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Historians and academics warn that while the Capitol riot may be unprecedented, white extremist groups are growing

Rioters inside the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rioters inside the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

President Trump and the mob he incited at the Capitol on Wednesday to stop the congressional electoral vote count have laid bare the threat of political violence in the United States and thrust the American democratic experiment to a perilous pass.

Political scholars and historians say that while this act of insurrection, spurred on by the president himself, has no national precedent, it stems from a long history of white supremacy and far-right extremism, and could erupt into further violence.

Jill Lepore, an American historian and Harvard University professor, said that both the Trump presidency and the riot at the Capitol defy any historical comparison.

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“ ‘Armed insurgents occupied the Capitol’ is not a sentence you will find in an American history book,” Lepore said. “It will be in every history book from here on out.”

The riots involved hundreds of primarily white Trump supporters and occurred on the day after Georgia, with strong turnout among Black voters, elected Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, its first Black and first Jewish senators. The timing testified to the country’s constant struggle with race, and the backlash against building a more inclusive country, said Chad Williams, the chairman of the African and African American Studies department at Brandeis University.

He noted that Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a leader in the recent Republican effort to overturn the election results, has repeatedly suggested that Congress follow the example set by the body in 1876 to resolve that disputed election. It is a baleful precedent. The compromise reached at that time ushered in one of the more shameful eras of American history: Jim Crow laws and segregation in the South, Williams said.

“This an attempt to maintain a white-supremacy democracy,” Williams said. “There’s been some deep, deep damage to this country’s democracy and political institutions that have been exposed. This is certainly going to be a test of the viability of American democracy and the Constitution.”

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Demonstrators clashed with police officers as they entered the US Capitol building.
Demonstrators clashed with police officers as they entered the US Capitol building. Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

National security experts have been warning for years about the growing threat and influence of white supremacist, far-right groups. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh, who was steeped in white supremacist and right-wing ideologies, killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism of the past several decades.

More recent attacks have shown that far-right extremism remains a threat, and a growing one. In the past year alone, adherents of such ideologies have stormed the Michigan and Oregon state houses, plotted to abduct Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and shot and killed demonstrators in Wisconsin.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan policy think tank, reports that in the first half of 2020, nearly 90 percent of terrorist plots and attacks in the United States were tied to right-wing extremism.

But the intelligence community and the political establishment at large have failed to take the threat seriously, experts said.

“What happened at the Capitol yesterday is a culmination of years of federal government and state government neglect of this issue of far-right extremism and domestic terrorism, as well as the reckless and irresponsible statements by conservative political leaders including the president,” said Daryl Johnson, founder of DT Analytics, a private consulting firm, and a former senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security.

Though federal agencies publish detailed accountings of various forms of terrorism and political violence, there is no publicly available source for federal data on killings by white supremacists. Johnson and others have criticized intelligence and law enforcement for instead zeroing in on largely peaceful movements on the left, including Black civil rights and environmental activists, leaving extremism to fester on the far right.

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Law enforcement’s failure to forcefully confront armed mobs even as they breached the Capitol highlighted the gravity of the country’s failure to take far-right extremism seriously, said Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI special agent. It also leaves insurrectionists emboldened, he said.

“The way that these groups have been empowered will make it very difficult to bring back a sense of normalcy,” German said. “This is really going to be a dangerous period, because they have become accustomed to being allowed to commit public violence. So when law enforcement starts to crack down on violence, you’ll see a much more violent response.”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz (center) fist-bumped a House member Wednesday during a break in a joint session of Congress to certify the electoral votes.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz (center) fist-bumped a House member Wednesday during a break in a joint session of Congress to certify the electoral votes.ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

Even after Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol, some Republicans in Congress continued to back the unproven claims that the election results were fraudulent. Cruz and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley both sent out fund-raising messages touting their efforts to block the vote certification moments before rioters stormed in. They have been unwilling to break with Trump in the days since, hoping to harness the energy of his die-hard fans for their own political ambitions.

All of this points to a sobering reality: Extremism has infiltrated deep into the Republican Party, said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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“I frankly don’t think they got a lot of resistance,” Watanabe said, speaking of the response by law enforcement and the GOP. “They’ve occupied the hearts and minds of politicians of the United States, and that’s pretty frightening.”

