With former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial now over, much of the world is ready to move on from the violent insurrection at the Capitol to COVID vaccine distribution, another economic relief package, and the doings of the new Biden administration. But those responsible for tracking, understanding and defeating far-right violent extremists will be thinking about the Jan. 6 attack for decades to come.
To understand why, it’s important to recognize the scope of the threat posed by the various far-right radical groups in the United States. For a variety of reasons, the government doesn’t have good data on the numbers of violent extremists. Cynthia Miller Idriss, an academic expert on radicalization and extremism in the United States, offers a range in her book, “Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.”
“The best estimate – looking across all groups and organizations – is that there are currently 75,000 to 100,000 people affiliated with white supremacist extremist groups in the United States, not including individuals who engage occasionally from the peripheries of far-right scenes or who are ideologically supportive but engaged either online or offline,” she writes.
A threat intensified by Jan. 6
These numbers do not necessarily account for other types of violent extremists, such as militia groups, so the total count is likely higher. And due to both the pandemic and the disinformation about the election there are increasing numbers of what extremism experts call “vulnerable individuals” who could be radicalized. A recent poll found that 78% of Trump voters thought the election was stolen. That translates to about 57 million Americans. Even if only one half of 1% of them mobilize to violence, that still presents the threat of 240,000 possible domestic terrorists — far beyond law enforcement’s capacity to address.
Of course, sheer numbers aren’t enough to create a violent extremist movement. But that’s why the events of Jan. 6 will have such long-lasting repercussions. The physical, in-person, emotionally charged experience is likely to form strong bonds among the Capitol attackers — people who were otherwise unlikely to connect and less likely to meet in person.
It didn’t start Jan. 6. Six years of Trump’s tweets, rallies, and cozying up to extremists helped groups that had not engaged with one another or even been antagonistic to one another unify around shared grievance and common enemies: the “left”, the establishment, the deep state, and the mainstream media.
Whatever natural barriers to coordination remained at the end of Trump’s tenure, he resolved in his final stand. He chose the date and the place: Jan. 6, first outside the White House and then, on his instructions, to the Capitol. And he chose the agenda, telling the crowd: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness.”
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In addition to the many unaffiliated Trump supporters who gathered on the Mall that day, there were also Neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Groyepers, and independent QAnon adherents. Absent the former president’s literal invitation, these groups might never have intermingled, much less fought Capitol Police shoulder-to-shoulder in a violent clash.
Jan. 6 is a recruitment opportunity
Jan. 6 also provided far-right extremists with a major recruitment opportunity. A report by the SITE Intelligence Group observed that some of the techniques Neo-Nazis are using to recruit disheartened QAnon adherents are “notable for the confluence of far-right concepts and slogans, tied together with more mainstream conservative ideas in an effort to make them palatable to a broader audience.”
SITE also reported that posts on channels associated with both Neo-Nazis and the Proud Boys offered instructions on how to groom potential new members. Some gave guidance to not “haze” them but be a “shepherd” and “let them know there is an alternative to what the Beast System offered them.” Others in the groups advised a more direct approach — encouraging Trump supporters to “Abandon the GOP” and “embrace the ultranationalist 3rd position,” i.e. fascism.
None of this is to say that Trump or the events of Jan. 6 created the threat from domestic far-right extremists. This hateful subculture has much deeper roots in American history. For too long, analysts have described domestic terrorists as “lone wolves,” but if there is such a thing, the term is misapplied. Wolves are pack animals.
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Just as ISIS encouraged its adherents to commit acts of violence where they lived and with whatever weapon they could find, as when an ISIS supporter killed eight and injured 11 with a rented truck in downtown Manhattan in 2017, so too, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church, the Tree of Life attack and the El Paso shooting (just to name a few) were all motivated and inspired by an interconnected, decentralized, but enduring and dangerous movement.
Now, thanks to the former president and the events of Jan. 6 that he helped incite, that movement is better connected, more influential, and closer to the political mainstream than ever before. It’s going to take decades to undo the damage.
Elizabeth Neumann (@NeuSummits), co-director of the Republican Accountability Project, served as Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Counterterrorism and Threat Reduction in the Trump administration.