On the other screen, a different picture is emerging: For the loose network of groups and lone actors that carried out Trump’s calls for violent disruption of the lawful conclusion of the election, it’s becoming clear that the siege was a huge and momentous success, a propaganda coup that will energize them for a long time to come.
“Make no mistake: Wednesday was a watershed moment for the far-right extremist movement in this country,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told me.
“By all measurable effects, this was for far-right extremists one of the most successful attacks that they’ve ever launched,” Jared Holt, who tracks far-right groups for the Atlantic Council, added. “This will be lionized and propagandized on likely for the next decade.”
Trump came as close as he ever will to conceding defeat in a video released Thursday night. This came after aides alarmed by his erratic behavior pressured him to project calm as imagery of the chaos and destruction at the Capitol sank in across the country and around the world.
Trump also released the video after growing convinced that he could face legal trouble for inciting mob violence. So Trump appears somewhat chastened, if not by the violence and destruction he has wrought, then at least by his newfound legal vulnerability.
But we shouldn’t view this as a wind-down or a defeat for this loose movement of groups. That misconstrues both his relationship to this movement, such as it is, as well as its understanding of the real meaning of this moment.
The siege of the Capitol
It’s not easy to say who exactly stormed the Capitol. The ADL, tracking far-right live streams and scouring as many pictures and videos as possible, tells me the groups include extremist and alt-right organizations such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Groyper Army and the Three Percenters, as well as various militia organizations.
Holt, who employs similar techniques and tracked online planning of the siege for months, concurs, telling me that many of the participants were “militia movement groups” and “white supremacist and white nationalist groups” and known individual “conspiracy extremists.”
The connecting thread is the “Stop the Steal” movement, which brought all these groups together in various state capitals in the months-long struggle over the election results, Holt says.
The driving ideology here is more complicated than just, “Democrats stole the election.” As Holt notes, it’s bigger: The idea is that the “election was somehow compromised by nefarious forces,” including everyone from state officials in both parties to the courts and the media, all devoted to denying Trump a win.
Trump spoke directly to these impulses when he told Fox News last fall that Joe Biden was being controlled by “people in dark shadows.” And, as Holt told me, the notion of a compromised election has been “echoed at the highest levels of Republican power.”
But both Holt and the ADL agree that for these groups, what happened on Wednesday was a major, resounding victory.
A propaganda coup
As Holt notes, the Internet chat rooms and message boards and other platforms he tracks have been absolutely lighting up with such chatter. Their understanding of this moment is that they successfully placed the U.S. government under siege.
“These communities are discussing the attack as some sort of validation that it actually is possible for them to exert their power like this and achieve results,” Holt tells me. “They’re talking about this as the first stab in a greater revolution.”
Think of it like this: The attack on the Capitol captured the news cycle and riveted the country’s attention for a full day, projecting imagery of a country seeming to teeter on the edge of civil collapse.
They succeeded in disrupting the lawful conclusion of the presidential election, even if temporarily. This imagery (and remember that far-right groups have gone international) was broadcast all around the world.
Meanwhile, it’s now emerging that there were major security breakdowns. The FBI and Homeland Security didn’t do a threat assessment, calls to bring in the Maryland National Guard were rebuffed amid chaotic cross-signaling, and the Capitol Police allowed the rioters to capture the seat of government.
This, too, will likely be held up as a propaganda victory, another sign that the ruling elites and their decrepit security forces are collapsing under the weight of their own corruption.
“A lot of these extremist groups have explicitly discussed what the attack on the Capitol represents for their ability to overwhelm law enforcement,” Holt told me, adding that the security failures are seen as “validation of a broader narrative about the government buckling” that will awaken others to its “corruption.”
In a terrific segment, Rachel Maddow looked at Wednesday’s events and concluded that the loosely knit movement that showed up on Trump’s behalf will see all this as a “big success.”
“His supporters pulled off a violent, armed insurrection attacking the U.S. Capitol,” Maddow noted. “And then they all just walked away to tell their war stories about it.”
Or, as Greenblatt put it to me, these groups “are certainly not going anywhere.”
It’s hard to say what will happen to this movement once Trump exits the scene. But it’s hard to be optimistic.
Watch Opinions videos: