A Year Later, We Know Exactly Who the Capitol Rioters Were. The Answer Is Not Comforting.

Aymann Ismail 16-20 minutes 1/4/2022

A year later, a fuller picture of who really drove the riot is clear. The lessons for 2022 and beyond are sobering.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

When I was inside the Capitol riot last Jan. 6, the crowd and the chaos looked different than any other event I had documented in the Trump era. Some rioters acted like revelers at a party; others were attacking journalists and destroying whatever they could find. Still others appeared to have had even more sinister plans. They seemed to be all ages and from all parts of the country, and all had different stories to tell me. This was far removed from the Trump rallies that reporters had been warily attending for years by then. It felt impossible to understand what was really happening in the moment—and what could happen next.

Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, sought data in that chaos. When the earliest arrests came after the riot, Pape began collecting information and systemically profiled the makeup of the rioters. He devoted much of the year to the project, and he’s published extensively on what he and his team have found, including research that tied rioters’ home counties to the areas that had lost the most white population in recent years. Pape now says a much fuller picture of the insurrectionists has emerged, and he agreed to discuss the findings over the phone, one year later. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: There was a lot of immediate speculation into what drove the rioters on Jan. 6. For example, some suggested they were motivated by financial insecurity or a hunger for anti-government violence beyond the election results. What were you expecting when you first started to research this? Did you have any initial theories?

Robert Pape: It was clear the Capitol insurrection was right-wing political violence, so a lot of our basic knowledge of right-wing violence kicked in. Experts in political violence naturally assumed that right-wing political violence was largely a skinhead or militia group phenomenon. That’s actually true, but it was not true on Jan. 6. What we now know based on a more systematic analysis of who has been arrested—and our study that we published in the Atlantic in early February of last year was the first to really weigh this out—is that Jan. 6 is really not a product of just the “fringe.” There was fringe involved—that is, there were some militia groups involved and there were some extremist groups involved—but overwhelmingly, the data shows that this is coming from the mainstream.

If you go back and study whom the FBI has arrested with right-wing ideologies who perpetrated violence in the past, you would see that more than half the time, they are members of skinhead gangs or prison gangs or militia groups or extremist groups, like the Proud Boys. In this case, it’s only 13 percent of those who have been arrested are parts of those groups. A common assumption like you mentioned is that they would be economically motivated, because our right-wing extremists are typically 25 percent, or a third, unemployed. Another common assumption is that they wouldn’t have much education, because with our typical right-wing extremists, only 10 percent have a college degree. That’s not the case here. Only 7 percent of the people arrested were unemployed at the time of Jan. 6. That was basically the national average at the time. It’s very different than the economic profile of right-wing extremists in the United States, and elsewhere as well.

Your initial study looked at about 200 people who had been arrested. Since then, that number has swelled to about 730. What has emerged as the profile of the average rioter, a year later? What are some of the stories you’ve uncovered, and what do they tell us about what led to this?

We’ve now studied nearly 700 who have been arrested, and we’ve brought the study up to date as of early December. What we see is, over half of those who have been arrested are business owners, CEOs from white-collar occupations, doctors, lawyers, and architects. If you look at extremist group membership, again, 13 percent of those nearly 700 arrested as of early December are members of militia groups like the Oath Keepers or extremist groups like the Proud Boys. As I said, this is very different than about half that we normally find.

If you look at their ages, two-thirds of those arrested for Jan. 6 are over the age of 34. They’re concentrated in their 40s and 50s. Normally for right-wing extremists, it’s two-thirds under the age of 34. Typically, only 10 percent have a college degree. Here, the Jan. 6 arrestees, 25 percent have a college degree, which is close to the national average of the U.S. electorate at 30 percent. About 15 percent of those on Jan. 6 had prior U.S. military service, but that compares with what we usually see in right-wing extremists at 40 percent. About 10 percent of the U.S. electorate has prior military service, so it’s a little higher than that, but much closer to the U.S. mainstream than to the usual right-wing extremists. What if we look at criminal history? Well, 30 percent of those arrested on Jan. 6 had prior criminal history, mostly for misdemeanors like marijuana charges, but with other right-wing extremists, it’s 64 percent have prior criminal history. The U.S. electorate overall has 20 percent with criminal history.

