Notes on an Authoritarian Conspiracy: Inside the Claremont Institute’s “79 Days to Inauguration” Report
The sun rises on January 6, 2021 while a nation is in crisis.
Michigan’s presidential electors are in dispute after a mysterious fire in Detroit destroyed thousands of mail-in ballots, ultimately throwing the election to Congress.
The nation’s capital is overwhelmed by riots organized by left-wing radicals.
A Republican member of Congress is attacked and critically injured in the violence, potentially depriving Donald Trump of the decisive vote.
However, the representative heroically insists on being taken to the House floor. “With IVs and blood transfusions being administered, the member casts the deciding vote, giving Trump 26 state delegations and the needed majority.”
This is the grisly climax of a report published in mid-October 2020 by the Claremont Institute and Texas Public Policy Foundation’s (TPPF) called “79 Days to Inauguration,” prepared by “Constitutional scholars, along with experts in election law, foreign affairs, law enforcement, and media . . . coordinated by a retired military officer experienced in running hundreds of wargames.”
Among these luminaries were figures such as John Eastman—lawyer for Donald Trump and author of a memo advising Vice President Mike Pence to unilaterally block certification of Joe Biden’s win in order to buy time for GOP-controlled state legislatures to send competing slates of electors—and K.T. McFarland, who served as deputy national security advisor under Michael Flynn in the Trump White House.
Other participants include Kevin Roberts, then-executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (soon to be head of the Heritage Foundation), Jeff Giesea, “a [Peter] Thiel protégé and secret funder of alt-right causes,” and Charles Haywood, a fringe blogger who anxiously awaits an American “Caesar, authoritarian reconstructor of our institutions.”
Yet despite the authors’ pretensions to scholarship and rigor—“for a simulation to be valuable, the other side gets a vote and actions must be based in realism”— the final document is a frenzied and paranoid piece of work, revealing of the anxieties and aspirations of the authoritarian right.
Practically, the report is an instruction manual for how Trump partisans at all levels of government—aided by citizen “posses” of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers—could, quite literally, round up opposition activists, kill their leaders, and install Donald Trump for a second term in office.
The scenario begins late on Election Night. The networks have declared Joe Biden the winner, his campaign having upset Trump in the state of Texas. The call is withdrawn moments later, following reports of a cyberattack involving the state’s tabulation system. As it becomes clear there will be no definitive winner on Election Night, attention shifts to a few battleground states with large numbers of outstanding ballots.
Riots break out in more than a dozen major cities . . . 14 law enforcement officers are known to have been shot, with one confirmed death. There are unconfirmed reports of a car bombing of a police precinct building in Philadelphia.
The violence, as imagined by Claremont and TPPF, overwhelms police and fire officials.
Police recede to a defensive posture around their precincts, it is unsafe to maneuver police vehicles down the streets and responding to calls for service, even emergency calls, is suspended. Fire departments are unable to approach buildings on fire without police escorts, which are not happening.
The next day, the federal government announces Operation Spearfish, targeting
Leaders and agitators within the groups associated with BLM, Antifa, Boogaloo, and NFAC . . . with over one thousand arrest warrants issued using federal and state statutes from RICO to disorderly conduct… The decision to obtain arrest warrants even for the barest minimum of probable cause on the lowest of charges is meant to remove the players from the picture, at least temporarily. Social media sources and other intelligence sources were used to find any instances of incitement to violence, threats, or other criminal activity that met federal or local statutes and act on them.
Remember, this narrative is the result of a role-playing exercise in which the participants imagined themselves as key decision-makers in the federal government. The actions described, therefore, might be best understood as a combination of group therapy and suggestions for how they believe the federal government and law enforcement should behave in a moment of constitutional crisis.
Some of the report is revealing. Some of it is sad. Some of it is darkly funny. For instance, the authors’ recommendation for mass, politically motivated arrests “to remove the players from the picture” sits oddly next to the right’s outraged reaction to the prosecution of Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
There’s more irony in how the task force imagines right-wing gangs would operate during such a period: with quiet discipline and in cooperation with law enforcement.
A lack of social media activity and overt action by the rioting by members of the Proud Boys draws the attention of law enforcement officials suspecting they may be operating covertly on the ground in several major urban rioting areas, but their exact involvement is unknown. Reports of militias moving into suburban areas is being monitored. Several groups affiliated with the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers have openly offered to assist law enforcement in putting down the violence via social media, touting significant current and retired law enforcement and military membership.
Which is . . . not how the Trumpist forces behaved during the actual crisis:
In reading the report, it becomes clear that task force participants see law enforcement as a critical adjunct to the more traditional political actors and that they believe law enforcement could act with greater impunity and force, independent from—and at times in defiance of—elected leaders.
There are rumors that several sheriffs in conservative counties throughout the country are hinting that they may deputize regular citizens into posses should the lawlessness come to their counties. Social media is ablaze with volunteers from Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers and other Posse Comitatus groups to form posses.
This isn’t an innocent game of “what if?”
Earlier this year the Claremont Institute created a Sheriffs Fellowship program. Claremont claims that this program will offer “training of unparalleled depth and excellence in American political thought and institutions.” But then, this is the same group that produced a report hoping that “several sheriffs in conservative counties” would give groups like the Proud Boys actual legal authority.
Which is it?
Law enforcement plays an openly insurrectionist role throughout the “79 Days” exercise, defying civilian leaders, refusing to offer them protection, and threatening them with arrest.
For example, the report imagines Chicago police (with vocal backing from their union) abandoning Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s residential block, permitting protesters to set up camp on her front lawn.
