The Good Fight
Graeme Wood on January 6th, Saudi Arabia, and Interviewing Extremists

Graeme Wood on January 6th, Saudi Arabia, and Interviewing Extremists

Yascha Mounk and Graeme Wood discuss why “the dumbest coup in history” failed (and how a future coup might succeed).

Graeme Wood is a staff writer for The Atlantic and a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He is the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Graeme Wood discuss why the January 6th insurrection does not resemble other coups; his experience interviewing Mohammed bin Salman and being Richard Spencer's middle school lab partner; and the need for general interest journalists whose curiosity is not constrained by their identity.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: I've been a big fan of your writing and your work for a long time. We’re finally having you on the podcast to think together about the hearings of the January 6th Committee.

What do we actually know about what happened on January 6, 2020?

Graeme Wood: The main thing that we know is that many of the defenses, from the MAGA side, of what happened on January 6 are nonsense, which we kind of knew before. But it’s now on the record that the idea that this was a totally spontaneous protest that simply got out of hand, that it was a bunch of tourists who walked into the Capitol, is not the case. It was actually a somewhat planned and also somewhat organic thing that was violent, and that included the cooperation of people in the Trump orbit. Then we found out a few days ago, from the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, that Trump himself was fully aware, apparently, that the crowd was armed, that they wanted to find and kill the Vice President. And Trump said, apparently, that Mike Pence deserved it, and even ordered that metal detectors be removed from the places where they might have prevented some of the armed members of the crowd from going forward [to his rally]. 

Mounk: The fact that he actually considered and—at least allegedly—tried physically to join the mob on January 6: that to me was shocking, because that does come from the classic repository of authoritarian populist action, where you put yourself at the head of a mob of people and storm the institution. 

You call it the “dumbest coup in history.” What makes it a coup, what makes it dumb, and what would it have taken for the coup to succeed? 

Wood: When I call it the dumbest or most pathetic coup in history—or one of them, anyway—what I'm referring to is the very fact that Trump—although there’s this moment in Hutchinson's testimony where he lunges for the steering wheel of his SUV so that he can be taken to the Capitol, and then is thwarted by his Secret Service detail—then went back to the White House and sat around for hours. The content of these hearings is pretty strange from the perspective of anyone who looks at coups elsewhere in the world, where there is a physical attempt to thwart the legitimate handover of power, or the legitimate governance of the country. And that did happen (that’s what makes it a coup), but what is strange about this, is that the actual orders and action by Trump that would have really caused this to be a coup in a more familiar sense, didn’t happen. He was sitting back and observing, as if to say, “It would be nice if someone did all the risky things that go into making a coup. But I'm not going to do it myself.” 

One template for this would be the Beer Hall Putsch of Hitler: what if Hitler, instead of going to the Bürgerbräukeller, himself firing a shot into the ceiling and saying, “The government is dissolved,” instead just stayed back and let someone else do it for him? That would be a strange turn of events, and that seems to be what has happened here. Trump could have issued all sorts of orders that would have made this an unambiguous coup and made the January 6th Committee proceedings kind of irrelevant, because these orders would have established very clearly what had happened (and also made it more likely that the coup would have succeeded). He just didn't do these things, because for as long as he's been a political figure, he has been characterized by lethargy, inaction, and aversion to exertion and personal risk. And in fact, that's what happened. Luckily for the United States, that's probably what kept the attempted coup from being a possibly successful one. It certainly would have increased the violence and increased the uncertainty in subsequent days. But coups do not generally happen when the person who can make those orders and commands sits back and instead lets a bunch of Proud Boys with some tourists mixed in just do it on their own. 

He could have said, “Look, I'm in charge here. Military: listen to me–not Joe Biden—indefinitely.” He could have said, “Mike Pence is under house arrest. We need to keep him sequestered in his residence for his own safety.” All of these things that typically happen in coup attempts didn't happen. So in retrospect, maybe even at the time, it was pretty horrifying and scary. It remains horrifying to me. But it is also just weird, almost humorous, that the main thing that could have caused this coup to move into the territory of possible success is that the guy whose participation was absolutely necessary was doing nothing. He was watching TV the whole time.

