Let's talk about September 18
There's a far-right rally happening in DC next weekend. Coverage of it has been awful. Here's what you actually need to know.
(Update: This was originally sent to paid supporters of the newsletter but after a few hours I’ve decided to unlock it because there are some folks in the press I think need to read this.)
The Associated Press reported on September 1 that “three people familiar with intelligence gathered by federal officials” told its reporters that right-wing extremist groups including the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were planning to attend a September 18 rally in DC to demand “justice” for people arrested for participating in the US Capitol riot.
Since the AP report, many national news media outlets have carried headlines, broadcast segments, and analysis that deliver ominous warnings of potential violence or organized extremist presence in DC on that day. Many of these stories center on responses that Capitol Police and elected officials have had in response to questions their outlets have asked them about the rally. And a whole lot of these stories invoke images of the January 6 riot in their coverage.
Take it from me, a guy who spends 40+ hrs a week staring into the extremist abyss: What you’re seeing at this point is largely speculation. To be perfectly honest, I’m a frustrated at what I’ve seen so far from the nation’s leading publishers of journalism. It feels they have learned nothing about covering this space.
This is not to say that the event will not carry an inherent risk of attracting extreme believers, or even some with a violent disposition. For that, the event is worth monitoring and keeping tabs on. I’d also strongly advise people stay away from the rally, given that possibility. But suggestions that organized extremist groups are mobilizing at any major scale around this event are unsupported by current analysis.
Let me break down why that is.
An event hosted by a wannabe
The September 18 rally is being staged by a group called Look Ahead America, which is the product of a Trump-cinematic-universe reject named Matt Braynard. BuzzFeed News has a great profile piece on the guy, who it aptly describes to be “Forrest Gumping his way through the postelection Trump universe.” A veteran flunky of dubious efforts to undo the results of the 2020 election, Braynard is now seeking to make his name rewriting the narrative of what happened on January 6. He has even appeared alongside white nationalists to advance that effort.
Braynard has hosted a couple DC events in this vein before, outside the Department of Justice and the DC Jail, respectively. Neither event was particularly well-attended. But this one, he hopes, will be different.
Braynard claims that members of Congress will be speaking at the DC rally, though he has yet to share names, and projected on a permit form that he might host up to 700 attendees. Online, Barynard has sought to fundraise $27,800 for the rally for expenses including $5,500 for “security” and $6,000 for “State Rallies Sept 25.” (Braynard is hoping to inspire satellite events the following weekend.)
Helping promote the rally to sympathetic audiences is none other than Steve Bannon. But beyond that… there’s not much.
Fundamental hurdles undermine efforts
Despite the hype, Braynard and his organization face a major hurdle in getting large crowds out to a contentious political event in DC: These crowds are still scared shitless to try it.
Paranoia of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ surveillance has been one of the single most uniting factors in far-right extremist movements this year so far. (And perhaps rightfully so; federal agencies have named their movements as leading threats to national security.) Communities online where people with radical right-wing views mingle have been rife with distrust and skepticism, fearing “glowies” may be lurking among them. Because of this tension, calls to organize political events in the name of far-right causes have been regularly and aggressively shot down by what would in other circumstances be excited ideological allies.
In an attempt to counteract that anxiety, some far-right movement figures have suggested an alternative to their supporters: organizing at the local and state levels. By doing so, they wager, their supporters will be less likely to garner the attention of the federal entities they so fear. Going local, they suggest to each other, might also help solidify power and influence their movements gained during the Trump years. After all, few people are truly engaged in local politics. That’s a lot of influence up for grabs to a dedicated movement.
For the most part, extremist organizing has obeyed the call for local focus. There have been few major national efforts this year, and even less in the perimeter of DC.
Organizers don’t have a cheat code
Look Ahead America’s event does not possess any secret sauce for overcoming the fundamental hurdle in front of it. Though Braynard and his event have been promoted on the podcast that Bannon hosts, and a New York Proud Boy encouraged people to attend the event at a rally in Oregon a couple weeks ago, the overwhelming consensus in extremist communities has become clear: Don’t go.
Here are a few select samples of the kind of things being said online about the event:
- Proud Boys: “We aren’t going and you shouldn’t either because [everybody is] going to jail. Sounds like bait.”
- Ron Watkins of QAnon fame: “Do yourself a favor and stay away from DC on September 18.”
- Gab CEO Andrew Torba: “If you attend a conservative protest in DC you will become a political prisoner of the state and no one, not the ‘thin blue line,’ not the GOP, and not even Trump will defend you. Have fun. Not worth it. “
- The Gateway Pundit: It’s possibly “FBI manufactured” to entrap attendees.
- Lawyer for the Oath Keepers: “I do not know of any specific plan to attend, other than what we are watching the media fabricate.”
Would-be rally goers and organizers know this is a problem for mobilizing turnout to the September 18 event. A user in the Discord server used by Look Ahead America complained the other day that “[t]he glowie narrative is successfully creating inaction” among their likeminded individuals.
Braynard and his organizers do not have a clear strategy to address this glaring issues beyond a dismissive: “So what?”
I just don’t see that convincing anyone to attend who wasn’t already planning to.
Media just needs to call experts
The most disheartening part of the saga around this event has been the apparent eagerness of national news entities to gargle and regurgitate information from law enforcement entities without thinking to check it past some subject matter experts first. If you’re reading this and work at a national outlet: We are here to help you!
I suppose there is always a possibility that September 18’s rally could attract some extremist groups. There is still time, after all. But I am highly skeptical that they would appear in any kind of significant numbers without at least some kind of indication of that appearing in the communities they so often frequent.
As I told one of the few outlets that actually has asked me what I thought about these hyped-up fears: "I’ve seen maybe a couple of threads on [right-wing forums] or comments here or there. But at the moment, there’s not much to support the idea that this will get enough momentum to even scratch the surface of what happened on January 6."
My latest writings for work
In the small town of Jamison, Pennsylvania, a couple has laid the blueprints for a national militia movement organization. Facing scrutiny from local media and concern from nearby residents, the group has sought to downplay and deny its militia movement connections. I took a look at the group’s online footprints to expose their disingenuous efforts to save face.
As we near the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, I took a moment to reflect on the current nexus of domestic extremism and the internet. In the piece, I outlined some of my predictions for the future of online communications from such violent extremist groups.