A new report from The Atlantic of all places suggests a much more complex picture of the supposed insurrection than any of the prevailing Trump as would-be Osama bin Laden narratives, even as Trump’s historic second impeachment trial looms next week.
Former President Trump’s second impeachment trial begins next Tuesday, February 9. The charge before the Senate, which will serve as a quasi courtroom for the proceedings, is “incitement to insurrection,” essentially claiming that Trump personally caused the attack on the Capitol on January 6.
In fact, the House impeachment managers insist that Trump is “singularly responsible” for inciting the insurrection. They explain, “President Trump’s responsibility for the events of January 6 is unmistakable. President Trump’s effort to extend his grip on power by fomenting violence against Congress was a profound violation of the oath he swore. If provoking an insurrectionary riot against a Joint Session of Congress after losing an election is not an impeachable offense, it is hard to imagine what would be.”
The broader narrative among Democrats and the media, however, makes wildly different claims than an insurrectionary mob incited by Trump. Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, took to the floor of the House last Thursday and explained that “white supremacy” was the real problem. “If we cannot stand up to white supremacy in this moment, as representatives, then why did you run for office?” Bush asked. “How can we trust that you will address the suffering that white supremacy causes on a day-to-day basis in the shadows if you can’t address the white supremacy that happened right in front of you in your house?”
Her colleague, Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, went back years before the attack, suggesting that anti-Muslim animus may be an animating force. “I didn’t even get sworn in yet and someone wanted me dead,” she said, recounting death threats she received before officially entering office. “The trauma from just being here, existing as a Muslim, is so hard.” The Democrat added that she worries “every day” about the lives of her staff, many of which are LGBTQ or people of color.
Another emerging narrative suggests the assault on the Capitol was just the opening battle in a new terrorist war against the US government and people, this time waged by domestic foes instead of Al Qaeda.
“Even at the seeming height of the crisis immediately after 9/11, there really weren’t that many members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan,’ former CIA officer Robert Grenier explained to NPR, “and the thrust of our campaign there was, yes, to hunt down Al Qaeda, but primarily to remove the supportive environment in which they were able to flourish. And that meant fighting the Taliban. And I think that is the heart of what we need to deal with here. Hunting down people who are criminals.”
Grenier’s colleague, another former CIA officer, Kevin Carroll concurs. “We saw five dead in the Jan. 6 attempted coup d’etat. We defeated Al Qaeda and can do the same to the fascist thugs who attacked our democracy last month. But only if we take similar hard measures against the enemy within.”
Of course, little attempt is made to reconcile these two narratives: Is it really possible that Trump is the bin Laden like leader of a massive domestic terrorist operation, composed of white nationalists and white supremacists, that launched the first wave of attacks on January 6 and plans a sustained offensive from his new perch at Mar a Lago?
It’s certainly been hinted at. Elizabeth Neumann is a former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security under Trump. She explains “It will be a generational challenge for us. We have to go after the people doing the incitement, the people who are very serious about doing these attacks, with the same intensity that we did with Al Qaeda.” “This might be a slight overstep,” she said about specific comparisons between Trump and bin Laden, but still the former President “was that spiritual leader that bin Laden was for Al Qaeda. He was that face, and that spokesperson, that rallied the troops.”
In that case, it might be helpful to consider who, exactly, are “the troops.”
In that regard, The Atlantic recently published an in-depth analysis involving 20 researchers across multiple channels. Robert A. Pope, political science professor at the University of Chicago, and Kevin Ruby, senior research associate of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, lead a team that has been “reviewing court documents and media coverage for information on the demographics, socioeconomic traits, and militant-group affiliations (if any) of everyone arrested by the FBI, Capitol Police, and Washington, D.C., police for offenses related to the January 6 insurrection.”
Their findings so far are more than a little confounding for either of the prevailing “Al Qaeda style” narratives. If these are indeed “troops” and they are in fact organized by extremist groups to overthrow the government, this army is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. For example, barely 10% of the 235 arrested to date have previously been involved with “gangs, militias, or militia-like groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters.”
The report notes “The role that such groups played in the riot has attracted considerable news coverage. But 89 percent of the arrestees have no apparent affiliation with any known militant organization.” This was in contrast to other instances of deadly rightwing violence from 2015 to 2020. Across those incidents, approximately 26 percent were members of white-nationalist gangs, classified as skinheads and Aryan Brotherhood types, and 22 percent were members of other organized groups, such as Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.
Other than finding little connection to organized extremist groups, the team reached a few other surprising conclusions. The demographic profile also appears to be quite different from past right-wing events. “The average age of the arrestees we studied is 40. Two-thirds are 35 or older, and 40 percent are business owners or hold white-collar jobs. Unlike the stereotypical extremist, many of the alleged participants in the Capitol riot have a lot to lose. They work as CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants.”
Court documents further show that only 9% were unemployed, compared to previous extremists where 61% were under 35, 25% were unemployed, and almost none worked white-collar jobs. The authors describe them as “middle-aged, middle-class insurrectionists,” but that’s not all: Militia and organized white supremacist activity is often associated with the backwoods of deep red states, pick up trucks with guns on the back. “Yet of those arrested for their role in the Capitol riot, more than half came from counties that Biden won; one-sixth came from counties that Trump won with less than 60 percent of the vote.”
Nor could the researchers find anything special about the counties where the suspects hailed from. “We found that 39 percent of suspected insurrectionists came from battleground counties, where Trump received 40 to 60 percent of the vote; 12 percent came from counties where less than 60 percent of the population is white. In these and many other ways, the mix of counties from which the arrestees hailed was typical of all American counties.”
