The United States Could Be In the Early Days of a Domestic Insurgency

Trump supporters near the U.S. Capitol, January 2020.

U.S. leaders, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have rightly deemed the Trump-incited storming of the Capitol building as an insurrection that is inconsistent with the rule of law. The assault, which took place while Congress was convened to certify the election—and which left at least five people dead—was not a protest gone awry. Instead, it was a deliberately planned attack. This was violence with a political goal in mind: Preventing the lawful certification of presidential election results to disrupt the peaceful transition of power.

U.S. law defines insurrection as “a violent uprising by a group or movement acting for the specific purpose of overthrowing the constituted government and seizing its powers.” Those who stormed the Capitol clearly intended to overthrow the democratically elected incoming government, and there are even early reports that some of the offenders were seeking to capture, and even possibly execute, Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other lawmakers in Congress.

Although the attack failed to prevent Congress from certifying the election results, there are troubling indicators, such as a shared grievance, a strong group identity, and recruitment and training, that America could be in the early days of a violent political movement that will endure after President Donald Trump leaves office. This movement, united by Trump, brings together conservatives, Christian nationalists, Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists, and ultranationalist groups such as the Proud Boys. While these groups united around Trump, they also have shared racial grievances that will continue to unite them even after Trump leaves office.

Politicians and government officials across the political spectrum must not underestimate the threat that this movement may continue to pose going forward. U.S. leaders must take immediate action to mitigate this threat. Left unaddressed, this movement could become a full-fledged insurgency that poses a significant and enduring threat to Americans. U.S. leaders must take immediate action to prioritize and mitigate this threat, making full use of existing tools and authorities.

Trump’s supporters unified around the “stolen” election lies, despite their differences

The CIA Guide to Analysis of Insurgencies and the Department of Defense’s Joint Publication on Counterinsurgency identify the four primary stages of an insurgency: pre-insurgency or pre-conflict; incipient; open insurgency or open conflict; and resolution. While no two insurgencies are identical—and progression through the stages is not linear—understanding indicators that an insurgency may be forming, and where in its lifecycle an insurgency currently is, are instructive in developing an effective solution.

America has faced insurgencies in the past, and, indeed, the United States itself was the product of an insurgency. However, it is the insurgency that arose after the Civil War that laid the foundation for the violent movement we face today, with the Confederate battle flag itself flying in the US Capitol. Historian and author Dr. Mark Grimsley has made the case that when the war of secession ended with the surrender at Appomattox Court House, an insurgency began to emplace the systems and structures of white supremacy that continue to this day. Through violence, insurgents undermined state government, exhausted the federal government, and rolled back the newly granted rights of Black Americans. It is the vestiges of that insurgency that forms the basis of the violent extremist movement responsible for the Capitol insurrection.

Insurgencies are all unique, but they are all rooted in grievances, be those “historical, societal, political, or economic.” During preinsurgency, leaders seek to “rally supporters” around those grievances and create a group identity with an “us versus them dynamic.” Donald Trump has been doing just that since 2015, uniting his supporters around shared racial grievances that initially focused on caravans and undocumented immigrants. However, more recently, Trump pivoted to focus on the multiracial electorate that delivered the presidency to Joe Biden. Trump’s rhetoric, bolstered by his years-long assault on the media as the “enemy of the people,” incites his followers to immediately clash with his perceived enemies whether they are elected representatives, government officials, right-wing media outlets, or his own vice president.

Throughout 2020, pro-Trump extremists engaged in activities that, troublingly, are characteristic of the pre-insurgency stage—recruiting, training, organizing, and arming. Trump encouraged them to do so, used highly militarized language on the “Army for Trump” website to recruit supporters, calling on them to “enlist” and join the “frontlines” of the effort to support the president. In response, pro-Trump militias and other anti-government groups reportedly used the COVID-19 pandemic to step up recruiting efforts online, particularly targeting military veterans whose weapons and tactical skills are highly valued by these organizations. Ahead of Election Day in November, militia groups braced for what they saw as a potential civil war, arming themselves and reportedly recruiting thousands of police, active-duty military, and military veterans.

The next stage of insurgency, “incipient conflict,” is “when insurgents begin to use violence … but are still weak and organizing.” In the incipient stage, leaders play a key role in unifying the insurgency, and studies highlight the importance of leaders in normalizing the political violence during this stage. Some experts believe America may currently be in the incipient conflict stage of an insurgency. The events on January 6, 2021, as well as calls for further violence ahead of President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, support that conclusion.

