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Harvard researchers delve into court documents to probe motivations of Jan. 6 rioters

Harvard researchers delved into court documents in the cases of hundreds of people charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol to probe rioters' motivations. The most common reasons, researchers found, were support for Donald Trump and the mistaken belief that the election was rigged.JASON ANDREW/NYT

Researchers at Harvard delved into court documents in the cases of hundreds of people charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol in Washington, trying to figure out why they did it.

The most common motivations, researchers found, were support for Donald Trump and the mistaken belief that the election was rigged.

“Far and away, we find that the two most commonly cited reasons for breaching the US Capitol were a desire to support Trump on January 6th in DC and concerns about election integrity,” the researchers from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School wrote in a working paper issued last week.


“A significant number of the defendants specifically mentioned or implied that they had come to the Capitol on January 6 at the express invitation of Donald Trump, who they believed had requested their assistance in ‘defending democracy’ from election fraud,” researchers said.

Researchers looked at 469 charging and sentencing documents in federal court, representing 417 defendants. The researchers assigned each defendant a motivation based on the documents, which included, among other things, direct quotes from the defendants and copies of their social media posts, researchers said in the report.

“We really wanted to study the Everyman’s story of why they ended up at the Capitol,” said Joan Donovan, research director at the Shorenstein Center and lead author of the study.

The researchers said that their “qualitative discourse analysis” found that for 86 defendants, or 20.62 percent of the total, supporting Trump was the motivation. Another 86 were motivated by the idea promoted by Trump that the 2020 presidential election was rigged.

While it might seem like the Capitol attackers were interested in “installing Trump as an autocratic leader, the researchers noted, the documents reveal that a large proportion of the defendants are actually quite democratically-minded, and only believe that the election was rigged because Trump and his supporters said so.”


The third largest group was much smaller, with 33 people, or 7.91 percent of the total, motivated by a desire to take part in a “revolution/civil war/secession,” the researchers said.

That group was followed by a dozen other progressively smaller groups who researchers classified as being motivated by another dozen reasons, including wanting to be part of history, wanting to peacefully protest, and wanting to commit or witness violence.

“We wanted to make sure the multiplicity of motivations was available” for the congressional committee investigating the attacks, the Department of Justice, and the general public, said Donovan.

The researchers said that, during their review, they detected an underlying theme.

“The vast majority of documents analyzed did seem to share a common thread: an insidious paranoia that the Capitol attackers’ sociocultural status, livelihoods, and way of life were just as much in jeopardy as Trump’s hold on the presidency,” the researchers said. “This paranoia, coupled with a deep-seated resentment for the people and groups they see as enemies, and a sincere belief that there was no alternative, nonviolent means of preserving the status quo, underwrote every stated motivation we tracked across the documents.”

The researchers said that “at the time of the attack, the defendants were clearly and deeply afraid of what the future holds for them, their families and communities, and for the country, because they believe that various enemies want to rob them of their currently held privileges and way of life.”


Those ideas “do not erupt from nowhere. On the contrary, they have been made readily available to the public on nearly every mainstream social media platform by a vast network of politically extremist influencers and personalities,” researchers said.

More than 840 people have been charged federally in the attack on the Capitol, the Washington Post reports.

Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.