Wednesday, the supporters President Trump staged a violent insurgency against the U.S. Capitol and the legitimate election of Joe Biden. The crowd overpowered the security barricades, broadcast live their invasion of the Senate floor, and took selfies with policemen inside. They tore up signs on the walls of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, erected a gallows outside the Capitol building, and forced lawmakers and staff to evacuate before the DC National Guard was deployed to disperse them. Although the major platforms have cracked down on seditious rhetoric, even locking Trump accounts after continuing to praise insurgents online, social media is teeming with their digital memories today.
For many Americans, Wednesday’s riot came as a surprise. Photos of shirtless men dressed as Vikings taking the Senate dais and of international leaders making cracks over the fragility of American democracy form a strange Twitter thread. But researchers who study far-right movements expect – and warn – the likelihood of violence around the Electoral College vote or the next inauguration since Biden’s victory, especially since Trump and the media right-wingers fuel baseless conspiracy theories of electoral fraud for weeks on end.
Wednesday’s riot appears to be part of a global trend that has been escalating for a year: right-wing extremists attacking political targets such as parliament buildings, state capitals and the residences of governors and judges in instead of civilian ones like synagogues and mosques. “After the Oklahoma City bombing, there was a fragmentation of the anti-government part of the far-right spectrum. This led to a strengthening of the white supremacist side, which targeted ethnic minority groups, ”explains Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist at the American University who studies radicalization. “What we are seeing now is a return to anti-government extremism, and it is creating strange coalitions.” The insurgents on Capitol Hill weren’t just staunch Trump supporters, they were an amalgamation of anti-government militias, white supremacists, anti-masks, and QAnon devotees. Now that they are all working together, they could form stronger alliances.
So even now, after the riot has been quelled and President Trump pledged to a peaceful transition of power, experts remain concerned. “The threat of [a coup] it’s not my fear, ”says Shannon Reid, who studies street gangs and white power at UNC Charlotte. “I’m afraid this moment will end and everyone will think we’re fine. Really that [riot] was a recruiting tool, part of a growing mythology.
At least online, there is no sign of shame or remorse. At most, disgusted MAGA fans say the insurgents must have been anti-fascists in disguise. Participants are defiant and double down on their claims that the presidency was stolen from Trump and that their sedition was patriotism. The four people who died taking the Capitol, in particular the woman who was shot dead by the police, became martyrs. “The hardened neo-Nazis at Telegram are thrilled that this has all happened,” says Megan Squire, a computer scientist who studies online extremism at Elon University. “They have the impression that this will radicalize millions of people in the boomer category. They’re kind of scolding the baby boomers: “You tried to work with the system, but now you’re radicalized with us.”
You see, while it is highly unlikely to usher in an ethno-state as the Telegram’s white supremacists hope, Wednesday’s riot is a better recruiting tool than previous far-right insurgencies like the deadlocks at Waco and Ruby Ridge. First, it was not fomented by a niche concern, and it was encouraged (implicitly and otherwise) by the President, his allies, and Republican lawmakers. Second, the insurgents won’t have to work nearly as hard to concoct a victorious narrative as the defeated far-right mobs have done in the past. “You can write your own story online,” says Reid. With the open adoption of conspiracy theories and widespread distrust of mainstream media, the conditions are perfect for influencers among the crowd to provide counter-mythology and be believed. Reid believes that the results of this increased recruitment could manifest in about five years, and that it could look like an increase in far-right unrest at street level and a disruption of local governance.