Sometime in October 2020, I woke up from a nightmare. It must have been around five in the morning. I got up to pee in the gloaming and scurried back to bed as if I were being chased. I tried to keep myself awake, knowing that if I fell back to sleep immediately I’d be plunged back in. I needed to shed the dream and dispel its feeling.
I replayed the dream in my head. I was with Jonah, my husband, in our apartment in Washington DC, but it had no roof. We were living in a parallel universe where the dead could choose to come back to life for a while, at any time. We heard a noise and looked up. Two bright orbs were shooting across the sky — two souls returning to Earth. Inside each orb was a Confederate general. I think one might have been the villain with the ear horn from Wild Wild West. It sounds silly, but it felt so real. I couldn’t shake it.
And then I had a paranoid thought I’d never had before: the nightmare had been beamed into my head by someone, or a device, in the apartment building across the street. The complex had large, modern glass windows that provided a perfect view into each identical unit. Only about half of them were populated; the rest stood empty, white walls and new appliances waiting for their high-end renters. I imagined some kind of sound gun, like the ones rumored to have been used in attacks on US officials in Cuba, or the LRADs used against protesters, sending waves from across the street. I imagined the dream, whatever it was, was not my own.
Though I was aware of the absurdity of this conviction, it did nothing to loosen my sleepy belief. Because I work in journalism, I get multiple emails a day from people who believe they are being targeted with electromagnetic pulses, sometimes with photos of the insides of their phones attached. On one hand, they are obviously crazy. On the other hand, isn’t technology now advanced enough for attacks like that to be possible? Living in DC often gave me fleeting thoughts of what might be going on under the surface. The streets were filled with cars with blacked-out windows, and everywhere I looked were landmarks of assassinations and nefarious plots. There were buildings occupied by the Secret Service with the blinds always pulled down and cars idling outside 24/7. During the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, I saw a young man wiggle a cobblestone free from the road and throw it into the glass storefront of a bank lobby — as if the city were made of pixels, or gingerbread, that could be easily reconfigured from civility into war. Patio umbrellas from upscale cafés became props for a confrontation with the police. The Cuban embassy had been shot at a few months earlier, leaving pockmarks on its facade.
I picked up my phone to really wake myself up and googled pregnancy paranoia. Everything was a symptom of pregnancy; could this be one too? Had the blast of hormones broken the delicate sanity I’d managed to eke out, so far, in my life? The transition from being one person to being one person containing another person seemed like it could trigger a dissolution of the ego. It had been only two months, but my body had already proved far less robust than I believed it was. The embryo at times took complete control of me, forced me to stop what I was doing, pushed me to sleep in the afternoon and to double over at any time of day. I joked with a friend about feeling like I had been turned into a prosthetic body for my little parasite, like a giant robot mech in an anime. Or like one of those plastic tubs of water on the sidewalk on Canal Street in New York City, with a windup plastic frog swimming and kicking against the sides.
As a journalist, I wanted to be at the center of history; as a pregnant woman, I was desperate to avoid it — and Covid — at all costs.Tweet
My paranoia echoed. The following night, a car idled too loudly and too long outside my window. Jonah picked up on it too, remarking that a crew working on a sewer on our block was using an unmarked van. Also, it was like 9 PM. Could the workers be installing surveillance equipment? “If anywhere, then here,” he said and laughed. If there was anywhere you could be caught up in surveillance or sonic manipulation, it was DC.
About a month after my dream, in late November 2020, we moved to the suburbs just north of DC, where the challenge is the sameness of everything. Paranoia means you feel singled out, special — chosen or condemned. In the suburbs, all the houses have the same design and no one talks about politics. Opinions are expressed through lawn decorations: cheeky takes on the everyone is welcome here yard signs; a God Bless America sign held by a penguin in front of a Santa wearing military fatigues. The constant clap of helicopters gave way to the ubiquitous, distant sound of the Beltway. I no longer dressed like a hipster, or to distinguish myself. None of my cool clothes fit. By January, I had become just another pregnant suburban mom-to-be on the running path in leggings and a Patagonia jacket.
On January 6, 2021, I got a wave of texts from friends old and new asking whether I was in or around the Capitol Building; before the pandemic, I went there frequently for work. No, I was working remotely, I was nowhere nearby, we were watching the unfolding chaos from our basement, carpeted and insulated from the outside world. When the rioters breached the Capitol, I briefly considered heading downtown, but the violence gave me pause. As a journalist, I wanted to be at the center of history; as a pregnant woman, I was desperate to avoid it — and Covid — at all costs. Like everyone else, I watched cable TV and stared at my phone while the footage repeated itself over and over again. Head down: phone; head up: TV. Reporters on the Senate balcony were tweeting about having to duck and cover while the glass on the doors to the Senate floor was being broken by people who believed the election had been stolen.
