What should we call those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 of this year? | Photo: flickr, Tyler Merbler | CC BY 2.0

The Capitol Rioters and their Supporters beyond “Us vs. Them”: A view from outside the US

What should we call those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6 of this year? Struggles over possible labels matter: What one calls a certain group has implications for the ways in which one can and will engage with them. The polarization of Americans when it comes to classifying the attacks is indicative of a larger dilemma: how should one respond to the rioters and their demands – and is that even an option?

Once more, it seems, US public opinion is deeply divided: While Democratic voters consider those involved in the assault on the Capitol as “domestic terrorists” (78%) or “extremists” (74%), Republican voters (50%) find “protesters” to be the most appropriate label, with “patriots” being the second most frequent choice. We argue that the fundamental problem is to remain within a framework of “us vs. them” and to contribute to the reification of an antagonistic constellation. Instead, we should look for where we can find common ground for negotiations once we disaggregate the would-be two camps in American society. This means to separate the aggressors of the Capitol attacks from those who sympathise or support them, but it also means to take certain problems as the common responsibility of all politicians.

To American public debate: No reduction to “extremism”!

First, it seems important to point to the dangers of labelling the rioters “terrorists” or “extremists”. States often refrain from negotiating with, or even talking to, “terrorists”, as this is considered a risky move that might increase their legitimacy or incentivize other groups to resort to terrorist means. Similar limits on forms of engagement exist with regard to groups that belong to the spectrum of “violent extremism”. This means that the options of dealing with “terrorists” and “extremists” are reduced to legal and security measures – which, arguably, do not suffice to transform underlying conflicts.

When considering the composition of the rioters of January 6, a second problem emerges. Much media – and some academic attention – has focused on the presence of a “wide variety of hard-right movements, including hard-right militia groups such as the 3 Percenters, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, Q-Anon conspiracy believers, Proud Boys, and anti-Communist activists”. But surprisingly, and in contrast to previous right-wing extremist events, up to 89% of the perpetrators do not have any affiliation with an extremist group. This demonstrates that differentiation among the rioters is necessary and further questions the usefulness of a general “no-negotiations” policy.

What the rioters have in common is the motive for storming the capitol, which most arrestees described as “following Trump’s orders to keep Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the presidential-election winner”. It is clear that lies such as the election-fraud narrative and even more absurd claims as they appear in conspiracy theories such as QAnon cannot be acknowledged as facts in a negotiation that would bring together citizens who find the attacks on the Capitol “patriotic” with those who consider it “terrorism”. To be sure, the American state and its legal system have to punish those who broke the law. But this should not be the only reaction. Rather, there should be a broader public debate on those rioters that were not previously organized in any of the right-winged movements and, even more importantly, those who “actively support the actions of those at the Capitol”, which includes 45% of Republican voters. The political elite within and without the Biden-Administration should scrutinize the motivations of these two groups in particular. And maybe it would be helpful to assume that not all those who support the attacks do so for their insistence on certain “facts”.

To those who call the rioters “patriots”: Don’t let them claim they represent you!

When looking behind the web of abstruse narratives, they could be taken as a – however problematic – manifestation of a “struggle for recognition”. From the 1990 and early 2000s debates in social theory and philosophy, we learnt that social groups seek recognition – of their identity, of their claim for representing a marginalised or overlooked part of society, of certain rights or status, of the existence of, and the need to address, a certain grievance. Recognition-seeking was seen as a step on the way to realize emancipation, equality, justice – even though “a generous politics of recognition cannot provide a panacea to all of these ills”.

Indeed, those who analyzed the “White Riot” on the Capitol found fear of losing attention, status, and power among “whites who see their position in the social order on a downward path” to be behind the resort to violence. But can we take this grievance – which, to many, may already sound like the lament of a class that still has so many more opportunities than others – as a basis for the recognition of a fearful white group? The rioting group also comprised middle class people, with 40% of the arrestees being “business owners or hold white-collar jobs” and only 9% being unemployed. This undermines the idea that the riots are the last resort of a marginalized group, and thus also challenges the view that economic desperation is behind the decision to resort to violence. And even though they may have been a minority among the rioters, let’s not forget that there were fascists, racists and supremacists present.

