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The Shit-Stirrer

Michael Fanone Is Not Your Fucking Hero

He almost lost his life defending the Capitol on Jan. 6. Now, he’s a #resistance star — and he hates it
Jared Soares for Rolling Stone

L ET IT BE known that Michael Fanone does not in any way, shape, or form want to visit the U.S. Capitol. “It’s so fucking lame,” he tells me on the phone one August night as we’re discussing what we should do over the next few days together. What he absolutely does not want to do is this: He does not want to roam the so-called hallowed halls of democracy or gaze pensively upon the portraits of dead white men or retrace the steps he took on Jan. 6, 2021, when he responded to a distress call from the Capitol Police and joined the scrum of cops pushing back violent insurrectionists inside a tunnel on the Capitol’s west end. He does not want to stare into the middle distance, stony-faced and solemn, as he explains how he was pulled into the crowd, beaten with pipes and the pole of a Blue Lives Matter flag, tazed at the base of his skull, suffered a heart attack and a traumatic brain injury, and fended off attackers with pleas of “I got kids” before losing consciousness for more than four minutes. He does not want to parade around like some goddamn American hero, even if he is a goddamn American hero, because Michael Fanone knows what can happen to American heroes, and it isn’t fucking good. “So little of my life has been spent in that building, and — fuck that place,” he tells me later, after we have spent two days together very much not visiting the U.S. Capitol. “And fuck the people inside it too.”

Like, fuck, for instance, the 21 House Republicans who voted against awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to officers who defended the Capitol on Jan. 6. Well, when Fanone got a load of that shit, he called up his friend Harry Dunn — a Capitol Police officer who had testified with Fanone during the congressional hearings in July 2021 — and the two decided to pay a little visit to every one of those House Republicans (“I was like, ‘I’ve got nothing better to do today. I’m going to go annoy some people on Capitol Hill’”). Speaking of those visits, fuck the “fucking fat fuck” chief of staff who had the gall to ask to see Dunn’s badge that day (“I was like, ‘Here’s my badge number: One,’” says Fanone, holding up his middle finger. “I eat that shit for breakfast”). Fuck Marjorie Taylor Greene (“Put her in the tinfoil-hat brigade”) and Andrew Clyde (“When confronted in person, he fucking folded like a fucking deck of cards”) and Matt Gaetz (“I mean, dude, there’s a constituency out there somewhere in America that elected Matt Gaetz and decided that guy somehow embodied what it is to be a real red-blooded American. A fucking pedo. I don’t get it”). Fuck Josh Hawley. “He comes down there, flashes the sign of solidarity, riles up this fucking crowd,” Fanone says of Hawley’s actions during the insurrection. “I would’ve had more respect for him if he said, ‘Charge,’ and fucking rushed the first fucking group of police officers that he could possibly fucking find. But he didn’t. He ran like a bitch as fast as he fucking could to the closest safe room in the fucking Capitol building.” And definitely, definitely fuck Kevin McCarthy, who, as Fanone describes in the first chapter of his memoir, Hold the Line (out Oct. 11), lied and deflected his way through a meeting with Fanone and Jan. 6 casualty Brian Sicknick’s mother — the dead man’s mother, for fuck’s sake! — as he nixed any chance of a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission because of so-called political factors.

“I think at night, when the lights are turned off, Abe Lincoln and Ronald Reagan have some pretty choice words to say about the fact that they have to hang on Kevin McCarthy’s wall,” Fanone states. “They did some fucking above-average things. And they’ve got to adorn the wall of this fucking weasel bitch named Kevin McCarthy, with his fake fucking spray-on tan, whose fucking claim to fame, at least in my eyes, is the fact that he amassed a collection of Donald Trump’s favorite-flavored Starburst, put them in a Mason jar, and presented them to fucking Donald Trump. What the fuck, dude?”

This level of pugnacity is not necessarily how Fanone might have envisioned his legacy back in that shining moment when America seemed (mostly) united in its acceptance of the fact that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a shitshow of the highest order and that those who participated in or fomented it should be held accountable. When that moment passed, there was a moment when Fanone thought his eyewitness account and the violence captured in his body-worn camera footage could shame it back into existence and convince people of “the sickness that’s taken over this country and that we’re Americans and kumbaya and all that shit.” Then there was the moment when it became clear that reality didn’t actually fucking matter to Trump’s apologists and acolytes, and that “waging a one-man war against Donald Trump and the fucking people that refuse to accept reality” would have to be what Fanone did to face himself in the mirror, even if it meant alienating his colleagues, giving up his career and his pension, becoming a pariah and a punching bag on the right and a CNN talking head and an unwitting celebrity on the left, and managing his complex feelings about all of this by also becoming the type of guy who sets up secret Twitter accounts to troll certain highly trollable members of the United States Congress. If he’s putting out a memoir now, it’s to continue scratching the itch to draw attention to Jan. 6, sure, but it’s also because, as he tells me, “Mike Fanone is broke. I’m pretty sure that’s why people do things like this. I said the things that I said for free and fucking destroyed my career, made my job untenable, and then tried to make hard lemonade out of lemons.”

