MIDLAND, Texas—On a 95-degree April day, a florist named Jenny Cudd parked her red pickup and strode up to the local FBI office, her Let’s Go Brandon earrings swinging. She was there to pick up two phones that the authorities had seized—“stole,” according to Cudd—after she stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
An agent named Scott greeted her briskly and slid the phones across the desk. He seemed torn between West Texan politeness and West Texan toughness-on-crime.
“How’s the flower business?” Scott asked.
“Great,” Cudd said dryly.
“Good luck … with the rest of your life, I guess,” he said as Cudd walked out.
“What a stupid thing to say,” she tweeted later. In the replies, her followers advised her to throw the phones away—the feds had probably bugged them, they speculated.
This is just how Cudd, 38, is acting these days, nearly 18 months after the Capitol siege: following the law, but alleging it’s biased. Saying she regrets her actions, but indignant at her treatment. Claiming to put January 6 behind her, but vowing to keep fighting.
Cudd is serving no jail time after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge. Her life is back to normal. She wakes up in a modest old house and has two cups of coffee with her dogs, Freedom and Justice. Then she heads to her shop, Becky’s Flowers, where customers are greeted with pastel-hued hydrangeas alongside pocket Constitutions, a Donald Trump bobblehead doll, and a painting of Trump holding a vase of flowers. She inputs orders for prom corsages and funeral wreaths while drinking from a mug that says blood of my enemies. In the next room an employee named Mo calls customers to remind them that it’s almost Mother’s Day.
Rather than chastening her, Cudd’s experience since January 6 has only made her more committed to fighting what she sees as election fraud—and more dedicated to educating others about the cause. Though she swears she won’t unlawfully enter any government buildings again, she still thinks the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. And she has become an organizer of the MAGA right in her area, bringing together people from all over West Texas to hear fringe figures pontificate on a range of conspiracies.
In this way, she resembles other “January Sixers,” as they are sometimes known, many of whom, like Jenny, entered the Capitol but did not engage in violence or damage property. People in this group will likely serve little or no jail time, because their charges are relatively light. Instead, they are back in their communities—in some cases, more committed than ever to far-right politics. Politico reported in January that at least 57 people who either attended the January 6 Trump rally or marched to the Capitol were running for office in 2022, and “few of them express any contrition for their involvement.” Even among those who attended the rally but did not enter the Capitol, many are now part of “an amorphous new movement” of fundraisers and organizers who are “fueled by grievances against vaccines and President Biden, and a deepened devotion to his predecessor’s lies about a stolen election,” according to The New York Times.
Though many Americans are watching the January 6 hearings with outrage, Cudd argues that the Capitol insurrection wasn’t a big deal compared with other protests. And in some ways, she’s right: The biggest threat isn’t that January 6 will literally repeat itself in 2024. It’s that ardent Trump supporters will form a new political faction that legitimizes the stealing of the next election, supporting officials who are willing to subvert democracy without shedding a drop of blood.
Midland has the world’s friendliest people and its least friendly terrain. It’s where about 140,000 souls suck oil and existence out of a parched, flat desert, and where a yoga teacher ends class with “May the Lord bless you and make his face to shine upon you.” It’s where I decided to go to figure out what’s next for Cudd and people like her—and it’s also where I grew up.
People here describe Cudd, who is redheaded and soft-featured, as loyal and dependable, always jumping into things with the unalloyed vigor of a pure extrovert. Her affect oscillates between bubbly and sardonic, and she can also be a little naive. “A flawed person, but a human being” is how she asked me to describe her. In between tough questions about January 6, we brainstormed birthday-gift ideas for my brother and talked about people we both know.
Cudd was raised in Lubbock, two hours away. She was in some ways primed to be conservative: Her Republican parents homeschooled her, and she loved it. She and one of her brothers liked to play “Revolutionary War,” running through the streets shouting, “The British are coming!” Cudd listened to Rush Limbaugh from toddlerhood, and would tag along as her mom campaigned for local candidates and protested abortion. It was an “ultra, ultra fundamentalist conservative, Reagan-was-the-second-coming-of-Jesus, incredibly conservative upbringing,” says her other brother, Jarrod Haning, who now lives in South Carolina and identifies as a liberal, though he says he’s not politically active.
Cudd also inherited her father’s love of firearms. Her gun arsenal includes an AR-15—though more important than shooting guns, to her, is the right to bear them. She keeps a gun in her truck, in the shop, and in her nightstand—“all the places a person would have a gun,” she says. This is despite the fact that, 10 years ago, her father accidentally shot himself through the femoral artery and died. “I think accidents happen, just like they do with cars or anything else,” Cudd told me.
