Extremist groups were found guilty of seditious conspiracy for Jan. 6. Now what?
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Seditious conspiracy for plotting to keep Donald Trump in power after he lost the 2020 election by leading a violent mob in attacking the Capitol - that's what four members of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys, including its leader, Enrique Tarrio, were convicted of last week. A fifth member was convicted on lesser charges. Six members of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers, including its leader Stewart Rhodes, were convicted of similar sedition charges in earlier trials. What does that mean for ongoing investigations into January 6 and attempts to overturn the 2020 election? Might Donald Trump and/or members of his inner circle face similar charges?
My guest, Alan Feuer, has been covering these stories for The New York Times. He's also covering special counsel Jack Smith's investigations into Trump and his allies. Feuer reports on extremism and political violence for The New York Times. We recorded our interview yesterday morning.
Alan Feuer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So tell us, on what grounds were the Proud Boys convicted of seditious conspiracy?
ALAN FEUER: In short, they were found guilty of having used violent force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power at the Capitol on January 6. And essentially, you know, seditious conspiracy is a charge that requires prosecutors to prove that the defendants sort of used physical violence to either oppose the authority of the U.S. government or oppose certain federal laws - in this case, the ones that kind of govern, you know, how we hand off power from one president to the next. And the Proud Boys, the jury found, were front and center in helping lead the violent mob on January 6, 2021, that broke into the Capitol and disrupted this certification process of the election that was taking place inside it during a joint session of Congress.
GROSS: Tell us a couple of the most compelling pieces of evidence that were used to convict the members of the Proud Boys.
FEUER: Sure. So the government built its case effectively in two ways. One, during the investigation, the FBI seized from the phones of the five defendants in the case, and lots of other Proud Boys who came under investigation, almost 500,000 internal text messages - most of them on the chatting app Telegram. And so the government had a kind of inside picture of what the Proud Boys were saying to one another in the days leading up to the attack and during the attack. And there was no real smoking gun in those chats, right? There was no, like, direct orders from Enrique Tarrio to his subordinates to attack the Capitol, but there were various hints of a kind of growing sense of anger and growing talk of using violence at the Capitol. And there were - on the day of the attack, you know, Tarrio himself sent a message out after the Capitol was breached with the Proud Boys in the vanguard literally saying, we did this. So, you know, in retrospect, it's pretty damning evidence.
The other kind of big bucket of evidence that the government used is that they put two former Proud Boys on the witness stand as cooperating witnesses. And these two Proud Boys were able to give the jury a picture of the group as they moved from the election to January 6. And the picture they painted was one of, you know, increasing anger at, you know, Trump's inability to use the legal system to maintain his grip on power and a growing sense that violence and, as one of the witnesses put it, all-out revolution was going to be inevitable, you know, when the crowd gathered at the Capitol on January 6. So those were the kind of two main ways that the government went about proving its case.
GROSS: The prosecutors said that leaders of the Proud Boys used the rioters at the Capitol as tools of the conspiracy. Has anyone ever used that argument before in a conspiracy case?
FEUER: No, that was a kind of novel term of art. Normally, what you have in a criminal case are - if you're a defendant, you have co-defendants, right? And so in this case, there were, you know, five co-defendants. There can also be co-conspirators who aren't necessarily charged in the case, right? They call them unindicted co-conspirators. This tools of the conspiracy construction was totally new. And, you know, the judge let it pass muster - let the government go to the jury with these arguments. But it came out of a sort of unique set of facts that underlie the whole way that the Proud Boys operated on January 6.
It was simply this. The five guys on trial had really only limited personal involvement with committing violent acts. You know, some of them, like, were accused of ripping down a barricade outside the building. One of them, Dominic Pezzola, very famously used a police riot shield to smash the first window that was broken at the Capitol, allowing rioters to flood inside. But they're - writ large, the group of, like, 200 Proud Boys that converged en masse on the Capitol were some of the most violent actors in attacking police officers, in breaching barricades and in really pushing the riot itself forward.
So what do you do if you're a prosecutor when the five guys on trial, most of whom were leaders of the group, aren't directly implicated in the physical force that is required to prove a seditious conspiracy? What they did is they used others in the group who had really limited direct communications and direct connections to the five guys on trial who were physically violent - very violent, you know, scuffling with cops, etc. - and they showed the jury videos of those Proud Boys sort of beating up officers, breaching barricades, etc., etc., and said, ah, the leaders and the defendants wielded those other Proud Boys and other people in the mob who were with the Proud Boys, adjacent to them, as tools of the conspiracy.
