It has been one year since thousands of people gathered on the steps of the Capitol building with the shared mission of interrupting the peaceful transfer of power. The anniversary of Jan. 6 has brought with it a flood of stories exploring what could have possibly driven so many people to turn against the very democracy they swear they were trying to protect. One of the deepest of these investigations came in late December from New York magazine, in the form of a reported feature by Kerry Howley, chronicling the journey of three strangers whose fates collided at the Capitol. It’s a story that attempts to explain how we got there—and it also reveals why we’re not much closer to resolving the problems the insurrection unleashed.
The rioters’ stories are framed as a portrait of loss. “Gina Bisignano would lose her salon, Guy Reffitt would lose his freedom, and Rosanne Boyland would lose her life,” Howley writes. The majority of the piece is written as a plot-based narrative that primarily explores how any of this could have happened. Bisignano, Reffitt, and Boyland are not portrayed as terrorists, traitors, or treasonists carrying out an organized coup, they are simply three Americans—Gina, Guy and Rosanne—bound by their susceptibility to believe in and then act upon conspiracy theories.
Throughout the piece, which traces the conditions that brought the three subjects to the Capitol last year; the actual day itself, during which one subject died; and the aftermath, in which the other two go to jail, Howley raises the question: What do we do about these insurrectionists’ naïveté and inability to parse fact from fiction?
This question is important, even if it’s simply a fancier phrasing of “how should society deal with the scourge of misinformation?”—a quandary that has plagued us for years already. At the very end of the piece, Howley seems to offer readers an answer, when she abruptly switches from an empathetic storytelling mode into an analytical one. “A country that protects the right to spin fantasy necessarily risks the well-being of those who easily lose themselves to it,” Howley writes. “Freedom isn’t free is a true thing the right used to say, and the costs of freedom of speech are real costs, borne, in part, by those unskilled at sifting fact from fantasy: the people who join MLMs, who become Scientologists, who lie awake in bed at night worrying over small children drained of adrenochrome.”
But to blame freedom of speech for the insurrection is at best, a dodge. At worst, it is trafficking in the same kind of misdirection that pushed Howley’s protagonists over the edge. Even though Howley fails to offer a satisfactory answer to her own question, her piece succeeds in other critical ways: Her telling of Bisignano’s, Reffitt’s, and Boyland’s stories offers an unvarnished look at the absolute banality of evil.
Hannah Arendt coined the term—banality of evil—after watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who had shuttled millions of Jews to their deaths during World War II (no, I’m not implying the crimes are the same, just that the concept is instructive in both cases). In Arendt’s telling, Eichmann was not a monster or mastermind so much as he was an ordinary, if unthinking, man. The insurrectionists are depicted in a similar light. By Howley’s account, before the insurrectionists made their way to Washington, they were just ordinary, good people. Before the coup, Bisignano was just an “extrovert desperate to socialize” in a pandemic that confined us (all) to our homes. She was also a rattled crime victim after someone stole her purse and beloved Pomeranian (she got the dog back after several weeks). Reffitt was an out-of-work oil driller, who fell in with the wrong crowd after financial challenges kept him separated from his family for several months. And Boyland was recovering from a heroin addiction and “was the kind of friend who would sleep on your floor for three months if she thought you might hurt yourself.”
What had become banal, as Judith Butler wrote in a 2011 essay in the Guardian unpacking Arendt’s analysis, “was the attack on thinking.” To have “intentions,” Butler wrote, “was to think reflectively about one’s own action as a political being, whose own life and thinking is bound up with the life and thinking of others.” The fact that Bisignano, Reffitt, and Boyland have had the luxury to concern themselves not at all with reflecting on the lives and thinking of others is, in fact, deeply political. That their own supposed victimhood makes their actual victims invisible to them is precisely how COVID and coups can spread.
Howley’s protagonists reflect a political sensibility that has swept through the nation. Whether we call it populism or nationalism or nativism doesn’t really matter. A subset of Americans, mostly white, vehemently believes the country is being stolen from them by liberal elites and people of color. And their convictions make them uniquely susceptible to manipulation and misdirection. The subscribers to this fabulist notion gather by the millions in chat rooms and on message boards. They share violent memes in Facebook groups. As Howley points out, they meet in living rooms and at barbecues to discuss their woes. Many, as the insurrection shows, refuse to sit idly by as their birthright is pillaged and plundered.
