Denver Riggleman is the outgoing Republican Congressman from Virginia’s fifth congressional district which spans most of central Virginia. He was elected in 2018 and lost a closed convention primary to Bob Good in 2020. In recent months, Representative Riggleman has become one of the loudest voices of the 116th Congress, speaking out against the Republican Party’s embrace of extremism and conspiracy theories. Riggleman owns Silverback Distillery in Afton, Virginia, served as an Air Force Intelligence officer, and co-founded a company that held federal contracts for military data analysis. On December 1, 2020, The Politic spoke to Congressman Riggleman about his new book Bigfoot… It’s Complicated, which follows Riggleman on several Bigfoot hunts as he explores the roots and potentially dangerous results of extremist beliefs.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
The Politic: I have my copy of the book right next to me. I had no idea what to expect when I started reading it. I don’t think anybody can accurately describe what’s inside, but I really enjoyed it.
Riggleman: Yes, and I appreciate that. I started this project on Bigfoot 16 years ago. I had pranked my wife on our 15th anniversary. I told her I was gonna take her somewhere exotic. And instead of Hawaii, I took her on a Bigfoot expedition. Somehow, our marriage survived it. So it really did start as a joke. I thought of a Bigfoot expedition because of what happened when I was ten years old with my grandfather. We ran away from a strange noise in the woods, a large, dark animal which my grandfather called “mighty peculiar.” And I am not a Bigfoot believer. That is not the first thing that I go to.
I’m curious, what are the logistics of a Bigfoot hunt? How did you find the group in Washington that you went out with for your anniversary?
My goodness, I had to do a search. This was 2004, the first time that happened. But I did look up a website that said that they did Bigfoot expeditions and talked to the leader or the person that was running the expedition. The cost was high. I was doing okay. I was a defense contractor for the National Security Agency. I was working on special projects in national tactical integration.
When I told the group leader that I worked for the NSA, he actually got a little nervous. This guy running a Bigfoot expedition is actually nervous because I work for the National Security Agency? That became part of my first inkling that maybe there was something more to this. This prank turned into me looking at believers as if I was doing intelligence work on different belief systems in the former Yugoslavia or the Middle East. It seems to be a credible parallel.
How does someone become a Bigfoot expedition leader? In your book, you describe them as people that are potentially grifters. What qualifies you to lead a Bigfoot trip?
The fact that you have more knowledge on something that doesn’t exist than anybody else in the world. That’s what qualifies you. I talk about the grift often—weaponizing the myth or monetizing insanity. It’s very difficult to break through this mythological barrier with people that are true believers. The “geniuses” behind this are those that can monetize that myth. And what makes people very effective in leading expeditions to find mythological creatures—whether it’s Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Chupacabra, Yeti, or even alien hunts—is the fact that they’re able to do this in a way that pushes people to spend money or to do something that obviously a normal person would find a little odd. I don’t know if the group leader was a conspiracy theorist or a grifter, but I certainly don’t think he was a true believer. It was a bit genius in a very low, awful way, to be able to monetize Bigfoot believers and their search for the impossible.
In your book, you were able to maintain the sense of neutrality where you both reported on the expedition but also grew close to the other people there. You got lunch with Bob Gimlin, whose 1967 film is sort of the bedrock of Bigfoot belief. What was it like to speak with someone so close to the heart of this myth?
My wife and Bob became very close in 2004 just during the expedition, because Bob Gimlin was a horse trainer and my wife loves horses. We don’t have horses on our property – I’m actually packing my car with liquor from our distillery as we speak. But I don’t know if Bob Gimlin is in on the hoax, I just know it was one of the most bizarre interviews that I’ve ever been a part of. Knowing the background of his film strengthens the idea that it might have been a grift. They were able to monetize their Bigfoot footage by having appearances at public areas and charging people to watch the film. And you know what’s really, really weird about this, I’m actually gonna perpetuate a conspiracy theory here: nobody knows where the original Patterson-Gimlin film is. They’re all copies. Isn’t that something? Somebody has the original somewhere. But I think people can tell where I stand on this based on the end of that chapter, where I share a joke that Bob told me: “What’s the difference between a fairy tale and a cowboy’s story? A fairy tale starts with Once Upon a Time…, a cowboy’s story starts with No shit, wait until you hear this.”
