“Thousands of documents are great, but millions of lines of data are better. And so when you look at call detail records or open source intelligence research or you look at social media, those types of things can tell you a lot,” Riggleman says. “And I think it can actually direct the way that you investigate more than bringing people in who lie, plead the Fifth, or sometimes conveniently forget things.”
The real story, Riggleman contends, isn’t Trump. (“If you indict Trump, his polling numbers are going to go up,” he says. “So good luck.”) Trumpism is now gospel to an online army of devotees, hundreds of whom are now running for state and local offices. No matter which party comes out in control of Congress once the dust settles on Election Night, the next Congress is guaranteed to have Donald Trump’s stamp on it. The GOP candidates on the ballot next month include 291 who say they wouldn’t have certified Biden’s 2020 victory, according to the Washington Post. Of those, 171 are running in safely Republican districts.
As a former member of the House Freedom Caucus who has deep libertarian leanings (he farms his own hemp), Riggleman is worried about the digital takeover of a party he used to love, respect, and doggedly fight for. “You also have to figure out who the hell is pushing these radicalizing ideas over digital channels because that’s where it’s happening too,” Riggleman says.
Thousands of Trump supporters took his post-January 6 deplatforming as their cue to follow their leader off Twitter and Facebook and into a new world of almost-anything-goes social media apps, like Trump’s own struggling Truth Social, or Parler, which Kanye “Ye” West plans to buy. Those apps suck up the most recent coverage, but other apps continue to attract new and frustrated users.
There’s Gab (where QAnon devotees feel safe discussing ever-evolving conspiracy theories), GETTR (a “free speech”-focused app founded by former Trump aide Jason Miller), Rumble (think YouTube for the far right), MeWe (think Facebook for Trump Republicans), and CloutHub (if Twitter and Facebook had a baby). Even Reddit is helping Trump successfully spread ungrounded conspiracies about ballot-stuffing in Arizona.
Many on the right are also increasingly employing popular messaging apps like Telegram, which allows private groups to include as many as 200,000 members, and Signal, popular for its promised end-to-end encryption. That includes many of Trump’s most motivated followers, which we know from the dramatic spike in users they both attracted after Silicon Valley firms started their post-insurrection purges.
Then there are forums like 4chan, 8kun, and Endchan. Movement-inspiring memes, dangerous conspiracy theories, celebrations of violence and violent rhetoric all abound on these hubs connecting kindreds who proudly consider themselves social outcasts set on upending the “normie” society most of us inhabit.
As the select committee now prepares its final report on the preparation and planning leading up to the savage assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the right has moved on. And in laying the groundwork to leave a Trump-sized imprint on this year’s midterms—including upending voting laws in countless battleground states and recruiting thousands of new pro-Trump poll workers to “police” local polling locations—the former president’s acolytes are also proving to be a few steps ahead of their opponents in their plan to capture the White House in 2024.
Just as an escalator helped Trump glide into the center of US politics, Riggleman says, the real story is the online gears, lubricants, chains, and steps lurking just under our feet. Likewise, unless more attention is paid to these means of political production, this new political order is something we all should get used to.
“We’re in a post-truth era, but we’re also in a post-Trump world—where those belief systems are baked in, and we’re going to have to deal with this for decades,” Riggleman says. “We need to look at going faster, harder, and better with more technology and more resources in that arena.”