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The US Capitol riot has deep roots in the far right ‘Patriot’ movement

This history of far-right extremism is one of escalation. Extremism expert Brian Hughes explains how democracy almost died at the US Capitol.
A look at the east front of the US Capitol from the Senate wing. Image credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

For years, researchers of the far right and watchdog groups have been sounding the alarm that an event like Wednesday’s riot at the US Capitol building in Washington DC was imminent. All too often, however, these warnings have fallen on deaf ears. 

Today, we see the results of politicians, media figures, and an academy that has not taken seriously the threat of the radical right. Such neglect cannot continue. 

Those who committed this act of mutiny — it was an attempt to interrupt and overturn the final certification of Joe Biden’s election as President of the United States, after all — were motivated by two factors: a toxic mixture of conspiracy theories and far-right insurrectionist ideology drawn from the so-called “Patriot” movement

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The 2020 election was plagued by conspiracy theories, of that much we can be sure. Many were endorsed and spread by Trump himself and changed frequently to suit the political needs of the now-defeated President.

They ranged from false accusations that voting machines were hacked to outlandish claims that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (dead since 2013) orchestrated massive fraud. These claims were inextricably tied to the QAnon movement, a rising conspiracy culture and (according to some) cult that believes President Trump is secretly combatting a global ring of powerful Satanists. Every court and legitimate investigative body that looked at these accusations has judged them meritless and false.

The so-called Patriot movement and individuals associated with it were also key to the invasion of the Capitol. The modern Patriot movement traces its origins to the 1970s, when members of the far right and Vietnam veterans turned their ire from the communist Viet Cong to the American federal government, which they believed had acquiesced to foreign influence and betrayed the founding principles of the United States. 

This movement was, from its inception, integrated into white supremacist and neo-Nazi scenes. Over the course of its existence, the Patriot movement has been responsible for numerous acts of political violence, including the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995, committed by Patriot movement member Timothy McVeigh. 

Today’s Patriot movement believes that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are communists and intend to abolish private gun ownership in the United States. Many believe the outlandish conspiracies of the QAnon movement, and view Donald Trump as the only legitimate leader of the United States.

This history of far-right extremism is one of escalation. Those of us who monitor their communications have seen this escalation play out in internal chatter — talk that has ended in the violent deaths of innocent men, women, and children in an El Paso Wal-Mart, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and other domestic terrorist attacks. 

Throughout his administration, Donald Trump has encouraged these groups both tacitly and explicitly. Even during the siege of the Capitol, he continued to spread the motivating lie that the election had been “stolen.” His removal from office is essential, but just as critical is a Biden administration that does not turn away from the menace of far-right extremism.

The Biden administration has a grave responsibility as it enters office this January. But so, too, does it have an opportunity to rid the United States of this threat. The Biden administration must pursue and prosecute these criminals to the fullest extent of the law. 

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But we cannot only address the most severe and deadly manifestations of extremism. We must also address its roots. Research shows that pre-adolescents, adolescents, and young adults are the groups most vulnerable to radicalization to violent extremism. 

Education and resilience training is essential to stemming the flow of new recruits into these movements. There is ample evidence showing the effectiveness of “attitudinal inoculation,” which educates people about the manipulative narratives and rhetoric of extremist groups. 

Likewise, a robust social support network can save young people whose search for belonging has led them into the arms of extremists. Both government and private organisations must pursue these strategies in tandem to reduce the threat of extremist escalation. 

What we saw on Wednesday was horrifying. But it was not an aberration. It is the logical progression of a social and political crisis decades in the making and elevated to fever pitch by Donald Trump and his lackeys. It cannot be wished away, nor will it disappear with Trump’s removal from office. 

To restore the safety and integrity of US democracy and civil society, this threat must be defeated both at its vanguard and its source. It is the responsibility of the Biden administration—and indeed all Americans who love their country—to treat far-right extremism as the scourge that it is.

Brian Hughes is associate director at the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab in Washington DC and an expert in political and religious extremism.