When you look at this, it’s just one category after another after another that shouts out mainstream. The Jan. 6 insurrectionists really are best understood as a product of the mainstream.

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In April, you presented a theory that counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic white population were the most likely to produce insurrectionists. Did that theory hold up?

What we found in April has just been reinforced over time. In the court records, the residence data is right there. We don’t have fuzziness with this. As of early December, what we found is 52 percent are coming from counties that Biden won in the 2020 election. That is, more are coming from counties Biden won than Trump won. They were coming from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City—not upstate New York—Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas. They are a political minority in the places that they live. This is really quite striking. The more the county votes for Trump, the less likely was the county to send an insurrectionist. The more rural, the less likely to send an insurrectionist.

Now, what else do those counties have in common? The No. 1 feature of the county sending insurrectionists, aside from simply the size of the population overall, is that these are the counties losing the most white population in the United States. The more counties have lost non-Hispanic white population since 2010—that is, between 2010 and 2020—the significantly more likely is the county to send an insurrectionist.

There is a right-wing conspiracy theory called the great replacement, which says that white people are being overtaken by minorities and that this is going to cause a loss of rights for white people. It used to be on the fringe. It’s been around a long time, but what’s special now is that that theory is embraced in full-throated fashion by major political leaders and also by major media figures. If you live in an area that’s losing white population, you can start yourself to connect the dots to the spinning that’s going around with these narratives.

You call the rioters “mainstream” compared to most right-wing extremists, but how mainstream are these beliefs among an average American voter?

Right away we wanted to know how widespread these insurrectionist sentiments are in the body politic. We conducted nationally representative surveys. We didn’t just simply draw people from a list of registered voters. We worked with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, who put together a panel of 40,000 people that are representative of the 258 million American adults in the country across hundreds of demographic variables. From that 40,000, we then randomly drew 2,000 to get a random sample. This is the gold standard of surveys. These are superexpensive, but they are the way to get accurate extrapolations of surveys to the general population.

What we’ve found now in multiple surveys, our summer survey and our fall survey, is that 21 million American adults agree with two radical beliefs: one, that the use of force to restore Donald Trump to the presidency is justified, and two, that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election and is an illegitimate president. That is, 21 million don’t hold just one of those beliefs—they hold both of those beliefs. It’s 8 percent of the body politic, but that’s really significant. That really can’t easily be characterized as just the “fringe.” We normally would think the “fringe” would be 1 percent or less.

When you ask questions about their belief in “the great replacement,” you see that that is head and shoulders the No. 1 belief that’s driving the difference between being in the 21 million versus being in the rest of the body politic. Yes, there are other beliefs: Many in the insurrectionist movement believe in the QAnon cult idea, that there is a satanic cult of pedophiles running the U.S. government. Many also fear loss of a job in the next 12 months. Many also believe that the second coming of Christ is happening within their lifetime. Many also think government is an enemy. But those are secondary factors. Head and shoulders, the leading factor is the belief in “the great replacement.” Underneath that, the No. 1 factor that’s predicting whether someone believes in “the great replacement” versus not is racial resentment—that is, specifically resentment of minorities who get what they see as special privileges. These fringe beliefs like “the great replacement” are now no longer confined to the fringe. This is overall a mainstream political movement.

Is this a trend that’s dying down now?

It’s been stable over time. You might think that after nine months or so, the insurrection, you would see that passions would cool, or you would see that arresting hundreds and hundreds of people, many of whom are going to serve jail time for breaking into the Capitol, would have a chilling effect on these insurrectionist sentiments, or that deplatforming Trump would deenergize the movement. What we’re seeing is really a quite stable 21 million who are in this insurrectionist movement. Further, we’ve asked questions about their activity, and fully 2 million of the 21 million report having been part of a protest in the last 12 months. This isn’t just a set of latent beliefs. There’s real activity. That’s why this merits being called a movement.