In early adulthood, Cudd drifted from her parents’ political activism. At 18, she moved to New York to try acting, then returned to Midland a year later, feeling washed up. She lived in Italy for two years, came home, and got married, then embarked on a master’s degree in counseling. On the side, she began picking up part-time shifts at the flower shop. In 2015, the owner, Becky Weaver, sold Cudd the business. She decided to keep the name; customers already knew the store as “Becky’s,” and Cudd thought that sounded cuter anyway. She found that the long hours and the responsibility of owning the shop focused her, even helping relieve her fibromyalgia, a chronic-pain condition. She likes the steadiness of flowers, how they’re the only constant between life’s worst moments and its sweetest.
Over the years, Cudd developed a screw-the-system attitude that eventually found a home in Trumpism. She’s a Christian, but she puts her faith in Tony Robbins instead of organized religion. Despite her upbringing, she doesn’t feel strongly tied to the GOP. The long list of Republicans who have let her down includes Texas Governor Greg Abbott (because he implemented COVID restrictions by executive order early in the pandemic), Senator Mitt Romney (“a RINO”), Representative Dan Crenshaw (“100 percent Communist”), Senator Ted Cruz (not trustworthy), the late Senator John McCain (“his favorite hobby was going to war”), and President George Bush (both of them, same reason). But she was drawn to Trump, who she thought improved the regulatory environment for small-business owners and did good work on immigration and criminal-justice reform. The weird stuff he said and did only contributed to his appeal. “I like the things that other people would consider to be character defects,” Cudd said.
In 2017, Cudd got divorced and, with extra time on her hands, she threw herself into various causes around town. Most of them were associated with charity and business development—at one point, she employed a human-trafficking survivor she met while volunteering at a local nonprofit. Cudd also got involved in politics again. In 2019, she ran for mayor of Midland and lost, getting about 16 percent of the vote. Over the next couple of years, she organized or helped organize seven demonstrations around Midland, several advocating for reopenings during the coronavirus pandemic. At the flower shop, there’s still a sign on the door that says No Mask Required, even though Texas ended its mask mandate more than a year ago.
In 2020, Cudd says she also began posting a regular “political rundown” on Facebook Live with a characteristic greeting: “Hey, patriots.” Her friends started calling it the “Jenny News Network,” and she says she’d get hundreds of views on each video. As Trump raised doubts about mainstream media, she drifted toward dubious right-wing sources such as the “Pizzagate” influencer Jack Posobiec, One America News, Newsmax, The Gateway Pundit, and Tucker Carlson. They pumped a steady stream of misinformation into her Twitter feed and, gradually, into her mind.
In December 2020, Cudd saw Trump tweet that there would be a “big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” She wanted to support the president, believing the election had been stolen from him. She packed a bulletproof hoodie, she says, (to protect herself from members of Black Lives Matter and antifa) and booked a flight and a room at the Willard InterContinental. She planned to attend the rally with a friend of hers from Midland, Eliel Rosa, who also later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, and who declined to talk for this article.
The night before January 6, Cudd was fired up. “I don’t know what y’all think about a revolution, but I’m all for it,” she said in a video she posted on social media. The next day, thousands of Trump’s supporters crowded together in the 40-degree cold near the White House. After Trump’s speech, around 2:30 p.m., Cudd and Rosa followed throngs of people up the Capitol steps. The barricades had been torn down at that point, Cudd says, and she walked through an open door. In a photo of her inside the Capitol, later published in court documents, she looks happy and awed, a Trump flag draped around her shoulders and a beige beanie on her head. She says she briefly joined a prayer group, took some pictures, and then left, just minutes after a Capitol police officer shot and killed Ashli Babbitt as she tried to jump through a broken window.
Cudd walked back to the Willard and filmed a Facebook Live video that would launch her into moderate fame among the Sixers. “Hey, patriots,” she said, sitting on the hotel steps and sipping a beer. “I’m gonna tell y’all what actually happened today, because you are not gonna hear it on fake news … When Pence betrayed us is when we decided to storm the Capitol.” At times, she teared up and said her heart was breaking for her country. “Hell yes, I’m proud of my actions,” she said. An excerpt from the video was viewed millions of times; national news reports said Cudd had “bragged” and “boasted” about taking part in the riot in what her own attorney called a “drunken diatribe.”
Cudd went to bed shortly afterward, she says, and took the first flight out of Washington the next day. It wasn’t until she landed that she saw the Facebook messages from random strangers: Traitor. Domestic terrorist. The feds are coming for you.
