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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politicsNorth America

The reporter who watched America lose its mind

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Title iconThe Facts
HBO

Andrew Callaghan wanted to get back on the road, as soon as possible. He’d been playing clips from “This Place Rules,” his first feature-length documentary, for crowds on a 21-city tour. Strange things were still happening, and couldn’t cover them in person until he finished promoting the movie.

“I want to do something with the migrant caravan in El Paso,” Callaghan, 25, told Semafor. “I want to do something with the black Hebrew Israelites. I’m interested in the Idaho murders, as well — why the detectives have failed to find a suspect after five weeks.”

“This Place Rules,” which arrives Friday on HBO, follows Callaghan’s reporting for Channel 5, his YouTube and Patreon newsmagazine, from the months right before and after the 2020 presidential election. It ends with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, after Callaghan had watched the media “stoking the flames of civil conflict” between Americans who burrowed into their obsessions and their “airtight media echo chambers” during the pandemic.

Images and stories from that day were easy to find this year. Footage of a Slim Jim-snapping Nancy Pelosi showed up in the Jan. 6 committee’s investigation, thanks to another HBO holiday doc; next week, Discovery+ will air  “January 6,” by a filmmaking team that previously embedded with a New York firefighter on 9/11.

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Callaghan’s work was different  — curious but never patronizing about the fanatics he met. Since the middle of the Trump presidency, he’d traveled the country to interview fringe subcultures (Flat Earthers, pick-up artists, furries) without making fun of them. People said things that they probably shouldn’t have on camera for 2.2 million YouTube subscribers, like the Q-Anon adherent who told him “I will never turn back, I don’t care how much family I lose.”

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“I’ve always had a degree of empathy for people who are down the rabbit hole,” Callaghan said. “I'd watched a lot of legacy media in the field. Center left media would look for the dumbest right-wing person and slam-dunk them, catch them in a web of their own contradictions. Whereas conservative media would look for like the most deranged leftist they could find.”

Callaghan didn’t do either in his “This Place Rules” reporting. He showed up to places where people had gathered to demand political change — racial justice, overturning the 2020 election. Children talked about reptilian bloodline conspiracy theories while their parents looked on proudly. Joe Biden voters screamed obscenities and shot-gunned beers.

His filmmaking does play up the strangeness of some of the people he meets. Callaghan’s videos are heavy on smash cuts and extreme close-ups of people screaming or saying something bizarre. His clips have the woozy, slightly tripped-out vibe that you find in a lot of online media produced by Gen Z — usually at Tik-Tok length, jarring and addictive in a feature-length movie. He asks open-ended questions with a flat affect that makes some people open up to him, and some look completely off-the-wall in contrast.

“Most people think they’re fighting for a better future for all Americans,” Callaghan said. “The real villains of the movie aren't the brainwashed foot soldiers on the ground. They're like the grifters who make money by programming these people and then selling them ads, right? People like Alex Jones.”

The InfoWars host sat down with Callaghan for the movie, doing an interview and a scene of the two men pouring Jameson into each others’ mouths while bench pressing.

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An early title for Callaghan’s movie, before it got spiffed up by HBO and A24, was “America Shits Itself.” I liked the directness. Reporters like Louis Theroux and Jon Ronson had been getting fringe activists to explain themselves for years, but their subjects usually sealed themselves off from mainstream politics. The seals broke in 2020. People who threatened to burn down police stations or break into Nancy Pelosi’s office really meant it.

“When Jan. 6 happened, people thought it was gonna happen again every week until there was an actual civil war,” Callaghan said. “It's funny how things kind of went dark on the right-wing side after that. I think they flew a little bit too close to the sun.”

I’ve been to some of the same events and scenes as Callaghan, like Georgia rallies before the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs where conservatives prayed for the 2020 election to be overturned. The “Channel 5” footage captured them perfectly, without mocking questions or some over-egged narrative about America coming apart. It turns out that documenting America’s ragged cultural periphery was the perfect training ground for covering the end of the Trump administration.

“If you want to learn about Jan. 6, and what happened leading up to it, you have to watch Gum Gang smoking weed out of a fish's ass,” said Callaghan, referring to an internet microcelebrity from Florida. “If you wanna watch Gum Gang smoke weed out of a fish's ass, I'm gonna turn things on their head, and I'm gonna make you learn about our political system.”

Title iconNotable
  • Callaghan talked with documentarian Louie Theroux about his approach, which Theroux helped to inspire with his Bush-era, you-are-there reporting on neo-Nazis and anti-gay religious cults. “I knew that for sure if Trump won, there would be riots,” Callaghan told Theroux, “and that if Trump lost, there would be some kind of coup that they would stage at the Capitol, denying the election results.”
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