On public message boards Thursday, members of militia groups suggested that they were preparing for a sustained battle against those they brand leftists and claimed that they were the true patriots fighting for American values.

“Many wonder what will be the trigger point, the flash in the pan, the moment it kicks off,” a poster named CaptObvious said on one extremist website. “Yesterday. . . . The day the patriots stood and did something. Were [sic] angry, and that creates a lot of energy for a movement.”

To face down a growing and violent uprising, historians said, the country must recognize white supremacist extremism as a homegrown, American problem — one that is unlikely to be resolved quickly.

Miguel La Serna, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies political violence in Latin America, said it is important to acknowledge Wednesday’s insurrection as part of US culture, not distinct from it.

“While there are certainly mobilizations and protests and conflict and insurrections elsewhere . . . we haven’t seen this level of insurrection sanctioned from a president in some time,” he said. “Claiming that this isn’t us is not really helpful. This is us, and the question is how do we deal with it.”

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That insurrectionists succeeded at not only storming the Capitol but also left behind symbols of their destructive designs — broken office windows, Trump banners, and Confederate flags waving in the nation’s most hallowed halls — is especially concerning, La Serna said. Those images could do irreparable damage to the nation’s political psyche if left unchallenged.

“That’s going to outlast any individual there or any elected member of Congress who was in the building,” he said.

Global history does offer one chilling lesson, he added: Insurrectionist acts are rarely isolated events and almost always lead to drawn-out campaigns of political violence.

“It’s very difficult to close that Pandora’s box once it’s been opened,” La Serna said. “This could be something that can take years, or even a generation or more.”

Rooting out extremism is difficult work, and historians questioned whether the United States is up to the task.

The anger of some white people over the increasing diversity of America has been growing for years, they warned, stoked by many provocateurs, including Trump. White supremacist ideologies and right-wing conspiracies have been allowed to spread largely unchecked. And whether the country can rebuild trust in broken political institutions remains in doubt.

Smoke filled the walkway outside the Senate chamber as supporters of President Trump were confronted by Capitol Police officers.
Smoke filled the walkway outside the Senate chamber as supporters of President Trump were confronted by Capitol Police officers.Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Much will depend on the country’s willingness to face the truth and punish the perpetrators, scholars said.

Secessionists were largely granted amnesty after the Civil War, and whites who terrorized Blacks who gained wealth and power in the decades that followed went unpunished, emboldening them further.

That long-running failure of accountability has persisted to our day.

“We’re in a dangerous space in America, and we’ve got to be really clear about what that danger means,” said Carol Anderson, chair of African American studies at Emory University and author of the bestseller “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.”

“Part of what has happened in this nation and also why we’re here is that the folks who do damage to this nation, who attack democracy, are not held accountable,” Anderson said.

Accountability must extend beyond those who stormed the Capitol to include the elected officials who undermined public trust in democratic institutions, experts said.

Impeaching or indicting Trump for inciting the insurrection, and withholding leadership positions from members of Congress who promoted false claims of a stolen election or have tried to delegitimize government institutions, will help ensure that the country reckons with this crucial moment, instead of leaving it unchallenged, historians and political scientists said.

But it will be difficult for the incoming Biden administration, particularly given the hesitancy of many Republicans to condemn the rioters outright and the incoming Democratic president’s desire to build consensus during a pandemic and economic crisis.

“I don’t think that the Republican Party, as it’s currently constituted, is a salvageable partner with the new administration,” said Clarence Lusane, a political science professor at Howard University.

Republican leaders will have to step up and push antidemocratic forces out of the party, or the more moderate voices will have to form their own coalitions, historians said. Democrats, for their part, must defend the country’s electoral process and vital institutions without compromising principle, they said.

Lusane said that following years spent attacking the legitimacy of courts, the media, the military, and electoral processes, as well as driving out more moderate members of the party, the GOP must “earn bipartisanship.”

“If we accept that there is a degree of democracy within the US, that has to be defended,” Lusane said. “I think we’re at the point now where this really is a central question for the country.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe. Dasia Moore is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail her at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.