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This week is the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol. In the months since the riot, a number of far-right extremist groups have become household names, and some of their core beliefs — and even their tactics — have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Nick Schifrin reports.
We return now to our ongoing coverage this week of the first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
In the months since the riot, a number of far-right extremist groups have become household names.
And, as Nick Schifrin reports, some of their core beliefs and even their tactics have moved from the fringe to the mainstream.
On January 6, in a sea of thousands of Trump supporters…
… members of the far right group the Proud Boys descended on the National Mall, among them, Matthew Greene, who just a month earlier had joined the central New York chapter.
Law enforcement officials say Greene and other Proud Boys seen wearing earpieces were among the first to barge through the police line. Last month, Greene became the first Proud Boy to plead guilty to conspiracy, and he's cooperating with federal authorities who are attempting to untangle a complex web of planning and coordination.
Michael German, Former FBI Special Agent:
I think you would have to be naive to fail to understand how organized these groups were.
Michael German is a retired FBI special agent who focused on domestic terrorism. He sees January 6 as a culmination, years of activity from the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to violent post-election protests in November 2020 that convinced these groups they could act with impunity.
These groups were increasingly emboldened to publicly announce their intention to commit violence at a public rally, commit violence at the public rally, walk away, despite this criminal activity occurring in plain view.
That created an atmosphere where they believed, not just that they were going to get away with engaging in violence, but it was actually encouraged by law enforcement.
Law enforcement has cast a wide net, charging more than 700 rioters, including dozens from right-wing groups the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and 3 Percenters. But the majority of those are not for violent acts such as assault.
The Justice Department's efforts seem to front-load people who were involved in the least egregious conduct. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people, engaging in violence against police officers. That should have been the primary focus, because many of those people still have yet to be charged and are out in the community still able to organize, still able to attend events.
This year, across multiple states, Proud Boys have attended school board meetings to back those opposed to COVID measures and Critical Race Theory, or CRT.
Any time that there is a contentious issue, such as the mask mandate, or CRT in our schools, or forced vaccinations of our children, you're going to see more Proud Boys.
ProPublica reports at least 10 sitting state lawmakers are members of the militia group the Oath Keepers. Experts say an insurrectionist mentality is becoming normalized and more popular.
Robert Pape, University of Chicago: What we have is a new type of political movement, with violence at its core. And what's new about the movement is that it's coming heavily from the mainstream.
Robert Pape is a University of Chicago political science professor and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats.
His team studied those arrested for January 6 and found more than half are business owners or white-collar workers, including doctors, lawyers, and architects. Nearly 90 percent are not members of militia groups, and they come from 44 states, half from counties won by President Biden.
Pape's surveys found 21 million Americans, 8 percent, called President Biden illegitimate and supported violence to overthrow the 2020 election.
We have a tinderbox in front of us. Think about this as a wildfire scenario, where what I'm describing with the 21 million with these insurrectionist sentiments are the combustible dry wood that could be set off by a lightning strike, or by a spark, or by a match.
And that combustible material is really quite significant at this point in time.
Christopher Wray, FBI Director:
The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it's not going away anytime soon.
In March, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress the FBI had for years considered domestic terrorism as much of a threat as ISIS.
This is a top concern and remains so for the FBI.
In June, the Biden administration released the first national strategy for countering domestic terrorism, more information-sharing inside and outside government, preventing extremist group recruitment, improving prosecution, and tackling endemic problems such as racism.
Merrick Garland, U.S. Attorney General:
The only way to find sustainable solutions is not only to disrupt and deter, but also to address the root causes of violence.
And following a stand-down to try and reduce extremism in the ranks, the Pentagon released a new strategy, including a ban on liking white nationalist or extremist social media content.
John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary:
While extremist activity in the force is rare, any instance can have an outsized affect.
I think it's a good first step, but this is fundamentally a problem for our political leaders, our community leaders, our leaders of faith. This — we need to broaden our approach to this, because it is a broader problem.
A broader problem, as more Americans support and are willing to commit insurrectionist violence.
The political violence we have most to worry about today is them coming rooted in the mainstream.
That is a challenge. It's a challenge, I believe, that we will be able to meet. But that's the core test of our democracy today.
So, to explore how radicalization and extremism are testing our democracy, I'm joined by Kathleen Belew, professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of "Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America," and Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
Welcome to the "NewsHour," both of you.
Michael Jensen, let me start with you.
Do you see more radicalization today than in the past? And is the speed of radicalization increasing?
Michael Jensen, University of Maryland: Yes, absolutely.
I think, in many ways, January 6 was the culmination of things that have been happening for at least 20 years in this country. And that really is the mainstreaming of radical political opinion.
Certainly, the events of January 6 were tied to some of the extraordinary circumstances that we all endured during 2020, a pandemic, racial justice protests, and a hotly contested election.
But, for decades, we have seen the surge in especially right-wing extremism in the United States.
