On January 6, the United States Capitol building was stormed by an angry mob of small business owners, white collar employees, realtors, military veterans, law enforcement officers, state and local officials, and students, among others. As described in the profiles of the Capitol insurrectionists who were arrested by the FBI, the rioters were in many ways just typical Americans – they could have been your neighbors or family members. So what made these seemingly average American folks vulnerable to being sucked into the rabbit holes of radicalism and persuaded to assault our nation’s seat of government?
A diverse group
As noted by NPR in their analysis of the rioters, “a group this large defies generalization.” Still, there are some shared commonalities.
- They were predominantly white and male, but not exclusively.
- As a group, they were a bit older and more affluent than typical right-wing protestor stereotypes.
- But, some had experienced serious financial problems in the past.
- Some have a history of abuse of women.
- A number of those arrested for their involvement with the January 6 insurrection already had rap sheets including assault and other crimes/misdemeanors.
- At least 40 (17 percent of those arrested) had ties to extremist groups or conspiracy theories, although right-wing group membership was somewhat less than in prior anti-government protests.
- And, fourteen percent of those charged had ties to the military or law enforcement.
What, then, motivated them, and what can we do about it?
So what are we to glean about those who made the trip to DC to participate in an attempt to overthrow the US government?
As one scholar said, many had experienced “precarity” (a state of feeling precarious or uncertain) and were particularly vulnerable to messages from the president that something (the election) had been stolen from them.
Others seem to be inclined toward bullying, violence and/or flouting the law. There is definitely a common trait of toxic masculinity, as exemplified by Trump himself and displayed by the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and other right wing insurrectionist groups who participated. There is also a devotion to all things military, and an abiding desire (by men and women both) to appear to be a badass.
Still others, like the realtor featured in the Washington Post article and the University of Kentucky student, seemed to be swept along by the sheer novelty and excitement of breaking into the US Capitol, taking some selfies and maybe even stealing a sign to show your friends. As the student said, “idk what treason is.”
And of course, as many have already said, the president himself told them to be there. “It will be wild,” he said. And it was.
If we are to address domestic terrorism, we need to understand what propels our neighbors, colleagues, and family members to embrace and act on radical ideas. We cannot simply write off the insurrection as carried out by people different from us.
Instead, it is obvious that many Americans are predisposed toward following these pathways. We need to do more to discern why, and to figure out how to bring these people back into the shared community. Perhaps with greater understanding, we can prevent horrifying episodes like the Capitol invasion from happening again in the future.