If the attack on Paul Pelosi last week brought the threat of the far-right fringe back into national headlines, the people who monitor extremists online had already been seeing warning signs headed into the U.S. midterm elections. Talk of rigged races, conspiracy theories, and instructions for “monitoring” certain polls have proliferated on message boards and other forums, sometimes stoked by the candidates themselves.
When Lindsay Schubiner was a staffer on the Hill almost a decade ago, she watched these fringe groups—particularly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim social movements—grow more mainstream. Now, as the program director for Momentum, the Western States Center’s program focused on countering white nationalism, she monitors internet chatter among those and other groups, including their efforts to organize. For the past several weeks, she’s watched them plan ahead of the election, attempting to recruit and sow misinformation before voting even begins, including one plan to have people stand outside ballot drop boxes in as many as 18 states.
I called Schubiner this week to talk about the fallout of the Pelosi attack—and how serious the threats to the election on Nov. 8 really are. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: What is the mood right now on the extremist message boards you monitor? Are you seeing any chatter about the midterm elections?
Lindsay Schubiner: We are monitoring a variety of platforms where white nationalists and other anti-democracy groups are recruiting, and to some extent coordinating. This year, we’re seeing much more concrete planning from anti-democracy groups. They’ve learned from the 2020 election. And figures like Tucker Carlson are already laying the groundwork saying the election has been stolen before it’s even happened, and we’re seeing that in a huge number of different quarters. We’re also seeing concrete planning to install their supporters in formal election observer structures in many states with the explicit goal of undermining the election. We’ve seen some groups organizing supporters to monitor ballot drop boxes on a larger scale, and we’ve seen some of that already happen in Arizona. It’s not clear the extent to which their organizing will turn into reality, but we’ve certainly seen a significant amount of organizing, and it’s a really big concern.
This broader anti-democracy coalition has also increased its institutional power, including some county sheriffs, like those recruited through the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, or another group called Protect America Now. But the other thing is an increase in conspiracy theories and disinformation, which results in political violence. And the more that these conspiracy theories spread, they act like an accelerant for organized anti-democracy groups to recruit more people and undermine faith in democratic institutions, and also leads to violence. The suspect who allegedly assaulted Paul Pelosi shared conspiracy theories about Holocaust denial, about pedophiles in the government, QAnon-type claims about child sex rings, all sorts of false information based on dangerous conspiracy theories that increase around elections.
Are you seeing anything you think poll workers should be watching out for?
Absolutely. Our monitoring has shown that paramilitary groups, like the Oath Keepers or the Three-Percenters, often respond to rapidly spreading rumors on social media, and so there’s the risk that if a specific incident happens and spreads in that way, that paramilitary groups may mobilize, either prior to or after the election. In the two years since 2020, anti-democracy groups have really worked to normalize voter intimidation and recruit larger numbers of people, and this is also only the second election since the expiration of the consent decree preventing partisan poll watching, so that’s another thing at play. There’s one group that publicly claims to have groups of people ready to monitor ballot drop boxes in shifts in 18 states. They’re referring to this type of monitoring as “tailgating.” I haven’t seen public reports about that coming to fruition yet, but I think it’s a real risk. Whether armed poll watchers would likely intimidate people, whether they’re filming or confronting voters who they believe are vulnerable to intimidation, or maybe are taking in more than one ballot for a family member in ways that are legal for their states. We are also concerned about intimidation against election workers, as well as digital attacks and doxing. There’s a real need for institutions to understand this and be prepared for it, and back up election workers if they are targeted.
Do you think there is any danger to voters?
For the vast majority of people, in the vast majority of places, it’s very safe to vote. No one should be dissuaded by these concerns. Institutions should take them seriously and make sure there is no voter intimidation, but it’s just as important to send the message that it’s safe and important to vote.
Kari Lake, the Arizona governor candidate, has already suggested that either she wins or it’s rigged. Are you seeing any theories about this election already being stolen? How are they planning to counter the “theft”?
That’s another huge thing that we’re seeing. There are a lot of people already saying the election has been stolen before it’s even happened. There’s a real concern that many candidates who are closely tied to anti-democracy movements may not concede in the event of a loss. Kari Lake is a high-profile example, but Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s campaign is also reportedly paying a law firm for “recount consulting.” It remains to be seen how widely candidates question the election results and fail to concede in races that they’ve lost, but I think it’s a really significant concern and one that broadly works to undermine inclusive democracy and faith in elections.
What about violence? You mentioned the attack on Pelosi’s husband.
We really need to be connecting the dots between political violence, conspiracy theories, and the rise of anti-democracy groups. These things are really closely connected. The assault on Paul Pelosi is directly in line with similar kinds of political violence that we’ve seen recently, like the attempted kidnapping of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, or the targeting and harassment of Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Political violence is an explicit strategy of anti-democracy groups, so this is all connected. The frequency of these attacks has also been increasing. And so has violent political rhetoric, like what we saw on Jan. 6. When an instance of political violence happens, and there isn’t a broad response that says this is completely unacceptable from all institutions and political leaders, there’s the risk of tacitly accepting it.
How has that played out with the Pelosi attack?
Responses from the far right have been first to downplay the attack, then denial, and then misdirection and lies. Instead of speaking out against this horrific instance of political violence, anti-democracy actors have turned it into the next conspiracy theory. And we see a lot of elected officials in the GOP taking their cues from online disinformation promoted by anti-democracy actors or outlets, which can be hard to pin down, but we know that there’s been a huge spread of these types of conspiracy theories. It’s deeply concerning. This really serious instance of targeted political violence toward an elected official who was targeted by former President Trump echoes of Jan. 6 chants of “Where is Nancy?” This is not being addressed with the seriousness it requires.
Often on the more mainstream right, the response is to point to examples of left-wing violence, and to argue that both sides contribute to this environment.
Political violence of any kind is absolutely unacceptable and should be denounced. We also have to recognize where the majority of the threats are coming from. There are clear statements from the Department of Homeland Security that the far right and white nationalists promote violent language.
Many if not most Americans believe a civil war is likely in the near future, a poll found, driven in part by these conspiracies. What do you make of that poll?
There are accelerationists within white nationalist movements who are urging others to engage in violence, or sometimes planning violence themselves, with the express goal of destabilizing our democracy and bringing us closer to a civil war. We’ve seen a lot more conversation about civil war from the far right, and I think some of the people who promote that conversation want to make it seem inevitable, and that’s really dangerous.
How do you expect it to play out if Republicans regain control of the House? And what if they lose?
We’ll be taking our cues from a number of races that we’re watching. Their success will tell us a lot about the capability of candidates who openly espouse bigoted and anti-democracy messages, or have open affiliations with paramilitary or other far-right groups. I think that will tell us a lot about where we’re headed and the scale of the issue.
What can we do right now, even if the worst-case scenario doesn’t play out?
There’s a lot that we can do once we recognize exactly how political violence and conspiracy theories are connected. Even just working locally with city councils and prominent community organizations to clearly denounce voter intimidation, and let folks know that elections are legitimate and safe, can do a lot to chill the activity of anti-democracy groups. And just as these dangerous movements continue to organize and spread conspiracy theories, we see more and more people willing to speak out against them in impactful ways. I think that is also going to continue happening. Hope when paired with action is the antidote to these social movements that are working to undermine our trust in each other. There’s a lot that each of us can do, from voting for inclusive democracy, to openly rejecting bigotry and conspiracy theories within your networks and communities, to calling on local elected officials to speak out publicly and then supporting them when they do. All of that can have a huge impact.