Bestselling author Denver Riggleman, whose past jobs include bouncer, Air Force intelligence officer, tech CEO and Republican Congressman, wants people to think more about Jeff Bridges. Not the man himself, not even his Dude character, but the young, freshly scrubbed Jeff Bridges in the 1982 movie Tron, who somehow found himself leaving the flesh-and-blood world to end up inside a mainframe computer.
Imagine if the transfer went the other way, from the virtual world to the real one? And what if this “Reverse Tron” plague, as Riggleman has dubbed it, runs rampant, with digital extremism inciting acts of violence? That, he keeps telling people, is exactly what is happening.
But even when he sat on the New York Times bestseller list recently as co-author (with Hunter Walker) of The Breach: The Untold Story of the Investigation Into January 6th, Riggleman still felt like a man shouting into the wind, with no one heeding his warnings—the same way he did the day before the January 6 riots.
“What’s really scary is when digital violence and memes and fantasies actually become reality,” Riggleman told Good Times. “If you look at the attack on Paul Pelosi, if you look at the attack on January 6th, if you look at attacks like the QAnon father who killed his family because he thought they were possessed somehow. Because of QAnon, this radicalization and push towards hatred to dehumanization of others can actually become real-world violence in a very fast way. That’s a decentralized power of social media that the digital can be made real.”
Riggleman would like to dial back his cable-news spots and book-tour appearances, like the one he’ll make in Santa Cruz this week, where he sounds the alarm on the dangers of weaponized disinformation. He’d rather focus on the family business, Silverback Distillery in Afton, Virginia, where both his wife, Christine, and daughter, Lauren, are award-winning distillers.
But ever since Riggleman performed a gay wedding and became a target of QAnon, he has been on a mission to sound the alarm on the QAnon phenomenon, which in August 2020 he memorably called “the mental gonorrhea of conspiracy theories,” specifically warning of the rise of Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Riggleman is a former Republican, one more than willing to work with Democrats to fight against the MAGA legions. In fact, he played a primary role in Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger’s surprise recent reelection in the House, cutting a TV ad with her that analysts said cut through the fog of typical political noise by emphasizing bipartisanship and common sense. Riggleman was asked to work for the January 6 committee as a senior technical advisor, putting together teams that, for example, found the texts from Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, pushing White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to take more radical action to undo the results of the 2020 elections.
“We have to remember that January 6th was a fundamental and coordinated attack on our democracy,” outgoing Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty told GT. “What I am taking away from the surprising results of the November election is that there is a fragile majority of Americans that are willing to fight back. Denver Riggleman is a fascinating figure because, like Liz Cheney, he’s willing to sacrifice his position and party for the cause. I hope we see more.”
Coonerty will join Riggleman this Friday, December 9, for a public discussion of how to save democracy in a time of mounting threats, at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods.
Among the topics of conversation: Bigfoot, the subject of Riggleman’s first book, which was a study of disinformation. As Roll Call reported on a Riggleman appearance at a Washington conference earlier this year: “Riggleman connected opponents’ portrayals of his Bigfoot book in his successful 2018 campaign with how voters could be so fired up by people trying to make money off of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election that they attacked the Capitol.”
Coonerty, also a former Santa Cruz mayor, thinks the tide might finally have shifted with basic democratic values reasserting themselves. “I’ve taught voting rights and redistricting for almost 20 years at UC Santa Cruz,” he said. “Until recent years only the most politically interested students took the course. Now I’m having new students show up with a passionate interest and awareness of what’s at stake. It gives me hope for the future of democracy.”
GT spoke recently with Riggleman by phone about his new book and unusual political history.
You monitor right-wing online activity. What was your take on the recent series of antisemitic incidents in the news that included Kanye West being captured on video with Alex Jones and Nick Fuentes saying, “I like Hitler,” and social media’s explosive reaction?
DENVER RIGGLEMAN: We should be worried. If you look at what “J6” encapsulates at this point, it has become its own political movement, its own ideological movement, and a lot of that is really branded with antisemitism, racism and xenophobia. It’s really a free dereliction to believe the most insane conspiracy theories, either based on ignorance or the ability of grifters to persuade a large swath of constituents and voters that there’s some deep-state coup. I think what you see with Kanye West, Nick Fuentes, Alex Jones, all these grifters/true believers/Nazis [is that] instead of targeting generalized terms like “globalists” or “New World Order” or “deep state,” they are now just targeting Jews. It’s very, very effective, because if you can dehumanize and get people to believe that there’s one type of individual race, religion or ethnicity that’s creating chaos in America and trying to destroy it, that’s when violence happens. I think they have really changed their technique from more of an overarching globalist deep state type of attack on the United States, to “It’s just the Jews.”
Do you see this online conspiracy-mongering leading to more extremist violence?
I put out tweets on January 5th, 2021, that I saw violence coming the next day. A lot of people offered warnings. I wasn’t special. We had seen it coming with data for some time, and we thought it was inevitable to have violence. I would say right now I’m almost to the point—you never say anything is 100% down-the-line going to happen—but it seems inevitable that there’s going to be some pretty extreme violence, either against Jewish individuals or organizations.
You warned early on about figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene, and co-sponsored a resolution (with Democrat Tom Malinowski) condemning QAnon in October 2020. You also went on CNN with Jake Tapper that month and specifically warned about—as the Post put it—“dangerous, wildly fantastical conspiracies that could lead to violence, including the one Trump promoted on Twitter on Tuesday.” Where do you see all this going?