Many of these people were adherents of QAnon, a conspiracy theory that exploded into a nationwide movement during the first lockdown in March 2020. They were bored and angry, probably, and spending way more time online. QAnon gave its followers a narrative to hang onto when nihilism reigned, one that easily pivoted to election fraud when Trump lost. In September 2020, before the Capitol mob, BuzzFeed News’s style guide began referring to QAnon as a collective delusion, rather than a far-right conspiracy theory, because it had “grown to encompass a whole alternative world of beliefs and signals.” Even while conspiracy or paranoia bring the truth of mainstream accounts into question, their main effect is to simplify, not to obscure; to add meaning where there is none, to imagine particles where there may or may not be any, connect dots that don’t connect, make bread out of bread crumbs, and to make life more comprehensible until it begins to constrict you. Conspiracy promises clarity. “The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent,” wrote Richard Hofstadter in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” published in Harper’s in 1964. “In fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.”
After January 6, 2021, QAnon had more followers than some major religions. The slogan of the movement — “Where we go one, we go all” — promised strength in numbers. The crowd propelled itself, like a murmuration of birds or a microwave bombardment: online messages joined forces to form a targeted weapon. The conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs who believed the election was stolen projected themselves outward, inflicting their fantasy on everyone else.
Watching, we were nervous, but also incredulous. The Q shaman, who posed at the top of the Senate rostrum, looked like he had purchased a Lord of the Flies costume from Target. Trump supporters scaled walls adjacent to perfectly accessible stairs. A woman in a MAGA hat sat behind a desk, apparently vaping. Livestreaming rioters on the lawn were attempting to burn TV crews’ equipment — yelling “We ARE the news!” — but the rubble they collected wouldn’t properly catch fire because it was mostly made of metal. Was this a coup, or was it a cartoon? When was the anvil going to drop from the sky, flattening the Q shaman so that birds flew around his dizzy head? We were giddy with undirected energy. “I hope we all end up in the same camp,” one of Jonah’s friends joked.
The tone became more somber as the crowds cleared and reports emerged of six, then four, then five deaths that day. Apart from one Capitol Police officer, the rest of the people killed were right-wing rioters: one from a heart attack, one from a gunshot, one from a stroke, and one initially reported as death by “a crush of fellow rioters,” but subsequently revised to be an accidental overdose, according to the New York Times.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez later described her experience of hiding in a closet and hearing people searching for her: “Where is she? Where is she?” A week before the mob descended, Ocasio-Cortez recalled on Instagram Live, she was warned about the violence that might erupt that day. The frame of the video — a tight shot on Ocasio-Cortez’s face — the unnatural lighting, and her gray turtleneck sweater gave the vague impression that she was shooting somewhere official and hidden, away from windows. “I started to get text messages that I needed to be careful,” she said. “We knew in advance that violence was planned.” Her colleagues in Congress questioning the election were part of it: “We knew that that violence needed someone to tell the lie.”
Many Republicans refused to renounce the violent trespassers; eight senators refused to certify the election results in either Arizona or Pennsylvania, as did two-thirds of emboldened House Republicans. The call was coming from inside the building. Democrat Jim Clyburn suspected there was “someone on the inside” who let rioters in and directed them toward his office. Newly installed metal detectors on the House floor caught a Maryland Republican trying to casually carry a gun to a vote, bringing to light the disturbing fact that members are allowed to have guns in their offices. A photoshopped image resurfaced, posted by Marjorie Taylor Greene, of herself in sunglasses holding a gun alongside the ghostly black-and-white faces of Ilhan Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib. Greene, a former Q adherent (“I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true,” she said), was stripped of committee assignments in the House. The caption of the image, originally posted in the fall, was Squad’s Worst Nightmare.
Only Rep. Jamie Raskin, my congressman over the border in Maryland who later became a member of the committee investigating the attack, said he felt no fear on the day of the Capitol storming because he had nothing to fear. The worst thing had already happened to him: his son had committed suicide just days earlier.
What kind of governance is possible with violence — real and imagined — looming in and around the Capitol? The public is still not allowed inside for tours, now for the double reasons of Covid and January 6. Many staffers do not wear masks, even when crammed into the Senate’s tiny, golden elevators, inhaling and exhaling clouds of possibly infectious aerosols. The extensive barricades around the building, now mostly gone, had the dual function of keeping the masses out and the electeds in — like fighting children told to stay in their room until they’ve worked out their differences. The differences are not being worked out. Congress is as petty and performative as always, but with a new vocabulary of threat — no less goofy, but way more disturbing. Last December a Kentucky congressman, Thomas Massie, posted a photo of his family in front of a Christmas tree, decked out in flannel, smiling and holding huge guns.
