Arieh Kovler knew. “On January 6, armed Trumpist militias will be rallying in DC, at Trump's orders,” he wrote on Twitter on December 21st. “It's highly likely that they'll try to storm the Capitol after it certifies Joe Biden's win. I don't think this has sunk in yet.” It sank in for the rest of us yesterday, when Trumpist militias stormed the capitol. If Arieh Kovler knew, why didn’t everyone else?
We all could have, says Kovler, a political consultant with a background in government relations in the U.K. who studies extremist Trump message boards. In his telling, it wasn’t all that difficult to see the writing on the wall. (In fact, many people went beyond Kovler, and went as far as to email DC police warning them of an incoming siege.) A single Trump tweet had the power to provoke his base into organizing yesterday’s events. "Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!" Trump wrote. “Once Trump said be there,” Kovler said on a phone call Thursday morning, “they interpreted that as a call to action, as their marching orders.” As one Trump supporter on Reddit interpreted it: “DADDY SAYS BE IN DC ON JAN. 6TH.”
Scarier still is how much worse Wednesday could have gone. Kovler wondered if one way the protesters might swing the election in Trump’s favor was by “forcing Congress to certify him as the winner at gunpoint,” he wrote in the original Twitter thread from December. This wasn’t baseless theorizing, either—it, too, came from online posting visible to anyone who bothered to look. “They imagined that this was the day there were going to be mass executions of Congressmen,” Kovler said. So while DC police assert there was “no intelligence that suggests that there would be a breach of the US Capitol,” Kovler is just surprised it wasn’t much worse.
GQ: How are you doing?
Kovler: I'm not terribly surprised, because I've been stressed out about this for weeks. And ultimately, you know, compared to what I saw, it didn't go as badly as it could have gone.
What you wrote on Twitter so precisely predicted what happened yesterday. What were you seeing that led you to these beliefs?
We first encountered Trumpism bubbling up through the Chans—4Chan, 8Chan, 2Chan—and Reddit. In around 2015 it emerged into an essentially performative act. The original Trump fans online were people who didn't believe in Trump particularly, but they thought he was really funny. They essentially convinced themselves into believing their own joke.
Obviously by the time he was the nominee, things were different, because he had much wider support. Originally, it was on the Chans, which became a haven for the far right—what would become in modern parlance the alt right. And also Reddit—the most popular subreddit for Trump supporters was called r/TheDonald, which was banned. For a time it was quite important, and then it became less important, and then it was finally banned and the people behind it went and set up their own version of it at TheDonald.win, which is one of the major Trumpist forums online.
You can see that, basically, the day Trump put out his call saying “big rally in Washington on the 6th,” the die was cast. I'm sure that there were going to be people coming on the 6th anyway but once Trump said “be there,” they interpreted that as a call to action, as their marching orders. Trump supporters thought they would come and would be called on to do something.
What did they think they were being called on to do?
They thought, "This is the thing we have been asked to do. Trump is telling us to do this, so we have to do it." But more than that, it must be important enough, the key to his winning. Because why would he ask us to come to Washington if it wasn't part of the plan? It wouldn't make any sense. There's a trend among the Trump fans—it's almost religious—to see him as basically infallible and any mistakes are caused by bad people around him. He wouldn't be calling us to Washington unless there was a purpose that would ultimately end in him winning the election.
So they saw that, and are convinced they're coming in order to win the election. Or perhaps they're going to be an army. You can see the discussions around this: “Why has he asked us to come? Surely there's a reason.” They would say, “Should we bring guns? Is he asking us to bring guns? But maybe he doesn't want us to be armed because if we're armed we'll get in trouble, and we need to be there.”
The other part of it this is that since the late summer, when Trump was falling in polls and Biden was polling thoroughly ahead, the one thing I picked up from all parts of Trump World—from the QAnon-ish to the MAGA-ish to fairly moderate conservatives—is: Trump's gonna win. You didn't see that from people supporting Biden. You saw, you really hope he wins. The Trump people thought: Trump's going to win and not only is he going to win, you smug liberals, you're going to have the smile wiped off your face. This ideology really took hold and a lot of people really believed it. Trump was continually telling them everything was in the bag and he was massively ahead and we're going to win California and it's going to be a landslide.
Come Election Day, he doesn't win. So all these people go, "Wait, it can't be. How could Trump possibly lose an election that everyone I know knew he was going to win?" I could just see a certain reality catching up with [them], and it would have to be on that day [of the certification]. And once they saw Trump saying to his supporters, come to DC on that day, I could see it going the wrong way.
You could see the discussion become less abstract. By last week, these people were sharing maps of D.C. They were talking about having enough of them that they would be able to erect basically their own cadre around the entire area of Congress. They had a map of the tunnels [in the basement of the Capitol], and they were talking about how they're going to be able to stop Congress from leaving. They imagined that this was the day there were going to be mass executions of Congressmen.
