Culture

Wednesday’s riot in Washington was the result of conspiracy theories, anti-government sentiment, and online extremism—and it could start a movement.

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 Pelosis 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 Trumps accounts after he continued to praise the insurgents online, social media is awash with their digital souvenirs today.
For many Americans, Wednesdays 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 expectingand warningof the likelihood of violence around either the Electoral College vote or the upcoming inauguration since Bidens victory, especially since Trump and right-wing media outlets have been stoking baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud for weeks.
Wednesdays 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 were seeing now is a swing back toward anti-government extremism, and its creating odd coalitions. The Capitol insurgents werent 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] isnt 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 were 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 its going to radicalize millions of boomer-tier people. Theyre kind of scolding the boomers: You tried to work through the system, but now youre radicalized along with us.
See, while it’s highly unlikely to usher in an ethno-state the way the Telegram white supremacists hope, Wednesdays riot does make a better recruiting tool than previous far-right insurgencies like the standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge. First, it wasnt fomented by a niche concern, and it was encouraged (implicitly and otherwise) by the president, his allies, and Republican lawmakers. Second, the insurgents wont 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.