Just after Thanksgiving, as the House’s major legislative work for the year was coming to a close, the fallout between members after January 6 again came into focus. The House passed both the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was signed into law, and the Build Back Better Act, which was sent to the Senate to stagnate. It soon surfaced that Rep. Lauren Boebert had told an audience at an unspecified event a joke about getting into an elevator with Rep. Omar and worrying about whether she was a suicide bomber. “Well, she doesn’t have a backpack. We should be fine,” says Boebert in a video recording of the event, knees slightly bent, swaying back and forth on stilettos. She’s wearing what looks like a Blue Lives Matter T-shirt and black skinny jeans.
The comments were everywhere, at least for a few days. A second video showed Boebert at a fundraiser a few months earlier calling Omar and Tlaib “black-hearted” and “evil.” Around the same time, Rep. Paul Gosar also lost his committee assignments for tweeting out a video of him killing Ocasio-Cortez with a sword, stylized as anime. Boebert apologized on Twitter, sort of, and then had an acrimonious phone call with Omar. “Rejecting an apology and hanging up on someone is part of Cancel Culture 101,” Boebert said after the call.
This is how it always is: another right-wing word salad of patriotism and persecution.Tweet
Omar held a press conference during which she played a voice mail of a death threat she received, apparently a result of Boebert’s instigation. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty that will love the opportunity to take you off the face of this fucking earth,” a staticky voice said. “You will not live much longer, bitch, I can almost guarantee you that. We the people are rising up.”
More members piled on. Rep. Fred Upton — a moderate Republican, one of the ten House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment — has sought to create bipartisan unity over death threats. He told the Washington Post that “one of the worst” death threats he received came from someone in South Carolina after he voted for the infrastructure bill. He used that to try to bond with Omar. “I had never talked with my colleague Omar, all the days she’s been in Congress,” he said. “We both had a mask on. And I said, ‘You can’t see my smile, but I’m smiling behind this mask,’” he continued, before wondering if they had been threatened by the same person. “They used the same words against me. And I had a monogram on my shirt and you know my initials, you know what they are. . . . So, she started laughing and we had — we had a good conversation. . . . But on the seriousness of stuff, I’m really afraid someone’s going to get hurt.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene turned Omar’s response to Boebert’s comments into a pissing contest by posting audio from four voice-mail death threats she had received. “It is not OK, it is completely wrong for any member to receive death threats,” Greene said. “I have been the most attacked freshman member of Congress probably in United States history.” Greene stares blankly into the camera as the first one plays. “Just to be clear, it is completely constitutional for members of Congress to object to electoral college votes. That’s all I did on January 6. . . . But let’s hear some more death threats,” as if hosting a morning show. “You should be taken out and shot,” a woman says over and over again. Greene says this is why she always carries a gun, and compares the callers to demons. Watching, I began to consider whether the voice mails might be staged; the male voices sounded suspiciously similar.
On December 7, 2021, I went to an event held by Greene and three of her colleagues in the same room where Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly press conferences, a studio adjacent to the now deserted Capitol Visitor Center. Greene, wearing pink, had called the presser to discuss the treatment of Capitol rioters in a DC jail that she and Rep. Louie Gohmert had recently toured. It was organized for the purpose of criticizing the “two-tier justice system,” a phrase used by none other than Glenn Greenwald to describe how prominent and white-collar criminals avoid jail time while the powerless are incarcerated at staggering rates for petty crimes. Greene used it here to refer to the partisan treatment of Capitol rioters, comparing alleged abuses in DC to the light hand of the criminal justice system in prosecuting Black Lives Matter protesters who destroyed property during the George Floyd protests the previous summer.
In her telling, January 6 and the George Floyd protests are parallel events; that Democrats responded so differently to the two — supporting dropped charges for Floyd protesters but allowing the cruel treatment of Capitol rioters in jail — exposed their hypocrisy. I listened with confusion. Was she saying that antifa should be in jail alongside the January 6 trespassers, or that no one should be? By criticizing the criminal justice system that had led to Floyd’s death, she seemed to be challenging Democrats to disagree with her — twisting her politics until she became a fun-house mirror of the left. She spoke about mold, solitary confinement, and beatings by guards. It’s “worse than we treat terrorists at Gitmo,” she said.
