In the months leading up to the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021, the independent journalist Andrew Callaghan sensed a rising level of fury in the streets as he attended MAGA marches, talked to far-right leaders, and witnessed violent skirmishes between the Proud Boys and Antifa counter-protesters. His new documentary film, This Place Rules, captures all of these scenes and more: of how misinformation, deep-seated resentment, and the machinations of a few self-interested bad actors boiled over into an assault on the U.S. government that led to the deaths of five people.
Callaghan was uniquely capable of capturing this cultural moment. On his YouTube channels All Gas No Brakes and Channel 5 with Andrew Callaghan, Callaghan had driven across the country and thrown himself into the middle of many strange and noxious subcultures, earning the trust of both his interviewees and audience through a fearlessness toward taboo subjects and dangerous situations. His open-minded approach and willingness to hear out just about anyone have earned him both respect and ire across the political spectrum.
This Place Rules was recently released on HBO Max in conjunction with A24. Callaghan would much rather be out on the road conducting his own interviews—but below, he took some time for a phone call about the movie and the 2-year anniversary of the insurrection.
You’ve covered a lot of really crazy scenes over the last few years: Satanic temple gatherings, Antivax rallies, even the Ukraine War. Was the lead-up to Jan. 6th more heightened and strange than your other work, or just another day at the RV?
In a way, it was another day at the RV. But what made it particularly unique was that it was a really rapid escalation that dissolved very rapidly as well. In less than three months after the Stop the Steal movement kicked off in November, millions upon millions of Americans militantly mobilized to fight for Trump and dispute the election results. After Jan. 6, QAnon stopped posting, and the militancy more or less dissipated on the surface level.
When Jan. 6 happened, I thought it would be the first event of many similar political mobilizations. I had gone to large rallies in DC before. But after, the Proud Boys don’t have rallies any more. Most of the Oath Keepers are in hiding. Stewart Rhodes is in prison, Enrique Tarrio is in prison. Trump’s numbers aren’t doing very good. They don’t have a spokesperson anymore.
If you were in those echo chambers at the time, it was complete unity. And now it’s just sort of gone. But it’s not gone. It’s still alive. Unfortunately, it seems like the core tenets of QAnon have embedded themselves into mainstream conservative thought now.
Two years after the riots, how have our collective conversations about what happened that day been warped?
Traditional liberal media makes Jan. 6 seem like it was the next 9/11: the worst thing that ever happened. If they have airtime to fill and ads to sell, they will fill it with fear-mongering content about Jan. 6. Whereas conservative media seems to undermine the riots: to make it seem like it was a cool little guided walk through the Capitol chambers.
It’s hard to figure out what really happened: you only get people undermining or exaggerating it. The reality is it was just a stupid day, one of the dumbest days of all time. Really, maybe the dumbest day of all time in terms of collective brainpower.
In the documentary, you say that you had a feeling before Jan. 6 that there would be a dramatic escalation. What made you feel that way?
At the Million MAGA March, everyone was very optimistic that the election would be overturned. At the second march, it was like, “We don’t know.” You saw more street fighting, more people upset.
By the 6th, as inaugurations were closer and closer, it became really obvious to a lot of these people that Trump was not going to be president for a second term. On an emotional level, it hurt people’s pride to realize they had been buying into these lies. Because a lot of people had truly believed the storm was coming. They thought that Trump was going to mobilize the military and arrest the members of the ‘deep state.’
When it became more obvious that wasn’t happening, it was a serious bruise to people’s pride. I knew that something would happen because they had to take matters into their own hands when they realized Trump probably wasn’t going to fulfill the storm prophecy.
I knew the moment Trump declared voter fraud there would be a Capitol riot of some kind. Just like I knew if Joe Biden were to lose, there would be insane riots. To a certain extent, two party politics are pretty predictable.
However, a lot of people paint a binary between Fox and MSNBC. But by the end of the Stop the Steal movement, Fox was saying the election wasn’t stolen. Tucker Carlson went on Fox and said that [Trump’s lawyer] Sidney Powell [lacked evidence].” [Editor’s Note: Other Fox anchors, including Jesse Watters, lent credence to election conspiracies in the month leading up to the Capitol Riots.]
The outlets that rushed to fill the void were running a fringe cycle based upon telling Trump supporters exactly what they wanted to hear. In the weeks before Jan. 6, it wasn’t like the typical Capitol rioter was tuning into Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity. They were deep in Telegram chats, on QAnon boards, 8Chan, Rumble, Parler, BitChute, watching Newsmax. It wasn’t like this massive battle between left versus right. It was fringe right versus everyone.
Do you have any vivid memories or encounters from that era that didn’t make it on camera?
Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, called me on January 5. He was like, “Andrew, man, you gotta get to the Capitol, it’s gonna go down tomorrow.” I was like, “Why?” He goes, “Well, I just hope these motherf-ckers start shooting at us so we can shoot back.” [Update: James Lee Bright, a lawyer for Rhodes, noted in a phone call to TIME that Rhodes never brought a weapon into the District.]
