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OPINION

Capitol attack was an epiphany for the far right. It better be one for the rest of us, too

Jan. 6 is being used to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize extremists to further action.

Although it’s important to focus on the perpetrators of last week’s violence and the massive intelligence and preparatory failures of law enforcement to prevent it, it’s equally critical to pay attention to how Jan. 6 is being used to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize extremists to further action.
Although it’s important to focus on the perpetrators of last week’s violence and the massive intelligence and preparatory failures of law enforcement to prevent it, it’s equally critical to pay attention to how Jan. 6 is being used to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize extremists to further action.Jason Andrew/NYT

The pro-Trump mob attack on the US Capitol last Wednesday coincidentally fell on the Day of Epiphany — a Christian holiday that commemorates the manifestation of Jesus Christ. The word “epiphany” has evolved, in colloquial usage, to refer to a sudden awakening or clarity of understanding.

Make no mistake: Last Wednesday’s attack is being lauded as an epiphany within the extreme right. After months of escalating armed protests at state capitols across the country and foiled plots to kidnap the Michigan and Virginia governors, far-right extremists see the Capitol attack as a resounding success. This means that while the world reacts in horror, the far right is using this insurrection as a tool to recruit and mobilize more people to far-right extremist ideas and violent action.

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The individuals who participated in the violence came from a wide range of groups across the far-right spectrum — white supremacists and neo-Nazis, Proud Boys, patriot militias, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and violent MAGA extremists, your neighbors and maybe even your family members. What united them is the fervent belief that the presidential election was illegitimate, that there was mass voter fraud, and that they have been called upon to defend the country as patriots against an existential threat to democracy itself.

They do not believe they are attacking the nation; they believe they are saving it. For the extremist fringe, the violence at the Capitol was a courageous revolutionary act, complete with martyrs who sacrificed themselves in battle. In online chats and forums, far-right extremists are praising the fact that white people finally stood up to injustice with collective action, noting that this marks the start of a war that has moved beyond symbolic victories online. This framing is a powerful tool for recruitment.

So although it’s important to focus on the perpetrators of last week’s violence and the massive intelligence and preparatory failures of law enforcement to prevent it, it’s equally critical to pay attention to how Jan. 6 is being used to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize extremists to further action.

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Extremists are using the attacks to urge their followers to “stay the course” and “keep resisting.” In online chats, they compare the attack on the Capitol with the start of the American revolution, acknowledging that there will be losses in the battles to come as “patriotic people” fight for “constitutional freedoms.”

Extremists are also leaning into key American values to frame the Jan. 6 attack as a defense of freedom, government accountability, and a step toward justice for all. These are powerful recruitment tools for mobilizing citizens to new protests. An FBI memo this week warns of armed protests being planned for all 50 state capitols and the US Capitol from Jan. 17 to 20. Even before last week’s attack, fliers advertising these state and local protests leaned into the language of freedom and democracy to call people to action.

When democracy is destroyed” people must “refuse to be silenced,” one flier notes, calling for an armed march on all state capitols to ensure that the liberties fought for by the Founding Fathers are not in vain. Propaganda and fliers promoting planned rallies use language about ending corruption by enemies who divide us, blaming “those in power” for the failure of the American dream. Bold commands like “Demand Freedom,” “End the Corruption,” and “Stand up for Liberty” are peppered throughout, along with a promise of justice in the face of a government that is trampling ordinary citizens’ rights and freedoms. Merchandise and T-shirts with similar slogans and messages were and are being sold online.

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What can be done to turn the tide? Rapid de-platforming of conspiracy accounts and platforms that have helped foment disinformation and plans for violence will help. But surveillance, monitoring, and de-platforming are always a Band-Aid solution. There are now millions of Americans who fervently believe in an alternative universe of disinformation and conspiracies about a stolen election and a broken democracy. The vast majority were not in Washington last week. And while some of them may be mollified by the violence they saw happening as an expression of their beliefs, many others will feel empowered.

This latter group remains vulnerable to the recruitment and mobilization efforts of the extreme right. What is needed are immediate investments in evidence-based public intervention and education efforts that help people understand what online manipulation looks like, how propaganda works, what scapegoating is, and why they may be susceptible to persuasive arguments from extremists. These kinds of prevention and off-ramping efforts can prevent the kinds of additional growth that extremist groups so fervently desire.

Across the country and around the globe, people reacted with shock and horror to the attack as they became fully aware of the dire threat of far-right extremism in the United States and how far the nation has progressed from the mainstreaming and normalization of extremism into violent mobilization and insurrection.

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The far right is galvanized by what they view as a tremendous victory and an awakening for Americans. They are celebrating Jan. 6 as an epiphany. It had better be one for the rest of us, too.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss directs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, and is author of “Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.”