But a lot of them also just imagined they were going to be there for this historic time when Trump pulled away the curtain and revealed that all of Congress were traitors and then took his just and equal revenge. There were a variety of characters: people who were there to watch Trump gain control and people who thought Trump would win, but only by activating the military, [with] a proper military coup that they supported. They thought they were there to go and purge Congress. They were there to stop the certification. They were there to punish those who went against Trump. When you put them all together, you get this explosive mixture.
The only thing that surprised me was that it was not the army I expected it to be.
Why do you say that?
They didn't have as many guns. They had this fantasy that, There are going to be thousands of us carrying AR-15s and what are they going to do? But many of them may have had guns in their cars and just didn't take them out. And maybe Capitol police were surprised and then took less forceful action against the protesters. And that's how these guys were able to march in. I actually feel like, if they were armed, it would have triggered a more severe response.
It sounds like there were plans for something much more severe. You're talking about the execution of members of Congress. Why do you think that didn't come to fruition?
A lot of these people were there for the ride. I think that had things gotten more violent, there would have been a lot of people who would be very willing to go along with it. I think that ultimately the police successfully kept elected officials out of the hands of these people.
There's also the question of what cues they're taking from Trump. While he was certainly quite contentious [in his video], it didn't quite rise to the level of, "Now is the time to act." He could have said something that was absolutely unequivocally understood by these people to be an order to attack. Instead, he told them to go home. It confused the hell out of them. On the one hand, there's a nudge and a wink, but they didn't understand. They thought, "Aren't we here to do a job? Did we do the job? Did we win?" It was a lot of confusion about what that was all about.
From what you've said, it sounds like a lot of this planning and organizing for this was really happening in plain sight if you were just willing to look and dig. Is that correct?
I think that's true, up to a point. In the last week or so, this stuff began to move more into private groups. I don't know what you would have gotten if you were in the private groups; the answer is possibly nothing. There was so much going on in public, I find it hard to believe that there was that much going on in private.
But my point is, if you knew this was going to happen weeks ago, it seems reasonable that we should expect that people in power should have known and prepped for this.
Yeah. I don't understand how things went as badly as they did. My only thought is that they were maybe expecting people to be more armed and when they didn't see a bunch of people carrying AR-15s they thought, “Aw, that's all right, it's just a normal protest,” and then failed to understand the gravity of the situation. But this was absolutely predictable.
I'm also almost surprised to hear that they sort of were mapping out these pretty specific plans or fantasies, because it does seem that when a lot of them got into the Capitol Building, they didn't really know what to do. They went up on the dais, someone stole a podium, they trashed some offices. But it didn't appear that there was a coherent plan that had been worked out for weeks.
That's right. When all these people were talking about their contingencies, it was always if and when Trump tells us to. The overriding message I was seeing was, "We're here to do a job, we don't know what that job is yet. When Trump said we're going to go to the Capitol, I guess our job is to go to the Capitol." But then they didn't get any further instructions, so there was a moment of, "Okay, now what? Surely this isn't why Trump called us to DC, we don't get it. This was where he was supposed to unveil the evidence, or arrest the plotters, or reveal that China is behind it." And then none of this happened.
I even saw people looking for post-Trump Trumpism. They're furious at Ted Cruz when he flipped back, and at Mike Pence, [in their minds] one of the biggest traitors. But now there's a little thinking that, "Trump kind of betrayed us, too. He told us he was the only one who could save the country and we believed it. And he's the only one who can stop Communist Joe Biden from selling organs to Chinese people. And he's not doing that and that means he's also a traitor." There's some very odd stuff popping up in Trump spaces right now. Obviously, that's not the majority of Trump fans, but there are all these people who just don't know, "Was there ever a plan? Was there a plan and it didn't work?" What we are going to see over the next few days is people trying to reassemble their worldviews.
From what you're seeing, is there a chance that something like yesterday, happens again in the next couple of weeks, leading up to or even on Inauguration Day?
I don't think so. First, the inauguration is done with the Secret Service and the FBI. It's a different ballgame. I think the next couple of days, statehouses need to watch out. That's where I would be looking at. I don't think there's going to be another thing in D.C.
Speaking of scary predictions, you also wrote on Twitter that you believe Trump is going to run again in 2024. What leads you to that?
Well, I know that that's out there—I didn't think of it. It has been broadly talked about. It's going to make him a lot of money. There's a decent possibility that he holds his first rally for president on Inauguration Day.
On these channels, are you seeing that people are excited at the prospect of him running again?
Honestly, no. I'm not detecting their enthusiasm yet, but that might change if he says he's going to do it. No one is saying, "Oh, well, we have 2024." Partly because they believe the elections are rigged. They don't think he can win in 2024.
Originally Appeared on GQ