An epic story of politics, conspiracies, fans, and rocket ships in which the political chaos of 2020 was presaged by a culture war for a literary award.
From January 6 2021 to January 7 2015
At around 8 am Eastern Standard Time on the 6th of January 2021, the then-President of the United States sent a message on the social media platform Twitter:
“States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval. All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/06/do-it-mike-trump-leans-on-pence-to-reject-bidens-electoral-college-certification-455319
The tweet combined falsehoods about the presidential election along with a bizarre legal theory that the Vice President could invalidate the votes of the US States. That day, the US Congress was set confirm the electoral victory of Joe Biden & Kamala Harris in a joint session presided over by Vice President Mike Pence.
Later that day Pence would state in a letter:
“my considered judgement that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.”https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/read-pences-full-letter-saying-he-cant-claim-unilateral-authority-to-reject-electoral-votes
Around the same time, President Donald Trump was wrapping up an hour long speech to his supporters at a rally in Washington. He exhorted them to march on the Capitol building where Congress would be in session. Many pro-Trump supporters had already marched to the Capitol.
By 1:30 pm, police at the Capitol were already retreating as protestors advanced. By 2:13 pm, Mike Pence was escorted from the Senate Chamber for his own safety, as protestors had invaded the building. Violence continued, with lawmakers forced into hiding, multiple deaths, and the city of Washington DC forced into curfew.
It was a shocking moment in American politics: a riot inspired by confused and poorly substantiated ideas in an attempt to overthrow US constitutional processes and democratic change.
Watching the news on the other side of the world, I was also following the opinions of a number of right wing voices in the USA in attempt to understand what was going on from there perspective. After all, American conservatives had for years claimed an almost sacred status to the US Constitution — and yet here were ostensible supporters of a Republican President attempting to over turn the outcome of the Electoral College.
One person I was reading was a writer for the right-wing media outlet PJ Media/Instapundit, who wrote in a comment at her own blog about her anger seeing major conservative news outlets condemning the protestors:
Seriously, I think we should do the media next. Put the fear of Americans into them.
Saint Augusto bless us.
Anyone has helicopters?”
Here “Saint Augusto” and “helicopters” being a reference to a far-right meme about the use by Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet of “death flights“, a form of extra-judicial killing by pushing victims out of aircraft.
The following day, ‘alt-right’ ethno-nationalist publisher Vox Day described Sarah Hoyt as the “only non-cuck at Instapundit” [archive link]. In this context, “cuck” is derogatory term for mainstream conservatives referencing “cuckold” pornography. Day was applauding a post by Hoyt were she celebrated the actions of the protestors:
“It’s time to ditch the Marquis de Queensberry [sic] rules. It’s time to stop fighting with our feet in a bucket. Yes, what happened today was very very bad. Yes, it means that what comes next will probably come with a butcher’s bill. I have sons in military age. I’m not thrilled.https://pjmedia.com/instapundit/424440/
BUT the fault is not of the protesters. The fault is of the corruptocrats, yes, including the Supreme Court Justices, every one of them who found it easier to roll over for fraud and not let the ridiculous level of fraud in the elections have its day in court.
If you’re going to clutch pearls and tut tut do so at those who passed the buck, refused to do their jobs or sided with the left in the hopes of being eaten last.
The angry Americans, many of them despoiled out of their livelihoods by the elite’s Covid-19 fun and games designed to destroy the economy so they could steal the election, are the least guilty here. It’s quite likely — if G-d watches out for fools, children, and the United States of America — they’ll be held up as heroes some day.”