Again, it might help to distinguish between those who committed and those who supported the riots. At first sight, the idea of trying to detect underlying grievances and unfulfilled recognition needs among Republican voters seems tricky, too. When looking at the demographics of the last elections, one thing that Trump voters and rioters do have in common is that the majority of both are white and male – and thus belong to the group that, on average, still enjoys most privileges in the US. Moreover, many very affluent individuals (54% of people with a yearly income of $100,000 or more) voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 elections (42% of their votes went to Joe Biden).

But it would be too simple to stop the analysis here. In her ethnography of Louisiana, Arlie Russell Hochschild has found the analogy of “waiting in line” to describe the perception of people living there. They belong to a poor, white, rural environment that would later become one of the petri-dishes in which Trumpism could grow: They feel like patient and diligent people who stood in line for the American dream, only to find that, with the help of interventions by the Federal Government, others – such as people of colour or members of the queer community – cut the line, and the time they had queued no longer counted.

Of course, this narrative should be viewed with healthy scepticism and a “politics of empathy” toward those telling this story might seem cynical to the alleged line-cutters – and thus people who have suffered and are still suffering from multiple forms of discrimination. But it might also be too easy to conclude that they feel represented by the small violent group that attacked the Capitol, even though it might claim otherwise, and it is an open question whether they support its demands. The agency (and in terms of a democratic society: the responsibility) of people like those observed by Hochschild in Louisiana lies precisely in rejecting such claims to representation by violent or extremist groups and in seeking other options of framing their grievances and fears of marginalization instead.

To the Republican party: Make offers beyond Trump! To the Democratic Party: Try to reach the milieu of riot supporters!

If they were to seek recognition for, say, an identity as a white would-be privileged group that actually fell victim to excessive capitalism, environmental destruction, the inaccessibility of higher education and health care – the list could go on –, a democratic society would do well in debating possible offers of granting recognition. But this points to the other side of the coin: such framing options need to be offered, especially by the two big American parties.

The Republican party bears a big share of responsibility in this respect, for they have failed to offer a conservative program that overcomes Trumpism – and actively dismisses the former president’s resort to the “authoritarian playbook” and “soft authoritarianism” political style. For a party that wants to be viewed as standing for a democratic system, a clear naming and shaming of authoritarian practices is indispensable. And it should not be underestimated to what extent party elite discourses shape the perception of voters – and are thus also able to offer viable reinterpretations. The Democratic party would do well to make counter-offers that cut across now-established lines of identity politics and actually tackle socio-economic grievances in an innovative way. This requires climbing across what Hochschild calls the empathy wall, without embracing an all too accommodating stance on what one might find there – but with a good narrative offer in the pocket that is able to connect to perceived grievances. Moreover, Democrats should refrain from labelling all of the rioters, and especially their supporters, “terrorists” or “extremists”.

Future policy-makers will have to find strategies to disarm and contain dangerous groups and to channel legitimate demands in milieus that accept or even support violent action into democratic processes. Sooner or later, violent-prone individuals might strike again. And while it is neither an option to admit to “facts” and stories that are lies, nor to legitimize their actions through some perceived marginalization, a way to counter them is to break and not reiterate their simplistic, binary view of politics. A lot of work will have to go into drawing these lines and address adequate policies to different groups. This is not to say that all dilemmas can be solved through differentiation. But the investment may allow for finding common ground in unexpected places – and thus be worth it.

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. / Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group „Terrorism“. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region.
Eldad Ben Aharon

Eldad Ben Aharon

Dr. Eldad Ben Aharon is a Post-Doctoral Minerva Fellow and Associate Researcher in PRIF’s “Glocal Junctions” research department. He obtained his PhD in history from Royal Holloway University of London in 2019. Dr. Ben Aharon specializes in the diplomatic history of the Middle East during the Cold War. He carries out research on Israel’s and Turkey’s foreign policy and his other main areas of research interest are Holocaust memory, comparative genocide studies, counter-terrorism and theory and practice of oral history.

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. / Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group „Terrorism“. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region.

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