Domestic terror experts say the threat posed by far-right extremists has never been greater.
It has been one year since thousands of supporters of then-President Donald Trump swarmed the U.S. Capitol building in a violent and deadly attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Investigations into the attack by both the Department of Justice and a House select committee have revealed that many members of violent, far-right extremist groups not only participated in the riot, but also helped to plan and incite the violence that took place.
A year later, the threat posed by these groups and other far-right movements has not dissipated but, according to experts, has instead become greater, as their radicalized ideologies have become inextricably intertwined with the mainstream of the Republican Party.
"One year after the insurrection, we now find ourselves at risk of falling under control of a radicalized Republican Party," Susan Cork, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told reporters during a press call marking the anniversary of the Capitol attack. "This is incredibly scary, that one of our two viable political parties is now actually the existential threat to American democracy."
For years, domestic terror experts have been warning of the growing threats posed by far-right extremist movements. Throughout the four years that Trump was in office, violent far-right groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers grew in power, frequently staging violent and sometimes deadly protests and rallies in support of the former president and his policies.
But since the events of Jan. 6, 2021, research into far-right extremist activity, both online and off, has suggested that the failed insurrection has only fueled these movements more.
"Jan. 6 was a wake-up call, about how our country's weak gun laws, combined with extremist politics, can lead to death and devastation," said Shannon Watts, the founder of the gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action. "And not only could the violence have been much worse, but we're seeing this type of extremism ripple across the country, from statehouses to school boards."
According to a report released on Jan. 4, 2022, by the nonpartisan Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab on how domestic extremism has adapted and evolved since the Jan. 6 attack, many of these far-right groups and extremist movements have adopted new methods in order to grow in power.
Extremist groups that have been deplatformed on mainstream social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have since found new ways to connect with people through the proliferation of alternative online platforms like Parler and Telegram. Meanwhile, far-right entrepreneurs such as white nationalist Nicholas Fuentes and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell have launched their own media platforms in order to spread their extremist views unfiltered.
"We must understand how these movements have mutated over the past year — who are its superspreaders, and how it infects and harms our institutions and communities," said Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. "The brazen embrace of falsehoods on Jan. 6 actually foreshadowed an avalanche of conspiracies we've seen throughout 2021. More and more individuals have adopted increasingly outlandish beliefs about vaccines, public school curricula, the 2020 election, and other issues of the day. As a result, harassments, threats, and intimidations against health and educational professionals and institutions bubbled over."
The Digital Forensic Research Lab's report explains that groups like the Proud Boys have found new offline ways to spread their ideology and recruit new members. Leaders of these movements encourage their followers to take action at the local level, such as by taking advantage of polarizing public debates over safety measures to fight COVID-19 and school curriculums.
Over the past year, people identifying as members of the Proud Boys have shown up en masse at local school board meetings across the country and have intimidated officials over COVID-19 safety protocols and "critical race theory" they claim is being taught in public school classrooms.
On Tuesday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a conference call with reporters that violent domestic extremists remain a "very grave" threat, according to USA Today. Though Mayorkas didn't note any specific threats related to the anniversary of the riot at the Capitol, he said that the department is "operating at a heightened level of vigilance because we are at a heightened level of threat."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.