The Inspired Terrorists Who Invaded the Capitol Were Your Neighbors!

Photograph Source: Tyler Merbler from USA – CC BY 2.0

The major networks and cable news channels largely ignored research findings showing who the people that were “incited” to invade the Capitol. Instead, they focused on those who had “planned” the violent break-in. While the FBI considers both groups to be domestic terrorists, research shows the “incited” people may be your neighbors.

Instead of describing the makeup of the rioters who broke into the Capitol, both the liberal and conservative TV media covered the event by asking who was responsible for organizing the attack and for not properly preparing for it.

The liberal stations tended to focus on the more clearly identified militant terrorist groups, like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers as the on-site leaders. After vehemently criticizing the siege of the Capitol, the conservative commentators managed to accuse the Democrats, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for failing to protect the Capitol from the Trump rioters. They made little mention of the various right-wing militant groups that were in front of the mob.

Before reviewing several studies that identify who the insurrectionists were, it’s essential to realize the level of danger to our democracy that January 6 presents in the long term. FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 2, provides a needed perspective on that danger. Wray was appointed by President Trump and is a registered Republican. He is no liberal.

He said that the FBI considered the behavior of those who illegally entered the Capitol to disrupt Congress as criminal activity and viewed their actions as “domestic terrorism.” He told the Senate committee that their actions were “on the same level with ISIS and homegrown violent extremists.”

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas asked Wray: How about the dangers also from foreign-influenced terrorists? Wray explained the two groups “have a lot in common with each other.” He labeled those that are not foreign jihadist-inspired are domestic violent extremists who are inspired by domestic sources.

Wray did refute Trump and some Republican senators’ notion that the rioters were leftist-terrorists or were disguised as Trump supporters. The FBI had not seen “any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to Antifa in connection with the 6th,” he said. And he added, there was no evidence that there were “fake Trump supporters” in those that stormed the Capitol.

After dispatching those myths, Wray presented a more nuanced depiction of the thousands who participated in the march to the Capitol and invading the building. He said, “there are sort of three groups of people involved.” The largest group were “peaceful, maybe rowdy protestors, but who weren’t violating the law.” They had received minimal attention from the liberal press.

The second group “may have come intending just to be part of peaceful protest, but either swept up in the motives or emotion or whatever, engaged in kind of low-level criminal behavior. Trespassed, say on the Capitol grounds, but not breaching the building.” He viewed them as taking the opportunity to engage in criminal conduct but were not violent. Their activity would still be addressed, but he was in no hurry to do so.

He said the third group is the smallest numerically. They were the people who breached the Capitol grounds and engaged in violence against law enforcement in an attempt to stop Congress from conducting their constitutional responsibilities. Some came with plans to engage in violence that the FBI considers domestic terrorism; others were “inspired” to attack the Capitol and had didn’t have membership in an organization.

I believe the third group should be seen as two clusters. One cluster consists of “strategic terrorists” who were the ones who came with a plan to DC. The second cluster would become “inspired terrorists,” who may not have planned what they would do once they arrived in DC like those in the second group. But like 70% of Republicans, they firmly believed that Trump had won the election.

President Trump addressed this cluster of supporters while Congress was in the middle of confirming Biden as president, telling them that the election is about to be stolen. His invited speakers told the crowd it’s time to fight. Aren’t these the conditions for inspiring those listening to stop, at any cost, what they saw as an illegal transfer of power?

Two important studies have been recently released that take a closer look at the insurrectionists’ makeup, and one looks closely at who makes up the MAGA Movement. Together they point to something that the TV commentators didn’t dwell on; there is a growing domestic anti-democracy movement. Before addressing how pro-democracy proponents should respond, it is best to understand what the studies reveal.

A study by Robert Pape, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago, and Keven Ruby, Senior research associate of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, supports the view that average citizens acted as inspired terrorists. The Chicago study found that more than half of the arrested Capitol rioters came from President Joe Biden’s counties in the 2020 presidential election. And Biden won the fewest total counties – of any president-elect. “Most people thought right after the insurrection that these insurrectionists are coming from the reddest parts of America. That’s just not the case,” Pape said.

In February, the Chicago study analyzed 193 people charged with being inside the Capitol building or breaking through barriers to enter the Capitol grounds. However, keep in mind that there were roughly 800 people who entered the Capitol, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has opened more than 400 case files and 500 grand jury subpoenas. There may be many more inspired terrorists to be charged.

The researchers in reviewing court documents described the majority of those investigated as “normal Trump supporters—middle-class and, in many cases, middle-aged people without obvious ties to the far right.” They joined extremists to form a violent mob “in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.”

Meanwhile, those charged who had some connection to gangs, militias, or militia-like groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters made up only one-tenth of the Capitol arrestees the researchers studied. The rest of the arrestees had no connection or previously expressed support for those groups. Overall, some 85% of the Capitol rioters who were studied were employed, and about 40% were business owners or held white-collar jobs.