Now, I should say that the defense was outraged by this novel theory, and they effectively said this is guilt by association. If you want to charge some of those other Proud Boys or other members of the mob who were with the Proud Boys and bring them into the same case, call them co-conspirators, call them co-defendants, fine. But it stretched the boundaries of traditional conspiracy law to use these others as tools of the conspiracy but to sort of impute guilt upward from them to the guys who are on trial.
GROSS: So how big a part do you think that the tools of the conspiracy argument played in the actual conviction?
FEUER: Well, look, we don't have perfect vision into what the jury's deliberations were, but I will say this. The video evidence about the tools, as they were called, was really, really compelling. And it's just nasty physical violence. And so it clearly played a role, to a degree, in this conviction. You know, there were some instances when the other defendants - the actual defendants, I should say - engaged in sort of a lesser form of physical force and physical violence. Two of them were accused, as I mentioned, of ripping down a barricade. Pezzola smashed the window after stealing the police riot shield from a cop.
GROSS: Is that the scene we've seen over and over on TV?
FEUER: That is the scene we've seen over and over on TV. The January 6 committee made a big deal of it. You know, Pezzola is the guy with the shaggy hair and the beard. And, you know, he's just sort of hammering at this window with this police riot shield and ultimately breaches it, you know? And then that's really the first physical breach of the Capitol itself.
GROSS: And people just start climbing through the window after that.
FEUER: Busting through the window en masse, right? So yes, the tools of the conspiracy evidence was fundamental in the way the government made its case.
GROSS: Can you make a couple of comparisons to the seditious conspiracy trial of the Oath Keepers? And members of the Oath Keepers were convicted in that trial - in those trials. There were two trials, actually.
FEUER: Correct, there were two separate Oath Keeper trials involving seditious conspiracy. And I think, look; there's a couple of fundamental ways in which these trials, the Proud Boy trials and the Oath Keeper trials, differ. One, the Oath Keepers were accused of having an arsenal of heavy firearms at the ready across the river from D.C. in Virginia as part of what the group called a quick reaction force that was going to come to the aid of their compatriots on the ground at the Capitol if things went wrong, right? So the fact of having these weapons at the ready was instrumental in their seditious conspiracy convictions because it's a shorter leap from, you know, having to get over the hurdle of force when there are lots and lots of guns in the story, as there were for the Oath Keepers.
GROSS: And are any of the men who were convicted serving time?
FEUER: So nobody has been sentenced yet, but they are still in custody awaiting sentencing. And so the first round of sentencing hearings will be at the end of May. Stewart Rhodes is facing sentencing on May 25. The government has recommended that he serve 25 years in prison on not just the seditious conspiracy charge, but Rhodes was convicted on a couple of other conspiracy charges as well, as well as some lesser charges.
And the government is seeking what is known as a terrorism enhancement, right? So they're saying that what happened at the Capitol on January 6, what the Oath Keepers and Stewart Rhodes did, deserves to be labeled as an act of terrorism. And therefore, the sentence should be bumped up. We don't know if that's going to be the case for the Proud Boys yet. The sentencing papers for them won't be due for another - I don't know - month, six weeks, something like that. But, you know, the Oath Keepers will go first. And Rhodes will be among the first to face sentencing.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Feuer. He reports on extremism and political violence for The New York Times. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Alan Feuer. He reports on extremism and political violence for The New York Times. He's covered the seditious conspiracy trials of members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers that ended in convictions. And he's also been covering the special counsel Jack Smith's investigations into Trump's attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
As a result of the seditious conspiracy convictions, the Oath Keepers, the militia group, has disbanded. But the Proud Boys, in spite of the convictions, still exist. But the national leaders handed over leadership to local chapters. So practically, what does that mean?
FEUER: So like you said, the Oath Keepers are essentially defunct, you know? Rhodes is locked up, awaiting sentencing and will, by all accounts, go away for a long time. Their top lawyer is also facing charges connected to January 6. Even Rhodes' No. 2 man, the vice president of the Oath Keepers, was revealed - during the Oath Keepers trial, during Rhodes' trial - to be an FBI informant. You know, the Oath Keepers are not doing any kind of operations as they have for years. The Proud Boys, however, after January 6, as you mentioned, disbanded their kind of national leadership group, which was known as the Elders chapter, and effectively allowed local chapters to kind of go their own way, make their own decisions. And the Proud Boys have remained an absolute, persistent force in far-right politics.
