The book tour is now an obligatory ritual for authors looking to shift copies. Domestic life must be upended and families appeased as they set off on a grand tour of bookshops, literary festivals and TV studios hoping to prove they can talk as well as they write.
Malcolm Nance is different. He was in Ukraine, fighting a war against Russia, when his publisher told him to head home to America to help sell his latest book, They Want to Kill Americans: The Militias, Terrorists, and Deranged Ideology of the Trump Insurgency.
“I didn’t want to but I found out that live appearances were contractual,” he says ruefully via Skype from San Francisco, his voice sounding a little croaky.
Nance, a career counter-terrorism intelligence officer and pugnacious media pundit, joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine in March. He explains that, having spent the previous month there as a military analyst, he felt compelled to defend democracy and could not stand by as innocent civilians faced slaughter.
Nance confidently reels off the names of Ukrainian generals, key battlegrounds and pieces of military hardware. He is a former navy senior chief petty officer who knew what it was like to be under fire in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he is also a 60-year-old grandfather. Has life on the eastern front been scary?
He says: “The thing that is hairiest of all is artillery. One incident we had at three in the morning – I was tweeting and I guess the Russians didn’t like what I was tweeting – when they hit us with extremely large calibre weapons, long range too, fired from southern Russia into the north-east. They didn’t kill any of us but they missed us by a hundred metres.
Photograph: Courtesy of Malcolm Nance
“That’s a dangerously close hit. The building shook, the ceiling started to collapse. There was a skyscraper nearby and glass was falling everywhere from 10 storeys down. We were trying to get everybody to the bunker. Our little war puppies, our little battle dogs, were panicking – it’s the biggest fireworks you have – but your job is to remain calm.”
The international legion is a combat force of three battalions and several hundred personnel. It is defending a significant portion of the frontline and has suffered casualties. When Nance’s presence was made public in April, he was told that the Kremlin had denounced him as a mercenary, soldier of fortune and legionnaire enemy number one.
When a head of Ukrainian intelligence informed him, “Vladimir Putin knows your name now,” Nance responded: “Cool!”
Having given up a five-figure-a-month salary as a pundit on the liberal MSNBC cable news network, he is earning the same wage as other Ukrainian soldiers: $630 a month. “So I am definitely not a mercenary. If anything, I’m paying them. I’ve bought so much gear, trucks.
“I have wonderful donors who have helped us out greatly and we get what we need because it’s faster than the logistics pipeline. In a year, we’ll get what we need if we’re waiting on the Ukrainian army and the US government, but now we need things now, so we just buy them.”
Nance is also donating $100,000 from the advance for his book to ensure the legionnaires have the equipment they need. The volume’s cover – an ersatz gallows erected outside the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, with a skull and crossbones flag and Trump flag nearby – makes clear that the existential threat to democracy is not confined to eastern Europe.
“I call Ukraine the eastern model in the battle for the defense of democracy and the United States is the western wall,” he reflects. “The western wall is crumbling.”
In They Want to Kill Americans, Nance argues that the threat from domestic terrorists, the Republican party and former president Donald Trump is even worse than you already think. He suggests that an insurgency was under way well before January 6 and that the 74 million people who voted for Trump were by definition expressing hostility towards American democracy.
In his introduction, Nance describes the book as a warning: the US may again come under a wave of terrorist attacks but this time from within its own borders. Significant numbers of Americans, he argues, are radicalizing, arming and planning to kill their compatriots to install a dictatorship.
To some it will sound like hyperbole. But dozens of Trump acolytes who promote his lies about the 2020 election and themselves winning Republican primaries are hoping to take control of election machinery in key states. Trump himself recently said he had made up his mind about whether to run for president again in 2024 (take that as a yes).
And this week a survey by medical and public health scientists at the University of California found that one in five adults in the US, equivalent to about 50 million people, believe that political violence is justified at least in some circumstances.
“They are our neighbors and they are collectively called the Titus, which stands for the Trump Insurgency in the United States,” Nance says.
“The Republican party is an insurgent party, no longer interested in government but using the levers of power to damage government and destabilize government and reflect the wishes of the armed insurgents, the militias, even the terrorists. They themselves are the knife at the throat of American democracy.”
Trump supporters break through barricades on their way to the Capitol building on 6 January 2021 Photograph: Amy Harris/Rex/Shutterstock
Then, he says, there is the average Trump voter. “In the insurrection at the Capitol, the actual militiamen were a fraction of the people that were there. Forty thousand people showed up at the Mall, 10,000 laid siege to the Capitol and fought the police, and 2,000 entered the building in force. Maybe 10% of them were militiamen.
