After the Capitol Attack: A Way Forward
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The assault on the US Capitol left dozens injured, five dead, and a nation reeling. There have been many calls for healing, but how? How do we meaningfully address what happened? In this podcast, Preemptive Love founder Jeremy Courtney talks responding about the attack, engaging the phenomenon of Trumpism, and how we can provide offramps—with reconciliation and accountability—for those who want to find a way home.
Jeremy Courtney is the founder and CEO of Preemptive Love. He has lived and worked on the frontlines of conflict for over a decade, serving families who’ve been terrorized by violence, poverty, and disease. He’s the author of the book Love Anyway: An Invitation Beyond a World That’s Scary as Hell. Jeremy lives in Iraq with his wife Jessica and their two children.
Pyramid of Trumpism
This model for understanding popular engagement with insurgent movements such as ISIS or Trumpism was discussed on this podcast episode.
Attack on the Capitol: Why We Must Call It What It Is
If you haven’t lived through a moment like this before, you may not be equipped with the right language to describe it. These are some of the words we ought to be using—and why they matter.
The Seeds of War Have Already Been Planted. Now What?
When you think your enemy is an existential threat, then of course it’s easier to consider violence. This is how nearly every war begins—and the United States is no exception.
US Election: Voices From the Other Side of War (Podcast)
We asked four members of our global team who have lived through war, upheaval, and political violence what they would say to those in the US.
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Editor’s Note: The Love Anyway tour mentioned on this episode took place in late 2019.
JEREMY: When we seek a pound of flesh because they took a pound of flesh, we really embed the next conflict in what we’re doing today. But when we give people dignity and humanity and help them find meaningful offramps, they become some of our best allies in preventing the generational spread of violence.
BEN: On January 6, thousands of pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol, hoping to overturn the results of a democratic election. Dozens were injured. Five people died. An entire country is reeling from the violence and its aftermath. Sadly, this kind of upheaval—this kind of extremism—is nothing new. What’s new for some of us, is seeing it play out in real time, so close to home.
How do we heal? How do we meaningfully address what is broken? And most importantly of all, how do we stop the spread of violence—before it’s too late?
I spoke with Jeremy Courtney, founder and CEO of Preemptive Love, about how we can respond to the attack on the Capitol, the phenomenon of Trumpism, and how we can provide offramps for those who want to find a way home.
This is our conversation.
BEN: So Jeremy, I’m curious, when you heard the news on Wednesday, and I think I texted you at one point and asked if you were by a TV or something. But when you saw those images of the Capitol under siege, what was your reaction?
JEREMY: There’s definitely a part of me that wants to say I was shocked. But I toured the US last year , coast to coast, north to south. And every single night on tour, we talked about how the seeds of civil war have already been planted, and that it had a strong possibility, if not likelihood of escalation, if white people in particular didn’t address their family, cousin, mom’s dad, uncles, pastors, people sitting next to them in PTA meetings and church meetings.
BEN: So would you say that you were surprised or not surprised?
JEREMY: I knew it was a—I took it seriously. I took it as a very real possibility. But storming the Capitol itself and overrunning the Capitol, and screaming, “Hang Mike Pence,” the vice president of the United States, that exact scenario was nowhere on my radar. So yeah, I was surprised at the specifics of it. But I wasn’t surprised at the general trajectory of civil war, sedition, things of that nature.
BEN: One of the things that makes it so hard to make sense of it all, is the fact that there were several things going on all at once. I mean, you have a president at a rally, inciting people to march on the Capitol, even saying falsely that he’s going to go with them. And then an hour or two later at the Capitol itself, you see everything from, you know, some people waving Trump flags, just kind of generally milling about. And then then you have the people with the zip tie handcuffs, who are going through the halls of Congress shouting things like, “Get Pelosi” and “Hang Mike Pence.” How do we assess things like culpability and complicity? And how do we even look at one another after this?