They have managed to insert themselves into a series of kind of local hot button political issues. So when the issue of the day was, you know, school boards - local school boards arguing over things like coronavirus restrictions or the teaching of anti-racist curricula, Proud Boys would often show up at these events in sort of vaguely threatening and not so vaguely threatening ways. And they have remained, in the words of one of the witnesses who testified at the trial, foot soldiers for the right. You know, more recently, the Proud Boys have been taking part in protests of LGBTQ events - in particular, drag shows. So as those issues kind of find themselves at the center of a larger right-wing political movement, the Proud Boys have gone directly to the kind of most contentious moments and places and put themselves on the ground.
GROSS: Yeah, but a lot of action now is at the local level. And I think six current and former Proud Boys have seats on the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee. What does that say?
FEUER: So at the same time that the Proud Boys were dissolving their national leadership and were plugging in to these local hot-button issues, there was a concerted effort to have members of the group run for public office and to essentially use legitimate levers of political power to seek changes that they want - right? - so to bring far-right politics and far-right policies into kind of a more mainstream political theater. And so Miami was probably the best case or the - sort of the most dramatic case of that, but it was certainly not the only case. You know, Proud Boy out in Arizona gets a - you know, elected on a school board, you know? Before Tarrio was arrested and ultimately convicted, he, too, had run for office. So it's sort of part of a larger project amongst the Proud Boys to go after sort of mainstream political power.
GROSS: What kind of precedents do you think are set by these seditious conspiracy convictions of leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers? I mean, it's very rare to get seditious conspiracy convictions.
FEUER: It is very rare to get them. You know, they are tried infrequently and they succeed infrequently. And, you know, this is a charge that goes back to the Civil War era. So it's got this kind of long, storied history to it. So it was, in some sense, a monument of accountability seeking that the Justice Department won seditious conspiracy convictions against the leaders and lieutenants of two of the most prominent far-right extremist groups that were front and center in the violence at the Capitol on January 6. Like, that was an important milestone in this massive investigation.
You know, what it means going forward, I think, is very hard to discern, right? You mentioned the special counsel investigations into President Trump and his allies - right? - particularly the one related to the efforts to overturn the 2020 election. It's a reasonable question to ask, like, OK, now that they got seditious conspiracy convictions against these two far-right groups that were kind of front and center of the violence of the Capitol, well, does that mean that they will sort of seek the same charges against, you know, Trump and people in his orbit? And I'm not convinced that that is going to happen.
Look, it could, but I would say a couple things. One, the prosecutors placed Trump at the center of their story about the Proud Boys and seditious conspiracy. They effectively said the story began in September of 2020, during a presidential debate against Joe Biden when Trump kind of famously said, hey, Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. And the group itself heard that as a call to action. And that - you know, in the period that, you know, moved forward from there through the election, through the chaotic post-election period and, you know, up into the violence of January 6, the prosecutors described the Proud Boys as seeing themselves as Trump's army.
So Donald Trump was central to the story of why the Proud Boys did what they did after the election and on January 6. I'm not convinced that should there be charges brought against Trump, that the Proud Boys will figure as centrally into his story. And, you know, it's just that there was a concerted effort in the early days of the Justice Department's investigation to figure out connections between far-right groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys and folks in Trump's orbit, up to and including Trump. And those efforts, you know, I think they probably remain ongoing, but they certainly have not borne any real fruit to date.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Feuer, and he reports on extremism and political violence for The New York Times. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Alan Feuer, who reports on extremism and political violence for The New York Times. He covered the seditious conspiracy trials that ended in convictions of members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. He's also covering special counsel Jack Smith's investigations into Donald Trump's attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
So, you know, if the government was saying Trump helped start this whole thing, he got the ball rolling by giving these, like, you know, stand back and stand by directions to the Proud Boys, then it does kind of put Trump as the leader of the conspiracy that the Proud Boys were convicted of. And also, in terms of conspiracy charges, the Oath Keepers were security guards for Roger Stone in the period surrounding January 6. And Stone was part of Trump's inner circle, plotting to overturn the election. And I think Flynn had connections with them, too, right?
