Today
Tue 25 January 2022

CJ Werleman unpicks the insights from a new report into who took part in the attempted insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 and what this tells us about the growing pro-Trump far-right movement in America

On the one-year anniversary of the violent attack on the US Capitol by pro-Donald Trump insurrectionists, who tried but failed to overthrow the US Government and overturn the result of the 2020 US Presidential Election, Americans awoke to a new, startling political reality: that the insurrectionist movement has moved from the political fringes to the mainstream.

Led by renowned terrorism scholar Dr Robert Pape, the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats has published survey data showing that an estimated 21 million Americans hold two radical beliefs today: that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president; and that the use of violence to restore Donald Trump to the presidency is justified.

“These 21 million Americans are active and dangerous; an estimated two million of them have attended a protest in the past 12 months, four million have prior military service, and eight million own guns,” observes Dr Pape, who likens the insurrectionist movement to a “stockpile of combustible material” that can be set off by a spark – namely the highly volatile 2022 mid-term elections.

Also concerning is the way in which “ingredients” are in place for the acceleration and growth of the movement, including a leader (Trump) with demonstrated support for unlawful activity; grievances perceived by large masses of people, with polls showing that 68% of Republican Party voters still believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump; and a deadly focal point event – the 6 January storming of the US Capitol, which left five people dead.

“It’s also vital to understand who we are dealing with in the new movement,” says Dr Pape.

But, contrary to cartoonish illustrations of pro-Trump supporters or the comically named ‘Make America Great Again’ movement, the economic profile of the 716 people arrested or charged over the 6 January attack is representative of mainstream America – with more than half of them employed in white collar occupations, including CEOs, architects, lawyers, doctors, accountants and business owners.

“Only 7% were unemployed at the time, almost the national average, compared with the usual 25% or more of violent right-wing perpetrators arrested by the FBI and other US law enforcement from 2015 to mid-2020,” note the authors of the report, who illustrated the media’s mischaracterisation of the insurrectionist movement by pointing to an article published by The Atlantic on 10 January 2021.

The article stated: “Here they were, a coalition of the willing: deadbeat dads, YouPorn enthusiasts, slow students, and MMA fans. They had heard the rebel yell, packed up their Confederate flags and Trump banners, and GPS-ed their way to Washington. After a few wrong turns, they had pulled into the swamp with bellies full of beer and Sausage McMuffins, maybe a little high on Adderall, ready to get it done.”

In reality, however, the insurrectionists were not only older and better educated than your typical right-wing extremist, but also far less likely to have a criminal record and far less inclined to associate with militia groups, such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, and white nationalist groups, such as the Patriot Front and American Freedom Party.

Interestingly, while a clear majority of those arrested or charged over the 6 January insurrection hail from Republican-controlled states, more than half reside in counties won by Joe Biden. But the “key characteristic” – and for me this is the most telling finding of all – is that they are from counties where the white share of the population is declining fastest.

In other words, the insurrectionist movement appears to be driven by a white, racist backlash against the so-called ‘browning’ of America, and not economic grievances, as commentators on the right have long argued.

“Our national survey shows that the no. 1 belief among insurrectionists – shared by fully 75% of respondents – is the ‘Great Replacement’ of the electorate by the Democratic Party, and that this idea is also the most important separator of people in the 21 million from the general population, where the theory doesn’t hold much sway,” says Dr Pape.

The ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, which originated with far-right French writer Renaud Camus, baselessly posits that a secret Jewish cabal is behind a systematic plot to replace the white Christian population with non-European, non-white immigrants, particularly Muslims. It was a source of radicalisation for the Norwegian mass shooter Anders Behring Breivik; and the right-wing terrorist who murdered 52 Muslims at a pair of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019.

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The conspiracy theory has since become a part of mainstream political discourse on the right, with everyone from Tucker Carlson in the US to Katie Hopkins in the UK echoing bogus claims that left-wing political parties are enacting immigration policies meant to deliberately ‘replace’ the majority white population with racial minorities.

Dr Pape says that the University of Chicago’s survey data identifies the right-wing media ecosystem as a radicalising force, given that Fox News, Newsmax and One America were identified as the primary news media source for 42% of the insurrectionists, with a further 10% getting their political information mostly from right-wing social media platforms, such as Gab and Telegram.

“It’s crucial that political leaders grasp this new empirical reality and that aspiring leaders weigh in on it,” he observes. “Citizens and journalists should ask every candidate running for office a simple question: ‘some people are saying that the use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency – what are your thoughts on that?’”

Understanding what drives the insurrectionist movement is the first step to producing tools to counter it and the growing far-right movement writ large. Let’s hope our political readers read this report. 

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