Mounk: There is a hypothetical, which is: if he had gone to the Capitol and placed Mike Pence under house arrest—and if all of those other things had happened—would the coup have succeeded? Predicting the possible success of coups is an incredibly difficult undertaking, one which the plotters often get wrong. I think historians often get it wrong, because if it succeeds, they think it was always going to succeed, and if it doesn't, they think it was always going to fail. But often, it depends on split-second decisions.

Do you have any kind of evaluation of what would have transpired if Trump had gone to the Capitol that day?

Wood: There was a period when, had he done these things—taken unilateral control of executive power and stated clearly “I'm not going to let go of it”—these things would, at the very least, have made the transition of power not a sure thing over the days and weeks ahead, and would have probably ensured a lot a lot more violence. What I think has characterized Trump through the years is a kind of extreme desire to avoid personal risk and instead, in a way, to beg to be invited to do things by others who have done risky and criminal acts for him. So he seems to have always wanted to be a Cincinnatus-like figure who has been called in to save things by others. If there is something that has to be done that is illegitimate, better that they do it than that he do it. There are many examples of coups that have failed (and some that have succeeded) where the leader who was put into power has hung back physically while the actual mechanism of the coups is happening. But Trump’s failure, even behind the scenes, to order the seizing of power is anomalous. Without that, I don't think there was any chance that this would have succeeded.

Mounk: I'm trying to think about what a skeptic would say here, right? Perhaps, if he was so inactive, he wasn't really plotting a coup. With his rhetorical endorsement, a really chaotic coup attempt started, organized in part by extremist groups. He suddenly saw it happening and thought, “Well, I guess I should join it, though in the end I don't have the courage to do so.”

Wood: I think this is very much in character. Now, maybe the most pointed way to phrase that objection is, “If it's such a strange coup, maybe it's just not a coup at all. Maybe he's actually innocent.” Now, there are things that you can do that are overt crimes, and he may very well have committed some of those: for example, pressuring state and federal officials to concoct facts about the election. The things that he actually did on the day, though, look more like deeply immoral omissions. These are things that one could very reasonably argue he had a duty to do, knowing that there were people who were armed and were intending to subvert the government. But he's mostly sitting back. I'm not a legal scholar, so I can't say whether these omissions amount to crimes or to sedition. But he’s very much letting other people do the things that are clearly criminal, such as stopping Congress from performing its duties. 

This pattern is also totally unsurprising to anybody who's been watching Trump and Trumpworld these several years.

Mounk: You had a big article about Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman recently, which taught me a lot about the country and the changes it's undergoing. It’s difficult to remember why a lot of people had high hopes for MBS when he effectively took power in Saudi Arabia several years ago. There was a surprising amount of openness by people from various parts of the spectrum—thinking that perhaps he might be the person to actually push Saudi Arabia forward in a positive way. 

Wood: It's helpful to go back to the post-9/11 era, when the conventional wisdom was that it was mostly Saudis that actually committed these terror attacks, and that the reason it was mostly Saudis was because Saudi Arabia was a tremendously screwed up place that was sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, supportive of global jihadist activity; that it was among the most backward and savage societies on Earth, where women were second-class citizens, to put it in the most gentle way, and where there are public executions and so forth. If you imagine, back in 2003, a liberal making a list of all the things that you'd want to see Saudi Arabia change (curtailing jihadist exports, equality of the sexes, women driving, and so forth), you might get a list of a dozen things. When MBS came to power, almost none of those things had actually happened in a visible way. Anybody who was cynical about Saudi Arabia had 15 or so more years for that cynicism to be entrenched; that includes many, many Saudis who thought Saudi should change. 

