Early Monday came word that an inauguration rehearsal ended abruptly with the evacuation of the US Capitol’s west front, after reports of a nearby fire led security officials to fear a replay of the deadly January 6 riot. The alarm was for nothing, in traditional security terms, anyway: A nearby homeless encampment (sadly, there are many in the nation’s capital) went up in flames, causing the billowing black smoke that rose ominously behind the scene.
It was just another reminder that our nation tends to fear all the wrong things, and somehow label the terrible just OK. A propane tank exploding at a large ongoing homeless encampment actually should disturb us—how do we have such poverty adjacent to the literal symbol of the world’s wealthiest and allegedly freest nation (also in one of its wealthiest cities)? By what calculation is that not counted as some kind of security risk? I’m not, of course, arguing to roust the homeless; I’m arguing to house them.
Likewise, how have we tolerated the rise of violent and increasingly organized white-supremacist groups while targeting overwhelmingly law-abiding Muslims, both fellow Americans and, under Donald Trump, those who are trying to travel here? President-elect Joe Biden reportedly plans to lift the anti-Muslim travel ban immediately, which is welcome news.
But Biden can’t make up for the time lost since President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security caved to GOP faux-outrage over a report labeling the rise of armed, militant white supremacists as the nation’s biggest terror threat, way back in 2009. Journalists have grown fond of referring to the “gaslighting” practiced by Trump and Co., but that was some world-class gaslighting back then. Republicans claimed the administration was using the report to criminalize the growing (and increasingly menacing) anti-Obama opposition, and so top administration security officials repudiated the report, and dissolved the DHS unit that produced it. Ever since, we’ve mostly gotten to hear from report author Daryl Johnson only after yet another violent white-supremacist outbreak—and especially since the day of the Capitol siege.
It’s wrong to blame Obama for trying to figure out how to defuse the racial rebellion his election helped inaugurate. Talk about blaming the victim. But we have been living with the results of looking away from that threat ever since. Here’s hoping Biden reconstitutes that DHS unit.
In threats I personally missed, while worrying about (so many) other things: How did someone who has focused on the women-powered Trump resistance, as I have for the last four years, miss the emergence of a new generation of right-wing women, most notably Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert, who is now under attack for tweeting the whereabouts of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while a violent crowd searched out the Democratic leader on January 6? She tweeted, “This is 1776” that very morning.
Boebert is also suspected—with no hard evidence, it must be said—of helping the rioters, perhaps by leading some on a Capitol tour in the days before. Tennessee Democratic Representative Steve Cohen told CNN Monday morning that he and Kentucky Representative John Yarmuth saw her with a large group of people sometime between January 3 and 6. “Whether these people were people that were involved in the insurrection or not, I do not know,” Cohen told Jim Sciutto, adding, “She was a freshman, she might have had a large number of people coming to be with her on this historic occasion and just wanting to give them the opportunity to have a tour.” Yarmuth confirmed the sighting, but likewise said he had no evidence there was anything wrong with what Boebert was up to.
For her part, the new Colorado representative reiterated an earlier denial that she had led an insurrectionist tour—which she issued when no one had named her—kind of odd—and insisted the only people with her in the Capitol on the days before the violence were family and staffers. She accused Cohen of repeating “irresponsible lies in order to elevate his own political relevance and to further fuel the division of our country.”
But it all made me ask: Who the hell is Lauren Boebert? And if I was doing my job, how did I miss her last year?
“When somebody tweets ‘I am the militia,’ that’s a pretty clear indicator of who they support,” says former Colorado state representative Diane Mitsch Bush, who ran against Boebert in 2020 and never got sufficient traction as she called on voters and the media to investigate the former restaurateur’s right-wing militarist ties. While noting there is no proof that Boebert led Capitol tours for the rioters, Mitsch Bush nonetheless told me, “Anyone who followed her campaign, my God in heaven, could have predicted” she would support the insurrection. Among her campaign’s security guards were some of Colorado’s “Three Percenters,” a militant right-wing racist group that has come under investigation for its potential role in the planning and carrying out of the Capitol riot.
Boebert got a flash of national attention back in 2014, when ABC’s Nightline did a segment on the restaurant she and her husband owned in their hometown of Rifle, Colo., Shooters Grill, where the future congresswoman and her attractive female wait staff all packed handguns (hers was a semiautomatic). Then a bleached-blonde, now a sober Sarah Palin brunette with glasses, she let the ABC crew film her getting ready for work, putting on makeup, and buckling on her holster. Asked about some locals’ ire at the notion of pistol-packing wait staff not far from the sites of her state’s Columbine (1999) and Aurora (2011) gun massacres, she answered blithely, “I think it should be normal everywhere. I think it should be a common sight. I think we would have a lot less violence if it was.”