In imagined dialogue, the wargame quotes the city’s Fraternal Order of Police president as saying “We have officers risking their lives by not shooting people they should be shooting, or waiting too long because Lightfoot and her Soros-funded prosecutor Kim Foxx seem more interested in arresting cops than criminals.”
The union leader goes on to defend a police sickout (“Foxx and Lightfoot use this department and its officers as political scapegoats all the time, maybe they will enjoy not having us around”) and “excessive force” against rioters (“Take a look out the window there, you tell me, what the hell is excessive right now?”).
The authors use an imaginary appearance by former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke on Fox News to issue an open threat to elected leaders of the political opposition, which is imagined as going “viral”:
“The police are here to protect people and preserve the peace. They will do that. Politicians might get in the way for a while like they’re doing right now, but at some point, cops will remember their oath and will take back their communities for the good, law-abiding people in those communities. You won’t want to be on the other side of that once they have had enough of this nonsense.”
The National Fraternal Order of Police issues a partisan statement attacking Joe Biden’s “irresponsible” call for peaceful protests, “calling on President Trump to assist our men and women in blue in putting an end to the violence and anarchy and to restore law and order.”
At which point the “79 Days” report moves into truly authoritarian wishcasting:
- Federal and local law enforcement officials “entered into meetings with Google, Facebook, and Twitter to discuss tracking phones and electronic communication devices that have been traveling together to various cities” to track various “agitator groups.”
- Checkpoints are established “along major corridors entering Michigan, Texas, and Florida [to] stop and detain any suspicious caravans or large transport vehicles and to identify passengers for verification in the state fusion centers as members of Antifa and BLM are expected to descend on the capitol buildings in those states.”
- The FBI’s elite counterterrorist Hostage Rescue Team is sent to “execute search warrants for weapons in and around Washington, DC… Seven Antifa members are killed by gunfire” during the simultaneous raids with “no injuries to the agents.”
A barely concealed bloodlust runs through the report. During a battle with rioters at a Portland police precinct building, a:
SWAT sniper conducting overwatch shot and killed one of the arsonists as he drew his arm back to throw his device (captured on police surveillance video and released immediately: warning graphic). The Molotov Cocktail exploded when he dropped the bottle and covered several rioters in flames, three injured severely and one dead at the scene.
At a confrontation near the White House, a non-lethal directed-energy weapon called the “Active Denial System” is used against protesters “to great effect with limited, precise application to specific threats. Social media erupts with claims of abuse through military weaponry.”
The body count grows with “officer-involved shootings” related to the RICO-authorized Operation Spearfish, resulting in “at least three suspects dead.” However, “none of the agencies is releasing information on the circumstances or identities of the officers or suspects involved, citing the ongoing investigation.”
These raids, which operate with all the impunity of a death squad, “are executed in middle to upper class neighborhoods where the Antifa and BLM activists/leadership tend to reside.”
The exercise ends with crude myth-making: the noble and sacrificial decision by a “Republican member from an at-large delegation” suffering from “life-threatening wounds” who, “understanding what is at stake, demands to be transported to the House for the state delegation vote and arrives in a heavily guarded convoy.”
This isn’t a serious wargame or a policy study so much as a bowdlerized retelling of The Turner Diaries.
The “79 Days Report” was created as a rejoinder to the bipartisan Transition Integrity Project’s (TIP) exercise on “Preventing a Disrupted Presidential Election and Transition.”
Founded in June 2020, the TIP gathered more than a hundred experts (including Bill Kristol, editor-at-large of The Bulwark) to game out a number of scenarios, including the worrying prospect that a refusal by President Trump to concede defeat would lead to violence.
The TIP final report also included detailed “recommendations to avoid a crisis,” such as educating state and local officials about their constitutional responsibilities, combating misinformation, and ensuring that protests were not hijacked by violent actors or agent provocateurs.
“Peaceful protesters will need specialized training on de-escalation and non-violent techniques—and on how to document the non-violent nature of their protests, given the likelihood that agitators will attempt to blame any violence on them,” goes one TIP recommendation.
Another TIP proposal is for “military and law enforcement leaders to be particularly attuned to the possibility that partisan actors will seek to manipulate or misuse their coercive powers for inappropriate political ends.”
To the extent that the Claremont-TPPF report offers recommendations, they are mostly focused on how to emerge victorious from the chaos, including preparation “for destructive urban unrest [with] potential targets includ[ing] ballot counting facilities, government buildings, especially state capitols and city halls, as well as television and radio studios.”
The Claremont task force seems either resigned to—or perhaps energized by—the view that “prudent steps are likely to be spun as preparations for a military takeover or coup and may result in negative consequences either way.”
Either way. It’s as if they’re steering into the violence instead of trying to avoid it.
The message is clear: do whatever it takes to crush your opponents and all will be forgiven in the second Trump term.
Indeed, the wargamers expect readers to find their work heartening precisely because the bloodshed and strife will lead to the outcome they desire:
We hope that our work will reassure the American people that our system of government is resilient—having been crafted by the Founders to withstand crises and to emerge through the turmoil with a government of the people, by the people, for the people, that shall not perish from the earth, but endure to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our children.
Establishment conservatives like to pretend they can insulate themselves from the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election.
But the Big Lie doesn’t stand up all by itself. It requires the supporting architecture of smaller lies and evasions, like the claim that our republic was never really threatened because Donald Trump lacks sufficient competence.
The particular focus on Trump the man misses the movement for its leader.
Given the weight of the evidence against that larger movement, one wonders if the myopia is intentional.