The Trump-inspired mob who launched an unprecedented siege of the Capitol is a permanent stain on American democracy. What’s worse, it was not unexpected. The immediate cause of the violence was the “Save America” rally on the morning of January 6, where President Trump addressed a crowd of loyalists, vehemently denied losing the November 3, 2020 elections, and encouraged the crowd to march to the Capitol to prevent the certification of the vote by the Senate and House of Representatives. But the institutional, social, and organizational factors that led to the violent break-in, destruction, and insurrectionist acts have been developing for more than a decade.
The attack on the Capitol was the culmination of right-wing distrust of electoral systems, the spread of conspiracy theories concerning those systems and the government officials implementing them, the nascent presence of armed groups and their ties with leaders of the Republican Party, be it with the state level militias in Idaho or with cross-state organizations like the Oath Keepers, as well as the infiltration of law enforcement and security forces by right-wing extremists. Furthermore, as these organizations and their recruitment strategies have evolved, so have their strategies, shifting from a focus on self-defense to coordinated attempts to capture government institutions. The combination of these developments threatens America with the return of levels of political violence unseen since the antebellum period.
America’s national-level elections are conducted by state and local officials, leading to different rules for voter registration, election administration, and processing results in every state. Sometimes, these rules vary within jurisdictions – take the example of Pennsylvania, where different interpretations of state law requirements around absentee ballots led election officials in different counties to adopt different policies. These variations can contribute to partisan allegations of voter fraud and rigging, as well as legitimate concerns about the sanctity of the process. To find an example of such allegations prior to 2020, we need only look as far as Georgia in 2018, where then-Republican candidate for governor in Georgia Brian Kemp was simultaneously in charge of the state’s electoral process as the Secretary of State as well as a candidate in that same election. Although Democratic Party candidate Stacey Abrams acknowledged that Kemp received more votes than her, due to the uncertainty about how the voter rolls were updated and names purged from the voter list, accusations of voter fraud were levelled by Kemp and counteraccusations of voter suppression were made by Abrams.
For national-level elections, as I addressed in an earlier article in Just Security, these state-by-state variations can create opportunities for post-electoral violence by armed groups due to the different timings of the state certifications of national election results — from November 20 in Georgia to December 1 in Wisconsin — as well as the national certification of the results on January 6. The combination of these problems is the rise of conspiracy theories regarding irregular counting of ballots and voter fraud that political candidates, in this case President Trump himself, was able to leverage in order to incite loyalists into armed insurrection.
A large number of the insurrectionists believe in rightwing extremist conspiracy theories, particularly QAnon, which could be viewed as a further development of the Pizzagate conspiracy. Photos of the insurrectionists clearly include displays of QAnon paraphernalia, and ongoing investigations into the identities of the insurrectionists continue to reveal support among some of their members for QAnon and other rightwing extremist conspiracy theories. Reports suggest that the Air Force veteran who stormed the Capitol and was shot and killed by the Capitol Police was a QAnon adherent. However, these conspiracy theories have been increasing in frequency and intensity since 2016, when the Pizzagate conspiracy was propagated by social media platforms preferred by the Alt-Right, leading to a violent attack on a pizzeria. Reportedly the recent bombing in downtown Nashville, Tennessee was also carried out by a believer in far rightwing conspiracy theories, specifically that of lizard people who control politics, a conspiracy theory originally propagated by an anti-semite and which gained in popularity during the Obama administration. These conspiracy theories have had boosters who served in the highest echelons of the Trump administration, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and seemingly Trump himself who encouraged QAnon followers and suggested that he appreciated their support during a press conference this past spring.