JEREMY: Arguing for a nuanced disaggregation of a movement is something that we have done for years. And I think the easiest parallel to draw is the way that we’ve parsed out and talked about the broad thing that people were talking about in 2014, called ISIS.
When they sprang onto the world stage and commanded the entire world’s attention, it was easy to paint them with one broad stroke. And I think we’re seeing something very similar right now in Trumpism, as a movement. It’s easy to paint everyone who was anywhere in the vicinity with a broad stroke. And I think that would be a mistake. Just like I think it was a mistake to paint the entire ISIS movement with a broad brush.
So back in 2014, I came up with a framework that had five levels, to think about ISIS—from the people who, you know, ISIS rolls up on their town, and they were conquered, so now suddenly they were just kind of going along to get along—to collaborators, people who actually worked with ISIS but maybe didn’t do anything actively violent—to criminals, people who wielded a weapon, and did something in the name of ISIS and harmed cause physical harm to others—to cultists who actually believe the theology and the end times rhetoric. And then I think at the very tip of the pyramid are people that I just thought of as power. They were in it for the money. They weren’t in it for the influence. They were in it for the power. They weren’t even believers necessarily. And I use that as a framework. I think there’s some kind of parallel that we can find in the Trumpist movement. I think this moment demands something equally nuanced.
BEN: So if you take that framework and apply it to Trumpism writ large, how do you see the different groups? And how do you engage the different groups? Are there groups within that world that can be engaged differently than other groups?
JEREMY: This is why I think the pyramid is helpful and and even essential, because if all we do is refer to Trump supporters as those who are like the very tip of the pyramid, it’s easy to write them all off in a way that would only further inflame and entrench this conflict that we have. I don’t say this strictly as an American, because as an American my heart is inflamed. I say this more as an experienced conflict person. I say this based on what I’ve seen in war zones across Iraq, Syria, and beyond.
So I’ve got five layers of the Trumpist pyramid that I’ve been thinking through. I think the bottommost layer is the coalitionists. These are the people who are basically saying, “I’m a Republican. Or at least, I’m not a Democrat. And for that reason, I’m with Trump.” There wasn’t a lot more to it than that.
BEN: So these are the people who might have been on some level, you think, deeply uncomfortable with Trump, but they were just more uncomfortable with the alternative as they saw it?
JEREMY: Yeah, I think so. I use this word to describe the people who are still mostly in because of their red-ness, not because of any kind of deeper ideology, but because, “I know that I’m Team Red.” And that’s about it. If that’s your driving motivation, then I think Trump likely just provided a very large wedge here, where these people could maybe find an offramp from Trumpism.
A layer up from that I start to see things intensifying. That’s what I’m kind of thinking of or calling confederates. I kind of—I do mean this in the sense of, like, the Confederate flag that they are—it’s kind of the twofold meaning, that they’re going deeper into the confederation of this group of people, tes. And they are getting closer and closer to rallying around what that Confederate flag stands for. It’s a kind of nativism. It’s got a lot more overt racism, baked in.
Going up from there, I would put, like, a broader range of conspiracists. This is like, “The election was stolen.” This is, “Democrats are inherently vile, conniving people. And so we know they couldn’t win on their own.” So this group of people is buying into the conspiracy fed to them that, you know, there’s something foul going on here. This starts to get into a much, much more difficult place where finding an offramp is difficult.
Up from conspiracist, the fourth level I see is QAnon. This is a specific movement of conspiracy theory. It’s a cult. But it’s even more than that, it’s a religion at this point that believes God has actually appointed Trump as our presidential messiah for these times. This is a level of conspiracy and a level of religious fervor and willful blindness, that I genuinely do not know what the offering is. They believe that there is a deep state, and this global cabal of blood guzzling Hollywood, pedophile elites who Trump is on a God-given messianic mission to take down, and that every single thing we see playing out right now is really just a game of five-dimensional chess. And Trump is always six steps ahead of everybody. Trump alone knows what he’s doing. And we just have to believe—and I just, I don’t know how you help your friends and family find their way out. It’s a religious de-conversion, that would be necessary. And that’s incredibly difficult.