In early March, a research report was released as the Preliminary Assessment of the Capitol Hill Siege Participants by the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University. Its findings were similar to the Chicago Project’s, although they reviewed more court records of people charged in federal courts for their involvement. The broad demographics of the 257 investigated revealed that their ages averaged in the forties. There were 221 men, 86%, 36 women, 14%, and they came from 40 states, 91% coming from outside the DC metro area. And 33 had military backgrounds.

This study divided those charged into three categories. The smallest (12.8%) represented the apex of organizational planning by domestic violent extremist groups for and on January 6They fall into the category of “militant networks.”

The next largest category (33%) consists of “organized clusters,” which are small, close-knit groups of individuals who allegedly participated in the siege together. They were comprised of family members, friends, and acquaintances. The study found that they were “Inspired by ideological fervor,” and that they “lacked top-down direction from a domestic violent extremist organization but jointly coordinated their travel to DC in groups of like-minded believers.”

The largest category (55%) are the “inspired believers” who were “neither participants in an established violent extremist group nor connected to any of the other individuals who are alleged to have stormed the Capitol.” Nevertheless, they did participate in the siege of the Capitol and were criminally charged. They were “inspired by a range of extremist narratives, conspiracy theories, and personal motivations.” They would belong to Wray’s smallest group and would be the same as the inspired terrorist cluster that I described. They would also be what the Chicago study found to be middle-class normal Trump supporters.

The Panel Study Of The MAGA Movement, conducted by Christopher Sebastian Parker, Professor, University of Washington, and Rachel M. Blum, Assistant Professor, University of Oklahoma, is a more extensive, in-depth completed survey of 1,981 MAGA supporters. The survey was conducted just before and right after January 6. It was designed to assess the attitudes and behavior of the people who consider themselves part of the “Make America Great Again” movement.

Details on data collection and sampling methods are provided here. In brief, their findings are aligned with those of the other two studies.  The MAGA movement’s demographic composition is overwhelmingly white, male, Christian, retired, and over 65 years of age.

The survey showed that MAGA supporters are attracted to groups that include gun rights, charities, pro-police, anti-lockdown, pro-life, and “stop the steal.” They’re extremely politically active, all support the Republican Party. However, only about 60 percent are solid Republicans; the rest either “lean” Republican or Independent. The vast majority blamed Antifa for the Capitol Riots, not Trump. Parker and Blum concluded that the MAGA movement is a clear and present danger to American democracy.

When a democratic government loses the middle class’s trust by believing in conspiracy theories that popular and legitimate government leaders profess, we see normal folks supporting radical anti-democracy solutions. The demographics of those that tried to overthrow Congress’s functions on January 6 reflect the same significant portion of the German population that abandoned its Weimar Republic and the Social Democrat Party, which had been Germany’s largest party.

The pro-business middle class and small business owners repeatedly voted for putting Germany’s National Socialist Party into power in the 1930s. Similarly, that same population has been a strong Republican constituency. In Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany 1933-1939, David Schoenbaum notes that the entrepreneurial middle classes were the Nazis’ leading political clientele as the Nazis’ railed against the government and big business.

A large radicalized anti-democracy movement’s potential is likely to remain even if Trump diminishes his control over the Republican Party. However, the actual number of politically active people in that movement may still be relatively small. For instance, the best estimate of the total number attending the multiple Trump rallies and marches is between three-thousand and ten-thousand, according to Stephen Doig, a data journalist and journalism professor at Arizona State University.

The 2017 Women’s March (440,000 people) and the 2018 March for Our Lives demonstration (200,000 people) were massively larger. If the size of a rally or a march matters, many more citizens are willing to demonstrate their support for the democratic process than attack its legitimacy. With the FBI recording an increase in domestic terrorism, is there a growing trend to attack its legitimacy?

FBI Director Wray said that while some of the Capitol riot defendants have apparent affiliations with white-supremacist ideology, many defendants appear to have been motivated by anti-government ideologies. Within the MAGA Movement, an anti-government philosophy is pursued through a network of people and organizations associated with the Trump campaign. One example being Rebecca Mercer – who founded Parler; which is a major site for posting far-right content, antisemitism and conspiracy theories, like QAnon.

What percent of the millions in the MAGA movement might be inspired to repeat the January 6 attack on the Capitol if they had a leader they trusted, like Trump. Short of that, they could continue to support voter suppression measures that narrow the voting poll to mostly white voters. This would erode democracy to the point of being a mere façade of what it proposes to be. As the Chicago study said, “Targeting pre-2021 far-right organizations alone will not solve the problem.” We have to reach those who are potentially inspired terrorists.

Congress needs to pass legislation to reverse our media’s increased monopolization, including social media, so they are not used as weapons against our democratic governance. And there must be greater outreach to our youth and all citizens in understanding how citizenship works in a democratic society to protect everyone’s interests.

In future pieces, I will discuss how these two objectives are currently being addressed and what further steps to take to make them useful and lasting.

Nick Licata is author of Becoming A Citizen Activist, and has served 5 terms on the Seattle City Council, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials.