WASHINGTON — The assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, could have been the moment American extremists were forced back into the shadows. Instead, experts say it has only emboldened them.
Rather than shrinking from the public eye, members of violent and anti-government extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have only become more visible – working security at public demonstrations for far-right speakers and joining, or even leading, anti-mask and anti-vaccine rallies. Proud Boys have shown up at school board meetings and gatherings in California, Illinois and North Carolina. In October, a judge prohibited a Portland area Proud Boy, Jeff Grace, from owning firearms while he awaits trial on Jan. 6 charges after the DOJ submitted video of him carrying a baton and firearm during confrontations in Oregon and Texas.
But, even more troubling, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Michael Edison Hayden, is the growth in individual extremists without any formal group ties.
Hayden is an investigative reporter who has for years followed the movements of extremist groups in the U.S. But, he says, since September 2020, membership in a group has been less and less necessary for extremist behavior.
“I think it’s useful to de-emphasize the idea of groups in general because of how diffuse this kind of mass radicalization we’re talking about has become,” Hayden said. “It’s not necessary to be a Proud Boy to support their beliefs. And I think that’s the more dangerous thing here, is not just that the Proud Boys are going to march around and do violence – which they do and did extensively, by the way, over the summer. It’s not only that. It’s the kind of every day person who is ready to essentially be a Proud Boy just by walking out of the house. And that’s the real concern of the individual extremists who are there and taking in a whole lot of propaganda.”
That propaganda is not limited to the baseless election lies promoted by former President Donald Trump and his allies, Hayden said. And it is not coming from fringe figures. On Fox News, the network’s most-watched host, Tucker Carlson, has spoken favorably of “great replacement theory” – an Islamophobic, anti-immigrant conspiracy that holds global elites are systemically attempting to replace white Americans with Arab, sub-Saharan Muslim or otherwise non-white immigrants.
“Tucker Carlson has an audience of 4 million viewers sometimes at night. That’s a tremendous amount. We’re talking about reaching people who [former grand wizard of the KKK] David Duke could only dream of reaching,” Hayden said. “And he is essentially saying the same things about immigrants that David Duke did. This is really scary stuff, but it has proved to be a very big motivator for people who cannot necessarily find any other answer to their pain and frustration.”
Carlson has also been one of the most prominent proponents of the idea that Jan. 6 defendants awaiting trial in custody are “political prisoners.” That’s another well-worn propaganda tactic, according to Brian Hughes, the co-founder and associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University.
Hughes spoke to WUSA last year about the right’s efforts to turn Ashli Babbitt, the U.S. Air Force veteran killed at the Capitol on Jan. 6, into a martyr figure. At the time, he said it paralleled the use of female martyrs he saw frequently in his research on Islamist extremism. He sees the same parallels in the attempts to turn defendants accused of violent assaults on police into political prisoners. He also said the government’s decision to house most of the pre-trial defendants together was a mistake.
“I think something that’s interesting, if we want to return to the issue of Islamist extremism, is the role that imprisonment plays in making these situations worse,” Hughes said. “You know, ISIS came about, in large part, because of the way that prisoners of war were taken in the Iraq conflict – where they were placed, who they were allowed to talk to and so on. We really see a risk of that happening here, where if you have a certain critical mass of committed, anti-government or far-right extremists who are brought to prison, who are able to ideologically radicalize the people around them or use that time to hone their messages and to plan for the future when they’re released – you could really see a much worse situation emerge after these sentences have been served."
Hughes says it was, unequivocally, a mistake to keep the majority of Jan. 6 pretrial detainees in the same facility (in this case, the D.C. Jail’s Correctional Treatment Facility).
“Again, you can go back to the history of ISIS and the way it metastasized in prisons in Iraq and just see that there’s a very clear precedent for why you shouldn’t put people who hold the same extremist ideas and who have committed the same crimes of violence or terrorism in the name of an ideology… you shouldn’t put them together in prison. That further radicalizes them,” Hughes said. “That allows them to strategize and get their stories straight and to build a sort of esprit de corps that they can use to keep the movement going.”
In fact, multiple defendants have asked judges to release them on bond due to the danger of radicalization in the D.C. Jail, and at least one – Thomas Sibick, of New York – was explicitly granted release for that reason. Sibick is accused of robbing D.C. Police Officer Michael Fanone while he was being attacked by other members of the pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6. U.S. District Judge Amy B. Jackson released him to home confinement in October in part because of the “incredible pressure he’s had to resist” from other Jan. 6 defendants in the jail.
There is ample evidence of increasing radicalization among elected officials as well. As Hayden noted in a piece for SPLC’s Hatewatch, Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar (R) – one of the most vocal of the 121 House Republicans who voted to object to certification of the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 – has repeatedly amplified white supremacist Nick Fuentes. Gosar was the keynote speaker at Fuentes’ America First Political Action Committee conference last February.
On Thursday, Fuentes – who is banned from most social media platforms – took to Telegram to call Jan. 6 “the perfect finale to the first term of the Trump Admin” and “easily the most awesome thing to happen in this century.”
On the podcast hosted by former Trump campaign manager and senior advisor Steve Bannon – currently under federal indictment for contempt of Congress – Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), another staunch Trump ally who has used appearances on Fox News to accuse of trying to "replace America," said Thursday, “We’re ashamed of nothing. We’re proud of the work we did on Jan. 6…” Gaetz and fellow election denier Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene then promised to go walk the grounds “patriotic Americans” did on Jan. 6.
Nationwide, a new poll this week conducted by the University of Maryland and the Washington Post found that 40% of Republicans and 41% of independents said it is “sometimes” justifiable for citizens of the United States to take violent action against their government. More than 60% of Republicans continue to believe there is evidence of widespread voter fraud behind Trump’s loss.
And, while the U.S. Capitol Police spent this week assuring the country they would be prepared for another Jan. 6, Hayden says he has a different fear: That another assault won’t be necessary at all.
“I think the concern is that, if the votes aren’t there, that a replay of Jan. 6 is certainly possible. But if it’s not necessary, an even scarier scenario could play out,” Hayden said. “If that type of acceptance of violence is used to control power. The message, I think, that extremists took away from Jan. 6 is that, if you push hard enough against the foundations of this country, you can really shake things up. And they see foundations now everywhere they look. That can be, in school board meetings, that can be in state capitals, that can be basically anywhere in the country where power is won or lost, even in a small degree. They have begun to see the world in those terms, just, basically, is there power to be gained? And if there’s power, let’s push. And that’s really scary.”
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