Day himself had been a passionate supporter of Donald Trump from when Trump had originally announced his candidacy in 2015. As a promoter of the infamous “Qanon” conspiracy theory, Day was excited by the events at the Capitol. Among Qanon supporters there was a constitutional theory (widely regarded as nonsensical) that Donald Trump had the power to remain President by use of the Insurrection Act of 1807 and would be empowered to make the US military run new elections. Among the Qanon believers, this was referred to as Trump “crossing the Rubicon” — a reference to Julius Caesar bringing his legions to Rome. In a post on the day entitled “Pence Cucks…and Runs”, Day stated “The President clearly has no choice but to invoke the Insurrection Act.” [archive link]
The protestors in the capitol ranged from the extreme right wing to neo-Nazis and were not homogeneous in their beliefs. Some were believers in the Qanon conspiracy theories, a kind of free-floating collection of beliefs and rationalisations that would shift from day to day. Others had more conventional conservative beliefs, but were convinced that the US Presidential election of November 2020 had been so deeply compromised by electoral fraud that the result had to be overturned.
The belief that the election had been fraudulent had become entrenched, despite a thunderous lack of evidence and repeated defeat of court challenges. When the Supreme Court refused to even hear a case raised by the State of Texas challenging the election results, many on the right felt betrayed.
Conservatives had taken great comfort from the appointment of three new Supreme Court Justices during the tenure of Donald Trump as President, and had regarded these as particular victories for the right. A conservative writer (who would later attend the January 6 rally but not the subsequent protest) wrote of the appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett in October 2020:
“Trump won my vote, (at that time) against my will and better judgment, because of his promise to appoint conservative, originalist, or textualist judges. We conservatives have been consistently betrayed by the Supreme Court for nine or ten decades now, and the Supreme Court overreach into legislative matters has been the single worst source of Satanic evil this nation has ever endured. Nor has the recent behavior of Justice Gorsuch amended matters.”http://www.scifiwright.com/2020/10/not-tired-of-winning-yet-cl/
Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment a few weeks prior to the Presidential election was seen as a means to secure Trump’s victory with a clear conservative majority on the Supreme Court. When the court dismissed the Texas case due to a lack of standing, the sense of betrayal was more deeply compounded. On January 8, when all avenues preventing Joe Biden from becoming President had closed, Wright wrote:
“There were several venues which could have examined and publicized and rectified such fraud: an independent judiciary, culminating the Supreme Court; local election officials, state officers, governors; state legislatures; police agencies, including the Department of Justice and the FBI; the Electoral College itself; the Congress; the Vice President, in his office as president of the Senate.http://www.scifiwright.com/2021/01/a-word-of-encouragement/
All these venues have failed, and failed outrageously.”
And further on in the same essay he would say:
“These dark days are meant to bring all this treason to light, and all frauds to stand naked. Yes, even the judges and politicians and public servants whom Trump’s faithful aid and support alone elevated to office, who now will not lift a hand, save to plunge a dirk in the spine. The ungrateful friend is the lowest and most loathsome of created beings. Even such as they, the love of heaven seeks to save.”ibid
And further on:
“These dark days, these treasons, these lies, all had to be brought into the light. There are men I would have thought to be friends and staunch allies of patriotism, of the Constitution, of the cause of freedom, who strangled their own ideals, and stabbed friends and allies in the back, in a fashion none could have foreseen nor expected. This is bigger than Trump, bigger than any political party. It is bigger than the nation, bigger than the cause of liberty or law or Western Civilization itself. What happens in this nation over the next month will influence and establish the world over the next several generations. This is a war for the soul of the world.ibid
Without these days of darkness, without the desperation and the appearance of victory for the worldly powers, they would never have shown themselves, never have flown their true colors, never have cast public votes for treason. The penalty for treason is the only criminal penalty written in the Constitution. It is death. They have written out their death warrants with their own hands. They have damned themselves by failing to keep faith with nation, law, sworn duty, patriotic love, personal honor, alliance, friendship, humanity. They have failed to keep faith with God.”
Strong (if very verbose) stuff. Nor was this sentiment of wrongness held only by Trump supporters. Beyond the Qanonists, the MAGAist and die-hard Republicans, there were anti-left libertarians who also believed that the Democratic Party and the more nebulous forces of the left had conspired to “steal” the election. Solid proof was severely lacking but the lack of any substantive evidence did not prevent people circulating their own claims about the election.
One example shared by Hoyt, Wright and Day, was written by a right-wing former accountant who was expressly not a Trump supporter but who was also vehemently opposed to the left. Larry Correia is a prominent writer whose posts on Facebook and his own blog about the election were widely shared in the aftermath of November 4.
“I believe most people on the right already believed that fraud happens in these machine cities, because duh. But I think most of us also believed that our votes still mattered because we could win by beating the margin of lawyer. But after this audacious fuckery? If they can pull off this level of blatant, clumsy, in your face bullshit and get away with it, no amount of regular votes will ever matter again. Even if we overcome Big Tech and the media controlling most information and get more people on our side, they’ll just stop the count when we are too far ahead and make more votes appear until they win. Then the media and Big Tech will declare nothing weird happened. Shut up.https://monsterhunternation.com/2020/11/09/election-2020-the-more-fuckery-update/
So I can’t say how this is going to go, but none of the ends from this point will be good. At best this marriage goes back to an abusive relationship with irreconcilable differences, and at worst it ends in a murder suicide.”
Correia’s examples included many easily debunked incidents, rumours, and some basic statistical misunderstandings. However, they would be widely shared and were just a small part of the lurid theories being passed around right-wing sources.
On Facebook, one friend of Larry Correia’s shared his post and stated:
“And it’s not just a Red vs. Blue battle. What we’re dealing with are statistical anomalies so implausible, there is literally no way for them to occur in nature. They must be manufactured. In matters of medicine, or engineering, these would be gargantuan orange caution flags. Alerting us to the fact something very not OK was going on. But we’re expected to just *ignore* them for the sake of politics? With a giant, rancid dollop of “healing” to boot?”https://www.facebook.com/brad.torgersen/posts/5314110418615148
This sense of imminent civil war did not spring up fully formed after the presidential election. Talk of a second US civil war comes and goes in right-wing discourse, but during the Trump years discussion had increased and it had even gained its own meme-friendly nickname: Boogaloo (or Boog or various other names; there’s a good breakdown here https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/05/27/the-boogaloo-movement-is-not-what-you-think/ ).
In the comment sections and replies in these right-leaning outlets, a common meme was to frame the situation as four boxes. For example, in September 2020 Brad Torgersen posted an image of a rifle with text saying:
“They tell us they will get rid of the ballot box.https://www.facebook.com/brad.torgersen/posts/5011001542259372
They are already getting rid of the soap box.
Eventually they will get rid of the jury box.
Do not, under any circumstances, surrender the cartridge box.
We will need it. To restore the first three.”
Hoyt, Day, Wright, Correia, Torgersen were not significant figures in the events of January 6, but they do help illustrate some of the range of opinion among far-right voices on that day. Among them, they represent the Alt-Right/pro-Trump-from-the-begining (Day), late/reluctant converts to Trump (Hoyt, Wright), as well as Trump-sceptical/anti-anti-Trump libertarians (Correia, Torgersen). Collectively, they show some of the stew of wild theories and frustration among the online right in the wake of Trump’s electoral defeat.
So, if these five weren’t the most significant voices or key-players, why focus on these side characters? Why quote the redshirts from an episode of Star Trek and not stick with Captain Kirk? The short answer is that this group were a set of writers that I chose early in Trump’s presidency to follow to help me better understand how the American right would change and adapt during what was bound to be a chaotic and idiosyncratic time. Why these five? For that we need to take a trip to six years earlier.
January 7 2015
“The Hugo awards window (for 2015’s nominations) will be open soon. As one of Baen’s newest authors, I wanted to be be [sic] the first guy out of the gate with SAD PUPPIES 3. For those of you who don’t know what SAD PUPPIES is, it’s a (somewhat tongue in cheek) running effort to get stories, books, and people onto the Hugo ballot, who are entirely deserving, but who don’t usually get on the ballot. Largely because of the nomination and voting tendencies of World Science Fiction Convention, with its “fandom” community. In the last decade we’ve seen Hugo voting skew more and more toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) works. Some of these literary pieces barely have any science fictional or fantastic content in them. Likewise, we’ve seen the Hugo voting skew ideological, as Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.”Brad Torgersen https://web.archive.org/web/20181204082634/https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/announcing-sad-puppies-3/
2015 saw an extraordinary cultural battle for control over a literary award. Framed by a group that had jokingly called themselves “The Evil League of Evil” (Hoyt, Day, Wright, Correia and Torgersen), as a struggle against elites and the left, the campaign would generate months of controversy and argument.
The story behind the events of 2015 stretches back in time and its root causes had lasting implications both to the relatively narrow world of fandom and also into broader society. Like the events of 2020, they encompassed conspiracy theories, accusations of voting fraud, and passionate views about the roles and rights of women and people of colour, as well as questions about gender and sexuality.□
At it’s heart it was a struggle about stories and specifically who gets to decide who’s stories get heard. However, this very question of what-the-stuggle-was-about was itself subject to multiple and contradictory stories. Even the own accounts of the protagonists/antagonists of the conflict shifted over time or contradicted themselves. Six years later, the differences and similarities in stance between the members of the so-called Evil League of Evil revolved around the same framing of world events as they had used for the Hugo Awards: that powerful “elites” were siding with left wing ideologues to transform society using underhand means. This framing played directly into the hands of the most extreme sections of the right.
The events of 2015 showed how the extreme right could usurp a more conventionally populist campaign. However, it also showed how politically and culturally diverse people could come together and work against a reactionary movement.
Whatever the motives and rationalisations and claims of the Sad and Rabid Puppy campaigns were, the essence of their struggle was a struggle over the control of stories.
On one side was a campaign that worked for (intentionally or not) a principle that said that the control of stories should rest with middle class, white, English speaking traditionalist men along with those others who were willing to ally themselves to that cause. The opposition to that was simply everybody who rejected that as a foundational principle.
Despite the politics of the Puppy campaigns, establishing that their functional objective was so utterly reactionary is not simple. Of the five people listed, one is a woman & an immigrant from Portugal, another is the son of an immigrant (coincidentally from Portugal), a third (and with most extreme views on race) is an immigrant TO Europe who claims native American ancestry and claims to be a descendant of a Mexican revolutionary, a fourth is a former atheist. Politics can’t be understood by applying simple stereotypes. The people who led the Puppy campaigns had complex backgrounds, complex motives and ideas that shifted over time. Nevertheless, by accident or intent, the Puppy campaigns sought to turn science fiction back to a past that were power rested with men.
The Debarkle series is yet another attempt to create a story. I had imagined that there would be many such accounts written in 2016 about the events of 2015. After all, it had been a conflict that included many professional and amateur writers! However, even though I went to some effort to document what had happened when (I am blessed with a poor memory which leads me not to trust it), I never could see where the story ended or finished.
One place I considered finishing the story was in the final months of 2016. In that year N.K.Jemisin won the Hugo Award for the book The Fifth Season – a novel that I regarded as one of the great science fiction novels. A few weeks later at the large commercial media convention DragonCon, Larry Correia and John C Wright both won prizes in the first annual Dragon Awards — a new science fiction & fantasy award that had been established in the wake of the Puppy campaigns of 2015. Finishing there, leant a kind of happy ever after, with the Puppies going there own way and the Hugo Awards once again showing its ability to highlight books destined to be classics of the genre.
Yet that was not the right ending.
The problem with finishing the story there was it retained the idea that the conflict of 2015 was mainly about whether Hugo Awards should be going to one faction or another or one choice of book or another. Behind the conflict were wider political forces and cultural changes — strong currents pulling along people and events far beyond the little world of Hugo fandom. So this version of the story (and I hope that others will write their own versions) ends much later or rather, it begins there with this chapter and the attempted coup by supporters of Donald Trump in January 2021.
But we have a long way before we get there. We will first have to run back to the nineteenth century, catch up with World Science Fiction Convention, learn about Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and learn quite how much candy there was in a piñata.
Next time: Notes, Caveats and Excuses. Before we dive into the past I need to do some housekeeping, make some points on names and offer some excuses.