She also has a rap sheet that makes her law-and-order stance comical (as does her now-better-known support for sedition, of course). Cited and fined in 2010 for having two at-large pit bulls who attacked a neighbor’s dog, she was arrested in 2015 for helping underage drinkers avoid arrest (she ignored court appearances, and then charges were dropped); a year later she was convicted of driving an unsafe vehicle after she flipped her pickup truck into a ditch. Back in 2004, her husband Jayson pleaded guilty to indecent exposure after publicly showing his penis to underage girls in a bowling alley while courting the 17-year-old Lauren; the same year he was arrested and served seven days for assaulting her; she was later charged with assaulting him in retaliation, but the outcome of those charges can’t be confirmed, perhaps because she was still a minor.
How does someone like Boebert get elected to Congress? With a lot of help from other far-right Republicans, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who gave her at least $70,000, which the Federal Elections Commission says she failed to disclose. In my personal value system, Cruz is worse than Boebert, who dropped out of high school. The Canadian-born senator with multiple Ivy League degrees was an establishment Republican turned Tea Party acolyte, who ran against Trump in 2016, pretended to angrily defend his wife, Heidi, and father, Rafael, against Trump’s slander, but wound up a slavish supporter anyway. Let us also recall: Establishment Cruz went rightward with the essentially racist Tea Party, which was the gateway drug to QAnon, which Lauren Boebert once feverishly supported but disavowed at some point when her handlers deemed that necessary.
With Boebert, Cruz encouraged the January 6 Capitol violence by continuing to claim nonexistent voter fraud in the November election that saw Trump decisively defeated. Also with Boebert, the Texas charlatan could face some consequences. On Sunday a video released by The New Yorker showed insurgents who invaded the Capitol on the Senate floor rifling through his and other senators’ papers while one reassured others, “Cruz would want us to do this, so I think we’re OK.” They’re not OK, and Cruz might not be either. Nor should Missouri freshman Senator Josh Hawley, another child of elite institutions, unlike Lauren Boebert, who peddled Trump’s voter fraud lies and incited insurrection. I would love to see the three of them thrown out of Congress by their colleagues, as new Missouri Representative Cori Bush proposes.
But as the GOP’s right-wing terror fomenters have learned over the last decade, their actions rarely have serious consequences. Boebert’s communications director resigned last week, repelled by his boss’s support for the January 6 riot (as did Cruz’s, it so happens). Good for him. But he joined Boebert’s staff after coming up in soon-to-be Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s office, which reminds us how much help so-called “establishment Republicans” have given those they now insist hijacked their party.
They welcomed the hijackers aboard. They abetted them all along the way. Let’s keep the record straight.
I’m searching my own record as well. I have written, maybe too often, about how galling it is now to remember being derided by media colleagues for calling out the racism, and the danger, of the nascent Tea Party, of citizen Donald Trump’s birtherism, as well as the GOP establishment’s courting of Trump in 2012, in 2016, and throughout all but the last few weeks of his presidency. I was right. But I didn’t predict quite how far the rot would spread.
When we started to hear about the House GOP plan to contest the Electoral College vote on January 6, I said it represented merely a “doofus caucus.” And while I was prescient in predicting they would “make life hell” for Vice President Mike Pence “in the run-up” to January 6 (though I didn’t imagine a mob would chant “Hang Mike Pence” that day), I was wrong about the size of the “doofus caucus”—ultimately, about 140 House members and eight senators—and its leaders. While it’s true some mentally under-gifted House members got it going, from Alabama’s Mo Brooks to Ohio’s embarrassing Jim Jordan to Georgia’s QAnon-supporting Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene to, yes, Boebert, it didn’t stop there. I did not see Cruz and Hawley being the Senate instigators. Maybe that reveals some kind of educational bias on my part (although this land-grant college alum rejoices that Biden and Harris are the first governing duo without Ivy League degrees since 1976). I’m also a feminist who has somehow missed the rise of an anti-feminist pro-Trump female right. I’m still shocked that so many of the January 6 insurrectionists were female.
At any rate, it’s time for all of us to reckon with what we can admit we’re afraid of, what we actually need to fear, what we wrongly mock, and whom we underestimate. Somehow too many of us have gotten it wrong for way too long. I hope, two weeks after January 6 , the nation’s security officials get it right and protect Biden, Harris, and the national leaders who will attend the inauguration, some of them only pretending they support “the peaceful transfer of power.” But we will all need to be newly vigilant, in our own ways, for months and years to come.