I love your thought that 53 years later, even if he came out and said “I was playing all of you and I made a lot of money off of this film,” nobody’s going to believe that.
It doesn’t matter anymore. Now it’s been memed into society. There are some incredible books out there that I footnote that people should read like Joseph Campbell, whose work on the monomyth talks about how myths enter the fabric of society. By 1967 when the Patterson-Gimlin film came around, people were seeing Bigfoot more and more. I would submit that it’s no different than the 1947 Roswell Incident and UFO sightings spiking after that. It was memed into society, and that’s what I’ve been trying to break. It’s even in conspiracy theories that you see now on the national stage: Stop the Steal, Sharpie Gate, Watermarks, 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, or the whole QAnon ridiculousness. These ideas have become part of the fabric of a belief system for a large number of people, and you almost need a deep programming effort to get away from that. When you see people that weaponize these belief systems, they go after political leaders and others. Bigfoot believers have not become weaponized as far as I know. If that ever happens, we’re in trouble. But when harmless, myths and belief systems transform into things that are weaponized or monetized, that’s either when dangerous things happen or you see massive grift and fraud.
What do you think leads to what you called the “unearthly glow” of a true believer?
I think a lot of it is life circumstance. I’m not a psychologist. But doing this for years, there seems to be a certain type of person: they weren’t necessarily bad people, these were good people, sometimes even doctors, lawyers. But there were a lot of people who seemed to be looking for something in life and looking for some kind of magic. I would say 30 to 40 percent of the people there were on the fringes of society, bouncing back and forth between employment. But amazingly they were able to scrape together the money to go on these Bigfoot expeditions. Think about that. You’re taking money from the people who are probably the least likely to have money.
Did you enjoy being out there, or was it just too ridiculous?
Oh, this was the most fun I’ve ever had. In the book, I report what happened, what my thoughts were at the time, what other people’s thoughts were, and some of the ridiculous conversations. Those ranged from if Bigfoot is allergic to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, whether we can bait Bigfoot with bacon, or the ridiculous conversation about sex habits and whether that determines whether he’s an ape or human type. These people were saying this with a straight face. I got to pursue this, and I did multiple expeditions.
Were there ever moments that you bought into the expeditions more than you felt like you should have?
In the book, I have a conversation with Chuck (not his real name), who I became very close with. One morning at the Kalaloch Lodge, he almost convinced me that there couldn’t be thousands of sightings that are all fake. The question of whether all of these people are crazy is something that’s very hard for people to get their arms around. They’re not all crazy. They live normal lives. You do start to feel a kinship, almost like a companionship, like you’re part of a tribe. Once you’re part of the tribe, it’s very difficult to remove yourself even when you see things that are wrong.
There was a study in The Atlantic this April that showed 91 percent of Americans believe in at least one of the 22 most popular conspiracy theories. What determines which beliefs are dangerous and which believers are dangerous?
I think when you see a belief that dehumanizes a vast swath of people, that’s when it’s dangerous. The tropes behind conspiracy theories lead to the dehumanization of the government and professionals, and that’s when it gets dangerous. That’s when you see Gabby Giffords get shot. That’s when you see Steve Scalise get shot. That’s when you see two yahoos going to the Philadelphia Convention Center with QAnon stickers on their truck carrying weapons the week after the election. Specifically, I’ve been warning about the grift associated with radicalization. President Trump raised $150 to $170 million in the month following the election based on Stop the Steal. That’s a grift, and it’s effective because people who feel disenfranchised, disassociated, and even very smart people buy into the idea that the election has been rigged. I think that’s when things can become very dangerous.
Stop the Steal gives donors some agency. The emails are phrased like “if you donate, we can fix it.”
Yeah, because we can prove it if we have enough money. We can prove that you’re not wrong. We can prove that your life, that your belief system can be validated. We have a leader that can validate this, and it’s just like how Bigfoot is a leader to a lot of people. If you can validate your belief system through a leader that seems to have all the answers, or you think you’re special because you’re actually on the QAnon Q drops so you’re smarter than everybody else, then you’re validating yourself using myth, using a belief system that’s not readily provable. But through faith, you actually have the answers. At that point, it’s very difficult to deprogram somebody out of that type of thinking.
How do you explain to a true believer that their belief is a falsehood?