Now, Fanone is done being an American hero (“Motherfuckers think Mike Pence is a goddamn hero; don’t lump me in with that fucking pathetic coward”). He’s tired of liberals who back the blue only on Jan. 6 and conservatives who back the blue only when it comes to policing people of color, tired of being given 47 seconds of airtime to explain how to reform an entire police system, tired of explaining why overthrowing a CVS and overthrowing the American government are not quite the same thing. He has given up on any delusions that what he says or does will change people’s minds. What he hasn’t given up on is his ability to make liars and cowards squirm, to troll them on behalf of democracy. “You call [Jan. 6] a ‘tourist day,’” says Fanone. “You say it was ‘hugs and kisses.’ I’m going to be that fucking inconvenient motherfucker that pops his head up every time you say some stupid shit like that.”

Suffice to say, Fanone will not be popping his head up at the Capitol with me. If I really want to see what his life is like these days, he tells me, I’ll come over to his apartment, sit in the lawn chairs he uses as living-room furniture, and drink some fucking beer. So, you know, that’s what we do.

MICHAEL FANONE DOES not live in a shithole. He lives in a tidy one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, with a sort of modern, manly vibe: Ducks Unlimited and Turkey Call are splayed with precision across a large, wooden coffee table, a splatter target (with many, many accurate gunshot holes) is affixed to the sleek stainless-steel fridge, and while, yes, Fanone does use lawn chairs as living-room furniture, they’re Yeti, so, “fucking name-brand.” “He’s the worst fucking guard dog,” Fanone says with great affection as Buddy, his handsome Treeing Walker Coonhound, saunters lazily into the open-plan room, nuzzles his owner, and then retires to one of his three beds. A guard dog wouldn’t hurt. When Fanone moved in this past January — relocating from his mom’s house, where he’d been staying since a breakup — he saw that a neighbor had changed their Wi-Fi name to “Mikefanoneisabitch.” He posted a sign on his door: “Knock and find out how much of a bitch Mike Fanone is.” No one ever did.

Fanone had been a quiet and reserved kid, but by the time his lawyer dad and social-worker mom had gotten messily divorced, it was clear that he was not the type to bow out of trouble. In junior high, his altar-boy duties sometimes consisted of absconding with the sacramental wine, which he enjoyed with a pack of stolen Safeway cigarettes under an abandoned railway tunnel near the Basilica School of Saint Mary. By 15, he was cutting class to catch the Metro into Georgetown to meet up with other punk kids at a venue called Smash! Records, where paper flyers would advertise which show to attend that night — often the one at an Ethiopian Restaurant called Kaffa House, where the after-hours scene had a $3 cover, $2 beers, and, as Fanone explains, “there was no problem drinking underage.”

His father tried to foist him upon D.C.’s ruling class by enrolling him in the prestigious Georgetown Prep — alma mater of not one but two Supreme Court justices — but Fanone “hated every minute of it,” and at the end of his first year, he was “not invited back.” When he showed up on his dad’s doorstep after skipping out on an alternative school in Maine, he was told to move along, and spent six months couch surfing and scraping by: “I was the guy that threw cans at the floor to dent them to try to get them discounted.” He eventually found a job in construction, got a bunch of tattoos, drank a bunch of Mad Dog, and knocked someone up — a sobering enough turn of events that by the time 9/11 happened, he figured he could serve his country and help support his kid by joining the D.C. police force. In order to qualify, he got his high school diploma through a special program at Ballou, a school in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. As best he could tell, Fanone was the only white kid in his graduating class.

In his career as a cop, Fanone had started out “full of piss and vinegar,” but over time, he’d learned to play the long game. Other cops in the vice unit might have been content making a bunch of low-level arrests, knowing that “most of the time, those people are probably back out on the street before they’re done with the fucking paperwork,” as Fanone says. But if the goal was to get violent criminals off the street, he reasoned, who gave a fuck about a poor kid with a few zips of crack? Why not wait it out, cultivate an informant or let an undercover cop make a series of bigger buys, and then eventually take out the bad motherfucker at the top?

