Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the senior editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the new book “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The January 6 insurrection was both a peak of contemporary American White nationalism and a dress rehearsal for what will likely come next.
Simply put, the attack on the US Capitol was the culmination of political trends in the United States that have festered for decades – and a warning from history about how the politics of the next several years may unfold.
The most significant US political development during the past few years has been the rise of homegrown American extremism. This movement has many facets, from the growth of White nationalism to the embrace of QAnon conspiracy theories by a significant number of Americans.
In a Public Religion Research Institute poll released in May, 15% of Americans agreed that a Satanic ring of sex traffickers is running the United States government, financial sector and media, while 23% of Republicans endorsed this conspiracy theory. And, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted last month, one in three Americans now endorses the view that violence against the government is sometimes justified.
This is all compounded by the overall failure of those running social media platforms to police extremist content in a meaningful way; the deepening polarization of American politics; the profound distrust of government among those radicalized by the pandemic shutdowns and the role of former President Donald Trump as the chief arsonist fanning the flames of discord.
The dominance of Trumpism
Six years ago, when Trump was running for president, I considered the issue of whether he was a fascist. To answer that question, I turned to the classic 2004 study, “The Anatomy of Fascism,” by American historian Robert Paxton, who forensically examined the fascist movements of 20th century Europe.
Paxton found key commonalities among those movements, including the “superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason” and the “belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action.”
This certainly seemed to describe Trump and Trumpism in 2015, but there was one key trait of fascist leaders that Trump had only begun to embrace back then – their support of “the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success.”
After Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, he seemed more willing than ever before to call for violent action. Trump called his supporters to Washington, DC for a rally on the specious grounds that the election had been stolen from him – tweeting, “Be there, will be wild!” Thousands of his supporters gathered on January 6, where Trump further goaded them on by saying, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
As his supporters went on to attack the key symbol of American democracy, the US Capitol, Trump did nothing to stop them – despite the pleas of his family members and his reliable cheerleaders at Fox News to call off his followers. After approximately three hours, Trump finally told his supporters to “go home” in a video in which he continued to lie that the election was “fraudulent.”
Months later, Trump described the most spectacular attack on American democracy in decades as a manifestation of “spirit and faith and love.”
Back in the reality-based world, the mayhem at the Capitol resulted in over 700 people being arrested, including 75 who were charged with violent crimes. Some 140 police officers were injured in the melee, according to the head of the Capitol Police officer’s union. And five people died as a result of the attack, including one officer.
So, it’s mystifying that Trump and his acolytes – such as Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who told the crowd, “start taking down names and kicking ass” – have yet to be charged with incitement. In the crowd, there were large numbers of Trump followers in military style uniforms – some of whom were even wearing body armor – as well as members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group. As a quick refresher, it is a crime to incite others to commit violent felony crimes if you have reason to believe they may carry out those crimes, according to US Code, Title 18, Section 373.
For context, this law has been applied in the past against people encouraging jihadist terrorists, such as Virginian Zachary Chesser, who is serving a long sentence, partly because he incited violence against the creators of the show “South Park,” after they portrayed the Prophet Mohammed in a critical light.
Imagine if all the mayhem at the Capitol had been instigated by Muslim leaders whipping up a mob of thousands of Islamists. Do you have any doubt that those Muslim leaders wouldn’t have already been prosecuted? (Disclosure: As a terrorism expert, I was interviewed by staff members of the bipartisan House committee investigating the January 6 attack, who were interested in discussing how the assault fit into the history of domestic terrorism in the United States.)
The Trump-inspired January 6 insurrection and its aftermath has primed the pump for more violence. According to the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats, 9% of adults say they agree the use of force is justified to return Trump to the presidency.
Trump has scheduled a rally in Arizona in mid-January, in which he will likely continue to push his false claim that the presidential election was stolen, which will surely further inflame his followers.
This discord is only likely to get worse because there are scant countervailing forces on the right pushing back on Trump, and those few Republican politicians who have pushed back are paying significant political costs. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming lost her position in the Republican leadership in the US House of Representatives, while Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois decided not to run for office again.