First you have to try to deprogram it using facts, data analysis, but you’ve got to do it with compassion, you’ve got to do it with care. There has to be an overwhelming effort from people who see that this is false to mitigate the damage. If you don’t have this overwhelming amount of people or evidence to try to squash this nonsense, people lack the courage to do it. They say, “It’s just a dark corner. It’s over there. There’s no way something this crazy can metastasize across the entire network.” But if you leave it alone enough, it starts to mutate and it becomes a digital virus that spreads across the population. It has to be a combination of data, facts, and public service. What scares me is that there was a poll yesterday which said 47 percent of the electorate believes that this election was stolen. That is dangerous. Even if the cat’s already out of the bag, you have to fight it compassionately with an overwhelming, blunt-force trauma use of data and facts.
On October, 2, your Resolution to Condemn QAnon passed in the House. This was a subject that was a little mainstream but not to the extent that it was a natural decision to pass a resolution. If you’re talking to someone in the House who doesn’t know much about QAnon, what is your elevator pitch to them on why they should care?
QAnon has a baseline in antisemitism and in dehumanizing others for a political goal that eventually could radicalize others to violence. Some agreed with me, obviously, but some people said, “There’s no way! QAnon is so nuts.” I was not wrong, not only about how crazy this could become and how fast it could happen to metastasize but also about the massive grift that’s associated with these QAnon-ers that are monetizing the crazy of QAnon. I’ve done this for two decades. I am a trained intelligence professional that worked in the office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Agency, and the United States Air Force Intelligence. I have a baseline of knowledge about what radicalization looks like and how fast it can spread. I think people are saying, “You know what? Denver was probably right back in July or June that this is gonna go nuts.” Especially after Michael Flynn took the oath with QAnon phrases, you saw a massive spike analytically in those that were talking about QAnon and using those hashtags on social media.
Most of the legislation you’ve sponsored and cosponsored in Congress has been extremely bipartisan. What’s the recipe?
Not being in politics. I’ve only been in politics three years. I believe that when somebody comes in and they don’t look at this as a career, they look at this as truly service, which I could do because I didn’t need this paycheck, it helped me to be that person that I thought I could be. It costs me not always going with the tribe and that’s okay. I’ve chosen to be largely politically tribe-less lately because I feel better about it.
A turning point in your term came in June 2019, when you officiated a same-sex wedding between two of your friends. What changed after the wedding?
I started to see many conspiracy theories about me, and it made me smile even though it was tragic. People said that I was advancing a program to indoctrinate children in schools into the homosexual lifestyle, or that I was a Soros plant. How could you actually believe that I’m a tool of the Antichrist? If I’m a tool of the Antichrist, me and Obama must be palling around. My wife was called the spawn of Satan, so I would humbly submit that we’re the new power couple of the United States.
These falsehoods metastasized quickly because it already went with peoples’ belief systems who are already susceptible to myths and things that are not true. It was the first time that I think I really misjudged the true power of myth even on a level that has no basis in reality. I had a guy come up and tell me that I was the leader of the Sodomitic Armies. I asked him where he read that and he said, “I don’t remember,” and I said that’s true because I don’t think you can read. That’s not a politician’s answer. I probably shouldn’t have said that. But that’s what I said. I try to use humor, but sometimes I’m brutally effective in pissing people off, and I want to be.
But on the other hand, is that how I actually turn people? By saying those things? It feels good in the moment, but long term have I just cemented his belief based on hate? He had already dehumanized me, he had already dehumanized those men I married. I really love those guys, and I wouldn’t have married them if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. So all I did was I contributed to his hate, and that probably just cemented his belief that I’m evil. And that should scare people.
Following the same-sex wedding, the Virginia Republican party turned against you. Ultimately, you lost a closed convention vote of only 2,400 voters to Bob Good. How frustrating was it for you, as someone who has focused on reaching across the aisle, to get booted from your seat in such a small convention?
To go into a church parking lot five minutes from this guy’s house and have 1,400 people vote against me—1,400 people out of everyone in Virginia’s fifth district, which has 750,000 people and is bigger than the state of New Jersey—that’s called disenfranchising as many voters as you can and lying as much as possible in order to keep power. It did not matter about what was right or wrong, it mattered about power.
Conventions have been monetized here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. There are people that you would certainly call convention fixers. They try to make the rules favor one candidate or another depending on who pays them. But also they’re sitting on the very committees that vote for the rules and how people get nominated. They’re not part of the state election plan, and they don’t have to follow Federal Election Committee rules. So there’s really no way you can fight back on it. It’s a corporation, and that’s how they make their money. If you refuse to pay them, they have to go find somebody who will pay them. My opponent used 60 percent of his funds in the second quarter of this election to pay off committee members.
