The January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was an inflection point for extremism in America. Though the attack was in many ways predictable – extremists were increasingly active and emboldened across the United States in the years before the insurrection – the overt display of political violence and venom was nonetheless shocking. One year later, the ripple effects of that day continue to reverberate in the form of heightened displays of hate and extremism nationwide.
The events of January 6 – and their far-reaching aftermath – demonstrate the toxic and dangerous impact of coordinated engagement between extremists and non-extremists, and illustrate the profound and far-reaching effects of ostensibly mainstream political leaders, media influencers and other high-profile figures who tolerate, flirt with and outright promote extremist ideology and conspiracy theories. It is difficult to forecast exactly how the extremist landscape may change over the next several months and years, but it is clear that many of the elements that brought Americans to the Capitol on January 6 continue to animate segments of the population.
To counter the virulent extremism, hate and disinformation that has spread since January 6, we must understand how it has mutated, who are its super-spreaders and how it infects and harms our institutions and communities.
This resource outlines eight of the most concerning ways in which extremism and hate have grown and changed since the insurrection and highlights ten representative examples of each trend. Many of these incidents and developments are directly connected to the events of January 6. Others could only have occurred in the broader extremist climate created by the insurrection and its aftermath. The unifying factor is January 6 itself – a moment unlike any other in modern American history.
January 6 was both a symbol of our national failure to prevent the terrifying rise of extremism and an ominous oracle of the ways in which extremism would mutate in the months after the attack. Today, it also acts as a warning: until our nation takes united, focused, concerted and effective action to mitigate the rise of extremism, our democracy is in danger. In the meantime, we hope that the work of the bipartisan House committee investigating the January 6 attacks will deliver a comprehensive assessment of and accountability for that day’s horrific acts.
Concerned individuals can use this resource to educate and equip themselves and their communities to push back more effectively against the nationwide extremist threat.
The American system of government has always been exceptional, and exceptionally fragile. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin famously told his fellow citizens that the Constitutional Convention had created "a republic, if you can keep it" – an admonition to his contemporaries and future generations to remain vigilant in upholding and defending the principles of democracy enshrined in the Constitution.
Our elected officials have always played an outsized role in our nation’s efforts “to form a more perfect Union,” and have not always been successful. But since the Civil War, despite regularly engaging in hyperbole and combative rhetoric, our democratically elected leaders have largely eschewed violence in favor of solving differences through constitutional means.
However, in the leadup to and aftermath of January 6, more and more elected officials glorified and even encouraged violence against their political opponents. Paired with the increasing use of dehumanizing language targeting people on the other side of the aisle, politicians continue to create a sense of urgency that has contributed to surging threats and acts of political violence across the nation.
From former President Donald Trump’s call to “fight like hell” on January 6, to politicians publicly fantasizing about harming their ideological opponents, calls for political violence have grown exponentially since January 6. And as political leaders go, so go their followers; the U.S. Capitol Police reported in May 2021 that threats against members of Congress were up 107% compared to 2020.
When politicians use their reach to promote violent rhetoric without consequence, it inspires increasingly militant speech and action from fellow leaders and their supporters; it endangers the very Constitution these officials have sworn to support and defend.
Extreme views have always existed in every society around the world. In healthy societies, these ideologies are relegated to the margins, with most people rejecting the hateful, conspiratorial or violent ideas and tactics promoted by extremists. Yet the last century has provided many examples of the tragic and deadly consequences caused by the mainstreaming of hate and extremism – from increased threat of terror attacks to governments limiting human and civil rights and even to genocide. Considering the deadly stakes, democracies must always be watchful for extremists’ efforts to expand their reach and influence.
Alarmingly, in the months since the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, extremists have enjoyed the mainstreaming of their ideologies at rates unprecedented in modern times. National leaders in government and media have served as gateways and champions for radical ideologies, validating and promoting bigoted and militant views to millions more people than extremists could ever hope to reach on their own.
The results have been heart wrenching and foreseeable. The more people are exposed to extremist ideas – and especially when those ideas are endorsed by trusted leaders – the more people will be emboldened to spread and act on these views. It is no coincidence that the mainstreaming of extremism since January 6 has coincided with spikes in threats and acts of violence targeting essential institutions and communities across the nation.
America has been fertile ground for conspiracy theories since its earliest days, but January 6 marked the start of a new "Age of Conspiracy" in the United States, in which increasingly dangerous falsehoods continue to gain unprecedented popular support.
Even before the debris had fully been cleared from the Capitol on January 6, the insurrection itself became mired in conspiracy. Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz took to the floor to assert, without any evidence, that the insurrection was not an attempt by Trump supporters to stop the certification of the election results but was instead a false flag operation organized by left-wing antifa .
The brazen embrace of falsehoods on January 6 foreshadowed an avalanche of conspiracy theories throughout 2021. More and more individuals across the right adopted increasingly outlandish and irrational beliefs about vaccines, public-school curricula, the 2020 election and other issues of the day. While most of these theories did not cross into extremist territory, their proliferation made it easier for extremists to inject their own sinister conspiracies into the mainstream. Extremist views rooted in white supremacy, QAnon and antisemitism gained traction last year, especially when they were aided and abetted by influential allies in government and the media.
While most conspiracy theories are not dangerous, they can inspire people to engage in criminal activity or even violence. The more conspiracy theories are tolerated or even promoted by national and local American leaders, the more susceptible our society becomes to increasingly dangerous and extreme conspiracy theories that may drive more people to harm others. Note: All of these conspiracy theories have spread nationwide.
