These violent traitors were the same people who displayed that “Trump Pence” sign in their front yard—the one you saw every morning while walking the dog. They’re the same folks who you waved to last week as you steered into your driveway; the same ones whose kids sometimes play hockey down the street.
They’re the people with whom you work.
Because a number of the rioters prominently displayed symbols of right-wing militias, for instance, some experts called for a crackdown on such groups. Violence organized and carried out by far-right militant organizations is disturbing, but it at least falls into a category familiar to law enforcement and the general public. However, a closer look at the people suspected of taking part in the Capitol riot suggests a different and potentially far more dangerous problem: 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.
Pape and Ruby’s group, the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, has worked for over a decade to identify the demographic and social patterns of both foreign and domestic terrorists, examining employment and educational characteristics (among other factors) of those people known to ally or affiliate themselves with violent terrorist ideologies. Since Jan. 6, the Center has collected similar data on all of those thus far who have been arrested in connection with the Capitol riots, specifically those who were known to have broken into the Capitol building itself or to have deliberately broken through barriers to access the Capitol structure. They then compared the data collected on these insurrectionists with similar profile data of record through court filings, arrest records, and affidavits, as well as media data compiled for people arrested for right-wing violence over the past five years.
Their conclusions from the comparative analysis of that data confirm that the Jan. 6 insurrection was unmistakably an act of politically motivated violence and not a mere case of disorderly conduct and trespassing gone amok. “The overwhelming reason for action, cited again and again in court documents, was that arrestees were following Trump’s orders to keep Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the presidential-election winner,” they write. It is absolutely clear from this analysis that the insurrection was motivated by and carried out in furtherance of the desires of Donald Trump. In short, Donald Trump motivated and prompted the rioting.
Of more concern, however, is the emerging profile of the typical insurrectionist/extremist. Pape and Ruby found that 89% of those arrested had no affinity whatsoever with any organization known to promote violence. Compared to the data characterizing those who were previously arrested over the past five years, about half of those people could be described as having no such ties.
Further, the vast majority of the Capitol insurrectionists were rather gainfully employed, as “CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants.” The number of Capitol insurrectionists who were business owners was a striking 40%; their age skewed considerably higher than previously arrested right-wing terrorists in the U.S.
Nor was the mob that swarmed into the Capitol limited to those geographic areas one would associate with “Trump Country.” Most were from the nation’s more Democratic-leaning counties, for example, and at least one-third came from “deep blue” metropolitan areas. Although such areas underrepresented Trump voters as a matter of sheer percentage, they still contained large numbers of them. There was no regional component to speak of: These newly emerged, violence-prone Trump devotees are found within the midst of all Democratic areas.
The authors allow for the fact that their subjects’ prior affiliations with right-wing extremist groups may run deeper and further back than can currently be assessed. However, in light of the nearly constant barrage of misinformation that emanated from the Trump administration and its right-wing media enablers since the election (and before it), their findings strongly suggest that a new and far-ranging segment of radicalized potential domestic terrorists has germinated throughout the country as a result of Trump and those same enablers.
What’s clear is that the Capitol riot revealed a new force in American politics—not merely a mix of right-wing organizations, but a broader mass political movement that has violence at its core and draws strength even from places where Trump supporters are in the minority. Preventing further violence from this movement will require a deeper understanding of its activities and participants, and the two of us do not claim to know which political tactics might ultimately prove helpful. But Americans who believe in democratic norms should be wary of pat solutions. Some of the standard methods of countering violent extremism—such as promoting employment or waiting patiently for participants to mellow with age—probably won’t mollify middle-aged, middle-class insurrectionists. And simply targeting better-established far-right organizations will not prevent people like the Capitol rioters from trying to exercise power by force.
What seems obvious but is left unexplored by Pape and Ruby is the key role that the internet and social media have played in creating and motivating this subculture of angry, misinformed, and potentially violent “ordinary” citizens. They also do not address how the insularity of news and carefully tailored information now totally informs such people’s belief systems. Pape and Ruby also dare not venture to suggest how this dangerous trajectory can be changed or reversed. What’s clear, however, is that as long as the means and motive to spread such disinformation exists, there will be a willing, wide-ranging audience of Americans to absorb it, all “standing by” and ready to act accordingly.