When hundreds of enraged Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021, Representative Liz Cheney was approached by her Republican colleague, Jim Jordan. According to journalists Carole Leonning and Philip Booker, in their book I Alone Can Fix It (2021), Cheney reported: "While these maniacs are going through the place, I'm standing in the aisle and he [Jordan] said, 'We need to get the ladies away from the aisle. Let me help you.' I smacked his hand away and told him, 'Get away from me. You f---ing did this!'” (Lonis, 2021).
Cheney’s accusation that Jordan “did this” was both true and false: Jordan and the Trump wing of the Republican Party were certainly complicit in the myth that the 2020 election had been stolen, which enraged the rioters on January 6th. But the attack on the Capitol that day was an insurrection by a social movement – not by a party. This was an insurrection that Donald Trump had incited but ultimately could not control.
In this post, I will argue that the January 6th insurrection was the product of both a collision and a collusion between a political party and a social movement (Tarrow 2021, ch. 8). Whatever Trump’s intentions in inciting the mob to “walk down to the Capitol,” this was a politician’s maneuver. But the insurrection was the action of a movement – albeit one that he had created.
Before turning to that episode, it is important to place it in its political context. It came in the wake of Trump’s electoral loss to Joseph Biden in the election of November 3rd, 2021. Even before that defeat, Trump had begun to warn that the election would be “rigged” by the Democrats. That, in turn, led to his lawyers mounting a number of challenges in courts across the country, even reaching the Supreme Court in the case of Texas v. Pennsylvania. None of these pleadings had a serious chance of success, but their goal was not to win in court but to increase the conviction of the base that the election had been stolen.
As these cases were working their way through the courts, Trump – who continued to occupy the White House – led a series of white-hot rallies, the most important of which was mounted in Valdosta, Georgia, ostensibly to support two Republican candidates in a runoff Senate election in that state. Trump used the occasion to put forward a number of falsehoods about the election, all but ignoring the candidates he had come south to support. At the same time, he was putting pressure on the state’s Secretary of State and on the U.S. Justice Department to help him throw out the results of his loss to Biden.
The Valdosta rally was largely peaceful, but a second one, held in Washington on December 12th, produced violent conflicts between his supporters and a small group of anti-Trump demonstrators. At this rally, Trump aired even more hysterical claims about the election, just days before the Electoral College was to meet to verify Biden’s win, in what appears in retrospect to have been a dress rehearsal for January 6th.
The Electoral College’s vote for Biden’s victory did not end the controversy over what Trump and his enablers continued to call “a stolen election.” More worrying, as January 6th, the date on which Congress was due to verify the Electoral College’s decision, approached, two groups of deep-pocketed Trump supporters mounted a third rally – this time at the Ellipse, only a few blocks from the Capitol, where Congress was meeting in joint session to validate the election.
There is little doubt about what happened next – although subsequent studies have added flesh to the bones of what turned into a horrific event (New York Times, June 30, 2021). Although he himself repaired to the safety of the White House, Trump’s call to arms provided the fuel for the invasion. All of this is by now well known, but it tells us little about the identity of the rioters, the dynamics of the process, and its eventual outcomes:
With respect to the rioters, the first thing to recognize is that not all of the people who invaded the Capitol on that day attended the rally. According to the police officers who testified before the Congressional Select Committee created to investigate January 6th, a large number of them were already milling around the Capitol while Trump was speaking. Although they had come to Washington at his urging, they were a coordinated advance guard for the mass of rally-goers who followed his invitation to go down to the Capitol.
The second thing to note about the rioters is that, as of late July, 2021, among the over 500 of them who had been arrested by then, most were unaffiliated to any organized group, according to a study of arrestees by a group from the University of Chicago (Chicago Project, August 3rd, 2021). Only 25 were members of the Proud Boys, 13 were Oath Keepers, and 6 were Three Percenters. The remaining 87 percent were not affiliated with any organized group.
Neither were they a bunch of unemployed toughs. The majority were either employed or were small business owners, two-thirds of them over 25 years of age, and coming from 44 different states. “The vast majority,” writes Robert Pape, Director of the Chicago Study, “were ‘normal’ pro-Trump activists joined with the far right to form a new kind of violent mass movement” (Pape 2021).
The third factor to recognize is that the arrested insurrectionists were more likely to have come from counties that Biden had won than from “Red” or “purple” places. As of July, 2021, 47% of the arrestees had come from Trump counties, compared to 52% who came from Biden ones. These were a different demographic and geographic group than the mostly-rural, mostly-working class voters that commentators have seen as the “Trump’s core electorate.” This was a social movement within an electoral core.
It may surprise readers that Trumpism is described here as a “movement,” but the term is taken directly from its founder, who claimed that he was the leader of a movement early in his 2016 campaign, when he told a New Hampshire audience that “It’s an amazing thing. It’s like a movement” (italics added, quoted by Merciera, 2020, p. 188). “More than other candidates,” writes Arlie Hochschild, “Donald Trump fits the classic description of a charismatic leader, as Weber defined it…. Trump offers himself…as the personal messenger of his followers” (Hochschild 2018).
The model of a movement party is a familiar one to scholars of party-movement relations in both Europe and Latin America. The difference is that while those hybrids were newly-born, the Trump movement entered a party that was 167 years old and had experienced a series of entries from far-right groups, starting with the “New Right” in the 1970s and ending with the Tea Party in the 2010s (Blum 2020). “By the time the 114th Congress began in 2015, write Brian Gervais and Irwin Morris, “conditions were ripe for an uncivil outsider…to blaze a path to the Republican nomination, claim the White House, and effectively take over the Republican Party” (Gervais and Morris 2018, p. 65).
