded conspiracies about ballot-stuffing in Arizona.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Many on the right are also increasingly employing popular messaging apps like Telegram, which allows private groups to include as many as 200,000 members, and Signal, popular for its promised end-to-end encryption. That includes many of Trump’s most motivated followers, which we know from the dramatic spike in users they both attracted after Silicon Valley firms started their post-insurrection purges.
Then there are forums like 4chan, 8kun, and Endchan. Movement-inspiring memes, dangerous conspiracy theories, celebrations of violence and violent rhetoric all abound on these hubs connecting kindreds who proudly consider themselves social outcasts set on upending the “normie” society most of us inhabit.
As the select committee now prepares its final report on the preparation and planning leading up to the savage assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the right has moved on. And in laying the groundwork to leave a Trump-sized imprint on this year’s midterms—including upending voting laws in countless battleground states and recruiting thousands of new pro-Trump poll workers to “police” local polling locations—the former president’s acolytes are also proving to be a few steps ahead of their opponents in their plan to capture the White House in 2024.
Just as an escalator helped Trump glide into the center of US politics, Riggleman says, the real story is the online gears, lubricants, chains, and steps lurking just under our feet. Likewise, unless more attention is paid to these means of political production, this new political order is something we all should get used to.
“We’re in a post-truth era, but we’re also in a post-Trump world—where those belief systems are baked in, and we’re going to have to deal with this for decades,” Riggleman says. “We need to look at going faster, harder, and better with more technology and more resources in that arena.”