January 6th Retrospective: Extremism

January 6th Retrospective: Extremism

On January 6th, 2021, two weeks before the inauguration of Joe Biden, Trump supporters attacked the Capitol Building in Washington D.C under the former president’s urging for them to “fight like hell” against his electoral defeat.


A year after the event, , the Republican Party declared the January 6th attacks “legitimate political discourse,” which was met with vitriol from many, and for good reason. This insurrection claimed five lives and injured more than 100 police officers. Some of the authorities who responded to the event took their own lives shortly afterward.


It has been over a year since the Capitol riot, a markedly chilling moment in U.S. history that reinforced the threat of white supremacist groups and domestic terrorism, so much so that the Biden administration, made combating right-wing terrorism a priority following the insurrection. As a result, Over 700 individuals have been charged in the storming of the Capitol, many caught through the various social media posts and over 200,000 pictures sent in by tipsters. Thanks to the onset of such accessible and widespread platforms in recent decades, this insurrection is quite possibly the most thoroughly documented criminal act in U.S. history.


Many have tried to dissect the causes of this day of violence, and a resounding conclusion appears to point to the radicalization of American politics as a root cause of the insurrection. The Capitol saw Trump supporters of all kinds during January 6, some belonging to organized whitesupremacy or militia groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, but most being ordinary Trump supporters without the same level of structural formality. According to Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, “There was absolutely a spectrum of support. In many ways, Jan. 6 was a bug light. It brought extremists from all areas.” He added, “You have militias on one side. On the other side, you have the merely curious, people wrapped up in the moment.” Truthfully, and especially compared to past Republican politicians, President Donald Trump created an environment of support for the far-right through his rhetoric. A noteworthy example is his expressed sympathy towards the white supremacy attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia where he said there were “very fine people on both sides.”


In addition, Jennifer Chudy, a political science professor at Wellesley College, said, “while the actual extremists may represent a small group of the public, the share of Republicans who support their behavior, whether explicitly or implicitly, is not as small. This is, in part, due to mainstream political institutions — like the Republican Party, with Trump at its helm — helping make their mission and behavior seem legitimate.” There are many factors that enable extremist values to thrive, including but not limited to rhetoric. Gerrymandering, for example, is an institution that has allowed politicians to play to their own political bases. District lines are fashioned to support a particular party, creating a bubble where one voice is correct at all times. This exacerbates extreme rhetoric while also discouraging any critique of extremism from individuals within that party.


All this in mind, the effectiveness of the Biden Administration’s strategy against domestic terrorism is called into question. The approach is focused on pressing charges against specific civilians, which misses the mark on this issue in the sense that it is too narrow of a method. Combating the problem starts with its roots: organized whitesupremacy and militia groups. While many of the civilians present at the insurrection were average Trump supporters without direct affiliation to these organizations, it is evident that the extremist ideologies of these far-right groups have a trickle-down effect that permeates the wider political landscape, creating an atmosphere that has the potential for violence.


The Biden Administration has done important work regarding the January 6th insurrection, making it clear that finding those who played a part in the event  was a major priority. Investigations concerning the involvement of key political players are also underway including Donald Trump. Trump’s participation is undeniable—he clearly instigated the attacks with his inflamed and explicit rhetoric. Additionally, it was recently revealed by the Guardian that “Trump personally reviewed a draft executive order concerning the seizure of voting machines in key states and came close to approving the appointment of Sidney Powell, a lawyer and conspiracy theorist, as a special counsel to investigate electoral fraud.” Trump certainly set an atmosphere of extreme partisanship amongst an already divided nation, as he proved to be wildly polarizing in popularity surveys, widening the chasm between political parties.


However, there is still work to be done. As unlikely as it is, the biggest step to take comes in the form of openly  shunning  white supremacist ideas and violent conspiracy theories. It is essential that politicians actively condemn the beliefs of such organized radical groups that can result in the same violence as the insurrection. An attempted, violent coup has been described as a valid forum of political discussion—a “legitimate political discourse”—and the factors that enable this need to be suppressed, for the good of not only the Republican party, but American politics as a whole.


Editors: Erika Y., Raniyah B.

This article was originally published in January 2022

Image Credits: Jason Andrew for The New York Times