Fanone (center), struggling in the scrum of rioters on Jan. 6. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/Alamy

Fanone ran off the adrenaline. “He often rubbed people the wrong way, but he was one of the best drug cops I’ve known,” says Jeff Leslie, his partner in the Metropolitan Police Department for 11 years. A regular day might be chasing down a gunman he saw shoot someone in the neck right in front of him (“It’s like, that was Tuesday,” says Fanone). Or buying a little heroin undercover, as he had planned to do the afternoon of Jan. 6. Or fielding calls from his close to 50 active informants. Once he happened to pull up right behind his friend’s stolen Chevy Caprice just as he was calling the license-plate number into the station; the car got totaled in the chase that ensued, but that thief sure was apprehended.

All this has been hard to give up, but “I knew pretty shortly after my congressional testimony that my career in law enforcement was fucking over with,” Fanone says. It was weird seeing the false narratives of who he was immediately begin to mushroom, to hear folks say that he was actually the fucker who carried the Confederate flag into the Capitol (if he magically ever got his own TV show, he jokes, he would have that guy on first), that he was “a false-flag liberal,” that he was “like a love child of Nancy Pelosi that’s grown in a petri dish and has been quietly part of some sleeper cell that was awakened for this event.” Newsmax’s Greg Kelly called him “that drama queen of a cop.” Laura Ingraham snidely awarded him a trophy for “best performance in an action role.” For every tearful “thank you” he got from a stranger, there would be some asshole who’d drive by and scream they hoped his children were raped and killed.

But those were people who didn’t know him. What was really fucked up was how people who did know him, who had known him and worked with him for years, even decades, started buying into that shit, too. “He went through hell and back to defend the Capitol, the people inside, and what it represents, but the greatest hell for him may be how he’s been treated by others in law enforcement,” says U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, who befriended Fanone after Jan. 6. “For me, as the son of a cop and a brother to cops, that is the hardest thing to see.” As Fanone tells it, “I greatly underestimated the right-wing propaganda machine,” greatly underestimated how attempts to set the historical record straight could be spun as grandstanding. Yet, he says, “after my congressional testimony, the criticism from within the [police] department went from quiet whispers to screams and yells.” While recovering, he’d been sidelined in an empty office where his presence couldn’t rile up other cops: “I had no responsibilities. The job itself was to occupy a chair in the cubicle. That was the mission. I failed miserably at that mission.” His goal was to return to full duty. The very day he did, he wrote “Go fuck yourselves” on a napkin and submitted it to his supervisor as his resignation. His last day of work was Dec. 31, 2021. “Then I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I’m not going to be a police officer anymore.’”

In speaking out, he’d hoped that he could bridge some sort of divide, prove to liberals that cops weren’t all villains, and to conservatives that Trump and his lying minions were. If not him, then who? “I’m cognizant of the fact that I talk like a fucking redneck, I wear camo-colored Crocs, I drive a fucking truck with camo seats, I like guns, I go hunting, I fucking drink beer from a can some places that I shouldn’t drink beer from a can at, and I’m kind of a caricature of what people think of when they think of a Trump-supporting hillbilly,” says Fanone, who did in fact vote for Trump in 2016. Once, in a Miami bar, a couple said they recognized Fanone from the Capitol and — overhearing the conversation — the bartender just assumed he’d been on the insurrectionists’ side. “He’s like, ‘You were at the Capitol? Man, that’s great. Drinks are on the house,’” Fanone says, scowling. “Did I accept the drinks? Fuck yes, I did.”

These days, his life seems parceled out in chunks that are mostly mind-numbingly boring or pretty fucking surreal. Pelosi still calls occasionally to check in (“You don’t have to agree with Nancy’s policies, but you can recognize a statesman when you fucking see one”). Sean Penn has had him out to spend a week here and there at his house in Malibu. Joan Baez invited him to accompany her to an awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center, where he met one of his favorite musicians, Sturgill Simpson, who’ll text him from time to time. He and Swalwell frequently meet up for beers.

But Fanone knows that a lot of people see him as an avatar for something he isn’t, either exotocizing his redneck, blue-collar bona fides or lumping him in with some liberal agenda that he doesn’t share. “Anyone who says he’s doing the bidding of Democrats?” asks Swalwell, incredulous. “He jams me up all the time about shit he doesn’t like that Democrats are doing. He’ll call me, he’ll text me, he’ll say, ‘This is dumb. Why are you guys doing this?’ He has no political dog in this fight at all.” If Fanone has made the rounds of liberal media, it’s only because, he says, conservative outlets won’t have him. “I tried for months to get onto Fox News,” Fanone states. “I had a Republican staffer give me the names of a bunch of bookers, and I emailed them, I fucking called, and one, only one, had the wherewithal to return my call and say, ‘Hey, listen, we would love to have you on Dana Perino, but you’re fucking banned from this network.’” (A representative from Fox denied this claim.)