On January 8, Cudd gave an interview to a local TV news station in which she said, “I would do it again in a heartbeat, because I did not break any laws.” (She now says she wouldn’t have entered the Capitol if she had known it was a crime.) She attributed the opprobrium over her actions to “cancel culture” and claimed that the crowd at the Capitol had included members of antifa dressed as Trump supporters. “It’s hot news right now, and it won’t be here in a few days,” she speculated.
The flower shop was so inundated with hateful calls and threats that it closed for five days. One employee quit. The first day the other employees returned, they wouldn’t look Cudd in the eye, and several were crying. They were upset not about her politics, but about the impact of her actions on the shop, according to two employees who agreed to speak anonymously. Cudd apologized for making them feel unsafe and putting them in danger. A few days later, cops swarmed the parking lot and arrested her.
Cudd pleaded guilty to entering a restricted building, and this spring was sentenced to two months of probation and a $5,000 fine. She also was required to pay a $500 restitution fee for property damage to the Capitol. This is a fairly typical outcome for the January 6 defendants so far: As of this January, roughly half are facing misdemeanor charges only. Of the approximately 185 people who had been sentenced by early June, about 80 were sent to jail, according to the Department of Justice. (Overall, more than 800 people have been charged.)
But that doesn’t mean Cudd didn’t pay. “The Capitol,” as she calls the events of January 6, cost her about $70,000 in legal fees, she says. People bombarded Becky’s Flowers with one-star reviews, and Cudd was banned from Venmo, Facebook, Airbnb, and PayPal, as well as her credit-card-processing and e-commerce companies, she told me. Most of the hate mail just called her names, such as “domestic terrorist” and “stupid cunt,” but some of it said things like “we know where you live” or that she should be publicly hanged. Cudd sometimes slept at friends’ houses and had her fiancé guard the flower shop.
After more than 60 lawsuits brought by the former president and his allies failed to overturn the 2020 election results, Cudd’s brother Jarrod thought, “Maybe she’ll come back off the ledge here.” Even if she felt that her actions at the Capitol were righteous, overwhelmingly, others found them repugnant.
Instead, Cudd doubled down. When pressed, she says she regrets entering the Capitol, but she’s clearly still angry at how she and other Sixers were treated. The experience galvanized her, proving her worst fears about the government, Democrats, and the media. (She told me she agreed to talk with me, at least in part, because I was careful not to call it the “Capitol riot” the first time I spoke with her.) She’s outraged that the local paper, the Midland Reporter-Telegram, wrote an article after January 6 titled “Who Is Jenny Cudd?,” calling the story “legal doxxing.” Today, she only believes the Big Lie more. Jarrod now likens his relationship with his sister to the kind you’d have with a flat-earther or a grandparent with memory loss. “You guys are not living the same reality,” he says. “But they’re still your grandparent, and you still care about them. And you still want to support them the best you can.”
Instead of retreating back to private life after her sentencing, Cudd decided to take action. She began talking with self-described “patriot groups” in West Texas. “I was tired of being quiet, and feeling like I had no voice,” she told me. She would tell them about the “January 6 political prisoners” and take pictures with people who wanted one. It was easy to find the like-minded: Most of the anger at Cudd wasn’t coming from Midland, where Trump won 78 percent of the vote in 2020. Some locals took a “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach—though others appeared to love the sin, too. After January 6, some customers placed unusually large orders or tipped $50 extra. One flower-shop employee told me she supported Cudd “100 percent.” In all, Cudd says she didn’t lose business.
Soon, people around town began asking Cudd to run for office again, saying they appreciate that she’s “willing to stand up and fight,” she told me. Customers asked her to fight the school board, she said, “because they’re teaching critical race theory.” They asked her to fight the local hospital too, because “the hospital killed their mom or their wife or whatever via COVID protocols.” The Capitol seemed to energize her more than anything had before. “God makes all kinds of people,” she said, “and he just happened to make me a fighter and not a coward.”
Last year, at a conference in San Antonio, Cudd met Seth Keshel, a former Army captain who spreads claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election that experts say are false. Cudd found herself agreeing with Keshel. She believes that dead people are voting, and that states should return to hand-counting paper ballots. (Though rare cases of voter fraud exist, including ballots cast by dead people, there were too few to meaningfully affect the 2020 election.) Existing voter rolls should be thrown out, she thinks, and everyone should reregister. Keshel encouraged her to organize her own event in West Texas.
