The insurrection incited by former President Donald Trump against the U.S. Congress on Jan. 6, 2021 will go down as one of America’s darkest days.
The sacking of the Capitol revealed the ugliest and most dangerous feature of American politics generated by the Trump presidency: the unholy alliance between a sitting populist president and far-right extremist elements in his base, something unprecedented in modern American politics.
There will be, no doubt, several investigations into this assault, the underlying extremist ideology, and the complicity of various political actors. Already, there is growing public recognition of the domestic security threat posed by far-right extremists in the United States and the role of various political actors, conspiracy theories and social media platforms in encouraging this dangerous phenomenon.
There is an urgent need to strengthen domestic counter-terrorism provisions (without compromising on civil liberties). The FBI defines domestic terrorism as: “Violent criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” But there is no domestic terrorism statute (as opposed to transnational terrorism, from groups such as Al Qaeda), amid legitimate concerns over the abrogation of free speech.
Also needed is increased political resolve and capacity-building to deal with domestic far-right extremism. The lack thereof is starkly demonstrated by the reluctance of key security agencies to comprehensively act against far-right extremism, influenced by the fact that elements of such extremist groups are part of the Trump base. If the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis had its full staffing, intelligence warnings of the brewing threat from the Capitol extremists could have been passed to the relevant security agencies.
The Capitol insurrection’s domestic focus also misses the transnational roots of contemporary far-right extremism. For example, the Proud Boys and QAnon have an appeal and presence outside the U.S., especially in Europe. Therefore, just like after the 9/11 attacks, when there was increased attention to the transnational character of global jihad, there now needs to be an urgent focus on the international dimensions of far-right extremism. It might seem to be exclusively domestic, but it isn’t.
Trump’s presidency and the rise of the ideology of Trumpism normalized these radical groups by making them a component of Trump’s political base.
The insurrection will live in infamy, but it could also constitute a transformative moment in American history. Only time will tell how the siege of the Capitol will be remembered – was it the final act of carnage of the Trump presidency, or a lasting deepening of American civil strife?