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A year after an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, the events of January 6, 2021, seem no less momentous. Crucial to understanding whether that same threat of political violence persists today is knowing who participated, what motivated them to take part, and what has happened to them since.
It will never be known exactly how many people took part in the assault, but as of mid-December, 727 people have been arrested for their actions that day. More than 150 of them have already pleaded guilty. The bulk of the rioters arrested have no documented prior ties to traditional extremist ideologies or movements. Rather, they can be considered radicalized supporters of President Donald Trump, people who bought into a cult of personality surrounding the former president and accepted his conspiracy theories about the election. A substantial minority of the hundreds arrested did, however, have a prior history of right-wing extremism, ranging from far-right Proud Boys to white supremacists to QAnon conspiracy theorists.
The largest extremist contingent involved in the attack was probably the militia movement, a right-wing, antigovernment coalition that emerged in the early 1990s after a number of high-profile standoffs with the federal government. Dozens of militia adherents—including Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, both prominent elements within the movement—traveled to Washington, D.C., last January. The Oath Keepers, an organization founded in 2009 to spread militia movement ideology to current and former police, military, and first responders, was particularly prominent. Over 20 Oath Keepers alone have been indicted for their actions on January 6, as have several associates who were not formal members. Moreover, many of the Oath Keepers have been charged with some of the most serious felony violations stemming from that day—including conspiracy, meaning they coordinated their actions to try to disrupt the certification of the 2020 election results by Congress.
In the aftermath of January 6, the militia movement has suffered a number of setbacks, ranging from deplatforming to increased law enforcement attention. Still, the militia movement continues to pose a dangerous threat, especially as antigovernment sentiment is less complicated for these groups now that a Democrat is once again in the White House.
Given its antigovernment ideology, the militia movement’s participation in the storming of the Capitol was not surprising; one might even wonder why something like it had never happened before. The militia movement emerged around 1993 filled with hostility toward the federal government. It was a reaction to the election of Bill Clinton after 12 years of Republican presidents, to federal gun control measures, and to deadly standoffs between the federal government and fringe figures in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993.
The ideology of the militia movement was based on the premise that most of the world was under the control of a tyrannical, globalist conspiracy—what members called the “New World Order”—and that the U.S. government was collaborating with it to strip Americans of their guns and deliver them into its clutches. Flattering themselves as patriotic Americans in the mold of the Minutemen of the American Revolution, militia adherents claimed they had to take up arms to protect themselves from this dire fate.
The militia movement was strong throughout the 1990s—and responsible for a number of terrorist plots and violent incidents—but precipitously declined by the following decade, deflated by years of numerous arrests; the nonevent of the Y2K “millennium bug,” into which they had invested so much conspiratorial energy; and the natural life cycle of surges of extremist activity.
Around 2008–9, however, the movement experienced a renaissance, buoyed by the candidacy and election of Barack Obama as well as the same wave of right-wing, antigovernment sentiment that created the Tea Party movement. This time, social media sites assisted its growth, including the spread of the Three Percenter concept, a simplified version of militia ideology that helped bring many new adherents to the movement and aided in the formation of numerous new groups. In 2009, the Oath Keepers formed, quickly becoming one of the largest groups in the militia movement, with a goal of spreading militia ideology to members of the military, the police, and first responders. Although fewer organized militia groups were formed than in the 1990s, the total number of militia adherents was probably larger, and militia criminal activity—from illegal weapons possession to terrorist plots and acts—again approached that of the previous decade.
The militia movement was still large in 2015, when Trump launched his presidential bid, and the bulk of the movement—which previously had supported only third-party candidates or fringe GOP figures—became enthusiastic Trump supporters. Here was an antiestablishment outsider, a conspiracy theorist, and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim crusader. When Trump defied the polls and was elected president, the militias were ecstatic.
That victory set the militia movement on the road to the Capitol in January 2021, but it was a circuitous route. Trump’s win posed a quandary: the movement had derived much of its energy from its antipathy to the federal government, but now that government was led by Trump. In need of new enemies, some members focused on immigrants, while others targeted antifa, a loose affiliation of activists and groups that oppose white supremacy, as the enemy du jour. The movement was essentially stagnant for most of the Trump presidency.
In early 2020, however, events allowed the movement to regain its mojo. High-profile mass shootings spurred many states to consider gun control measures, which prompted militia groups to take to the streets in protest. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, antigovernment extremists were among the first to defy officials’ efforts to combat the spread of the virus. Militia groups stood at the forefront of the opposition to public health measures, refusing to comply with mask mandates and holding public protests decrying “medical martial law.” Since the efforts to both restrict guns and control the pandemic were carried out primarily at the state level, militia adherents didn’t need to come into conflict with Trump. They could substitute hostility to state government measures for their traditional animus toward the federal government.