FEUER: So there's no question there is a nexus of connections between the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, Roger Stone, Mike Flynn, and that Flynn and Stone have obvious connections to Trump, right? Those connections are sort of indisputable. You know, the way that I would look at how the prosecutors used Donald Trump in the Proud Boys - we'll just take that one example, it's the most recent - seditious conspiracy prosecution is Trump was part of the way that the prosecutors described the Proud Boys' motive and mindset. What they did on January 6, they did sort of on behalf of Trump and in order to keep him in power, right? You know, it's like motive evidence, mindset, intent evidence. Why did they do it? What were they thinking?
So I'm not sure if you flip that equation around that you get to Trump's mindset by what the Proud Boys did. And beyond that, there is a much simpler - one imagines - way to structure a case against someone like Donald Trump and folks in his orbit with regard to the election, and that is a case built on another charge that has been central in the January 6, prosecutions, which is an obstruction to disrupt the election certification that was taking place at the Capitol, right? So what you see is there is an effort by the special counsel's office to collect evidence that may be indicative that Trump sought to obstruct that process, the certification of the election and all that meant for kind of, you know, the normal course of democracy, probably in a couple of ways.
One, did he have a role in ginning up these fake slates of electors in his name in states that Joe Biden won? Were those fake slates of electors ultimately used on January 6 itself as a legal pretext to tank the normal counting of Electoral College votes? Was Donald Trump's well-documented pressure campaign against then-Vice President Mike Pence to use those fake electors as an excuse to sink the election or unilaterally hand the election to Donald Trump yet further evidence that Trump was seeking to obstruct this kind of age-old Democratic process? I think that that would be, as complicated as it is, an easier road perhaps to go than trying to prove that Trump had some sort of conspiratorial agreement with the far-right groups who actually committed the violence at the Capitol.
GROSS: And he did have members of his inner circle telling him, you lost. There's no evidence of sufficient fraud to overturn the election.
FEUER: Yes, he did. And look. The January 6 committee did a very thorough job in documenting all the ways in which Trump was informed that his lies, that the election had been marred by fraud, were lies and that they were not correct. Everyone from his attorney general to his campaign manager to lawyers close to him to, you know, his White House counsel, up and down the board, he was being told that all of this stuff, Mr. President, that you are claiming is not true. That evidence, that body of testimony and that body of evidence is definitely front and center in Jack Smith's inquiry as well.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Feuer. He reports on extremism and political violence for The New York Times. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Alan Feuer, who covers extremism and political violence for The New York Times. He's been reporting on the seditious conspiracy trials and the convictions of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. And he's covering special counsel Jack Smith's investigations into whether Trump attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Well, let's talk about special counsel Jack Smith. He's investigating the classified documents found at Mar-A-Lago and if Trump intentionally hid them from the Justice Department. He's investigating Trump's fundraising after the election. What would be the crime? What is he - what exactly is Smith investigating about Trump's fundraising after the election?
FEUER: So the kind of central question about the fundraising, it's an issue of fraud. Did Donald Trump and the folks who were raising money with and for him use a story about election fraud to raise money for their fundraising entities, like super PACs and the like, knowing full well that the fraud claims themselves were not true? You know, were they just selling a story to a gullible public to take their money? That, at base, is the question that the special counsel is seeking to answer in looking into the fundraising.
And that really involves a couple of parts, right? First of all, did Trump know that the fraud claims were not true, right? You have to kind of establish that he was making these claims that he knew were not, in fact, true. And then, you know, like, how was the money raised? And was it raised in a way that was not consistent with the reason that they were asking for it, right? If I'm raising money to, you know, defend myself in court against a fraudulent election, but I'm actually using the money for another purpose, well, that's not allowed. And so that is a very active part of what the special counsel is doing. In fact, it had the special counsel's appointment, that investigation. So it's kind of related to the election interference part of his portfolio, but it is also kind of carved out in a sort of separate niche.
GROSS: So what else is under Jack Smith's umbrella right now in his investigation?
FEUER: So the one other inquiry that we haven't yet discussed is the issue of Trump's handling of classified material that he took with him from the White House after leaving office. The most dramatic event attached to this inquiry was, of course, the FBI search of Mar-A-Lago, Trump's private club and residence in West Palm, Fla., that took place last August. The FBI showed up. They hauled away, you know, a bunch of boxes of material. And in those boxes, they found about a hundred classified documents.
So he's really looking at three potential crimes. One is, you know, were the documents that Trump had national defense secrets that would be illegal to kind of keep outside of a secure facility? A lesser charge in the same vein that - you know, the question here is simply like, did he have presidential records that he shouldn't have kept? Right? It doesn't have to even necessarily be classified stuff. And thirdly, you know, did his efforts over the course of, like, what was more than a year and a half - did he obstruct the government's attempts to get all this stuff back or to kind of investigate what was going on with his handling of all this material?