Militias and Armed Groups
Noticeable among avid Trump supporters, especially the insurrectionists on January 6, were members of rightwing armed groups or militias like the Proud Boys, a violent white supremacist hate group. Yet the rise of these militias has been noted for years by scholars like Kathleen Belew who have analyzed their racial grievances and mythologies, modes of organizations, and how America’s stalemated involvement in two foreign wars increases their recruitment patterns. Colin P. Clarke has explained that the “Boogaloo Bois” social-media centric recruitment and organizational strategies have become increasingly sophisticated to both avoid detection by authorities and attract adherents. And I have noted in an earlier article for Just Security that grievances, weapons, organizational capacity, and weaknesses in local law enforcement can facilitate the rise of loosely connected rural insurgencies in America.
The most troubling aspect of these armed groups, however, is their increased integration with segments of the Republican Party, such as newly elected Congresswoman from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, which has led to an unpredictable militarization of American politics, as a recent piece in Foreign Affairs by Aila M. Matanock and Paul Staniland points out. They posit, based on evidence from countries across the world, that this militarization could lead to armed groups taking over the governance of certain areas, the fraying of the American government’s capacity to deliver public goods, and democratic backsliding via threats of violence against political opponents. Such subnational authoritarian local orders are not new in American politics. As Robert Mickey’s Paths Out of Dixie points out, alliances of local armed groups with the post-Reconstruction Democratic Party allowed subnational authoritarian enclaves to function well into the 1970s.
Military and Law Enforcement
As highlighted by the death of a female Air Force veteran, these armed groups have sympathizers within the military, especially active duty personnel who view the military as an avenue to acquire training. According to a Brennan Center report and as previously published on Just Security, similar situations prevail among local law enforcement organizations and have received little attention as well as remedial policies. The problem that such complicity presents is three-fold: first, it increases the skills of potential insurgents; second, it encourages violence by armed groups who expect impunity from sympathizers and members in the military and law enforcement; and, third, it leads to the unwillingness of state authorities to use law enforcement to counter and crush insurgencies.
Capturing Sites of State Authority
The goal of these armed groups and allied far right supporters has been to support candidates supportive of President Trump, but also to threaten, attack, and try to capture governmental sites and personnel, including elected officials. This is a major change from the one-off terror attack model exemplified by the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995 or the armed defense against law enforcement of (primarily rural) sites that these groups deemed autonomous zones, such as the events at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and the Waco siege of 1993.
The new goal was first apparent in Michigan in 2020 when, after a public demonstration against anti-pandemic laws and regulations, various local militias sought to capture the state legislature building. Yet another militia attempted to kidnap incumbent Governor Gretchen Whitmer. This strategy dramatically escalated in the events of January 6th when these militia groups and Trump loyalists attacked the national Capitol to stop the certification of the elections. There are now indications that militia members sought to take hostages during this week’s insurrection attempt. The attacks on sites of state authority were not just limited to the attack on the nation’s Capitol; on the same day, threats from alt-right armed protestors surrounding state Capitols in Georgia and in Utah forced state employees to evacuate.
The social forces that led to the insurrection attempt by Trump loyalists on January 6, 2021 was a mélange of social and institutional factors, ranging from conspiracy theory networks on social media, the rise of right-wing armed groups, and an electoral process so complex that it exacerbates tensions. The objectives that these members of the mob pursued, specifically the infiltration or occupation of spaces within the Capitol with the possible intention to taking legislators hostage, had been recently developed and practiced. The opportunities that these destructive insurrectionists, some armed, took advantage of were apparent earlier, specifically the hesitation of local law enforcement to crack down on them and the support they received from elements within the state and national-level Republican party, including Trump himself.
The solutions, therefore, cannot end with the departure of Trump and end of his administration. A major evaluation and overhaul of different aspects of the American political system is needed. These include new regulations for social media companies to de-platform certain groups and individuals. The expulsion of members of law enforcement and the military who have white supremacist sympathies, not to mention membership in such organizations. The creation of a uniform national-level electoral system or at least uniform rules that reduce uncertainty and conspiracies. Finally, entrenching norms and ethical rules that prevent the interaction and support of lawmakers at the state and national level with armed groups. Not doing so would mean setting America on a path of recurring insurrection attempts and possible democratic collapse either at the federal or state level.