It is their whiteness, not their ordinariness and naïveté, that’s most predictive of their eventual assault on the Capitol. Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, devoted much of the past year to compiling a profile of all 700 rioters arrested by law enforcement. His research has shown that the single most unifying factor among the insurrectionists is living in a county in which the population of white people dramatically declined between 2010 and 2020. This decline has hastened the mainstreaming of a once-fringe notion that white people are at risk of being stripped of their rights. “It’s been around a long time, but what’s special now is that that theory is embraced in full-throated fashion by major political leaders and also by major media figures,” Pape told Slate’s Aymann Ismail. “If you live in an area that’s losing white population, you can start yourself to connect the dots to the spinning that’s going around with these narratives.”
The very fact that Howley could pen and publish a sympathetic view of three people who, as part of a mob, tried to overthrow the government only underscores their whiteness—and the way that whiteness informs these characters’ stories and political power. Bisignano, Reffitt, and Boyland are treated like individuals who made unique choices that led them each to join the insurrection. Left out of their narrative is the broader political context that helps to explain why the unthinking and self-centered masses pose an incredible threat to our democracy. Yet historians have documented, repeatedly, what happens when white people grow discontent with living in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic society. Their collective backlash toppled Reconstruction, created the Tea Party, and fomented an insurrection.
An inability to deal directly with white supremacy allows Howley to ironically equate conspiracy theories with systemic racism. “We like to think of conspiracy theories as outside the realm of intelligent consideration,” she wrote. “But the idea of children trafficked via a discount-furniture retailer is not more strange than a network of cages, built to maintain a centuries-old racial hierarchy and kept so cold that Saran Wrap socks register as an act of resistance, in which white rioters who deny the existence of systemic racism now find themselves.” These two things may be equally outlandish, but they are certainly not equal. One has its roots in American history—historians have also repeatedly traced a line from slavery to Jim Crow to chain gangs and mass incarceration—and one is a baseless conspiracy theory. But whether or not people believe this reality is simply framed as a matter of perspective.
Consider the details Howley gives about her characters’ brushes with incarceration: Bisignano rarely saw sunlight. She spent most of her time in prison cold and shivering on a rancid mattress. She never received her antidepressants, which sent her into a withdrawal so bad she scratched herself until she bled. When it was over, she was tossed, unceremoniously, onto the streets without any money or any way to get home. Reffitt’s time in jail sent him to the ICU after a forced detox from the cholesterol and anxiety medications he’d taken for 15 years caused him to seize. Their treatment is appalling. It is also the norm for people behind bars. (Howley notes that their grievances are “unusual only in that they have been heard.”) But this cruelty might not be so surprising if you take seriously the penal system’s role in maintaining white supremacy.
Treating Bisignano, Reffitt, and Boyland like hapless individuals who made unfortunate choices takes the blame off the conservative politicians and political pundits who have learned to weaponize Americans’—mostly white Americans’—fears, grievances, and confusion for political gain. “The riot was an attack on our institutions, and of course, inflammatory conservative rhetoric and social media bear some of the blame,” Osita Nwanevu wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “But our institutions also helped produce that violent outburst by building a sense of entitlement to power within America’s conservative minority.” The right traffics in conspiracy theories. Conservative politicians have no incentive to police the internet, to provide social support, to foster bipartisanship, or to eliminate racism, because these conditions support their agenda.
What demands our “intelligent consideration,” as Howley puts it, is how to keep that violent outburst from happening again. Blaming “free speech” and conspiracy theories dodges the actual issues at hand and downplays just how much white entitlement was central to the insurrection. The problem is that the same people who receive sympathetic tellings of what led them to violence are also the main beneficiaries of the conservative project. And the media, for our part, have struggled to connect these dots and to take seriously the right’s drift into authoritarianism. “The way the press traditionally covers politics is assuming the existence of two political parties that resemble each other, but have different ideologies,” professor and media critic Jay Rosen told Brian Stelter on CNN’s Reliable Sources in December. “What happens when you have two parties that increasingly don’t resemble each other, and one of them is going off in anti-democratic direction?”
What do we do about the people, like Howley’s protagonists, who have been so whipped up by the right and its conspiracy theories, and the millions of others who have yet to act? The fallout from the insurrection is still working its way through our democracy. The right is actively working to install their chosen leaders into election posts in 2022 with the grand plan of undermining the election in 2024. Congress seems powerless to stop them. And the Supreme Court has been intentionally stacked to let them get away with it. If we are reluctant to blame the individuals who stormed the Capitol, we can and should blame the right-wing talk show hosts and elected officials who have pushed baseless conspiracy theories and stoked white fears of displacement over the past several years.
Bisignano’s, Reffitt’s, and Boyland’s actions are not the result of mere poor judgment, limited intelligence, or free speech. They are the culmination of a very calculated and well-crafted power play by the right. We must not lose sight of this fact, banal as it has become.