Fanone hasn’t exactly found a home at CNN, either. After Don Lemon finagled to get him a commentator job — making slightly more than he’d been making as a cop (though it comes out to slightly less once he pays for health insurance out of pocket) — he “couldn’t sign that [contract] fucking fast enough.” Now, he finds himself waiting for the phone to ring or sitting in a green room “full of convicted felons and Trump expatriates who are doing their ‘Rejuvenation of My Reputation’ tour.” Or, infrequently, on air, where having to watch his language makes him feel slightly muzzled and slow on the draw. One claim to fame, as he sees it, is convincing the network that “bullshit” could be said live, a habit that was soon picked up by pundits and other commentators. “Though I did get in a lot of trouble for saying I thought history was going to shit on Mike Pence’s head,” he says, grinning slightly. “They thought that it was inciteful language. I said, ‘Listen’ — this is an actual conversation I had — ‘if a person named History takes a shit on Mike Pence’s head, I will apologize for having incited that behavior. But until a person named History literally takes a shit on Mike Pence’s head, I’m not saying shit, nor do I regret what I said, because history is going to shit on Mike Pence’s head.’” When it comes to taking shits, he expects, “history is going to be busy.”

TWO VERY GOOD things came out of Jan. 6. One, Fanone proved his own courage. When the distress call about a siege at the Capitol went out to police forces across the D.C. Metro area, he answered: “I mean, I self-deployed. I fucking found the apex of the fighting. Not very many people get tested in that way, and knowing that I performed in a way that was acceptable to myself was important.”

After testifying before Congress’ Jan. 6 committee, Fanone (left, during testimony on July 27) became a pariah in the police department. Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images

He also got his family back. Not that his family had ever really been anywhere — it was Fanone who’d worked a shift from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Fanone who’d often chosen to crash for a few hours at the station or in his truck before showing up to testify or submit paperwork in court first thing in the morning, Fanone who’d signed up for so much overtime. His 2015 divorce from his wife, Hsin-Yi, had been so contentious that they’d barely spoken in the years since. But after Jan. 6, Fanone says, “she became a pretty integral part of my support system.” Now, he says that the time he spends with his three youngest daughters, Piper (10), Mei-Mei (9), and Hensley (7), is pretty much the only time he feels normal again.

So one morning he picked me up in his 4Runner, gun locker resting on the floor of the cab and Simpson wafting out of the speakers, and we headed across the shining Chesapeake Bay to meet his girls, to spend a day together at the beach. We stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts (“I drink the coffee because it’s the greatest coffee, but I don’t eat doughnuts because of the whole cops-eating-doughnuts thing”). We talked about the shitty state of policing (“We’re training officers the same way we did 20 years ago and holding them to a new, higher standard; we’re setting them up for failure”). We talked about the shitty state of the world and how few politicians are really equipped to deal with that (“I’m sorry, dude. I love Jamie Raskin — he’s a really nice guy — but he is not designed for what lies ahead, and nor are the other super-intellectual types”).

By the time we reached the Rehoboth Beach house where the girls and their mom were staying that week, plump raindrops were falling, and it became clear that Fanone had not been particularly demonstrative in making a plan. “I apologize for my deficiencies as a man,” he told Hsin-Yi half-jokingly, as she rolled her eyes half-affectionately, and shuffled the girls into their shoes. Over lunch at Dogfish Head, he ordered a salad, a sour beer, and a round of kids’ meals, and then settled into a mood of gentle playfulness, stroking Mei-Mei’s long, dark braid and teasing Piper about her new phone, which he’d given her and which she brandished proudly. Hsin-Yi and the girls are Asian American. Fanone had told me earlier that if Trump’s shady dealings with James Comey hadn’t already turned him off, the former president’s “kung-flu” comments would have sealed the deal.

After lunch, at a boardwalk amusement park, as we watched the girls scrambling about a multilevel playground, Fanone grew more pensive. His children knew what had happened on Jan. 6, but there were things he’d kept from them since, like the nights he’d sat in his mom’s empty house, gun in his hands, wondering if he should just put it to his head and pull the trigger. “If it wasn’t for my kids, I mean, I don’t know if we’d be here having this conversation,” he says. “For me, having those thoughts, suicidal thoughts, it was not an experience like you see in the movies where some person is in the depths of despair, and they’re crying, and they’re just so distraught they can’t push forward. For me, it was born out of anger, like, ‘Fuck this, fuck these people, fuck this. I’m out.’” What kept him from pulling the trigger was his girls, who come running up now wanting to head to the haunted house, the pirate ship, the ride that lifts you up and drops you precipitously. Fanone says yes to all of this, and to the Squishmallow store, and to buying huge Squishmallow stuffies at the Squishmallow store, and to ice cream and snow cones and funnel cake. As he got ready to leave, he asked Hsin-Yi if the girls could stay with him the following week. She said she’d bring them over on Sunday. “How about Saturday?” he replied.

