Mob v. Crowd: the Mass Psychology of Madness

Photograph Source: Tyler Merbler – CC BY 2.0

Mobs are unruly. They usually don’t have leaders and leadership. Crowds, on the other hand, are disciplined. They have spokesmen and women, structure and discipline  Those aren’t iron clad definitions, but they provide a useful framework to talk about the upheaval that took place at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. As more and more information surfaces, it becomes clearer and clearer that a crowd, not a mob, attacked what is called “The People’s House.” A crowd is more dangerous than a mob.

The January 6 demonstrators had and still have a leader—Donald Trump. They had a directive from him that didn’t spell out everything in detail, but that provided a framework for protesters to use their imaginations and to get creative. “Be there, will be wild!” Mr. Trump wrote. He seems to have wanted to have a riot and eat it, too: incite and cover his own ass.  After all, he retreated to the White House after he made his inflammatory remarks.

Mobs have often been described as “wild.” They are linked in popular culture to “the wild Irish” and to “wild Indians,” two phrases used by British colonizers who invaded and occupied other lands and sought to “civilize” the inhabitants, and exterminate them, too.

Not all crowds are created equal and not all have the same or even similar goals. Some, like those who affiliated with MLK and civil rights activists, have been motivated by a dream. Others, like Enrique Tarrio and members of the Far Right are motivated by their own worst nightmares: a nation in which whites are a minority. The crowds that coalesed after George Floyd’s murder were mostly peaceful and loving while the crowds that broke into the Capitol spewed hatred. They were motivated by lies, misinformation and disinformation. In their actions, one saw evidence of the mass psychology of mad conspirators who spread the contagion of irrationality.

The demonstrators at the Capitol were well prepared, well organized, and disciplined, according to Steven Sund, the chief of police for the capitol and others in law enforcement. They rehearsed before they reached the Capitol and they were well-funded by nonprofits like the Rule of Law Defense Fund, and by individual conservatives. Also, many of them had a wealth of experience in organizations and groups like the Tea Party, QAnon and the Proud Boys.

The insurgents knew what they were doing and they were proud of doing it. Now, some of the conservatives who lit the fuses  are shouting “shame, shame” and denouncing the mob action. For years they have been openly stoking defiance of the Law they claim to unhold.

Language makes a difference. It makes a difference when we talk about and try to understand what happened and why on January 6.

It was George Rudé who first made me aware of the nomenclature for protests by citizens who have taken to the streets. The author of The Crowd in History (1964) and The Crowd in the French Revolution, (1967) Rudé was a Marxist and a member of the British Communist Party who emphasized the role that so-called ordinary people have played in shaping societies and political upheavals.

The Parisians who stormed the Bastille, Rudé explained, did so not simply because it was a symbol of tyranny and oppression, but because weapons were stormed there. They would come in handy in an armed confrontation.

I met George in New York one summer when he was teaching at Columbia. I made dinner for him, his wife Doreen and a bunch of my friends who were studying history and making it, too. I remember listening to George talk about “violence” in political demonstrations, riots and upheavals. “Look at the casualties on both sides,” he said. “They are usually not policemen, but people from the ghetto who are shot, wounded and killed by men in blue.” That was eye opening. Ninety-eight “attackers” and one “defender” died in the July 1789 battle for the Bastille. In Detroit in 1967, 33 African-American residents of the city died, along with 10 whites. One officer was shot by a looter while struggling with a group of looters, and one National Guardsman was shot by fellow Guardsmen while caught in a crossfire.

If we use the word “crowd” to describe the men and women who congregated at and stormed the capitol we know what we’re up against. To call them a ‘mob” doesn’t sufficiently recognize their ability to “case the joint,” make detailed scenarios and carry them out. Calling them members of a (well-healed, well-off) crowd doesn’t elevate their cause, their racism, misogyny and their longing for dictators and dictatorship. It identifies them as a powerful force who have already altered the course of history and will try to do so again. The fact that the inauguration has had to take place in a city protected by men with guns seems to prove the right wing point that we live in a police state.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.