Culture

Reporter Luke Mogelson: ‘I was surprised by the lunacy of the conspiracy theories in Michigan’

Luke Mogelson is a contributing writer for the New Yorker magazine, reporting from conflict zones, and the author of a 2016 short story collection, These Heroic, Happy Dead. In his mid-20s, he served for three years in the New York national guard. His new book, The Storm Is Here: America on the Brink, draws on nine months of reporting in the US in the run-up to the Capitol riots on 6 January 2021. He lives in Paris.

Author Luke Mogelson - Author of The Storm Is Here Photo © Balazs Gardi
Luke Mogelson. Photograph: Balazs Gardi

How did the book come about?
I hadn’t reported in the US for at least 10 years. I was living in France and had been covering the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. During that time, I had the impression that Americans felt quite insulated from the risk of civil conflict and societal collapse that those countries were experiencing. So when the early cracks started to show in the US, I was eager to go there and see how it would play out.

Which cracks in particular?
Early in the pandemic, in April 2020, when the first organised anti-lockdown demonstrations started to be held in Michigan, there were a lot of images going around the internet of men with assault rifles entering the state capitol in Lansing and yelling at lawmakers. As soon as that happened, I sent an email to my editor asking if I could go to Michigan. I spent time with militarised groups mobilising against the Democratic governor’s public health measures to control the virus. While I was there, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, so I spent three weeks there reporting on the protests and the riots. When I came back to Michigan, I was surprised to discover that the groups I’d been spending time with were now holding armed rallies in opposition to [Black Lives Matter] protests. Then you add the election, and 6 January, and many of the same people were storming the Capitol. Now, some of them have gotten into Michigan politics.

When you first arrived in Michigan, were you surprised by some of the stuff you were hearing in Karl Manke’s barbershop?
I was surprised by the extent of the conspiratorial thinking. The reactionary, angry, white, conservative mindset, I’m pretty familiar with – there’s plenty of it in my family and I’ve been around it my whole life. But I was surprised by the prevalence and just the lunacy of the conspiracy theories.

Are things still escalating?
Absolutely. I’m more concerned now than I was a year ago. On the political side, there was an opportunity after 6 January for the country and for Republicans to have a meaningful reckoning with rightwing extremism and the threat that it presented to the future of our democracy. Instead, conservative politicians made a conscious choice to minimise and distort what had actually happened. Beyond that, the rhetoric that’s been adopted by the right to characterise their political opponents has become so absolute that any compromise or engagement between these two halves of the country is basically impossible. Partisan politics has been defined now, for a large part of the country, as an almost cosmic struggle between good and evil.

What are your expectations for the midterms in November?
It’ll be interesting to see whether or not the overturning of Roe v Wade has an impact. But the Republicans have already nominated a lot of rightwing extremists in their primaries. And if they do manage to capture a significant number of seats, in states like Arizona and Michigan, it’s going to be a major problem going into 2024, because a lot of them will exercise some degree of influence over the way that the elections are conducted and certified.

Is it outlandish to worry about civil war breaking out in the US?
I don’t think it’s outlandish given that so many people – people with considerable influence and power – are calling for exactly that. But I think that the more imminent danger is more frequent and larger-scale eruptions of gun violence. For a lot of folks on the right, 6 January was emboldening. At the US Capitol, I heard more than one person say: “Next time, we’re coming back with guns.” We would be pretty foolish to assume that they’ll just choose not to.

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