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Washington can seem shameless. Until it isn’t—at least for a moment, here and there.
A mob seized Capitol Hill in an attempt to overthrow the Capitol and to desecrate the temple of American democracy. Many in the Jan.6 horde fled to hiding. Realizing—too late, it turns out—that they had overstepped what polite society would accept, they and the radicalized cells in their real-life and online communities tried to shrink their visibility. The videos and photos taken during the riot soon became self-incriminating evidence about the worst crime spree of all time. Flying your organization’s flag loud and proud all but guaranteed someone from the FBI would be knocking on a door in short order, and perhaps lead officials to charge the group, too.
It was clear that the pivot was imminent. Even some of Trump’s most reliable apologists seemed to break with him with just days left on his four-year term of chaos. “Count me out. Enough is enough,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said from the Senate floor. “We’ve got to end it.” (Hours earlier, we now know via an outstanding Washington Post reconstruction of that day, Graham had told Capitol Police to shoot the mob: “You’ve got guns. Use them.”)
Back home, as the feds started scooping up enough evidence to charge more than 700 individuals for their roles in breaching the Capitol and sending lawmakers into hiding, many of Graham’s would-have-been targets tried to scrub all proof that they were, in fact, parts of a failed insurrection as pandemic “sedition hunters” hunted them down.
The mob’s self-doubt turned out to be short-lived, however. Trump continued to make false claims about his victory, that radical left was responsible for insurrection, and that patriots wearing his flags were the real victims. They scaled the Capitol’s facade in the first attack by an outside group since 1814 when it was taken over by the Brits. Even this fall, his spokesman described the troublemakers as “agitators not associated with President Trump”—a belief incorrectly shared by 41% of Republicans, according to CBS’ poll last week.
Today’s report shows that while the extreme right may not be permanently sheepish, it has led to an organizational shift. Researchers with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab find the paranoia that followed the attacks gave way to more offline and more localized work. “Think before you post. They will be watching. I learned the hard way,” one user posted to a pro-Trump message board, along with a picture of an FBI buiness card. The study found that people moved away form the national struggle to focus on local issues in politics and culture such as combating school curricula, mask mandates and fighting for schools.
Many of those who kept their connections on Facebook migrated to platforms designed by and for the extreme right like Gab. These efforts were also hyperlocal. “Conducting activism on smaller scales enables them to operate without the scrutiny or detection that doing so on a national scale often brings with it,” DFRLab researchers write. It allows radicalization to happen at a faster clip than if on a more mainstream—and wider audience—platform. It’s like boiling a cup of water versus a huge stock pot.
In other words, Trump’s talent to radicalize may be stronger than the shame—or self-preservation, if we’re being utterly cynical—that arose in the days and weeks after the attempted coup. “The sentiments espoused by domestic extremist causes are as public and insidious as ever, making their way into mainstream conservative discourse,” the report’s researchers write. That’s a pretty clear and dire warning about online extremism that TIME’s Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan documented this phenomenon for the past year.
It’s tempting to write these disaffected folks off as delusional clingers to the Big Lie that Trump actually won the 2020 election. But these aren’t the fringes of the GOP quilt at this point; it’s the tableau central to the tapestry. There’s a reason that even those critical of Trump’s role in riling up the mob and delayed and half-hearted attempts to quiet it have changed their tune. The Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago has been tracking this “American Insurrectionist” movement for the last year, and it finds 21 million Americans hold the same beliefs as the mob last year. It’s a slice of the more than 158 million people who voted last year, but 21 million people can’t be wholly discounted by the officials they help keep in power.
Consider Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader in the House. “The President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said on Jan. 13, days after he was shouting into his cell phone on Jan. 6 for help. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump.” On Jan. 28—eight days after Trump left power and several rounds of polling later—McCarthy was in Palm Beach, Fla., for a meeting with Trump at his private club.
The reality is that the core of the Republican Party, the ex-reality-show star and record holder for the most impeachments of President Trump has been shattered. If Republicans are to have success with the party’s base, they need Trump’s blessing. However, it may not suffice. His new identity was a source of strength for the GOP. But its conclusion may not be certain. The GOP has evolved from being obligated to Trump to something more unlogical and libertarian. Trump was booed by a Texas crowd on December 20 after he said he’d been booster vaccinated.
This isn’t just a hunch about what Jan. 6 showed America about itself. It’s quantifiable. It’s quantifiable. Get rid of the telephone banks, and get in the practice with guns.
This brings us back again to shame and lack thereof. As much of Official Washington gathers on Thursday—COVID-19 protocols willing—to mark the one-year anniversary of the incomplete insurrection, the ex-President himself plans to hold his own Big Lie counterprogramming. For Republicans looking to cynically use Trump’s sway to win their elections this year, you can bet they’ll be saying more prayers aimed at Mar a Lago than to the recovery of more than 150 police officers physically injured that day, the trauma everyone who calls the Capitol their workplace endured and to the memory of those whose lives ended that day and in the months that followed. After all, shamelessness flickers from time to time in Washington, but it’s a tough one to snuff out—at least until it is a direct threat to you.
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