How do you fix that? How do you get a Virginia Republican Party that reflects the actual people in the state instead of the 1,400 people who could take bribes?
Having people brave enough to do what I did. It’s that simple. But they’re not because everybody makes money on the grift. I knew I had to pay these people off, these committee members. I knew I couldn’t do that same-sex wedding, and I will tell you if I didn’t do the same-sex wedding and I paid them off, I would be the Congressman today. I know that. I know how to play the game. But I have this tick that when I see bullies, or I see something that’s wrong and it’s in my own country, I have to fight it, even if I know I could lose. I made the decision not to pay the committees. I’m very proud of that decision. And people in certain areas of the Republican Party will say I’m a loser because I refused to play the game. I’m happy to take the moniker of somebody who died on the hill for equal rights for all. And if that’s where I end up in history, I’m okay with it.
Was it frustrating to see Bob Good win the seat?
Oh, yeah, it was frustrating, but not very surprising because it wasn’t a primary. If it was a primary, I would have won 70 to 30, 80 to 20. It was frustrating because he’s virtually an unemployed fundraiser. That’s it. He has really no skills. But he was perfect for them because he was desperate for a job. So he was willing to say or do anything, and to lie about me on a level that was pretty much unprecedented in Virginia politics. I could not overcome the same-sex wedding. Not with those convention-goers; I’m not talking about the population at large, I’m just talking about a very small subset of Republican voters. But they wanted that small subset to vote because that’s the only way they could beat me.
You’ve toyed with another independent run for governor following your 2017 campaign. What are your next steps after leaving Congress? And if you were to run for governor, what would that timeline look like?
If I were to run for governor, I’d announce in the next month or two. Right now with the opportunities I have in the counterterrorism world, it’s very difficult for me to want to run statewide right now. I have other opportunities to serve, but I don’t have to do anything. This isn’t my career field. And if people really want me to run or I get angry enough, I would again. I’m planning to go back into the things that I love, which is being an author, an analyst, looking at data to try to dissect some of these awful things that are happening in this country.
What’s the biggest threat to the country, and what do you think you can do to help?
China is our biggest hegemonic threat. But a huge threat within the United States is domestic terrorism based on belief in some of these conspiratorial systems. The danger that we have is we have public officials that are also pushing these theories. When you see things that are working on one fringe group being mimicked by another group, that’s really frightening. We have to watch whether the fringes of the parties start to replicate their processes and how they radicalize people.
You’ve been getting a lot of press recently for this book, for your QAnon legislation, and for speaking up against Stop the Steal. Is there anything you wish you would have been asked or haven’t had the chance to talk about?
People don’t ask why I released the book now. It’s been sitting ready for a few years. In my 2018 election, I was accused of being a Bigfoot erotica enthusiast. That was just a lie, a desperate measure by a candidate who thought she would lose, but since her daughter is Olivia Wilde they had a lot of Twitter followers to make it national. The press was just not fact-checking the story at all until The New York Times and Rolling Stone said this is sort of crap. Rolling Stone did a verbatim interview with me, and The New York Times was like “this is a little nuts for her to say.” By the way, if you Google Bigfoot erotica, I’m number one on Google Images. I’m famous. I was number one on Twitter. I think Pornhub had an 8000 percent increase in Bigfoot erotica searches after my story, so I think I’m owed some money, I should get some commission.
But I didn’t release it then because, as serious as the book was, I thought I would be seen as unserious while I was in Congress if I released this book. I would say that was a bad decision. I should have released it in 2018 as soon as that happened because I was a victim of the very disinformation that I’m fighting. But I didn’t want to look like I capitalized on that. But now I get to release it when we have something like QAnon, which I believe is dangerous, out there metastasizing internationally and nationally, and interestingly, my book about Bigfoot relates closely to QAnon.
If you released it in 2018, you would have lost the election for alienating all the Bigfoot voters.
That’s right, that’s the hidden majority. We don’t want to weaponize Bigfoot voters, that’s for sure. The book is starting to explode now. I think I’m up to, like number 2,000. This book isn’t just for fun. It gives you this little uneasy feeling.