Back in his car, Fanone turned Simpson up and was quiet for long stretches. We passed a “Let’s go, Brandon” billboard and some languid cows, the country road unfurling across green pastures. In September, one of the men who brutalized Fanone will be sentenced, and he plans to read a victim statement in court. Ultimately, he wants accountability, which he thinks he might get in a mitigated way for the people who attacked him, but certainly won’t get for the people who created the conditions for that attack: “To me, every last one of them should have been charged with sedition. These guys love 1776 so much. They should be damned glad we’re not in 1776 because I’m pretty sure they would all end up on the fucking business end of a musket or the gallows.” He admits that very little time goes by without his thoughts turning to Jan. 6, that “my worst day as a drug cop is better than my fucking best day since.” Once his book comes out and CNN gets tired of “fucking carting me out every now and again to talk about fucking Jan. 6,” he thinks maybe he’ll go back to working construction.

But fuck it. Enough of the maudlin shit. Things are what they are, so Fanone might as well make the most of them. And actually, by the time he’s emptying a Sapporo at a noodle house in town — where a well-heeled couple would later clutch his hand and say “We appreciate you” — he’s talking up the benefits of being a troll for democracy, of how, actually, it suits his personality to be both on the side of righteousness and also kind of a punk. “It’s like, listen, dude, do I suffer deeply? There are moments where I fight back an immense amount of emotion. And I think overall, I’m still suffering,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “But are there times where I am riding a huge adrenaline high? Abso-fucking-lutely. I didn’t realize what was happening when I said Josh Hawley was a bitch. I just gave my honest assessment, and then it went fucking super viral. And did that make my day? Made my fucking week — watching a grown-ass man, a U.S. senator, have to say ‘No comment’ when somebody asked him, ‘Michael Fanone called you a bitch, do you have a comment?’”

If this is his legacy, being the profane, pugnacious thorn in the side of political assholes and cowards, maybe it’s a fitting one, he reasons — for the man and the moment. “There’s a part of me that just lives for the feud,” Fanone says. “Maybe it’s just how my brain is wired, but when it comes to this, I’m at ease when I’m sitting, waiting, watching for an opportunity to poke my head up and call somebody a bitch.” Maybe this is the legacy that fits the absurdity of now.

Fanone drains his beer and orders another. He wants me to understand how, as he says, “it gives me comfort knowing that I’m living in all these people’s brains fucking rent-free” and how “I also derive some degree of pleasure out of some things that I think would make other people traumatized.” His vengeance is creative: He’s thought of publishing a coffee-table book of all the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, their photos, their social media profiles, along with Fanone’s own personal commentary — a book of shame. “Remember when that video came out of Madison Cawthorn dry-humping the dude on the bed?” he asks. “I may or may not have, from time to time, created fictitious Twitter accounts and then trolled different insurrectionist members of Congress by asking them if that was them on the bottom.” He laughs long and hard, his smile looking raffish and slightly goofy as it breaks up the classic lines of his face. “Dude, I don’t give a shit what your fucking preference is. Fuck it, it’s America. I saw that Netflix special on people that wanted to marry their car: Fucking go for it. I hope it works out for you. I’m dead serious. But I just find it hilarious that this guy who espouses fucking so much hate and so much intolerance likes to get naked and fucking dry-hump dudes. And then lets himself get fucking recorded while doing so.”

He takes a swig and admits that “ironically, Madison Cawthorn is the one dude I wanted to stay in power because he provided me with so much ammunition — and entertainment. Like, I’m not a man that lives in hindsight or with regret, but if I could do it all over again, I would have campaigned on behalf of Madison Cawthorn to keep him in office.” Speaking of, that gives Fanone an idea. A fucking beautiful idea. He laughs until he’s practically crying. “You know what would have been a great campaign advertisement?” he asks. “All I would do is post the video of him dry-humping the dude in the bed, and then at the end, like, absolutely no dialogue: ‘This advertisement was paid for by Michael Fanone.’ I mean, that would be the … that would—” He’s laughing so hard now he actually might be crying. “Uh …  it would  …  just be, like—” He breaks off, speechless, sputtering, and finally out of fucks to give.