While the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was shocking, it was not surprising to Right Wing Watch or other extremism researchers and watchdogs, who repeatedly sounded the alarm about calls from far-right figures for violence and revolution both before and after the 2020 presidential election.
Two weeks before Election Day, Right Wing Watch’s Kristen Doerer, reporting on the disrupted plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, noted:
Right Wing Watch has seen an increase of violent rhetoric across different right-wing subgroups—from conspiracy theorists and religious-right activists to white nationalists and anti-government groups. In some instances, extremists call for civil war, the use of force against Black Lives Matter protesters, and for government leaders to be tried for treason and executed.
For example, televangelist Jim Baker warned in August 2020 that if Trump were not reelected, “we’re gonna have a revolution.” In September, Rick Joyner repeated his warnings that the U.S. is headed for civil war, adding that God has “seeded” the country with Christian veterans who “know how to fight in urban warfare” and would help lead “good militias.”
It was into that volatile situation that former President Donald Trump dropped the Big Lie that he won the election only to have it stolen from him and his supporters. The Big Lie—and the implication that President Joe Biden is illegitimate and his supporters are traitors to the Constitution—was repeated relentlessly by Trump, his legal team, Republican allies, right-wing media and movement leaders, and Christian nationalist religious figures.
Some calls to overturn the results of the election, and some threats of violence to keep Trump in power, circulated in far-right corners of social media, while others were made in the full light of day from rally stages just blocks from the White House.
At a rally on the National Mall on Dec. 12, 2020, a wide array of right-wing Christian activists was joined by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and extremist Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, who demanded that Trump invoke emergency powers and martial law to stay in office and warned that if Trump did not, he would be leaving it to militias to fight a “much more bloody war.” Another rally speaker, right-wing Orthodox Christian blogger George Michalopulos, declared, “I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” A week earlier, Michalopulos had admiringly reposted on his blog an online call for Trump to “crush” his enemies and “use his authority under the Insurrection Act to arrest and/or kill everyone who participated” in the “plot” to steal the election.
Around the same time, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trumpist attorney Lin Wood called on Trump to declare martial law rather than concede to Biden. Wood declared on Dec. 1, 2020 that “Our country is headed to civil war.” That same day, an Ohio group with Tea Party roots had taken a full-page ad in the Washington Times that declared, “Without a fair vote, we fear, with good reason, the threat of a shooting civil war is imminent.” The ad urged Trump to declare martial law and have the military oversee a new election “before there is no peaceful way left to preserve our Union.”
Shortly before the first attacks on the Capitol, Right Wing Watch published a report on the rally held by Trump supporters the previous afternoon and evening, noting that Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander led chants of “Victory or death!” and declared, “1776 is always an option.” Alexander’s friend and Stop the Steal colleague Alex Bruesewitz, a political consultant, declared, “What’s going to start a civil war is if we legitimize a rigged and stolen election.” At the same rally, InfoWars host Owen Shroyer rejoiced that members of Congress were said to be “in fear right now” and “scurrying around in secret tunnels” like “the little rats that they are” to try to avoid the Stop the Steal activists.
That afternoon, Right Wing Watch noted that the attack was preceded “by widespread calls for violence on pro-Trump social media,” which included a post calling for Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Chief Justice John Roberts to be “dispatched.” In the days before the insurrection, attorney Lin Wood had also called for Pence and others to be executed.
There is no doubt that the anger generated by Trump’s Big Lie fueled the violence on Jan. 6, 2020. But it didn’t stop there.
On the morning after the insurrection interrupted but failed to stop certification of Biden’s victory, hard-right activist John Guandolo appeared on a Christian television network and told viewers that the insurrectionists showed “restraint” by not executing “traitors” in Congress. “I don’t see any other way out than a real armed counterrevolution to this hostile revolution that’s taking place, primarily driven by the communists,” Guandolo said.
Since then, Trump supporters’ continued resentment about what many of them believe was an illegitimate election outcome has been harnessed by Republican elected officials to justify new voter suppression laws and the creation of provisions making it easier for state-level politicians to overrule election officials and the will of the voters. It is also being manipulated by Trumpists like Cleta Mitchell and Steve Bannon to encourage “America First” activists to take power over election machinery by running for office at local and state levels.
Mitchell, a right-wing attorney who participated in the notorious phone call on which Trump badgered Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes to swing the election to Trump, now heads a massive right-wing political project to gain control over the counting of votes. Last year, she charged that Democrats “cheated in the presidential election of 2020 and got away with it.” Remarkably, thanks to the political machinations of another supporter of more restrictive voting laws, she simultaneously serves on the advisory board of a federal government commission to advise state election officials on voting guidelines and procedures.
“The risk of a coup in the next U.S. election is greater now than it ever was under Trump,” prominent law professor Laurence Tribe wrote in The Guardian this week. Tribe noted that shortly after the insurrection, “Republicans abandoned their increasingly half-hearted search for accountability, and the leaders of their party began planning their next bite at the poisoned apple of power, an apple they told themselves had been stolen from them despite all evidence to the contrary.”
Indeed, most Republican leaders are aggressively trying to prevent accountability for Trump and others whose rhetoric—at least—inspired the insurrectionists. Right-wing leaders openly disparage the work of the House committee investigating Jan. 6, and some former Trump aides are brazenly subverting the investigation and the rule of law by refusing to respond to congressional subpoenas for their testimony.
A new Atlantic Council report by resident fellow Jared Holt, formerly a Right Wing Watch investigative reporter, documents that domestic extremist movements have responded to post-insurrection crackdowns by becoming more active in mainstream conservative politics; decentralizing their operations and encouraging more local activism; taking advantage of efforts by right-wing entrepreneurs to create alternative digital platforms; and actively engaging in emotionally charged issues like vaccine and mask resistance and opposition to teaching about racism in U.S. history and institutions.
NBC journalists Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny profiled this week a right-wing activist who exemplifies this shift to local organizing. Denise Aguilar was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, celebrating that “patriots broke open the doors” and calling the day a “revolution.” Now she and fellow activists have focused on mobilizing local opposition to vaccine and mask requirements in schools, seemingly heeding Bannon’s call to his right-wing listeners to “take this back village by village.” As Right Wing Watch has reported, a wide array of right-wing political groups has embraced campaigns to generate hostility toward local school boards as a way to mobilize voter turnout to take over school boards and build momentum for broader electoral wins in 2022.
The Atlantic Council and Right Wing Watch’s Kyle Mantyla also have reported that right-wing politicians and influencers have engaged in “historical revisionism” about the insurrection, playing down the violence of the insurrection or baselessly blaming left-wing agitators.
Just as the threat that violence would be used to try to block the peaceful transfer of power and overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election was clear, the continuing threats to our democracy are ever more apparent—and call for continued vigilance and resistance. Those threats come from continued right-wing promotion of Trump’s Big Lie and its wide acceptance among conservatives, threats and harassment directed at election officials, Republican opposition to truth-telling and accountability about the insurrection, and voter suppression laws and other schemes by GOP state legislators and activists to put control of election machinery in the hands of Trump loyalists.