GROSS: So is special prosecutor Jack Smith looking into the plans to put together alternate slate of electors from swing states that Biden actually won or to block or delay Congress' certification of the Electoral College? Is he looking into that? Because, you know, Trump's inner circle and perhaps Trump himself were involved with that plan. I mean, I think Trump - you know, one of Trump's lawyers, John Eastman, was at the core of that plan.
FEUER: Yeah. I mean, look, we know a lot about what happened because of the work of the January 6 committee. And the committee has shown that lawyers around Trump - like John Eastman, like Rudy Giuliani, like another guy who worked in the Trump Justice Department named Jeff Clark - were front and center in this scheme to gin up these slates of electors, showing that Trump won in these important swing states and then, frankly, to use those fake slates down the road, you know, to kind of subvert the normal course of democracy. Yes. So there's a group of people, mostly lawyers, around Trump that are really at the center of Jack Smith's inquiry.
GROSS: How is what Jack Smith looking into comparing to the investigation and the charges that the House Select Committee investigating January 6 recommended?
FEUER: So I think, as best we can tell, there is a relatively close coherence between what the committee recommended and what the special counsel is looking at. The committee recommended a few charges against Trump and some folks under him - one, this obstruction of official proceeding charge that we discussed; two, a conspiracy to defraud the United States, which the fake electors thing could fit under that conspiracy to kind of commit fraud, right?
The committee also recommended a charge that was incitement to insurrection. And that gets back to the beginning of our conversation, I think, about when you were asking if the Proud Boys' seditious conspiracy convictions sort of give any momentum to the notion that the special counsel or DOJ might pursue similar charges against Trump or people in his orbit, too, because those charges get at the idea - was Donald Trump's behavior in inciting the mob, you know, criminal? Should he be held liable, criminally liable, for ginning up this lie about the election and then, ultimately, unleashing a violent mob on the Capitol?
GROSS: Jack Smith is investigating several different categories of actions that Trump allegedly took. So I'm not sure. Like, would each of those result in separate trials, if they end up in trial? Is there only one grand jury, or is there a separate grand jury for each of those tracks that Jack Smith is investigating?
FEUER: So to answer your second question first, the best we can tell, given the secrecy that surrounds grand juries, is that there are two grand juries - at least two, we should say. One is primarily concerned with the classified documents case. The other is primarily concerned with the attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Because of the nature of the witnesses, some of whom have information about both cases - right? - people in Trump's close circles - there has been some overlap where questions about one case will be asked in a grand jury, supposedly about the other, and vice versa.
In terms of charges and trials, I think that's a big black box at the moment. Whether or not the special counsel - let's say, for argument's sake, both cases lead to charges, right? Does he file them separately, as two separate cases? Probably, right? Does he announce them simultaneously? Impossible to know. You know, does he charge, like, lower-level Trump-adjacent defendants? In one case, early. Does he build a giant racketeering-like conspiracy case? Unknown. Just sort of like, there are any number of possibilities that could come out of this, including - let's not forget - that he comes to the end of his investigation. He writes a report, as he is required to do under the special counsel law. And he says, you know what? I looked at all this stuff, and what happened on January 6 had never happened in the course of our nation's history, but there's just no crime there that, you know, relates to Donald Trump. We have to keep in our mind that that is at least a possibility. You know, the same with the documents case. He could come to the end of that investigation and be like, there's no there there.
GROSS: Do you think that's likely to happen?
FEUER: I'm not in the business of predicting that stuff. I'm just saying that I've been doing criminal investigations, covering them for over 20 years, and that is within the realm of the possible.
GROSS: Is there anything in the works that might prevent Trump's legal ability to continue running for reelection?
FEUER: There have been discussions about using the 14th Amendment to prevent people like Trump from running for office. There's a section of the 14th Amendment that essentially disqualifies candidates from running for office if they have been proven to engage in insurrection, right? This gets back again to, like, post-Civil-War-era stuff. And there have been earlier cases brought against lower-level politicians, including, frankly, there was one case of this nature brought against Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican representative from Georgia. That case failed.
