Lots of Americans knew Trump supporters wouldn’t take his election loss well. I knew. And so no one was surprised when thousands of them responded to his call and came to Washington to protest the counting of Electoral College ballots on Jan. 6. But few were prepared for the attack that left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer.
The military tactics and equipment used by some rioters reflected an ugly reality: Many of them were former or current military service members or police. For years, officials had been warned that violent white nationalists had been finding recruits among the ranks of police and the military. But why? And how could it be stopped?
On this week’s episode of A Word, I discussed the issue with Malcolm Nance, a national security and counterterrorism analyst for MSNBC. You can listen to the full episode or read a lightly edited version of the transcript below.
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Jason Johnson: I want to dig into the police element of what happened on Jan. 6. We’ve got Eugene Goodman, a Black officer, who successfully led rioters away from lawmakers. But we also have footage of some Capitol Police officers chatting it up with the protesters, taking selfies, appearing to let them walk around the room and do whatever they wanted. What do we know about some of those officers now? And more importantly, what the heck should we do about it?
Malcolm Nance: This is a conundrum. The problem with what happened on Jan. 6 was the entire national security apparatus of the United States disarmed itself. People just assumed—literally thought and said to each other that because these protesters were white, Trump supporters, mainly men—that they aren’t Antifa, they aren’t Black Lives Matter, and they won’t get violent. Despite the fact that these people have a trend of running around with guns to intimidate people.
So this protest allowed things that would never have been allowed on the National Mall: backpacks with body armor, helmets, entire containers of pepper spray and bear spray on their hips, metal flagpoles and sticks, baseball bats. I saw an ax handle. They got away with an enormous amount by the very fact that they were white of skin.
We’ve heard reports now that one-fifth of the people who have been arrested already for the insurrection were either current or former law enforcement or military. We’ve got the incoming Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who has ordered a “stand-down” period for the military in order to talk about violent extremism. The idea of saying the military needs to stand down so we can talk about white supremacy and extremism, that reminds me of when Howard Schultz said, well, we’re going to have a day off from Starbucks to talk about racism. One day isn’t going to fix this problem. So why do you think the military is such fertile ground for recruiting in these white nationalist groups? And do you think a stand-down day really makes a difference?
I was in the armed forces when we had some very significant stand-downs. It’s not like the Starbucks thing. When the armed forces stand down, it means everything stops. Every command will have a script that is sent to them with the word from the secretary of defense and the president, and it will be echoed down to every individual soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, space cadet, guardian. What will happen is, they will read them the riot act, in a one-way conversation that will make it clear that whatever the subject is at that time, that’s what’s going to be sussed out. This one is coming from a former general, and this guy commands respect. And he is pushing down into the force that now white nationalism and white extremism, you are our next target.
So he walks into the room, tells everybody this is what’s going to happen. At the same time, though, we’re seeing 20-year-old white guys online being told, “Hey, look, if you want to prepare for the upcoming race war, get yourself some military training.” So even if Lloyd Austin is pushing down from the top, the bottom is still saying that joining the police department or joining the military is the best way to go. How do we stop those guys at the bottom?
The first thing you have to realize is 80 percent of these yahoos are just live-action role players. Law enforcement officers generally do not have a military background, so that’s in a different mindset—they’re closer to civilians. They don’t have the discipline that’s brought in by an entire military chain of command.
On the other hand, there’s an entire world of military people who couldn’t cut it, who go into the armed forces for a very short time, maybe do one tour and come out. And yeah, some of them are trained in how to use rifles. Some of them are Marines. But by saying the military, there’s a big difference between an Air Force IT technician and a U.S. Army scout sniper who has done three or four tours of combat.
Joe Biden began his presidency with an explicit call to take on white nationalism and white supremacist violence. I said at the time, that’s a really noble sentiment, but what’s the political reality here? You’ve got a whole lot of cops that endorsed Trump. You got a whole lot of military people that endorsed Trump. Joe Biden has been painted as anti-police by the Republican Party. What does Joe Biden have to do to keep not just law enforcement, which is a thousand different organizations in different states, but also to keep the military from sort of metastasizing into this cauldron of resentment spurred on by four years of Donald Trump?
He doesn’t have to do anything. That’s the secretary of defense’s job, and Secretary Austin is doing what he needs to do. The armed forces is not like most other institutions. It’s made up of volunteers. The old era and World War II, where white soldiers didn’t want to fight with Black soldiers, that era is done. And the armed forces has institutionalized rules.
When I was in the Navy, I had a boatload of racism. I mean, some straight-up, open, you know, N-word racism.
And was this by military officers to you?
Calling you the N-word to your face?
Well, they wouldn’t call me the N-word to my face. They definitely called it behind my back. These people, once they’re embedded in there, what eventually happens is that they self-destruct. The system is designed to make the armed forces work. I can’t function on a ship if I can’t trust the man next to me. If there’s a fire on the ship and I have the belief that he’s going to go, “Well, you know, there’s Black guys mainly in that space, so I’m not going to open the watertight door. I’ll just let them die.” It doesn’t work like that. The all-volunteer force of the 1980s really purged a lot of that.
Do you think Americans should be more optimistic or should we be more scared about what the future is going to be of this insurgency?
I don’t think the word scared is operative here. We should be concerned, but we should be concerned about this all the time. It’s just that when you watch their chatrooms, they’re all like, “Oh, all white men are now the problem. And we’re the terrorist enemy in the United States.” No, you’re not. All white men who are Trump voters and conservatives, you are not the terrorists. The problem is their attitudes, positions, and endorsement of the great lie. You are enablers.
It’s interesting, though. We have a different cultural dynamic toward law enforcement in the United States that is fascinating because with this new deification of the military since 9/11, we have also come to an idolization of law enforcement. And that is what caused this rift between the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a national movement to recognize that you should not be just shooting Black people because they’re Black and unarmed, and this Blue Lives Matter/Thin Blue Line flag world where people believe that cops can do nothing wrong because they keep us safe.
Both of those can be true at the same time, right? Cops do keep us safe. And we do want law enforcement to behave. But what happened is after 9/11, those same policemen, they have adopted this mindset where they wish that they had gone into the military and were in Afghanistan kicking down doors. Over the last 20 years, this belief system of the warrior cop has dominated law enforcement.
What I’m hearing from you is that we should be concerned.
What we had on Jan. 6 was an insurrection. An insurgency is a series of insurrections. These militias see themselves as the provisional Trump army. We should be concerned. Their whiteness is the camouflage that allows them to approach their enemies and stab them with a dirk right in the back, because you don’t see them in a field of white, right? That’s how they got to the Capitol. When they’re among themselves, you can’t see an insurgent or an insurrectionist or a seditionist until they open their mouths. And that allows them to flow through our nation undetected.
A Word is Slate’s new podcast offering real conversations about race—ones that shine a light on the facts, the history, and the reality of how race plays out in our politics and society. Listen for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes come out every Friday.
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