When presented with a politician or policy that they do not like, Americans have numerous legitimate and effective means of expressing their discontent and promoting their political views. Not everyone pursues these legal means – American history if rife with examples of individuals and groups who engaged in violence to accomplish their goals. In 2020, we saw aggressive action, including storming of state capitol buildings, by people who disagreed with public health measures to combat the spread of coronavirus, as well as a thwarted plot to kidnap a sitting governor.
These events and January 6 seem to have opened the floodgates; in the last two years, an increasing number of Americans have used violence against their political and ideological opponents. These individuals often directed their ire at physical buildings and institutions that represent government or political entities. This interest in striking symbols of their perceived enemies echoes past acts of domestic terror, most famously the targeting of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building during the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
No one was harmed in the incidents above, but these efforts demonstrate a concerning and growing willingness on behalf of partisans to engage in extreme measures that threaten the safety of our institutions and communities. Indeed, several of the individuals who attacked political institutions in 2021 had assembled significant arsenals at the time of their arrest, indicating their intention and capability to do harm on a larger scale.
In addition to their security implications, these incidents also aim to intimidate and coerce political rivals and may also dissuade Americans from working in public service. Political violence undermines our democratic processes by signaling that anyone can become the target simply for their political beliefs.
As influential figures mainstreamed extremist and hateful views in the months following January 6, more and more of their supporters began promoting and acting on these ideologies. While much of this ire was directed towards national figures and institutions, conspiracies also spread about issues with local impact, particularly concerning public health and education.
Many of the radical ideas that gained traction over the course of 2021 put medical professionals and school officials directly in the crosshairs of far-right animosity from within their own communities. As a result, harassment, threats and acts of violence against health and educational professionals and institutions bubbled over, as people animated by extremist views took action against those who they believed were complicit in or responsible for nefarious conspiratorial plots.
From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation about the virus circulated widely on social media. Elected officials and mainstream news channels promoted lies, including the theory that the vaccine was an effort by the government to “control” the population. As a result, conspiracy theorists, extremists and members of the public have targeted physicians, nurses, hospital and clinic staff members, public health officials and scientists with harassment and threats.
Similarly, in 2021, public schools and school board meetings encountered extraordinary vitriol around mask and vaccine policies, as well as disinformation and conspiracies around Critical Race Theory (CRT). Across the nation, school officials were targeted with threats, doxxing , white supremacist propaganda and other extremist tactics.
The mainstreaming of radical ideologies and conspiracy theories since January 6 has put local community members face-to-face with extremism and hate – a trend that will likely continue in 2022.
A free press is essential to a healthy democracy, and Americans across the ideological spectrum were largely united on this point for most of American history. But former President Donald Trump’s disdain for the press – including maligning it as “fake news” and glorifying violence against journalists – sparked skyrocketing levels of mistrust and outright hostility towards news media by the right.
These sentiments came to a head on January 6, when members of the media who were present to cover the events at the U.S. Capitol building were singled out for harassment, threats and assaults. In many cases, their equipment was stolen, damaged or destroyed.
In the immediate aftermath of the January 6 attack, the phrase “MURDER THE MEDIA” was found carved into a door to the Capitol, leaving a violent message for journalists and setting the stage for a string of assaults against members of the media.
Reflexive, unthinking distrust of the mainstream media is a legacy of the Trump presidency; in fact, the Nazi phrase “Lugenpresse,” or lying press, was resurrected by Trump supporters at his rallies. But this sentiment is not solely reserved for the right – left-wing extremists have also increasingly adopted and acted on anti-press views. This has led to real-world action - the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports that at least 135 journalists have been assaulted in 2021.
Today, that anger continues to simmer, and when it boils over, journalists find themselves in danger for simply doing their jobs. When journalists fear for their lives, we should fear for our country.
Under the Trump administration, Americans witnessed the transformation of QAnon from a loose, unhinged conspiracy theory that rose from the cesspools of 4chan into a movement that inspired people to participate in the violent January 6 effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Adherents of the conspiracy theory follow the anonymous Q and believe that world governments are being controlled by a shadowy cabal of pedophiles who will ultimately be brought to justice by President Trump.
Despite there being no word from Q since December 2020, QAnon continued to migrate into mainstream channels in 2021, a shift that was highlighted by several conferences held across the country that brought together QAnon adherents, election conspiracy theorists, and anti-vaccine activists. Among the dangerous narratives propagated at these events: the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats; a global cabal of pedophiles (including Democrats) who are kidnapping children for their blood will be executed when Donald Trump is reinstated as president; the coronavirus was co-created by Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates; satanic socialists are attempting to take over the country; and if the Democrats remain in power, a confrontation – possibly a violent one – will be necessary to “reclaim” the country.
Even more disturbing, many of these events featured “mainstream” conservatives, whose presence only served to legitimize the extremist narratives being spun during these events and to further blur the line separating the mainstream from the extreme. This tacit – and at times explicit – acceptance of QAnon by more mainstream figures is particularly concerning when the movement’s antisemitism is taken into account. QAnon on its own is a hateful and dangerous conspiracy; its embrace by some people with power is an ominous development for the long-term health of the American republic.
From the deadly violence on January 6, to the long-awaited verdict in the Unite the Right trial, 2021 has been a busy year for those who traffic in extremism, hate and disinformation. Some extremists were held to account for their actions – at the insurrection and in Charlottesville – while others joined forces to spread bigotry. Though it has always been part of this country, in recent years extremism has, for most Americans, become more visible than ever before, with violent expressions of hate populating our news feeds and screens daily.
Meanwhile, the extremist landscape continues to shift as new, hateful groups emerge to champion fresh causes and conspiracies.
Image Credit: Jon Cherry / Stringer - Getty Images