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The face of American insurrection: Right-wing groups are evolving into a violent movement

The face of American insurrection: Right-wing groups are evolving into a violent movement
© Julia Nikhinson

Latching onto media images of Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol rioters prominently displaying symbols of right-wing militias, experts soon called for a crackdown on far-right militant organizations. After all, violence organized by such groups — always disturbing — has the benefit of neatly falling into a familiar and readily explained category for law enforcement and the public.

To prevent a recurrence of the Capitol riots, however, and to address a larger crisis that could well metastasize throughout the country, Americans need a fine-grained understanding of who attacked the Capitol.

To be sure, ideology and beliefs play a prominent role in political violence, but so, too, does understanding the kind of people involved and the lives that they live.

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Our team of University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) researchers closely looked at 193 people arrested for breaking into the Capitol building or grounds, reviewing court documents — including criminal complaints, statement of facts and affidavits. We then compared them with 108 individuals arrested for deadly violence related to right-wing political causes from 2015 to 2020, using the same methodology.

What we found was striking: Donald Trump supporters from normal, middle-class, often middle-aged, households coalesced with hardened extremists intent on overturning a presidential election. As we detailed in an article in The Atlantic, four basic findings stand out:

First, the attack on the Capitol was undeniably an act of political violence. Dozens of the arrestees said to the FBI and other sources that they were motivated by President TrumpDonald TrumpVirginia GOP gubernatorial nominee acknowledges Biden was 'legitimately' elected Biden meets with DACA recipients on immigration reform Overnight Health Care: States begin lifting mask mandates after new CDC guidance | Walmart, Trader Joe's will no longer require customers to wear masks | CDC finds Pfizer, Moderna vaccines 94 percent effective in health workers MORE’s calls for action.  

Second, the overwhelming majority of arrestees — 89 percent — have no connection to existing far-right organizations.

Third, the demographic profile of those arrested differs vastly from past right-wing extremists:

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  • The average age is 40;
  • 68 percent are older than 35; and

  • Almost 41 percent are business owners or hold white-collar jobs.

In contrast, of the earlier far-right extremist suspects:

  • 61 percent were under 35;

  • 25 percent were unemployed; and

  • Almost none worked in white collar occupations.

Fourth, most of the arrestees are not from deep-red strongholds; 57 percent live in counties that President Biden won.  

The message to Washington is: It is imperative to understand the differences between the Biden and Trump counties that produced insurrectionists. The bulk of insurrectionists come from Biden counties, which are more urban, less white, and more unemployed: 

  • 56 percent of the insurrectionists from Biden counties are from counties with greater than average unemployment (most 1-3 percent more), compared to 26 percent of insurrectionists from Trump counties;
      
  • 22 percent of the insurrectionists from Biden counties are from counties with more than 80 percent white populations, compared to 72 percent of the insurrectionists from Trump counties; and

  • 56 percent of the insurrectionists from Biden counties are from counties in the largest urban areas, compared to 2 percent of the insurrectionists from large urban Trump counties (38 percent come from areas that are more rural than urban).

The threat, therefore, is not necessarily from where you would normally expect to find the Trump audience. Statistically, the biggest predictor of an insurrectionist coming from any given county is simply the number of Trump voters forming large minorities in urban areas, even if Biden won them. 

Going forward, the accelerants are all there:

  • A leader with demonstrated support for extra-legal activity;

  • Grievances perceived by large masses of people (a fraudulent election); and

  • A deadly focal point event: The Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol that left five people dead.

Failing to see the true face of American insurrection and relying on rounding up the “usual suspects” will likely cause the movement to grow.  

Robert A. Pape, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago, is director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST). Keven Ruby is a CPOST senior research associate.