I would say that information warfare is the new forever war. I don’t know if the two-party system survives social media. Inconsistency is a feature, not a bug for conspiracy theorists. They want to hit you right in the amygdala. When you have social media that’s so vast, with so many digital streams that seem to be transmitted directly into people’s frontal lobes, the fact is the digital can be made real. I call this “Reverse Tron.” Violence is decentralized. If you’re talking about antisemitism, it’s almost like a decentralized digital pogrom. You don’t know where the violence is going to come from because everybody’s on the same page—they’re using memes, cartoons and jokes to press their message out into this bizarre digital ecosystem of conspiracy theorists, antisemites, Nazis, racists and things of that nature that are populating the far right. The issue that we have right now in this new war, this new system, is that people who consider themselves normal could be caught up in some of these belief systems, which they don’t even know stems from deep-rooted virulent antisemitism or racism. That’s what scares me. You have people that are being tripped up online because they don’t have the baseline knowledge to really determine what’s fact and what’s fiction. I think that’s probably where social media is really effective in radicalizing people. They have their own digital prophets that they can rely on, and sadly a lot of this is religiously based. That’s very difficult to combat.
How much do you think Trump will continue to be a factor in this going forward, and in the 2024 election?
I think he is the presumptive nominee as we go forward. People are already counting him out, thinking that [Florida Governor] Ron DeSantis or other individuals might challenge him, and they certainly might. But even in polling as of right now, December 2022, Trump is still well ahead of DeSantis in polling for the nomination. To count Donald Trump out, I think, would be unfortunate. I think we have to be very aware that radical elements are still behind Trump. Even though when we see Kanye West, Fuentes and other people like that trying to take over as the chaos agents for the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the white supremacists and the far right, I do believe Trump still has a leg up. He still controls the digital space and that’s really important for these type of actors and characters out there.
What was your goal in co-authoring ‘The Breach?’
This is a book about how data can be predictive on how to stop the next January 6th. It also delves into the history of some of these people. What this book really tries to look at with data is that past performance or behavior is indicative of future performance or behavior. Some of the same people that have pushed the insanity in the past and been able to profit off of it, they have been able to radicalize others. That is the key, that is the untold story of January 6th: How technology can be used to fight technology. In that way, we might be able to turn the tide on that 3 to 5 percent of the population that might actually be reached.
In this last election, you cut an ad with Abigail Spanberger and helped her win reelection. How did that come about?
She called me. Abby asked if I would be willing to do an ad, and I said yes immediately. I always believe as sane, rational humans, we should be supporting facts-based people over facts-challenged people. Her opponent was so batshit crazy that it was a no-brainer for me. Abby was such a good candidate, she’s been a great congresswoman, she really does care about her constituents—and she was running against somebody completely unhinged.
You’re no longer a Republican. Are you an independent?
Yes, you can call me an independent, but I’m a distiller, too. I like to listen to other distillers in history and take the advice. A famous distiller in our history, George Washington, he warned against the two party system or parties in general. Said that’s why he was unaffiliated. I will continue to be, probably forever, unaffiliated.
How does your family business, Silverback Distillery, shape your perspective?
Not only am I not in the political pipeline, I don’t need to grift and make money off this crap, off the political system, because we actually have real jobs. We own distilleries in Virginia and Pennsylvania. My wife and daughters really run the bulk of the business interests. The fact is that I just have an amazing family. I have amazing women in my life that have allowed me to try to help others. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.
You’re still on Twitter, which seems like a very bizarre place now under the leadership of Elon Musk. What do you think Musk is up to, and where do you see all this going?
I think Musk enjoys being a chaos agent. I do believe he thinks there’s more money to be made long-term by appealing to a certain subset of crazies in order to push his own agenda. With the money that he has, he really is playing with the American public at this time with being completely disingenuous [while] taking away filters and content moderation. Now, somebody who loves the First Amendment, I can plausibly see what he’s saying about people coming out and trying to protect free speech. But the issue that you have on a private platform is that free speech is really pushing people towards violence. After the bizarre Kanye West antisemitism interview with Alex Jones and Nick Fuentes, “Hitler was right” trended at 500% more on the Twitter platform. You have a lot of eyeballs on this type of language.
What’s your advice for individual people out there who are just trying to stay sane in an insane world? What are the things that you emphasize that people can do and should do?
The scariest thing is that you have to confront lies and disinformation. You have to confront facts-challenged people where they live. You can’t let it go for a second. I don’t know if people are ready for that house-to-house intellectual fighting between the facts-based and the facts-challenged. But right now, I think we can only cut across maybe 3 to 5 percent of the independents and center right who have fallen for a lot of these conspiracy theories like “Stop the Steal” or globalist New World Order or Covid conspiracy theories. All of this stuff is very difficult to break through, especially if there’s religion attached to it. Sadly, that means people on the side of facts and data have to confront it every second of every day.
DENVER RIGGLEMAN will discuss his new book ‘The Breach: The Untold Story of the Investigation Into January 6th’ in conversation with outgoing Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty and Steve Kettmann on Friday, Dec. 9, at 7pm at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, 858 Amigo Road, Soquel. Free (RSVP required). [email protected].