I was inside the Capitol riot. I admit I was surprised by your findings in April, because I noted in my report the diversity I saw there. I’d been to a lot of other Trump events that were very white, but there were plenty of people at the riot who weren’t. What do you make of that, given your research?

I think that journalists are just a tremendous witness, but we often use them anecdotally. We’re not really getting the most out of witnesses to history, so to speak, because the journalism world isn’t really set up to do what I’m describing in this broader survey. The academic world is not set up to do that either. There would be a real world of good that can be gained here by journalistic knowledge if done more systematically. When you have 700 people arrested, there are going to be really sensational stories that look great in the media, like the QAnon shaman with the funny headdress. The problem is that when people are reading them, they’re thinking that actually represents the movement as a whole. Well, that’s really just not the case. The only way to find out really is this painstaking work.

In order to see whether or not Jan. 6 is a one-off or not, this isn’t just a guess. This isn’t just spending a few weekends or doing it on the side while we’re teaching. The university was very generous in giving me time off here to devote myself to this. I have a research center here. I have nearly half dozen full-time researchers with Ph.D.s and other high qualifications at my research center, the Chicago Project on Security and Threats. We have a small little army of researchers, between 20 and 25 in any given week, that are able to really help us go through this painstaking work we have to do in order to really develop this work at this speed and also with such fidelity and such accuracy. The fuller picture we have now is the product of what we can really do with our social science tools.

In your research, you’ve studied terrorism around the world, especially “suicide terrorism,” as you call it. Do you think these new “mainstream” far-right beliefs in the U.S. echo what you’ve seen other places? How so, and how is it different?

Campaigns of terrorism often rest on a fair degree of community support for the legitimacy of the violence. That’s what we see here with 21 million basically thinking violence for these insurrectionists goals is legitimate. This is significant community support. It’s that community support that makes the violent actors feel like they’re not criminals, that they actually have a popular mandate. It’s that community support where that provides the well from which a lot of the violent actors come from.

There’s been a lot of speculation that this is largely a social media phenomenon. We have a tremendous amount of people in our law enforcement, in government, in the body politic, and even journalism, who are really focused on the role of social media and extremism. Myself, I have been doing that since 2014 with the rise of ISIS. My work has been about how ISIS has used social media to recruit in the United States and other countries.

However, this is a different phenomenon now—that is, Jan. 6 and the current insurrectionist movement. Our nationally representative surveys also ask about the media consumption of people. What we see is in the 21 million, the No. 1 set of news sources are conservative mainstream news sources. Forty-two percent of the 21 million report that it’s Fox News, Newsmax, One America. That’s their major source of news. The next set of sources, 32 percent report that it’s liberal or centrist media like CNN, NPR, NBC. You might say, well, wait a minute—how could that be? Well, just keep in mind that we’ve known for a long time as scholars that when you watch news that you disagree with, it makes you angry.

Only 20 percent of these people report that their main sources are mainstream social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and only 10 percent report that it’s far right social media like Gab or Telegram. That’s really important, because if we keep thinking that this is mainly a social media phenomenon, that is it’s a fringe social media phenomenon, and that it’s also affecting the fringe of militia groups, we just keep painting the picture of the Jan. 6 insurrection as more and more the fringe when it’s in fact more and more the mainstream. That’s true across the demographics of the Jan. 6, that’s true across the sentiments we can track in the body politic. That’s true in terms of their media consumption.

What does an adequate response to this look like, to start at least?

We need to have dialogue with our national leaders and community leaders over the real evidence about what this phenomenon is. This is a lot to absorb. Knee-jerk policy solutions that are intended to do any good can easily cause harm. Overreaction is as dangerous as underreaction. We need to have dialogue occur around the real evidence. That’s why this is important to use this period of time to not just talk about the past, what happened a year ago, but about where things are now, because that matters to the future. We’re about to head into a volatile 2022 election season. You can think about the season as a wildfire season, where what I’m describing for you is the combustible dry wood material that can be set off. What would set it off? That is not predictable with our social science tools. What we can track are the insurrectionist sentiments in the country and probe their scope and drivers. The best way to deal with this now is with dialogue.