Cudd enlisted three friends, including Leiken Finch, a homeschooling mom who owns a branding business, to help her host the first “America First: West Texas Edition” conference this past February, bringing together anti-establishment figures to speak about everything from the alleged dangers of the COVID vaccines to election fraud to “what really happened in Afghanistan,” Cudd told me. (The medical community widely considers the COVID vaccines to be safe.) Cudd and her friends charged $30 and up for tickets—enough to cover the costs of the conference, but not the $15,000 in speaker fees that Cudd says she gladly paid for herself.
The conference, held at a performing-arts center in Midland, drew 200 attendees, Cudd estimates, as well as some high-profile headliners, such as Republican Representative Louie Gohmert, who talked about the “January 6 political prisoners,” and the journalist Lara Logan, who has compared Anthony Fauci to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, and who gave “a massive overview of a lot of topics,” Cudd says. (Neither Gohmert nor Logan responded to my requests for comment.) Keshel came to speak about how true “election integrity” would mean an end to mail-in and early voting, a “cleaning out” of voter rolls, and a ban on electronic elections equipment, among other changes. Some of these ideas have now been endorsed by candidates for public office, including the Republican Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano. (Reached for comment, Keshel said he stands by his arguments.)
The unifying theme of the conference seemed to be that everything is fundamentally broken. “I think our education system is messed up. I think our political system is messed up. I think our health system is messed up,” Finch told me. The showing was robust enough that she and Cudd are planning another conference for next year.
Part of the reason I went to Midland was to figure out if Cudd would do it again. She typically expresses regret only because of “the narrative” of January 6 and how “everything was perceived,” and she and those closest to her tend to minimize the insurrection. “Almost every single person in mainstream media portrays the narrative as this horrific, violent insurrection that was the worst thing to happen to our country since World War II, which is an absolute joke,” Cudd told me.
She suggested that January 6 was not as damaging as the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, and she has a rosy view of some of the militia groups who participated: The Oath Keepers are just keeping oaths, she said. The Proud Boys are just a drinking club. (The Justice Department has since charged the former leader of the Proud Boys with seditious conspiracy in the January 6 attack; he has pleaded not guilty.)
Cudd’s fiancé, Doug McCombs, an eccentric cowboy she met on Tinder, is “proud of her for standing up for what she believes in.” Over dinner at Cudd’s house one night, I told him that many people see the Sixers as traitors and domestic terrorists. Given the “issues” with the vote counts on Election Night, he said, “on January 6, the doors are opened, people can walk in, and suddenly less than a million dollars of damage is the worst thing that ever happened to America? I can tell you to go fuck yourself. That’s the dumbest goddamn thing I’ve ever heard.” (Federal officials estimated in March that the insurrection caused about $2.7 million in property damage.)
Still, throughout our conversations, Cudd insisted that she would not storm the Capitol again, that she would not commit violence against the government, and that other Trump supporters probably wouldn’t either. This might be hard to believe given how fondly she speaks about how “our country was technically founded on an insurrection slash rebellion against England.” And how she rhapsodizes about the Second Amendment, which is meant to “defend yourself against a tyrannical government.” And how when I ask her what she would do if, after the next election, Trump called his supporters to D.C., she offers cryptic phrases like “I think it’s very dangerous to speak in hypotheticals when there’s so much shit that’s real.”
But the literal storming of the Capitol represents just one possible—and relatively narrow—threat to democracy. Experts who focus on the fragility of American democracy worry that future elections could be overturned in more insidious ways. Election deniers could enlist as precinct officers and poll workers, as Trump’s allies have urged them to do, and “mess with the ballots” or “make unsubstantiated claims of fraud,” says Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC Irvine. Already, election deniers in multiple states are running for elected offices that play major roles in administering elections. Even if they don’t anoint the loser as the winner, they could foment confusion and chaos, says David Becker, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. The danger in 2024 isn’t that January 6 will literally happen again; it’s that a thousand “paperwork coups” will happen all over the country.
This kind of election subversion will depend on the support of an army of Trump-adoring true believers. In the immediate aftermath of January 6, it seemed possible that most of those who descended on D.C. that day would be remembered as misguided activists who got caught up in the moment. But a year and a half later, it’s clear that some feel even more committed to Trump and his election conspiracies. Next time, they might choose more effective tactics.
A recent University of Chicago survey found that one in four Americans strongly or somewhat agrees that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Cudd seems intent on increasing that number. Although she shies away from using the word recruiting, she had a refrain she used at her conference. After every speaker, she asked the audience, “Did you learn something? Did it make you mad? And are you going to do something about it?”