BEN: So your focus is on the first two, maybe three tiers of that pyramid, where it seems like people are more reachable, persuadable. And is that how you’re encouraging others who are maybe wrestling with the same question? Because a lot of these divisions are happening in our faith communities, in our families, in our workplaces. Like, nobody can hide from this anymore. Nobody has the luxury of looking away. What would you say? How do you encourage somebody to even approach that?
JEREMY: I take some lessons and cues from what I’ve seen in the Muslim communities where I’ve lived for the last 20 years. You know, Christians in the US and across Europe were very eager to demand that Muslim clerics denounce ISIS back in 2014. 15, 16. And there’s a parallel here.
Let me say like this: Muslim leaders were dealing with a similar set of questions in the days of al-Qaeda and the days of ISIS, trying to figure out how do we prevent the angry, agitated, disaffected youth, and men in our movements, and sometimes women in our movements from fully disaffecting into the Islamist terror camp.
People can kind of be of two minds. One: we should speak very forthrightly and very clear and denounce them all the way, so as to give clear, religious, authoritative leadership. But somewhere along the way, certain religious leaders started to sense that there is already a movement afoot inside their ranks. And because of that, they start to ask themselves questions about the long game. “Well, if I come out too strong right now, maybe I will drive these five youth further into the arms of ISIS. So maybe I should take the long road.
These are legitimate strategic questions, when that is the true motivation, causing a religious leader—Christian or Muslim or whatever—to question how heavy they should go, and how clearly they should go in a denouncing kind of way or a spiritual guidance direction kind of way.
What I think is not helpful is when your people are already gone—when they are already full QAnon, when they are already full conspiracist—trying to placate them, holding your tongue, holding back. That is not dealing in good faith. Because those people are gone. You got to let them go. They have already given up on your spiritual authority. They’ve already given up on your voice. They’re not listening to you.
Many of us were raised in religious traditions that praised bravery and courage and backbone in the face of adversity, in the face of falsehood, in the face of apostasy, you know? And it seems that there’s just way too much equivocation going on right now, for fear of the fringe.
Where I think the pyramid helps us is by disaggregating these groups of people and saying, “Look, you probably still have significant amounts of red-state people and confederate people. Racist? Yes. Nativist? Yes. Xenophobic? Yes. But they’re your people. And they’re still generally oriented to listen to your religious voice. So speak up fast, before you lose them too. Because once they start moving into that level of fringe conspiracy, and once Trump becomes their messiah, it’s way too late at that point.
If your church or your pastors or your Christian influencers—or if you are one of those people listening—and you are still a week in, or five years in, giving vague prayer tweets and “pray for our divided nation,” that’s not leadership. We need people who will step up. It’s not just about denouncing the violence. We need a full-scale teaching regimen on white nationalism, white terrorism, the weaponizing of Christianity throughout history, the roots of American white Christian terror against Black people. We need a full, years-long curriculum on this. And it belongs in the church.
BEN: So I’ve got one last question. It seems like there are these two competing impulses right now. And they’re on a collision course. On the one hand, you’ve got that impulse to call for peace. We’ve had a lot of calls to… “Let’s just put this behind us.”
And then, on the other hand, you’ve got voices out there saying, “Well, there have to be consequences. There has to be justice. And not just for the people who rioted, not just for the people who broke into the Capitol, but also for the people who enabled them. The people who emboldened and incited them.
My question to you as a peacemaker, as someone who has lived through the disruption of ISIS and the aftermath of ISIS and all of the questions around how to reckon with the fallout from that, you know—how do you see these two competing calls the call to lower the temperature, the call for peace on the one hand, and the call to for there to be consequences? How do we actually begin to move forward?
JEREMY: OK, let me let me paint a scenario, because maybe it will help. Because I think people have fundamentally misunderstood our work for years, as we’ve been showing up on the frontlines of groups like ISIS, and making an explicit decision to help people who were on that ISIS pyramid somewhere.