And is it moving faster? All indications are yes. This is something that primarily happens now online on social media. And social media is a hyper-mobilizing environment. It's a 24/7 echo chamber where individuals hear these views and are mobilized to act. So it absolutely is moving much faster today than in the past.
Kathleen Belew, the mainstreaming of radicalization, how are you seeing that into politics as well?
Kathleen Belew, University of Chicago: I think this is the critical question.
We know that one stream of activism that took us to January 6 was the white power and militant right groups that have been active in our country since the late 1970s. But the big question is how they're able to recruit and radicalize from the other groups of people who were there that day, things like the Trump base, QAnon groups.
And even within Stop the Steal, there's a large degree of separation between people who came simply to a free speech action and people who came with the intent to do violence. And in the middle somewhere are people who were instantly radicalized on that day.
So, the question really is how that flow works between the extremist groups that are highly weaponized and highly organized and those mainstream people who are just now finding this ideology.
And, Kathleen Belew, let me stay with you.
Is it not only the flow, but is it also a question of what the goals are of these groups, of these people? Are the goals political? Are they policy? Is it to sow distrust?
I think this is the big question.
And my guess, as a historian, is that we really don't know the full answer here yet, because, earlier in the white power movement, part of the reason that these groups became violent and declared war on the federal government all the way back in 1983, and many of these groups have considered themselves at war on the state since then, is because they never thought mainstream politics could possibly deliver the kinds of reforms that they wanted to see.
Mainstream politics, though, is not a closed door for many of these activists anymore. And some people are finding entry into our mainstream in all kinds of ways. This is something that would have been unthinkable to the people in the white power movement in the 1980s.
Michael Jensen, let me take us back to 2020 for a second and a point you were making about what led to January 6.
We had unprecedented isolation, thanks to COVID lockdowns, people spending a lot of time online, then, in the summer of 2020, widespread Black Lives Matter protests, and President Trump painting the election as an existential threat.
Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who in many instances have absolutely no clue what they are doing.
How did that rhetoric and those variables help lead to January 6?
Well, January 6 was a product of having millions of people that were quite vulnerable to a radicalizing narrative.
As you mentioned, these are people that were sitting at home. They were isolated. They were scared. They were anxious about what was happening around them and in their communities and in their lives. And they were looking for answers. And, ultimately, they were spending an awful lot of time online looking for those answers.
And in those spaces, they often encountered disinformation as much as they found truth and evidence.
For mass radicalization like we saw on January 6 to occur, you have to have an (AUDIO GAP) that is politically powerful and whose message carries weight. And nobody's message carries more weight than the president of the United States.
So, when the president says that the election was stolen, that's going to energize his base. And that ultimately mobilized thousands of people to act on his behalf on these unfounded claims that the election was stolen from him.
Kathleen Belew, let's fast-forward to today and look at the two strategies that we have seen from the Biden administration.
The Pentagon trying to tackle recruitment of active-duty, but also veterans, by extremist groups, and also the Biden administration with a counter domestic terrorism strategy, the first ever.
What do you think of those efforts so far?
These are both very positive steps in the right direction.
The DOD policy is particularly noteworthy because, since the mid-1980s, the Pentagon has been trying to prohibit what it called active participation in extremist groups. But it did not define what active participation was or what an extremist group does — was.
This new policy defines both of them. And the definition is broad enough that I think it would have limited several of the people who were involved on January 6. It asks for service members even to take accountability for retweeting and reposting content from hate groups, and also sort of lays out a landscape of how we can begin to think about this problem.
Michael Jensen, you have talked about the need for mass deradicalization.
Are you seeing signs of a policy that can achieve that? And is it even possible to achieve that?
Yes, when you look at the events of the past year, I actually think the Department of Justice has done quite a good job in terms of the criminal investigations tied to January 6. It's the largest criminal prosecution history in the United States.
But where we haven't done as good a job is tackling the disinformation that made its way into the mainstream in 2020. It's still very much front and center in our national political discourse. An overwhelming majority of Republican voters in particular believe that the 2020 election was rampant with fraud.
We see anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, QAnon movement, et cetera, are still very much in the mainstream political discourse. And we haven't had a unified voice that's really come out to counter that disinformation. And I think really importantly is, we haven't had a collective voice from both sides of the aisle of powerful political leaders condemning that disinformation and what happened on January 6.
And so, unfortunately, if anything, we have moved in the opposite direction because, on top of all that disinformation, we now have this revisionist history around January 6, certain political commentators promoting the idea that it was a peaceful protest, and that the truly aggressive people that day were the police, and that the demonstrators were just protecting themselves and they're true patriots.
And so now we have this disinformation that's making its way into the mainstream, on top of all the other disinformation that was there prior to January 6.
Michael Jensen, Kathleen Belew, thank you very much.
Watch the Full Episode
Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
Sam Lane is reporter/producer in PBS NewsHour's segment unit.
Ali Rogin is a correspondent for PBS News Weekend and a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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