On Wednesday, supporters of President Trump mounted a violent insurrection against the US Capitol and the legitimate election of Joe Biden. The mob overpowered security barricades, livestreamed their invasion of the Senate floor, and took selfies with police officers inside. They tore signs from 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. Though the major platforms have cracked down on seditious rhetoric, even locking Trump’s accounts after he continued to praise the insurgents online, social media is awash with their digital souvenirs today.
For many Americans, Wednesday’s riot came as a surprise. Photos of shirtless men dressed as Vikings taking the Senate dais and international leaders making cracks about the fragility of US democracy do make for an odd Twitter feed. But researchers who study far-right movements have been expecting—and warning—of the likelihood of violence around either the Electoral College vote or the upcoming inauguration since Biden’s victory, especially since Trump and right-wing media outlets have been stoking baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud for weeks.
Wednesday’s riot appears to be part of a global trend that has been escalating for a year: right-wing extremists attacking political targets like parliament buildings, state capitols, and governors’ and judges’ residences 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. It led to a strengthening of the white supremacist side, which targeted minority ethic groups,” says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist at American University who studies radicalization. “What we’re seeing now is a swing back toward anti-government extremism, and it’s creating odd coalitions.” The Capitol insurgents weren’t just die-hard Trump supporters, they were an amalgam of anti-government militia, white supremacists, anti-maskers, and QAnon devotees. Now that they’re all working together, they could form stronger alliances.
So even now, after the riot has been quelled and President Trump has pledged a peaceful transition of power, experts remain concerned. “The threat of [a coup] isn’t my fear,” says Shannon Reid, who researches street gangs and white power at UNC Charlotte. “My fear is that this moment will die down and everyone will think we’re OK. Really this [riot] was a recruitment tool, a part of a mythology that is going to grow.”
At least online, there is no sign of shame or remorse. At most, squeamish MAGA fans are saying that the insurgents must have been antifascists in disguise. Participants are defiant, and doubling down on their claims that the presidency has been stolen from Trump and that their sedition was patriotism. The four people who died storming the Capitol, particularly the woman who was shot by law enforcement, have become martyrs. “The hardened neo-Nazis on Telegram are over the moon that this all happened,” says Megan Squire, a computer scientist studying online extremism at Elon University. “They feel like it’s going to radicalize millions of boomer-tier people. They’re kind of scolding the boomers: ‘You tried to work through the system, but now you’re radicalized along with us.’”
See, while it’s highly unlikely to usher in an ethno-state the way the Telegram white supremacists hope, Wednesday’s riot does make a better recruiting tool than previous far-right insurgencies like the standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge. First, it wasn’t 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 cobble together a victorious narrative as defeated far-right mobs have in the past. “You can write your own narrative online,” Reid says. With the open embrace of conspiracy theories and widespread distrust of mainstream media, conditions are perfect for the influencers among the mob to supply a counter-mythology and be believed. Reid estimates that the results of that heightened recruitment might come to bear in about five years, and it could look like increased street-level far-right agitation and disruption of local governance.