“That means that there was an entire insurgent wing of average Americans that want to take part in the violence and are intimidating people with their firearms at these rallies and protests.”
America’s diversifying demographics, highlighted in bold by the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president, have fanned flames of white supremacy and grievance that never went away. Trump took away the shackles of civility and decency and offered the thrill of saying the unsayable.
“He removed all of the restraints and said it’s OK to be racist openly, it’s OK to hurt people, it’s OK to get in their face. It’s OK to call an average person just walking down the street or doing their job in elections ‘anti-American, not American’.”
Nance, whose previous books include Defeating Isis, An End to al-Qaeda and The Terrorists of Iraq, draws a provocative comparison. “Isis has this ideological belief that was quite simple: unless you are in our group, you are no longer a Muslim and we can kill you. You’re all infidels until you re-pledge yourself to our variation of Islam: join us, pray the way we pray, behave the way we behave, support our operations.
“The same thing with the Republican party behaving very much like Isis: ideological purity and creating a terror state or an insurgency where the country now is used for what they want. They don’t care about the other 65%.”
Joe Biden has said he was motivated to run for president by the sight of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. He has given speeches vowing to shore up democracy against existential threats from China, Russia and domestic extremists. But Nance does not think the president and his allies are rising to the occasion.
“They have no urgency right now,” he warns. “This is a firehouse on fire and you’re sitting in the truck waiting for the call. Get out and fight the fire. The entire structure can collapse around you.
“They need to be screaming as loud as I am and they need to be speaking in stark terms like I am. Joe Biden needs to say to the attorney general – or fire the attorney general and get somebody there – ‘I will not tell him what to do but by God he will defend American democracy. You will hold people to account and this administration will hold people to account and we won’t let this heinous attack on democracy take hold’.
“But a lot of people there are institutionalists and they want to come back and try to reach out and show comity with their peers. These people are sharpening knives in their House and Senate office groups. They don’t care about civil discourse. They are planning to seize power or be elected into power and then never relinquish it again.”
The congressional committee investigating January 6 has pointed the finger firmly at Trump and given plenty of hints about premeditation and culpability to nudge the attorney general, Merrick Garland, towards a criminal prosecution.
Photograph: St. Martin’s Press
Nance, who is Black, continues: “This was a seditious conspiracy. There’s an entire article in the constitution about this. They could close and engage upon the Capitol and beat cops because their skin was their camouflage. Now the whiteness of their skin is the excuse that you can’t hold them to account but you can shoot Black men with no weapon 90 times in the back.
“So no, the justice department should make it clear: equal under the law. This whole ‘Oh, well, we can’t do this in the election season’ bullshit? They did it for years in the election season. Breaking the law is breaking the law so we hold people to account.”
At the start of this year the Washington commentariat overflowed with speculation that America, bitterly polarised, awash with guns and steeped in a history of violence, could even plunge into a second civil war. Since the supreme court decision overturning a woman’s constitutional rights to abortion has made the division between blue and red states even more concrete.
What does Nance think? “If it happens, it won’t be a second civil war. It’ll be an insurgency, which is a series of incidents, and those incidents will look like attacks: people seizing governor’s mansions but this time the governors are on their side, or taking statehouses and the state uses the national guard to support them.
“There’ll be a challenge between federalism and states’ rights and they’ll point to the supreme court that says we have states’ rights. The supreme court practically ruled that the supremacy clause [giving federal laws priority over state laws] doesn’t exist and, even if it does, they’re going to argue it doesn’t and back it up with guns. That’s where you’re going to see what appears to be a simmering civil war but it will really be an insurgency.”
With that, Nance has to go and catch a Wednesday flight. He leaves on Saturday night for Warsaw, Poland, and expects to be in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, by Monday before heading back to the eastern front. His 30-year-old daughter, with whom he lives, did not like the idea; his wife of 15 years, Maryse Beliveau-Nance, died from complications of ovarian cancer in 2019.
“Someone asked, what would your wife say? And I say, my wife talks to me all the time and this is the one subject that I’ve received no negative feedback about. But I also know if I’m in the middle of an attack and I see my wife say, ‘Hey, it’s time to go, buddy,’ I’ll just turn around, turn in my kit and go home.”
They Want to Kill Americans is out now