The militia movement has struggled with the aftereffects of the Capitol assault.
The summer of 2020 brought nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, and militia groups showed up at many of them. Ostensibly, they were there to protect businesses or monuments, but the real motive for many was to oppose the antifa activists they assumed would be there and to stare down Black Lives Matter protesters—who militia adherents typically thought were controlled by Marxists or the liberal billionaire George Soros.
By August, the election cycle had intensified, and campaign events brought the militia movement to the streets—in some cases, even providing “security” for Trump-supporting candidates. Long before election night, Trump and his surrogates were promoting conspiracy theories about the election being rigged, a notion the militia movement accepted without hesitation.
It was no surprise, then, that many militia adherents participated in the storming of the Capitol—and that some allegedly planned and coordinated their activities, according to January 6 conspiracy indictments. Their attempts to overthrow the election failed, thanks primarily to the efforts of the D.C. and Capitol Police, as well as a Congress shaken and momentarily united in the wake of the attack. Initially, many militia adherents—both January 6 participants and onlookers—were excited about the events of that day, but their excitement quickly turned to consternation as the storming of the Capitol was met with public outrage.
In the year since that failure, the militia movement has struggled with the aftereffects of the Capitol assault. The Oath Keepers in particular received more attention for their participation than any other group but the Proud Boys. Even before January 6, negative publicity over militia activities had already taken a toll on the ability of militia groups to operate. In June 2020, Facebook suddenly deplatformed the movement, removing hundreds of militia-related pages and groups. For years, Facebook had been the main online platform for the militia movement, which used it to recruit, propagandize, and organize and even to plot the occasional act of terrorism. Getting kicked off was a huge blow. Making matters worse, several other platforms removed varying degrees of militia-related content. Militia groups had to scramble to reestablish communications with their own members.
The storming of the Capitol brought even more scrutiny to the militia movement. Not only were many militia adherents indicted, but others—including the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes—were kept wondering if they would be next to face charges. The Oath Keepers and other militia adherents were also among those hit with civil actions related to January 6, including a significant suit filed by the attorney general of Washington, D.C., in December. Such a lawsuit has the potential to destroy the Oath Keepers as an organized group by driving it into bankruptcy. Although the movement benefited from January 6 in some ways—hacked Oath Keepers data, for example, suggest that the group’s membership increased, at least in the short run—for the most part, the militia movement has suffered. With President Joe Biden in office, it has been able to pivot back to its traditional, conspiratorial hostility toward the federal government. But the movement has not seen anything close to the bounce it experienced when Obama took office. Although it is too soon to know for sure, it is possible that the combination of deplatforming and the aftermath of January 6 prevented or at least delayed or weakened another serious militia surge.
Still, the militia movement remains dangerous. In October 2020, federal and state authorities in Michigan announced the arrest of 14 people associated with a militia group, the Wolverine Watchmen, on charges related to an alleged plot to kidnap Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had led the state’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. Since the Capitol attack, there have been more militia-related arrests. In late January 2021, the FBI arrested Ian Benjamin Rogers on weapons and explosives charges related to an alleged plot to attack the Democratic Party’s California state headquarters in Sacramento in a bid to keep Trump in office; in July, a second person, Jarrod Copeland, was also arrested for his involvement. In April, FBI agents arrested Seth Aaron Pendley, a participant in the Capitol attack, for a separate plot to attack Amazon data centers. Pendley, who has since pleaded guilty, hoped a government overreaction to such an attack would cause Americans to rise up against it. With law enforcement casting an interested eye on the movement, more such arrests are likely to happen in the future.
At the same time, other armed, right-wing groups have emerged. These groups, such as United American Defense Force, FEC United, and others, are not directly tied to the militia movement and occupy a space that bridges the mainstream and extremist worlds. Such spaces can be conduits to extremism for people who join these groups only to find them insufficiently hardcore. In this way, they could serve as a source of recruits for the militia movement. Alternatively, the groups could themselves become more radical. The 2024 election cycle, which will gear up all too soon, has considerable potential to become a flashpoint that could agitate these new groups, as well as the groups of the militia movement itself.
One can hope that successful prosecutions of militia-related January 6 cases—and sentences strong enough to send a signal—will deter some would-be extremists from taking up arms again. But it is more likely that law enforcement will need to stay vigilant against a threat whose danger was demonstrated so clearly one year ago.
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