Interestingly, they were able to identify one pattern: The larger the absolute number of Trump voters, regardless of whether Trump actually won the county, the higher the likelihood it’s home to someone arrested at the Capitol. The authors noted that, “Big metropolitan centers where Biden won overwhelmingly, such as the counties that include New York City, San Francisco, and Dallas, still have hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters. A third of suspected insurrectionists come from such counties; another quarter come from suburban counties of large metro areas.”
Startlingly, they concluded, “This breakdown mirrors the American population as a whole—and that is the point. If you presumed that only the reddest parts of America produce potential insurrectionists, you would be incorrect.”
What are we to make of this? Before we answer that question, we should add the appropriate caveat that the attack is still under investigation and the information we have right now could change. We do know a couple of things beyond the information about those already arrested, however.
First, the timeline of the attack is clear, at least mostly. Trump took the stage at the Ellipse at noon on January 6th, and while he was still speaking a mob had gathered outside the Capitol, located over a mile away. At 12.49 PM, Capitol Police responded to reports of possible explosive devices at both the Republican and Democrat National Committee Headquarters. At 12.53 PM, the mob overwhelmed the Capitol Police. The crowd at the time was mixed, some yelled, “Don’t do it. You’re breaking the law,” others proceeded inside the barricades. They were converging on the Capitol itself by 1.03 PM. At 1.09 PM, Capitol Police Chief Sund asks for an emergency to be declared and requests the National Guard.
Trump didn’t stop speaking until 1.10 PM. While he urged his followers to walk to the Capitol and “peacefully” make their voices heard, the speech itself was 1.25 miles away from the Capitol Building and the breach was already underway. It’s also unclear when Trump became aware of what was happening. Amazingly, no timeline I’ve seen provides this crucial detail. All we know is that at 2.24, he tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” yet by 2.38 he had changed his tune to “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”
At 3.13, Trump tweeted again, “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order – respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!” Throughout this period, the gathering outside the Capitol Building remained mixed, some forcing their way in, others remaining outside. Trump supporter and known conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones was on a bullhorn at the time urging people to remain peaceful and “not fight the police.” He further directed them to a location where they had a permit to continue the peaceful protest.
Unfortunately, the rest is the horrid history: The Capitol was breached and five people died before law and order was restored.
Second, Federal law enforcement officers believe the attack, or at least a part of it, was pre-planned. CNN reported that “Evidence uncovered so far, including weapons and tactics seen on surveillance video, suggests a level of planning that has led investigators to believe the attack on the US Capitol was not just a protest that spiraled out of control, a federal law enforcement official says. Among the evidence the FBI is examining are indications that some participants at the Trump rally at the Ellipse, outside the White House, left the event early, perhaps to retrieve items to be used in the assault on the Capitol.”
The details, however, still remain unclear as we get back to the original question. What are we to make of the totality of these events? I think we have two possible scenarios, though not entirely mutually exclusive.
First, the assault was a classic case of a mob that spiralled out of control. This doesn’t imply that no one came to the Capitol that day planning to cause trouble. As we saw in many instances of peaceful protests that turned violent over the summer of 2020, it’s not uncommon that the majority of the crowd is there to peacefully have their voices heard, but a small group has other plans. Mob mentality takes over and violence ensues. The arrests to date seem to indicate this type of scenario: A small percentage of militia and group members, and then a larger percentage caught up in events.
Whether or not Trump actually had any control over the situation in this scenario, remains unclear. The people swept up in the violence at the scene could very well have been incited by his speech, but those that planned it couldn’t have been. What should be clear, however, is the likelihood of another instance of similar violence would necessarily be very small in this scenario. The breach wouldn’t have occurred without the larger gathering in attendance; the influence of the pre-planned portion of the attack took advantage of that fact.
In short, there might be a small crew of hardcore extremists that could cause violence in the future, but fears of some long-slog against a massive insurrection are greatly exaggerated.
The second option is that we’re dealing with an insurrection the likes of which we’ve never seen. A disparate group of people from every region in the country, many of them successful, not connected in any way except through their allegiance to Trump, their distrust of the establishment, and desire for white supremacy. This is the narrative being pushed by the broader media and much of the political establishment, yet it seems incredibly far-fetched.
Is Trump really a James Bond villain like Ernst Stavro Blofeld organizing SPECTRE? Anything’s possible, but assuming he isn’t, anyone pushing this narrative needs to explain who capable of organizing and funding this action. If 90% of the people involved in the attack are not a member of any group, what is going to cause them to take to the streets again? An insurrection requires coordinated action to continue. Therefore, someone has to be pulling the strings and Trump is the only one positioned to do so. He has the reach and the fundraising apparatus that no one else does. Assuming I’m correct, and Trump isn’t the next Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who is this shadow person?
I have no idea, hence I think it’s incredibly far fetched to believe we’re at the beginning of a long term struggle against a shopkeeper insurrection.
I will say I find it telling that the mainstream media and the political establishment tends to mix these two scenarios up, pushing whichever one suits their political argument at the time. For purposes of impeachment, Trump alone is responsible. For the longer term battle, it’s a hazy white supremacy, some loose organizations without nearly enough members, combined with vague comparisons to 9-11, all presented with little or no evidence.
It’s almost as if they’re using a tragedy simply to score political points, but that couldn’t be it. I’m being way to cynical, aren’t I?