When Trump took power in 2017, he lost no time embedding the movement he had created in that party. He did so both by giving the McConnell/McCarthy wing of the party much of what it wanted – including tax benefits to the rich, deregulation, and conservative judicial appointments -- and by launching ruthless attacks on Republicans who dared to oppose him. The only area of policy in which he stood up against Wall Street Republicanism was in his attacks on immigrants, designed to please his white nationalist base.
The injection of white nationalism into the Republican Party goes back much further than Donald Trump, as Michael Klrarman demonstrated in great detail in the Harvard Law Review (Klarman 2020). But Trump’s populist rhetoric provided a focal point to thousands of white Americans who were convinced that they were losing out in a society that was “replacing” them with black and brown minorities and immigrants. But this was a hybrid – not a fusion – between a party and a movement – the former still aiming at winning political power through electoral means and the latter ideologically committed to restoring a White America
The base of that party had been shrinking for decades into an older, mostly white, partly rural rump. Only the over-representation of rural states in the Electoral College and the party’s ability to gerrymander election districts after the 2010 census allowed it to continue to hold state legislatures and congressional seats in the heartland. Trump’s 2016 campaign added to this base many non-voters who only needed a focal point to enter the mainstream of the GOP. (Blum 2020). They found it in Donald Trump and formed the core of what became the Trumpist core. But within that core was what seemed at first like a fringe – a group of racial-resenting, potentially-violent voters who are the real danger to American democracy.
The University of Chicago study of almost 600 arrestees from the January 6th insurrection exposes that this group was much more lethal than a fringe. In a comparison with arrestees from previous waves of white nationalism, the Chicago researchers found that the arrestees were older, more likely to be employed, and were more likely to own their own businesses than the earlier groups, and tended to come not from the rural heartland of Trumpism but from cities and suburbs in which Biden had polled well. These are the areas in which non-Hispanic whites are declining as a proportion of the local population (Chicago Project, August 2021), feeding into the fear of “The Great Replacement.”
A joint Chicago University/National Opinion Research Center survey of a sample of 1,070 Americans found that these beliefs – and the myth that Biden had stolen the presidency– were common in this mobilizable part of the electorate, plus an alarming belief that violence might be necessary to restore their hero to power. As the researchers wrote; “We found, most strikingly, that more than a fourth of adults agree, in varying degrees, that 'The 2020 election was stolen, and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president'” (Chicago Project 2021).
Given Trump’s hold over his base, Republican elites in Congress were in a quandary when he came to power. Fully embrace the Trumpian message and they risked losing even more voters from the suburbs; but stick to their traditional Republican views, and they would turn off the newly-activated Trumpian base. In the event, they refused to choose; while continuing to mouth the party’s traditional small government, pro-business, lower-taxes values, they allowed their most Trumpian components to steal the limelight and push the party further to the right.
This produced a hybrid party with several components, not only older Republican voters who had been politicized by the Tea Party in the early part of the 2010s (Blum 2020), but also the generation of state and local officials who had been elected in the gerrymandered 2010 election. It also included the “extreme within the extreme” – white nationalists, militia members, and supporters of racist, anti-Semitic, and extreme nationalist groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the “Three Percenters.” But as the University of Chicago group discovered in their analysis of the January 6th arrestees, the vast majority did not come from these organized groups; they were, rather, part of a vast mass movement, one that is potentially more dangerous because it is more widely diffused in American society.
That Trump was prepared to woo these more extreme elements became clear after the infamous Charlottesville riot on August 12th, 2017, when a torch-bearing mob shouted “Jews Will Not Replace Us!” and a far-right activist drove his car into and killed an activist from an anti-racist group. Trump’s response (“There are very fine people on both sides”) revealed his willingness to play with extreme rightwing fire, but it also showed that he had triggered a movement that he might not be able to control).
Charlottesville and other near-fascist episodes underscore the contradictions we often find in all movement-parties. They are caught between the transactional logic of a political party that seeks to gain power and the insurgent logic of a social movement that is wedded to a cause of to a leader. Very few movement-parties are able to manage that tension without tipping in one direction or another.
To what extent was the attack on the Capitol a response to the “orders” of President Trump? Here the findings are both clear and contradictory. Anecdotal evidence from police reports and FBI interviews with arrestees show that at least some of the rioters were there because President Trump “said to do so”; because they “felt called upon by President Donald Trump to travel to D.C,; to change the outcome of the election;” or because they “heard President Trump tell the crowd to go to the U.S. Capitol” (quoted in the Chicago study from an interview with KYVT-TV Forth Worth).
But could Trump have wanted his followers to engage in the madness and mayhem that resulted in the January 6th catastrophe? Can he have foreseen the negative reaction of public opinion and the confusion sown in the political class by the vicious violence at the Capitol? Given all the (contradictory and ambiguous) statements that Trump and the Republicans have made since then, it is too soon to hazard a guess, but what is clear is that while Trump clearly inspired the insurrection, he did not direct it. Movements that invest themselves in parties are not always easy to control.
The question for the future of American democracy is not “who was at the Capitol on that day?” or “what was Trump’s responsibility?” but what will come from these events? While the shock of January 6th triggered a widespread countermovement of opinion and a mobilization of efforts both in Congress and in civil society to defend democracy, the Chicago researchers estimate that there are some ten million people in what they call a “core insurrectionist mobilization base” (Chicago Project). Not all of this base would be ready to be mobilized for another violent episode like the insurrection against the Capitol, but they represent a potential at the base of American society for a period of naked movement/countermovement conflict in the country’s future.