In March of 2020, I sat in a federal courtroom in Utah and watched a man stand before the judge and murmur through sobs, “This wasn’t me. This wasn’t me.”
The defendant, a 55-year-old health-insurance salesman named Scott Brian Haven, wasn’t protesting his innocence. He openly acknowledged that over the two-year period before his arrest in the summer of 2019, he had placed 3,950 calls to the Washington offices of various Democratic members of Congress, spewing profanities and threatening violence against them.
But as the prosecutor listed a sampling of Haven’s vile threats in the courtroom, the defendant—a devout Mormon who served meals to homeless people in downtown Salt Lake City—seemed unable to recognize those sentiments as his own. One of the objects of his harassment had been Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “I’m at his office,” Haven had said in one call to Nadler’s office. “I’m right behind him now. I’m going to shoot him in the head. I’m going to do it now. Are you ready?”
After his arrest, while languishing in a federal jail cell, Haven learned that the Democratic representative was a father and grandfather, just like he was. When he shared this revelation with the judge during his sentencing, he marveled, “There’s so much more to know about people than we hear about in the news.”
That stuck with me as I began work, a few months later, on a book about the state of the Republican Party. Haven, as it turned out, got his news from the conservative talk-radio-show hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh—and, of course, from the president he so admired, Donald Trump. But as my reporting proceeded through the tumultuous end of Trump’s presidency and beyond the madness of January 6, 2021, I frequently encountered Republicans who, like Haven, could not conceive of Trump’s adversaries possessing human attributes. Instead, they viewed Democrats, government bureaucrats, and members of the media like me as any combination of Communists, traitors, swamp creatures, and human scum. [Continue reading…]