The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Capitol rioters weren’t just clowns and militants. They’re our neighbors.

Failure to understand the depth of the insurrectionist impulse puts us all at risk

Aaron Mostofsky, a son of a New York judge, sits with a police vest and riot shield in the U.S. Capitol after rioters stormed the building on Jan. 6. He is among those who have been arrested on federal charges. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)
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In the days following the attack on the U.S. Capitol, it was both easy and tempting for Americans to distance themselves from the masses that sought to execute a coup in broad daylight. Channeling the collective disgust, many depicted the mob as just that — a mob, uniform in its rage, reasons and economic status. On CNN, Anderson Cooper caricatured the participants as Olive Garden regulars, while at the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan grouped them as an unwashed coalition of “deadbeat dads, YouPorn enthusiasts, slow students, and MMA fans.” This sentiment apparently found favor even in the White House, where an anonymous adviser claimed President Donald Trump ultimately issued his disapproval of the insurrection on the grounds that the optics of it were “low class.”

The troubling reality is, we would be lucky if it were that simple. It is not. We are learning the extent to which political violence and the subversion of democracy are in bounds to a wide spectrum of people. The implications of our collective misconceptions are astounding, especially as a new administration tries to credibly take power. The failure to grasp the severity of the threats reveals how far behind we are in the battle to legitimately understand these threats, much less counter them.

Amid the ranks of the costumed and cosplaying in the halls of Congress were CEOs, average Joes, small-business owners and elite travelers who flew private jets to D.C. and then stormed the Capitol. Civic leaders and religious activists also took part in the melee. Weeks later, many are wondering who, if any, of these respected community members will face consequences back home. While cases are being built and arrests are underway, the consequences for the thousands involved are still not entirely clear.

“Tens of thousands of Americans are asking those same questions in communities across the country as they learn that their colleagues, college friends, kids’ teachers and even parents were among the rioters,” The Washington Post noted in a dispatch about the alleged involvement of a police chief’s son from a small Maryland town. “They came from all over and from every walk of life: a firefighter from Florida, a Texas florist, a newly elected West Virginia lawmaker, the son of a judge in Brooklyn, a former Olympic swimmer from Colorado, two police officers in rural Virginia, a professor in Pennsylvania, a California candy shop owner.”

‘This is not who we are’: Actually, the Capitol riot was quintessentially American

What’s more terrifying than a carbon-copy rioting mass? A group of furious insurrectionists with no totalizing banner. Their tactics and agendas, like their demographics, were far-ranging and diverse. Some members of the mob who arrived in Washington came armed with guns and homemade napalm, while others tracked excrement down the hallways of the Capitol and parkoured off the Senate balcony.

Some pilfered stationery and took mementos, while at least one accused looter may have wanted to sell House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s laptop to Russian agents. Perhaps the only upside to the disorder within the ranks is that a far more devastating outcome was avoided, according to several accounts, by a matter of seconds and feet.

We’re also learning how far established groups and institutions went to undermine the democratic process. That includes the participation of some members of law enforcement and the military. That Gen. Mark A. Milley, Trump’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had to clarify on the record that rioters with military affiliations were “not representative of our country’s military” is less than reassuring. But if that’s true, what steps are being taken to address the growing issues of political extremism and white supremacy in the military?

The various revelations about who was involved speak to the depth of our unpreparedness as well as the reach of the threat into our national life. That so few of the rioters bothered to make themselves unidentifiable and so many broadcast themselves committing crimes is symbolic of a sense of impunity driven by mainstream approval. In a CBS News-YouGov poll a week after the riot, 43 percent of Republicans described the actions of those who forced their way into the Capitol as “patriotism”; 50 percent described them as “defending freedom.” No wonder the aftermath has left the rest of us reeling.

The Capitol mob’s gleeful selfies are easy to mock. They’re also a warning sign.

The most tangible implication of the Capitol attack is that ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration, not only was downtown Washington transformed into barriered green and red zones, fortified by the Secret Service to guard against domestic terrorism, but the Pentagon was forced to screen the 20,000-plus National Guard members assigned to Inauguration Day duty out of a fear of insider threats. Once the inaugural platform comes down, will it be safe to dismantle the security apparatus around Washington?

With President Biden taking the oath of office on the Capitol’s West Front on Wednesday, millions watching in the United States and around the world breathed a huge, long-held sigh of relief. While calm and civility may have been the watchwords of the day, the transfer of power should not lead us to believe in tempting fictions or magical thinking.

Just as all of 2020’s woes didn’t magically dissolve when our calendars flipped to 2021, the threats we face won’t change just because the White House has a new occupant.

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