A Confederate flag, a shirt reading 'Camp Auschwitz,' militia and paramilitary insignia, and white nationalist symbols: These were some of the members of the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol building January 6 in a dramatic attempt to delay the certification of the results of the election, an act unprecedented in U.S. history.
As members of both houses of Congress met at the Capitol to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 Presidential election, that mob, including white nationalists, militia groups, QAnon conspiracists, and vigilante actors, occupied Congressional offices, assaulted police officers and journalists, scrawled "murder the media" graffiti on a Senator’s door while another seemed prepared to abduct senators.
They surprised themselves, it seemed, with how easy it was to take control of the building at the center of U.S. democracy.
The president had long flagged January 6th as a day for "wild" protest, spinning off protestor preparations.
Whether the Capitol invasion was specifically planned or not, their actions amounted to an attempted coup that failed only because their leader, while inciting them to take up arms against the election result, lacked the support of the security state, and had to grudgingly tell them that despite the legitimacy of their anger over the "fraudulent election," and contrasting how "very special" they were with the "so bad, so evil" other side, they should go home "with love & in peace."
"We will never give up, we will never concede." That is how Trump galvanized supporters in a speech shortly before the attempted putsch. Let’s be clear: the demonizing, inflammatory rhetoric of Trump and leaders across the Right has brought U.S. democracy to this frightening precipice.
All through Wednesday, driving home his continuing effort to oppose the will of the electorate, Trump continued to engage in conspiracy theories attacking the integrity of election officials in both parties. As the crowd chanted, "Fight for Trump!" He continued: "We will not take it anymore...we will stop the steal."
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"After this," he told the crowd, "we’re going to walk down to the Capitol and I’ll be there with you...you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong." Far-right populist Senator Josh Hawley raised his fist in solidarity with protestors shortly before the putsch attempt.
Beginning long before November 3 , Trump and leading Right figures cemented the narrative, in the imagination of millions of supporters, that a shadowy and all-powerful conspiracy of Democrats, George Soros-funded "globalists" and "deep state" actors were determined to steal the election from President Trump.
Defeating this tyrannical cabal would require, as Donald Trump Jr. put it, an "Army For Trump" driven by a noble crusade, not only to secure Trump a second term, but to defend the essence of American freedom and democracy itself from subversives and traitors.
For the millions who bought into this twisted narrative of faux-revolutionary heroism, it was only natural that, as far right podcaster Cassandra Fairbanks put it shortly after the putsch attempt, "If you actually believe this election was stolen, as I personally do, you would not think this protest is disproportionate."
This storm has long been brewing on the U.S. Right.
As a wave of far right ‘ReOpen’ protests engulfed the country in spring 2020, Trump galvanized the coalition of militia groups, QAnon conspiracists, and nominal libertarians gathering across the country with provocative calls to ‘liberate’ states from the supposedly despotic reign of Democratic governors. "The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies," warned Washington Governor Jay Inslee, "and spewing dangerous, anti-democratic rhetoric."
Two weeks later, militias occupied the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, in a foreshadowing of what was to come in D.C. "These are very good people," the ever-eager apologist Trump explained on Twitter the next day, urging Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to "see them, talk to them, make a deal." Months later, many of these same militia members were arrested for plotting to kidnap Whitmer.
During this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, right-wing politicians and media leaders celebrated the violent mobilizations of militia and vigilante groups against racial justice activists, and rushed to defend militia member Kyle Rittenhouse’s alleged murder of two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed Rittenhouse stepped up "to maintain order when no one else would." GOP lawmakers praised Rittenhouse’s "restraint" and even urged the vigilante to run for Congress.
"Force is more effective than voting," Carlson broadcast to his millions of viewers in June 2020, claiming to ascribe to Black Lives Matter a viewpoint that, in fact, he was telegraphing directly to Trump’s base. "Elections change nothing...violence works."
At the first presidential debate in September, Trump told the misogynist street-fighting group Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by...because somebody’s gotta do something about antifa and the Left," addressing the group intimately as if they were his personal foot soldiers.
The Proud Boys, along with various militia, Patriot, vigilante and white nationalist groups across the country, were emboldened by the salute, and proved themselves eager to defend the Trump presidency by enacting violence against political opponents at post-election protests nationwide.
"I got shivers," wrote neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin the day after the debate. "I still have shivers. He is telling the people to stand by. As in: Get ready for war."
When right-wing leaders voice demonizing, conspiratorial and insurgent narratives, it helps to create a climate that encourages militia movements, street-fighting factions, white nationalists, and radicalized Trump supporters to take action against named enemies, whether they be racial and religious minorities, the media, or even the institutions of democracy itself.
Amplified and repeated by right-wing media and shared by millions of followers, this rhetoric functions, in the words of researcher Chip Berlet, as "scripted violence." It encourages followers to "adopt a ‘superhero complex,’ which justifies their pre-emptive acts of violence or terrorism to ‘save society’ from imminent threats by named enemies ‘before it is too late.’"
Thus, "a leader need not directly exhort violence," writes Berlet, "to create a constituency that hears a call to take action against the named enemy."
"Remember this day forever," Trump rhapsodized to his followers on Twitter shortly after the January 6 putsch, attempting to normalize the day’s riots as merely "things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long."
In the aftermath of the putsch, the far-right is jubilant, with militias calling for "all-out war on American soil."
The impact of Trump and the Right’s escalatory rhetoric will long outlast this election cycle, as right-wing populists will only become more emboldened to commit violent insurgent acts in pursuit of exclusionary and anti-democratic ends.
Trump himself gave them ongoing latitude in a typical display of doubletalk, when Thursday he finally acknowledged that despite "totally disagree[ing] with the outcome of the election" there would be an "orderly transition" it was "only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again."
For years to come, the radicalized Right in the U.S. will present a full-frontal threat to vulnerable minorities, and to the increasingly fragile institutions of democracy itself.
Ben Lorber researches and reports on anti-Semitism and white nationalism with Political Research Associates, a think tank that studies right-wing movements. He lives in Boston, MA and blogs at doikayt.com. Twitter: @BenLorber8