Yet, despite their surroundings, Greene said, the January 6 inmates had seemed happy to see her. She described proudly how, every night at 9 PM, they put their hands on their hearts and sing the national anthem in unison. Her account was also detailed in a twenty-eight-page stapled report about the prison visit, distributed by staffers, titled “Unusually Cruel.” As the congressional delegation departed, she writes, “the January 6 detainees began a ‘U-S-A’ chant followed by a ‘LETS-GO-BRANDON!’ chant.” Then, “the doors closed ominously.”
There was nothing remarkable about this particular press conference on this particular day. This is how it always is: another right-wing word salad of patriotism and persecution designed by congresspeople primarily to piss off their counterparts and drum up their supporters. These congresspeople will say anything, I said to myself as they continued. Louie Gohmert described seeing an imprisoned rioter’s bruised hand in such bad shape that it was “leading toward amputation.” He condemned “the refusal to allow them to have haircuts or shave.” “They’re creating people that look like the Unabomber.”
Everyone on TV was just going through the motions. It felt like watching the death spiral of civilization.Tweet
Matt Gaetz was there too, standing behind Greene, perfectly symmetrical, hands flat on his thighs, showcasing one of those black wedding rings some men wear. (It’s new; he eloped in August with Ginger Luckey, sister of Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus and a defense contractor that provides AI to the military.) Gaetz joked that Greene was able to write up her report on the DC jail because she had so much time on her hands, not being on any committees. His reason for being there seemed to be solely to talk about January 6, and he used the occasion to call on FBI director Christopher Wray to respond to a letter about the bureau’s alleged involvement in the breach of the Capitol. “If you have not seen a federal hand in this, then you’re not paying attention,” Gohmert said.
A reporter sitting two chairs away from me asked Gaetz if he would support Trump as the next Speaker of the House. (Apparently, the Speaker of the House doesn’t actually have to be a member of Congress, though it’s never been done before.) Gaetz smiled wide, perversely delighted, like a Cheshire cat. “I would,” he said. “Have you talked to him about it?” asked the reporter, excited. “I have,” Gaetz said, smiling. “And what did he say?” Gaetz coyly responded by saying he doesn’t make public the content of his conversations with Trump. But when they get into power, he says, “It’s not going to be the days of Paul Ryan . . . we won’t be holding hands with Democrats in the spring rain.”
I can’t tell how paranoid I’m being when I wonder if we’re at the beginning of a civil war. When we feel paranoid, we project our fear outward, locating it in details and experiences that would seem otherwise benign. Sometimes this fear is justified; the paranoid fantasy is not always implausible. It is far from implausible that the FBI had informants on the ground on January 6, though their role was likely limited. It was recently revealed that at least one person involved in the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was an informant who the FBI says went rogue. There are jokes in Muslim communities about entire mosques shutting down after all the informants are removed. In such instances, paranoia feels less like a pathology and more like a by-product of the government using fear — of Covid, of being surveilled, of loss of freedom — as a method of control.
Violence is now the clay from which lawmakers shape their visions, the substrate of political discourse; often it feels inevitable that it will become more overt. Almost ten thousand threats against members of Congress or the Capitol itself were recorded by the Capitol Police in 2021, the Washington Post recently reported. Before being banned from Twitter for Covid misinformation, Greene posted about a “National Divorce scenario.” Or will widespread violence stay just below the surface? “Trump’s next coup has already begun,” read Barton Gellman’s December 2021 headline in the Atlantic, describing a series of state and local attempts to set the stage to steal the next presidential election. “It will rely on subversion rather than violence.” Sometimes I buy that too.
I think we all take turns feeling the madness of the moment. We all spend obsessive hours reading the news, feeling like no one else is paying enough attention to X crisis. It comes in waves; no one could handle the feeling of imminent collapse all the time.
I took another turn on New Year’s Eve 2022. We were in the basement of our suburban house, watching people on TV celebrate the coming year: Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve; Miley’s New Year’s Eve Party, hosted by Miley Cyrus and Pete Davidson; CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live, with a very drunk Don Lemon, who was wearing a lemon on a chain around his neck. Nothing felt festive at all. It was way too warm outside. The crowds were sparse; the celebrities were B-list. No one was convincing in their excitement for 2022. Everyone on TV was just going through the motions. It felt like watching the death spiral of civilization. It stressed me out and made me sad. I was panicked about the weather. Their tinsel clothing was in tatters. Miley’s top fell off, but there was no exuberance. Dick Clark is dead. Two dancers with disco balls as heads flanked Don Lemon; it was unclear how or whether they could see. We counted down to midnight, both climactic and inevitable. Whatever happens, it will hardly come as a surprise.