Why we cannot afford to ignore the American insurrectionist movement Chicago Project on Security and Threats
Robert A. Pape  |  August 6, 2021

While the House begins hearings to understand the origins and implications of January 6 attack on the US Capitol, it is equally important to consider the current state of the insurrectionist movement in America.  

We need a clearer picture of the type of person who attacked the Capitol and what led them to action. Moreover, we need to know how many Americans today support the use of violence to preserve the Trump presidency—the cause most associated with the insurrectionist movement, and who or what most influences this group.  

For the past six months, the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) every two to three weeks has been updating its demographic studies of the now nearly 600 Americans arrested for the January 6 attack to build as complete and current a picture as possible of this mass political movement with violence at its core.

One might have expected fires to fade, the FBI arrests to have a chilling impact on violence to support Trump, or the de-platforming of Trump himself from Facebook and Twitter to lower the temperature.   But our most recent nationally representative survey of 1,070 American adults fielded by the NORC at the University of Chicago in June, paints a different, if not alarming, picture. We found, most strikingly, that nine percent of Americans—believe the “Use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency. More than a fourth of adults agree, in varying degrees, that, “The 2020 election was stolen, and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.”

We also learned that 8.1 percent — that equates to 21 million American adults — share both these radical beliefs.   From a statistical point of view, this number is extrapolated from a range between 6% (15 million) to 11% (28 million), where we have 95% confidence that the true number falls within. 

There is remarkable consistency in the responses. Specifically, of the roughly one tenth of those who think force is justified to restore Trump, 90% also see Biden as illegitimate, and 68% also think force may be needed to preserve America’s traditional way of life.

Today’s 21 million adamant supporters of insurrection also have the dangerous potential for violent mobilization.   Our survey also asked pointed questions about membership and support for militia groups, such as the Oath Keepers, or extremist groups, such as the Proud boys, to which approximately, one million of the 21 million insurrectionists are themselves or personally know a member of a militia or extremist group.   Six million showed support for militias and extremist groups.   At least seven million of this number own a gun, and three million have prior US military service.

What’s driving people in the insurrectionist movement? Our survey looked closely at the beliefs, news sources, and party affiliations associated with the 21 million adamant insurrectionists.

The research shows, two central beliefs occur among adamant insurrectionists statistically significantly than more commonly found in the general population:  

  • 63% believe in the Great Replacement: “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.”
  • 54% believe in the QAnon cabal: “A secret group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is ruling the US government.”

These two fundamental beliefs do not fully overlap, suggesting complex, multiple pathways into the movement.

This reinforces our previous findings reported in the Washington Post, already showing that we are dealing with a mass movement with violence at its core that does not fit earlier patterns of right-wing extremism.  For example, we are not dealing with disaffected and unemployed young men, but mainly highly competent, middle-aged American professionals.  

Concerning political affiliation, the adamant insurrectionists are not only Republicans. 

While 51% self-identify as members of the Republican Party, 34% see themselves as Independents and 10% as Democrats.     

All this tells us is that the insurrectionist movement is more mainstream, cross-party, and more complex than many people might like to think, which does not bode well for the 2022 mid-term elections, or for that matter, the 2024 Presidential election.

Ironically, the solution may be more local than national. Of the ardent insurrectionists, 47 percent see the Federal Government as an “enemy”, 56 percent feel the same way about state governments, but 73 percent see local governments as non-enemy actors. With the latter being the most trusted sources, mayors could have potentially out-sized influence over the future of the movement. 

Without a sound risk analysis of the drivers of American political violence, it is hard to see how developing policies, far less strategies to mitigate the risk of future election-related violence, could be genuinely possible.

As the 2022 election season fast approaches — along with the potential for distorting election outcomes — understanding American political violence must surely be a national priority if democracy is to hold the line.

From the Aug. 6, 2021 CPOST Survey Report, "Deep, Destructive, and Disturbing: What We Know About Today's American Insurrectionist Movement."

Keep up to date with CPOST research: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robert-pape/