After the 6th, I tried to call his phone, and it was off the hook. He kind of went on the run after that. I think the Oath Keepers were the element of the film I felt was the most left out. The Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters weren’t really addressed in the movie, only because most of the interactions I had with those guys were off camera.
Can you tell me about the opening scene of the movie, which features a nonsensical feud between two influencers, Joker Gang and Gum Gang?
That’s a joke I’m trying to play on traditional filmmaking with this movie. The youth is pretty disengaged from politics, so I have the shocking Florida Man cold open to reel them in. But the scene also trolls people who are very self-serious or looking for an extremely sincere political movie.
It’s funny, because there are no answers to any of these questions. ‘What really happened that day? Where’s America heading? Are we going to be okay?’ But in a documentary, it’s supposed to present a pretty coherent thesis. The only real thesis here, as I kind of say at the end, is that everyone’s just selling T-shirts.
In the movie you interview a family of QAnon believers, including a grade-schooler who yells through a megaphone that Joe Biden is a child molester. Have you heard from them recently?
I know they weren’t too happy about the footage. They were like, “We look dumb. We look brainwashed.” But unfortunately, an important part of being a documentary filmmaker is presenting raw uncomfortable footage that lets my viewers know the level of indoctrination that was present at that time.
Right now, the conservative news media is running a 24-hour trans panic child-grooming fear cycle, about how gay people and trans people are trying to indoctrinate their kids. When in reality, this is a perfect example here of how many conservatives are grooming their kids.
Does anything shock you anymore?
I’ve witnessed a lot of political violence, and I’m kind of desensitized. I’m not nihilistic, but I don’t really react to stuff like that. It’s little things that shock me. For example, the caterers at the QAnon conference being 16-year-old basketball players who had no idea what event they were catering. They were watching Travis Scott videos and playing NBA 2K in the corner, not knowing that they’re in the presence of people who are on the run from the FBI. They were serving macaroni for militants.
After Jan. 6, Biden came into the White House promising a return to normalcy. Based on your continued reporting around America, has that happened?
No. The issues that are more continuous—segregation, poverty, police brutality—are exactly the same. It was the same before Trump and pretty much after Trump. Communities are without food or proper education.
What has changed is the corporate focus on these issues. In 2020, every corporation in America made their George Floyd statement during the black square era. Optically, it has returned to normalcy, because there’s no orange man for people to rally against or behind. In a way, it makes it less politically tense having a non-person like Joe Biden in the White House. Because Trump isn’t saying inflammatory insane sh-t on TV every day, you don’t have as much domestic political conflict in the streets. But it’s not like it’s actually headed toward normalcy. It’s brooding right now, festering, for another chaotic period. Probably in the next election cycle—we’ll see.
In the press tour for this movie, you’ve been running up against mainstream outlets, like myself and CNN. You had a confrontational exchange with Don Lemon, for instance. Has it been like looking in a funhouse mirror?
Running my first mainstream media press circuit has been a Twilight Zone type of thing. Witnessing firsthand what charged questions look like. How people are sort of cutting a time in their broadcast to use you as a pundit to support whatever they’re trying to promote.
On CNN, I realized they were using me to create Proud Boy-Jan. 6-juicy content. That’s not what I wanted to give them. So I addressed something more important, which is the dangers of a 24-hour news cycle. Because they have to fill so much airtime—and this goes for basically most cable news stations—I feel like they resort to punditry instead of journalism. It’s basically four people bickering in the studio amongst each other, as opposed to going out into the field and canvassing public opinion about what it is they’re addressing. I don’t think I’m going to go on anything like that again.
How does old media, like cable news, and social media work in tandem to shape public discourse and perception?
They’re very interconnected. Mainstream media sets the tone for polarization. Then social media sets the tone for further radicalization. You’re not going to become a QAnon guy by watching Fox News. But it will shape your perception of your political mindframe to be vulnerable to that type of propaganda.
How do you try to stay immune from the mistakes of other types of media? How do you get people on the street to trust you?
For one, they know we’re on a crowdfunded model. We’re powered by Patreon; we don’t have corporate interests. Also, let people talk. We are truly curious about how people get here, not how to make these people look as stupid as possible. That’s kind of a delicate rope to walk, because you get liberals criticizing us for platforming and conservatives criticizing us for not giving them enough credibility. But it’s a great place to be. It’s effective to just speak to people.
Since your rise in popularity, there’s been a huge increase in street interview content on TikTok, Reels, and YouTube.
It’s safe to say I ruined the Internet. Now you can’t walk through a park or go outside a bar without getting interviewed. I walk through college campuses nowadays, and see four people interviewing other students for TikTok on their phone. I am fully responsible.
What advice would you have to these aspiring Andrew Callaghans?
Stop asking people about their body count. Stop asking people if they’d rather have a gay son or a thot daughter. Use your actual skills to cover social issues that you care about. But also, if it’s fun for you, keep doing your thing.
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