Meanwhile, Trump is likely to run again in the next presidential election cycle – and his dominance over the Republican Party appears stronger now than it was in the immediate aftermath of the January 6 insurrection.
The deep roots of January 6
The attack on the Capitol has deep roots in the anti-government, White nationalist movement. The intellectual godfather of that movement is William Luther Pierce, who profoundly influenced an entire generation – from the White supremacists who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to extremists like today’s Proud Boys, who have discussed his writings online.
A trained physicist, Pierce was also a key leader of the America neo-Nazi movement in the latter three decades of the 20th century. His most important contribution to White supremacist thought was “The Turner Diaries.” Pierce published this novel in 1978 using a pseudonym, Andrew Macdonald, and in it he charted the violent overthrow of the federal American government by a group of White “patriots” who blew up FBI headquarters and attacked the US Capitol. After a race war in which non-Whites are massacred, the novel ends with the establishment of an all-White United States.
While certainly a clunky read, “The Turner Diaries” has been quite influential, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. A 2016 study by the extremism expert J.M. Berger found that the novel helped to inspire at least 40 terrorist attacks and hate crimes in the United States that resulted in at least 200 murders.
The most notorious example of the book’s influence was Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was so obsessed with it that he sold copies at gun shows around the United States. McVeigh modeled elements of his 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma federal building, which killed 168 people, on plot points that were in the novel. When McVeigh was arrested, law enforcement officials found quotations from the book in his car. (After the assault on the Capitol, Amazon pulled the book from its website).
I produced Pierce’s first network interview in 1996 for CNN. In his compound deep in the woods of Appalachia in West Virginia, Pierce delivered a diatribe against the increasingly diverse United States. The bespectacled Pierce was an owlish presence, holding his cat in his lap as he was served tea by his younger wife who addressed him as “Sir.” A pair of male acolytes guarded Pierce’s lair, hanging on his every word.
Pierce explained that his novel was designed to be a call to action for White supremacists, telling CNN that perhaps the most important idea expressed in his book is that each person has to be an active participant in what is happening in the world around them.
Pierce died in 2002, but his bigoted ideas live on. Like many White supremacists, he was obsessed with the idea that White people were being “replaced” by other ethnic groups and that they had a duty to fight back. Those ideas continue to animate White supremacists and White nationalists, such as those who attended a racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 – where they chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”
Fast forward to January 6, 2021. Members of far right groups, such as the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, and the Oath Keepers, who all played a role in the assault on the Capitol, framed their attack in similar terms to the plot of “The Turner Diaries” – calling it a planned “insurrection” against “tyrants” and “traitors” who needed to be “executed.”
Another strand of the White nationalist movement that could be seen in the assault on the US Capitol is “leaderless resistance,” a concept advocated by the prominent American racist Louis Beam in the early 1990s. It was a technique designed to enable his fellow racists to struggle against the American government without fear of being targeted by law enforcement agencies.
Beam explained in online writings that the point of leaderless resistance was to keep individuals and groups operating independently, without a central headquarters or single leader – much like the groups pivotal to the January 6 attack.
While there were certainly members of far right groups who played a role in the Capitol assault, hundreds of the assaulters had no connection to any organization, which made them harder to be tracked by law enforcement. They were ordinary Americans seemingly radicalized by what they read and saw on the internet and in right-wing media.
After January 6
The White nationalist roots of January 6 go deep, but its future repercussions are also significant. A CNN poll released in September found that over three quarters of Republicans falsely believe Biden did not win the 2020 presidential election – and more than 50% of Republicans think there is evidence to support this misleading assertion.
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This means that irrespective of the actual results, Trump has likely set himself up well for the presidential election in 2024. He might win the 2024 election outright should he gain the Republican nomination. But should he lose, he has also laid considerable groundwork to make the argument to a sizable portion of the American public that the presidency is once again his.
Such claims may produce considerably more violence than what we saw at the Capitol a year ago, especially since millions of Americans now appear to approve of violence as a means to restore the Trump presidency.