Let’s say, I’ll just be generic here, let’s say red states one, two, and three all secede tomorrow and declare themselves the equivalent of a Trumpist caliphate. And they terrorize democrats and Black people among them. And that goes on for some three, four, five years. And near the tail end of the Biden administration, there’s carpet bombing of these red-state cities to drive them out—people who were once loyal to the Trumpist narrative. People who are somewhere on that Trump pyramid are now being indiscriminately carpet bombed from the sky, without any regard for whether they are kind of just “go along to get along” people, whether they’re somehow non-criminal collaborators, whether they’re criminal, violent collaborators—whatever. They’re just being indiscriminately carpet bombed, trying to wipe them off.
Preemptive Love would be on the frontlines, seeking to provide food, shelter, humanitarian services—and show a kind of offramp and humanity to those people who hurt and harmed our fellow Americans, our neighbors. Because, number one, they still are humans and have human rights. And we believe that the seeds of the next war are often embedded in how we respond to today’s conflicts. And if there are any people who are willing to take the offramp, those people often become great evangelists against further cultic behavior.
Giving people a meaningful offramp, helping them pay the debt to society that they owe, and then restoring them—that’s an important part of how we stop the spread of ideas that lead to violence.
When we seek a pound of flesh because they took a pound of flesh, we really embed the next conflict in what we’re doing today. But when we give people dignity and humanity and help them find meaningful offramps, they become some of our best allies in preventing the generational spread of violence.
BEN: So we have to get out of this reductive thinking that we can either have peace or justice.
JEREMY: You know, the slogan, the mantra that you often hear that Black Lives Matter rallies, for example: “No justice, no peace.” That’s not meant to pit them at odds with one another. It’s meant to enumerate the step one, and then step two.
If you want to jump to step two, and just say “peace, peace” before pursuing justice, that’s not viable. That doesn’t get us where we need to go. And yet it’s exactly what many people are doing right now. They’re saying “peace, peace,” but there is no peace because there has been no repentance. There’s been no recanting. There’s been no effort at restoration. And without that, you can’t have reconciliation—which is to say, a true, flourishing societal peace.
BEN: Do you feel like we can get there?
JEREMY: I always believe we can get there. It’s a question of how long it’s going to take.
I absolutely believe that society, history continues to move toward awakening, toward an opening up, toward a more inclusive, caring posture. But it often comes with three steps forward, and then two steps back. And then we get stuck two steps back for a while before we take another two steps forward. And then one step back.
We are moving forward. But it’s not strictly up into the right. It’s not strictly progressive, you know, in some kind of “never is there a setback” kind of way. And “setback” is a comfortable word that often means many people lose their lives. Many people are kept down. Many people are oppressed. I think there’s some real gaps that are growing between us. And what is needed is a right-tempered understanding of the work that we’re up against and the work that we’re in.
Which is why at Preemptive Love, we’re so focused, above all else, on recruiting peacemakers. We’re not out to recruit a bunch of followers on social media. We’re not out to recruit a bunch of donors. That is a dead end. If all we’re doing is recruiting donors, then we get stuck like so many churches right now who don’t know how to speak out, because a certain group of people have all the money, and they’re afraid those people are going to leave them.
What I want us focused on—and what I indeed think we are focused on—is raising peacemakers, raising up peacemakers, recruiting peacemakers. And if we can bring together a community around the world who’s committed to the long arc and the long arduous work of peace, I think we can weather anything, and over the generations to come be one of the strongest forces for progress in the world.
BEN: Learn more about our peacemaking work—and see the pyramid of Trumpism discussed on this podcast—at our website, preemptivelove.org/podcast. If you’d like to join our community of peacemakers and support our work to heal all that’s tearing us apart—in our own communities and around the world—you can make your first monthly gift today at preemptivelove.org. Thanks for listening.