When MBS shows up, he's in his thirties, and he has what amounts to near-absolute power. He announces that almost all of these things will change: that suddenly Saudi Arabia will no longer be supportive of jihadism; that Saudi Arabia will be more open to the outside world; that its citizens will be freer to partake in entertainment that is common elsewhere on the planet; that women will be, if not equal citizens, much more equal than they were before. That's why people were so excited about MBS. He never said, however, that there was going to be political reform in the kingdom. In fact, almost the opposite. But he indicated that most of that list of a dozen or so things that, in 2003, would have been so exciting were going to be changing fast. You can see why, especially before MBS’s reputation for cutting people up into little bits in his consulates became entrenched, there was a period when people thought he was actually the salvation for Saudi Arabia. 

Mounk: Part of this is, I suppose, just a lack of other avenues of hope. Nobody thought that Saudi Arabia was about to democratize. There wasn't any other potential leader. When an authoritarian leader comes in and makes all the right noises about reform, I can see how people squint and project the hopes onto the one realistic avenue for delivering them. Obviously, since then, we've seen that many of those hopes were unrealistic, with his quite brutal consolidation of power, the imprisonment of many of his own family members for years in luxury hotels and, obviously, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But has he delivered, to any extent, on those various promises about no longer supporting terrorism and improving rights for women, or has he failed on those counts as well? 

[For more on Jamal Khashoggi’s history with the Saudi royal family, listen to Yascha Mounk’s interview with Lawrence Wright.]

Wood: He's been very successful in some of these reforms. Some of the social reforms were done just at the stroke of a pen: women driving, opening cinemas, having normal forms of entertainment like wrestling or golf. That's happened, and probably irreversibly—extremely popular reforms. There has been economic reform. It would be hard to do any worse than Saudi Arabia had done before, where it was truly a one-industry country with oil. But Saudi Arabia has opened up significantly since then. Now, has it delivered on the full promise of the Vision 2030 plan that MBS unveiled? Probably not. But, as you say, the way that he did these things was by saying, “those of you who are skeptical of this and who have expressed that skepticism—even in the most gentle ways, especially if it's in public—you're going to find that you regret it.” The main way that happened was by imprisoning everybody in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. We're talking princes, we're talking Al Waleed bin Talal, the richest man in Saudi Arabia. There are so many people who were rolled up in this. A lot of ordinary Saudis were thrilled, because it showed that anti-corruption was going to reach the highest levels. It also showed everybody who wondered whether MBS would robustly oppress anybody who got in his way, that he would.

Mounk: Joe Biden came into office promising a moral foreign policy which didn't make corrupt deals with people like MBS. Because of rising gas prices, and the threat they pose to Democrats in the midterm elections, his administration has gone back to Venezuela to increase the output of oil. And now there's an impending meeting between Joe Biden and MBS. 

Of course, politics and history are full of cruel ironies. How do you assess those actions by the administration, and how should we think about Biden's desperate attempt for rapprochement with Saudi Arabia? 

Wood: Oil is really expensive, and Saudi Arabia has this nearly unique ability to just pump more of it. So Biden going to Saudi Arabia is, I think, the only responsible thing for a president to do; he should be going there, he should be talking to MBS, and he should get more oil pumped, and he should be demanding plenty of other reforms, too.

That said, it's not going to be easy for there to be any kind of agreement, because MBS is the regime. He is the state. If he feels disrespected—and he is disrespected—then that's going to be a huge impediment to any deals being struck. There have been attempts to get MBS to meet with Biden in the past, and MBS has not been agreeable to that, because if the meeting just takes the form of Biden saying, “You killed Jamal Khashoggi. We hate you for that,” and then exiting the meeting to have a press conference about how he looked MBS in the eye and moralized to him—MBS is not interested in that. What the Saudis are trying to get is something more like the relationship they had with the Trump administration, which is a relationship between two amoral equals—“of spouses rather than mistresses,” as one Saudi government official put it. 

I just don't see them getting anything like that with a president who, frankly, hates their guts.

Mounk: “A relationship of amoral equals” is a lovely turn of phrase; it makes me think of Socrates’ argument in The Republic that such a thing is not possible, but I think we've had plenty of evidence over the last two thousand or so years that, in fact, plenty of amorals are able to cooperate as equals and quite lastingly so. There are very effective criminal gangs all throughout the world. 