There was a successful case of this nature brought against a local politician out of New Mexico who took part in the storming of the Capitol and, you know, in the local courts in New Mexico, he was barred from running for office again under this sort of insurrection provision of the 14th Amendment. And there has been a lot of conversation by the lawyers who have brought those cases that a similar case could, in theory, be brought against Trump. There is no case of that sort at the moment.
GROSS: Who decides whether there will be charges - like, criminal charges against Trump resulting from the Jack Smith investigation? Is it Smith who decides or Attorney General Merrick Garland?
FEUER: It's ultimately the attorney general's decision. So Smith will write a report. He will make recommendations. That's his job as special counsel. But the decision will ultimately be made by Merrick Garland.
GROSS: All right. Time for another break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Feuer, and he reports on extremism and political violence for The New York Times. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Alan Feuer, who reports on extremism and political violence for The New York Times. He covered the seditious conspiracy trials that ended in convictions of leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, and he's been covering special counsel Jack Smith's investigations into whether Trump attempted to overturn the election.
Getting back to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, whose leaders were found guilty of seditious conspiracy, just because the Oath Keepers no longer exist and the leadership of the Proud Boys has given power over to the local chapters, that doesn't mean that racism, antisemitism, anti-LGBTQ protests and violence have been quieted. What is some of the evidence that it's actually escalating? And you might want to mention the two incidents from last weekend.
FEUER: Well, sure. To begin with that, you know, what we had just, you know, within days was a young guy in Allen, Texas, shot up a bunch of people at an outlet mall. And it was later revealed through his social media site that he was a violent misogynist with an adoration of the Nazis and a penchant for making, you know, really virulent rants against Black people. And so one of the main threats moving forward that, you know, experts who track this point to is the emergence of these lone attackers who appear to be radicalized to far-right ideologies online in the way that this guy in Allen, Texas, was.
That, however, is not the only kind of threat on the horizon. You know, there are other organized groups outside of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers who have really caught the attention of federal law enforcement. Some of them - there's a kind of group of cases collected around people with far-right ideologies who want to blow up power infrastructure - like, you know, electrical grids and the like - the idea being that this will somehow cause chaos and, you know, further the kind of, you know, demise of civilization. They call themselves accelerationists. They want to accelerate the chaos.
So there's, like, a kind of a range of stuff. And so the landscape is very complicated and very active when it comes to far-right extremism. It's not just loners. You know, it's not just small groups. It's not just big groups. It's kind of all of it at the same time.
GROSS: Which makes it harder for federal authorities to investigate, right?
FEUER: So, look, at the end of the day, when you talk to experts who really delve into this stuff, you hear something similar, which is there isn't really a law-and-order solution to the problem that we are facing. It's not investigate, lock people up and, you know, then we'll all be fine. The seditious conspiracy trials, which were just that approach, were, you know, hugely successful endeavors in holding accountable these specific men, these specific groups. But when you look at a metastasizing problem of extremist ideology in a large body of more or less ordinary people - right? - who don't necessarily have affiliations to groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, may not even have affiliations to these lesser groups, you can't arrest and prosecute your way out of that problem.
And so there are people who suggest that this is simply a matter of, like, you know, intervention into people who go down rabbit holes of misinformation, right? I'm thinking of a scholar named Cynthia Miller-Idriss. She talks a lot about, you got to stop people from having these, you know, lies and hateful ideologies presented to them in the first place. You know, how that happens - tough question.
Other scholars - I'm thinking of a guy named Bob Pape at the University of Chicago. He looks at something like what Joe Biden did last fall before the midterm elections by posing a political question to the American public. Do you stand on the side of democracy, or do you stand on the side of extremism? Call it out. Point to it and create a way for people to pick a side in that battle. And so Pape's thought is simply that politicians have to address this issue head on, right? And by all accounts, Biden is going to do that in his 2024 presidential campaign. You know, his first campaign ad featured footage of January 6, and he has kind of crafted an anti-extremist, pro-democracy message that hopefully, you know, reaches a wide audience.
GROSS: So I might have asked you this before, but what's it like for you to have a front row seat to American hatred? Your beat is extremism and political violence. You've been writing about plenty of it.
FEUER: It's tiring. You know, I'm not going to lie. You know, it's nice that I live way out in the boonies and raise ducks and, you know, when I wake up in the morning, I can have a few minutes of real disconnection from all of that stuff. But, yeah, it's a lot. It's a lot.
GROSS: Alan Feuer, a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much, and thank you for your reporting.
FEUER: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Alan Feuer covers extremism and political violence for The New York Times.
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