Who Are Trump’s Committed Insurrectionists?

Like many people who have an eye on the rise of the radical right, Stephen Marche was not surprised by the violent effort of enraged Donald Trump supporters who sought to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election on January 6, 2021. And he won’t be surprised if something like it happens again.

“It was pretty clear and didn’t surprise me, even modestly,” says Marche, author of The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, in an interview with The Progressive. “As someone else has noted, January 6 was like the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center bombing, it’s a premonition of what’s going to come—it’s not the event itself.”

“Storming the U.S. Capitol was an act of collective political violence, inspired by a leader, President Trump, and not merely vandalism or trespassing for other purposes.”

Michael Jensen, Ph.D., a senior researcher at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), shares Marche’s concern. He tells The Progressive, “What we are seeing pre-dates January 6. It’s been developing over the last couple of decades and involves the mainstreaming of radical political opinion—deeply divisive and polarizing rhetoric—around issues like race, immigration, public health, you name it.”

Jensen worries that “as a leadup to the midterms, a large number of candidates running for office on the Republican side are individuals who have promoted disinformation around the election of 2020. At this point, we have at least forty candidates who have promoted the QAnon conspiracy.” He warns that “some of these individuals will win seats and have influence in Congress.”

Two social scientists, Robert Pape and Keven Ruby, of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST), warn that the January 6 assault on the Capitol represented “a new kind of violent mass movement in which more ‘normal’ Trump supporters—middle-class and, in many cases, middle-aged people without obvious ties to the far right—joined with extremists in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.”

As of mid-December 2021, 727 people were charged for their actions in the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol. Who are these people? Why did they do what they did? Do they represent “a new kind of violent mass movement”? And, if so, what does this movement foreshadow for the nation’s political future?

Understanding American Domestic Terrorism,” published in April 2021, is an invaluable report by Pape and his associates at CPOST. It offers a revealing portrait of those arrested and their supporters—who the report identifies as “committed insurrectionists.”

The CPOST report synthesizes three separate studies: The first contains demographics and other data of 377 individuals arrested or charged for January 6 assault. The second is a 1,000-person nationally representative survey to understand national scope and drivers of the insurrectionist movement. And the third is a 1,000-person survey of U.S. conservatives regarding the scope of and drivers behind the insurrectionist movement. 

Most disturbing, as Pape has reflected, was that “nine percent of American adults, which equates to twenty-three million people, believed that force was justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. Within that nine percent over half—that is, five percent of all American adults—strongly agreed that force was justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. That’s 12 million American adults . . . much larger than any of us would have thought before this poll.” 

The study found that the 377 arrested on January 6 were defined by the following characteristics:

  • Their median age was approximately forty-two, compared to traditional activists who tended to be in their twenties and early-thirties.
  • Almost a third had a white-collar job and 14 percent owned their own business. Only 7 percent were unemployed.
  • By and large, nearly 90 percent of participants were not affiliated with rightwing extremist groups such as the Proud Boys (twenty-five arrested), Oath Keepers (thirteen arrested), the Three Percenters (six arrested), or Aryan Nation (one arrested).
  • The majority of participants (52 percent) came from counties won by Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

In follow-up polls, Pape added two additional features to the profile:

  • For every one-point drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25 percent. 
  • Almost two-thirds of respondents agreed that “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.” 

The CPOST study found the underlying rationale for the insurrectionist action was based on two fundamental beliefs. First, “all three studies find statistically significant evidence that the ‘Great Replacement’—the idea that minorities will have more rights than whites—is a key driver.” The second most important driver, he found, “was a QAnon belief, where 53 percent of the 21 million believed that our government is run and controlled by a satanic cult of pedophiles.”

The report concludes, most ominously: “Storming the U.S. Capitol was an act of collective political violence, inspired by a leader, President Trump, and not merely vandalism or trespassing for other purposes.”

The CPOST study offers disturbing insights into the growing far-right movement that is redefining the U.S. political landscape. New information makes clear that the effort to block President Joe Biden’s election involved more than the insurrectionists. 

Trump and his inner-circle clearing may have orchestrated the campaign, but the attack also had a supporting infrastructure that included Republican Congress-people, an operational team (e.g., Stephan Bannon) and big-money interests.  

Spurred on by a failed presidential re-election bid, the movement grew out of decades of organizing by white nationalists and others.

“What I expected or anticipated is what we’ve seen since January 6—which is local organizing and mobilizing,” Jensen says. “In the year since January 6, individuals have still mobilized over the disinformation that led to the riot at the Capitol, but they have done it in their own communities.”

One manifestation of this, Jensen says, are “individuals showing up at local board meetings and harassing people or threatening local election officials. You see this not only among lone, isolated actors but among extremist groups as well. For example, the Proud Boys have shifted from a national focus to a local focus, and they are showing up at local town council meetings, school board meetings, threatening and intimidating people.”

Going further, Jensen notes that “the really unfortunate thing since January 6 is that the hope that an event like that would serve as a wake-up call—that political leadership would see an event like that and realize the danger of polarizing, radicalizing rhetoric and would tone it down and seek to correct the misinformation that was rampant at the time—has been dashed.” 

Rather, he says, “we’ve actually in many ways seen the opposite. And now we have disinformation piling up on top of that about what January 6 was or wasn’t.”  

The U.S. begins the new year overwhelmed by a global pandemic, struggling through a recession, witness to endless invocations of a new Cold War and powerless in the face of an ever-deepening environmental crisis.  It’s no wonder that, for many, the Trump insurgency seems but just another wave in an increasingly turbulent sea.  

Meanwhile, Biden’s popularity is sinking, the Democrats can’t pass economic stimulation legislature let alone safeguard the electoral process, and the Congressional investigation of the January 6 “insurrection” is being mocked by ardent Trump supporters who plan to use the legal system to drag-out their cases until Republicans can regain control of Congress and shut it down.

As the CPOST study demonstrates, the events of January 6 reflect much of the rightwing terrorist violence that has been building since the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, including the foiled 2020 plot to kidnap and perhaps kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. 

More troubling, it shows how widespread the belief in the “Great Replacement” is spreading throughout the nation and inflaming mass passions that, sadly, could lead to a still more troubling political crisis in the months and years ahead.