Mounk: You wrote one of the definitive articles about ISIS, which now seems to be a much diminished force. What was that movement? What did it teach us? Is there a lasting relevance to it, or was it destined to disappear from view?

Wood: I think “movement” is actually the right word. The frightening thing about ISIS when it arose may have been that it was a state, that it controlled territory, that it was rich and powerful with millions of people under its rule. But the way that I tended to look at it was as a movement that was not just political, but ideological and religious. And it was global in scope. People were showing up from a lot of different places to join it. This was a coalition of a lot of different people with some of the same views. And so a lot of my work was trying to figure out what those views are and why they were attractive to people from Japan, and from Birmingham, England, and from France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. 

When I looked into why people were going to ISIS, many of the theories that I had seen were that these people were poor. But this theory just did not seem to apply. There's certainly no simple relationship between how poor you are and whether you're going to join ISIS. More generally, what I learned from looking at that movement was that we underrate how ideologically motivated a lot of people are: people really believe some things and it matters to find out what those beliefs are, how they get them, and why we shouldn't think of those beliefs as epiphenomenal, with some material explanation that explains them away in every case.

Mounk: If we understand that extremist movements are driven by ideals that we might rightly find horrifying, but that do motivate them in a normative kind of way, how does that change our view of ISIS? More importantly, how does that change our view of the world in general? 

Wood: We actually see this all the time, in many non-ISIS contexts, where we are trying to figure out why people join the Proud Boys, or Antifa. And we're very selective about how we apply our understanding of ideology, material motivations, and political motivations. There was a period where people said that ideology doesn't really motivate ISIS.

Sometimes people do say that they're motivated by things, and they clearly aren’t. They don't realize what's really moving them. More generally, people are often enslaved by bad ideas that have infected their minds, and knowing where those ideas come from is just a necessary component of understanding human motivation. And I think that component is neglected in a lot of cases. We should figure out how to do that better. But now, the next question is, “OK, so people have bad ideas, and that makes them do bad things. What do we do about that?” I'm sorry to say that I have very little idea how to work with that. Because convincing people out of bad ideas is a hard thing to do. In some cases, it's like trying to convince people to like different music. It has no definitive solution right now. So right now, when I think of this, it's mostly diagnostic reasons. But if you've got interventions that you can think of, then I'm all ears.

Mounk: I'm not sure I do. But I do think it's important to emphasize this point, which enters the debate after every terrorist attack in all kinds of different contexts, where some people want to say, “Oh, this was just somebody who was mentally ill,” and others want to say, “No, this person was driven by an ideology.” It's always struck me that this is a bad dichotomy; that in order to carry out a terrorist attack, or some form of large-scale violence, you need to have a psychological predisposition, which might mean you are mentally ill, or it might mean that you just have a personality that is open to extreme forms of violence. Then you also have to have the ideological fuel, which tells you some kind of story about who to attack, why, and how that makes you a great person. It's only when those come together that somebody is likely to act. In nearly every case, it seems to me that there is a psychological element and an ideological element. 

Wood: That's right. And the application of that insight is very selective. Take something like the massacre of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. The reaction of the New Zealand government—in addition to very sensible things like making it harder to have weapons of war that unstable people can take into mosques—was to say, “There was a manifesto that was put out and the most important thing is that we keep control of that manifesto and not allow people to see it in New Zealand or outside of New Zealand.” I have, as an American, a visceral distaste for trying to stop people from reading things. But I also noticed that in the case of Christchurch, the reaction was “ideology is poison, and it is the virus that gets people to do these things.” That may be a very important component. I don't doubt it. But just notice that ideology is downplayed in many other circumstances.

Mounk: One of the strange facts about you is that you know Richard Spencer, the American white supremacist, from growing up with him. You wrote a very powerful story about Spencer, and I understand that you recently spoke to him for the first time in many years. 

Speaking of extremist ideologies, how does somebody like Spencer come about? 

Wood: It's true, I've known Richard Spencer since we were seventh grade lab partners. I had no idea at the time that he would become the coiner of the phrase “alt-right,” or that he would become a white nationalist leader.

