It was only recently that U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., had his epiphany: The supporters of President Trump were starting to resemble the people who he used to hang out with more than 15 years ago when — mostly as a lark — he would go on expeditions to the Pacific Northwest looking for Bigfoot.
“It was almost a cult or a religious belief system,” Riggleman said about his Bigfoot hunting days in an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.”
Riggleman, then a National Security Agency contractor, never saw any sign of the mythical hairy behemoth believed by some to be hiding deep in the far-flung forests of North America. But his fellow Bigfoot explorers saw signs of the creature everywhere, especially at night.
“Everybody saw red eyes. They had rocks thrown at them. They heard hoots and hollers and screams. They saw bent branches that were the territorial markings of Bigfoot,” Riggleman recalled. “All I heard were friggin’ squirrels and birds screeching.”
Back then, Riggleman says, he quickly realized there was no way to have a rational discussion about the subject with Bigfoot believers.
“No matter what I used as logic, it was turned back on me,” Riggleman said. “There was no basis I could get to them where we had a common understanding of what facts were and what truth was.”
So now it has become, Riggleman told “Skullduggery,” with President Trump and his allies, who insist — without any credible evidence — that the 2020 election was stolen by Joe Biden and the Democrats.
“Look at Rudy Giuliani. Look at Sidney Powell. Look at Jen Ellis,” Riggleman said about the lawyers who have made repeated evidence-free claims about widespread fraud that took place in the 2020 election. They have, Riggleman said, taken small, isolated instances of voter fraud or election irregularities and “turned it into systemic fraud — and that’s turned into the NSA actually exploiting and injecting code into multiple voting machines that aren’t interconnected, that Dominion has implanted code from Venezuela, and that there’s an invasion of a United States military base” [in Germany, where computer servers used in the election are supposed to have been stolen].
“It’s creating a false narrative around a small kernel of truth and radicalizing people or pushing them into a belief system through a digital virus that is social media,” Riggleman added.
Riggleman’s own evolution — from conservative Republican in a mostly rural western Virginia district to GOP outcast whose bid for reelection was thwarted by his own party — is one of the minor but more interesting political dramas of the year. After a 15-year career as an Air Force intelligence officer and later as a NSA contractor specializing in counterterrorism issues, Riggleman was elected to Congress two years ago during a campaign in which he pledged to join the tea party–friendly House Freedom Caucus.
But Riggleman, a self-styled libertarian who runs a whiskey distillery with his wife, started to find himself out of step with a chunk of his constituents last year when he presided over a same-sex wedding of two of his aides. He came under ferocious attack. Some of his less vociferous critics offered him a deal: repent and pray and they might earn their votes again. “You guys can imagine what my answer was,” Riggleman said.
His refusal didn’t go over well. “I was told I’m the anti-Christ,” Riggleman said. “My wife was called the spawn of Satan.”
But Riggleman’s disaffection with many in his district only grew with the rise of QAnon, the cult-like conspiracy movement whose followers believe that a Deep State cabal of child sex traffickers and devil worshipers is working with Democrats to sabotage Donald Trump’s presidency. And if he had any doubts about the reach of this bizarre movement, they were clarified when retired Army Gen. Mike Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and briefly Trump’s national security adviser, posted a video of himself this summer taking a QAnon-inspired oath: ‘Where we go one, we go all!’”
“I was horrified,” said Riggleman. “There is no reason to have an oath from a baseline conspiracy theory that uses the same stuff from that anti-Semitic blood libel, the Protocols of Elders of Zion, that cobbles together truthers, that cobbles together birthers. I would say it’s a conspiracy sticky bomb.”
By the time he realized QAnon’s influence, Riggleman had already been ousted as his party’s nominee for reelection and replaced by evangelical conservative Bob Good, who went on to win the seat in November. The defeat freed Riggleman to become more outspoken in denouncing the mounting conspiracy-minded leanings of his party and led him to note the similarities with those he’d met on Bigfoot expeditions.
When Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey reached out to him this fall to co-sponsor a resolution condemning the QAnon movement, he readily agreed and the measure passed, 371-18. (For his efforts, Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of state for human rights, came under immediate attack in a campaign ad, paid for by the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, that accused him of coddling sexual predators. Unlike Riggleman, Malinowski narrowly won re-election.
However disturbing the rise of the QAnon movement has been, Riggleman said he was even more alarmed by what has happened since the election. Just this week, Flynn — who was pardoned last week by Trump for charges that he lied to the FBI —tweeted an endorsement of a full-page ad in the Washington Times that seemed to call on President Trump to declare martial law if there was not a national “re-vote.”
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Those views were echoed in part by retired Air Force Gen. Tom McInerney, who has likened the imagined election theft to “treason” and circulated the bogus claim that U.S. Special Forces recently raided a U.S. base in Frankfurt, Germany, where computer servers used to rig the votes were supposedly being stored.
“For the love of God, somebody has to say, this stuff is insane,” said Riggleman. “We shouldn’t have three-star generals calling for martial law. It makes me ashamed to be an Air Force officer.”
The wild, post-election fiasco has also led to threats against Riggleman himself.
“The last few weeks is the first time I’ve felt that tickle of real worry about where this is going,” he added. “If you look at the lists on Twitter that I’m on — they call me a traitor, they call me a pedophile, they call me the head of Bibi Netanyahu’s pedophile ring, they call me a member of the ZOG [Zionist Occupying Government]. I’ve gotten a picture of the gallows. They tell me I’m on the target list.”
Riggleman acknowledges he no longer has a future in the Republican Party — at least not the party whose leaders in Congress have so far indulged Trump and his QAnon fans. He has talked about running for governor of Virginia next year — most likely as an independent.
For now, he is most focused on how best to combat the viral spread of conspiracy theories. He has joined a group called the Network Contagion Research Institute, which monitors disinformation on social media. The question, however, is how to counteract it.
“It’s the same question I ask myself every day,” said Riggleman. “Do I go out and blunt-force trauma people with facts? Do I try to not pay attention to it? I wish I could give you the answer.”
He’s still looking for one, you could say, just like the folks he used to hang with who keep searching for Bigfoot.
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