Maybe his rise has something to do with my view that simple material conditions are a poor explanation for where people end up. I mean, we were in the same school, from the same milieu, and we ended up in opposite places politically. What I found in talking to him and other extremists on the right—including extremists on the Islamist right, such as ISIS—was that when you talk to them, when they describe why they're doing what they're doing, they have a very complex path that they can point to. It usually doesn't quite look like what you think.

For example, Spencer traced some of his development to an internship at the Bavarian state opera. It was a place where he—after discovering somewhat late in his education that the life of the mind might be for him—wanted to immerse himself in German culture. With a great love of Wagner, he became interested in the deep history of Germany, and political currents from Nietzsche—and interpretations of Nietzsche—onward. When I found out that Richard Spencer was rising in the ranks of the extreme right, I thought, “look, this is a kid from Texas. There's lots of racists in Texas. It's not surprising that one would rise to the national level the way that he did.” And that's true. There are lots of racists in the Texas milieu where we grew up. But it turned out that his radicalization really started at the University of Virginia, the Bavarian state opera, and the University of Chicago, where he became enamored with certain political figures whom he was studying and whom for most people, including all of his professors, were simply objects of study. He thought they deserved another hearing. That's what Spencer was in 2016: someone who was trying to turn certain ideas into political action. And that led to tiki torches and the death of Heather Heyer. Now, he's in a kind of repentant mode, living a relatively quiet life in Montana. But the simple view of how people get bad ideas becomes complicated when you talk to people like him. And that's a lot of what I do for a living.

Mounk: You spend a lot of your time talking to bad people—ISIS, MBS, and Richard Spencer. You need to get into their trust in certain ways. At the same time, of course, your writing and journalism has a very clear moral stance. It is evident that you do not like these people and do not support their political endeavors.

How is it possible to take seriously the ideology of people we disagree with, to be respectful to them in order to actually elicit interesting information, and yet not lose your own moral footing or not lose the clear moral message of what you write about? 

Wood: None of these people, by the way, would enjoy being in the company of the others. But it's true: I spent a lot of time talking to people who I don't like. And I feel a natural distinction between not liking people, not liking their ideas, and not liking talking to them. In fact, it's far more fun, interesting, and revealing to be talking to them than it is to talk with those who share your views. I kind of already know what they think. Then you talk to someone like Richard Spencer, who wants to create a white ethnostate and sees himself as the Theodor Herzl of that future state—and that's way beyond anything that I contemplate on a normal basis. Same thing with ISIS supporters. These are people from all sorts of strange backgrounds who share a very particular view of the future and of the nature of good and evil. And hearing them talk about it is truly fascinating. There is only one MBS. There's only one person on the planet who has the kind of power that he has. And to discover what his psychology is, is truly fascinating and necessary. It's valuable for everyone—his supporters and his opponents—to know who this guy is. That's what I love doing. I think it's a necessary journalistic task. It's also, strangely, one that a lot of journalists don't like doing. That is, talking to people who are evil and really finding out what they think, why they think it, and then describing it in a fair, honest way. I never conceal what my real views are any more than the bounds of politeness require. But I don't think any ISIS supporters think that I support ISIS. Richard Spencer certainly didn't believe that I supported a white ethnostate. MBS knew that I'm an American journalist with no record of supporting any kind of authoritarianism anywhere. The questions themselves revealed it. 

For most people—no matter how much you oppose their views, no matter how exotic you think they are—if you're honest about your curiosity and where you're coming from, then they're actually pretty eager to tell you. When I talked to some of the first ISIS supporters I met, they had a number of interesting comments, but a common one was, “You're the first person who's actually just asked us about what we believe. There's a lot of people who ask us questions like, ‘When's the next bomb going to go off in Melbourne?’” Of course, they're not going to answer that question. But if you ask, “What matters to you most in the world? What do you think is going to happen in the next 20 years?”, these are questions that everybody is, I think, flattered to be asked. It's something that very few people ask them, so having that openness, that honesty—or aspiring to these things, anyway—is just my modus operandi. That's what I do.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.