In the lead up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Trump united his followers around a unifying grievance, and congressional Republicans and allies amplified and normalized it. Trump advanced the false and unsubstantiated claims of a rigged and stolen election—an election stolen by “fraud” in states with particularly diverse populations—thus uniting his disparate core of supporters around a singular, unifying (if fabricated) message. Trump’s Republican allies in Congress amplified and legitimized this political grievance, repeating Trump’s claims and even voting against certifying the election result.

During the months and years prior, Trump also created the necessary permission structure for violence. Beginning with his defense of white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville, Trump has repeatedly excused and at times encouraged violence against those who oppose him. His insults have incited violence and hate toward immigrants; he has encouraged and modeled violence at his rallies; and he has defended violent actors as “people with tremendous passion and love for their country” who are resorting to violence because “they have anger.” When he does denounce violence, he often walks back his statements, a tactic his supporters have grown to expect. More recently, Trump more openly expressed support for violence, pardoning soldiers implicated in war crimes and publicly supporting Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager charged with murdering protesters marching against police violence. Trump likewise offered a weak, victim-blaming response to the attempted kidnapping of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI).

After losing the presidential election to Joe Biden, Trump united his supporters around the false claim that the election was “stolen” and advanced a dangerous effort to overturn Biden’s victory. That effort included futile legal battles; unsubstantiated claims from Trump and his allies; and efforts to intimidate state and local officials in key states. When those efforts all failed, Trump called his supporters to rally in Washington, D.C., on the day the presidential election was to be certified, telling them, “Be there, will be wild!” In response, popular pro-Trump forums erupted with calls for organized violence, urging supporters to bring guns.

A particular concern, overlooked in many recent analyses, is that Trump is the president of the United States and commander in chief of the military. As such, his calls to “take back our country” and “fight” carry different weight, particularly with the men and women of America’s armed forces. As the final authority in the chain of command, the president’s call to arms is uniquely dangerous and confusing to those who serve. That unique danger is what led 10 former secretaries of defense and the military Joint Chiefs to issue statements acknowledging the valid outcome of the 2020 election. Unfortunately, active-duty military officers and veterans nonetheless participated in the insurrection, took part in the siege of the Capitol, and one—an Air Force veteran—was killed in the melee.

Once an insurgency has momentum, it is difficult to stop it

It is not uncommon for governments to underestimate the threat of movements in the preinsurgency stage. Indeed, the United States government may be underestimating the threat now. Members of pro-Trump extremist groups are already organizing and carrying out acts of violence, and the movement may grow even stronger when he is no longer in office and the outcomes he warned about have come to pass. How the nation moves forward from this point will determine whether we find a resolution or advance to an open insurgency marked by ongoing political violence and a recurring threats. History shows what America can expect if the recent insurrection becomes an open insurgency: kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations.

Viewing recent events as a nascent insurgency helps us understand how complex the problem is, how persistent it could be, and how comprehensive and enduring the solutions that are required. No single person and no single approach will be able to turn the tide, but the nation’s leaders and institutions must act quickly and together to overcome the threat before it becomes an enduring one.

For inciting an insurrection, Trump has already been impeached for a second time and may yet face Senate conviction. He and complicit elected officials must also face other legal consequences for their actions, and they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Leaders in Congress should also consider measures such as refusing to seat House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) in the House and Senate, respectively, in accordance with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Without meaningful, individualized repercussions for their actions and roles, they will continue to exploit these dangerous forces for their own narrow political ends, just as we saw Trump continue to do after his first impeachment.

In addition to supporting legal action, political leaders on both sides of the aisle must squarely reject the baseless claims of a stolen election. American military and political leaders know the importance of understanding and addressing the motivations of violent actors and the intended end state of their violent movement. The extremists who stormed the Capitol and their adherents are wrongly convinced that Joe Biden’s victory was fraudulent. They believe President Trump when he says the election was “rigged” by an undeserving group of voters who don’t look like them or share their values. Accordingly, the outcome they seek—and the outcome they are pursuing with violence—is an unlawful reversal of the election result. Congressional Democrats and mainstream media have been consistent and thorough in debunking false claims about the election, and it has had little effect on what pro-Trump extremists believe. Therefore, political leaders across the spectrum—and especially within Trump’s party—bear the responsibility to end this insurrection. Republican leaders must make it unequivocally clear that Joe Biden won more votes in the 2020 presidential election; that there was no widespread fraud; and the election outcome is valid. The Republican messengers are as important as the messages themselves.

However, when Joe Biden is sworn in as president, even if Donald Trump quietly returns to private life (however unlikely that may be), history warns us that the loss of a leader is not enough to end an insurgency. In fact, once created, a leaderless or even fractured insurgency can continue to be dangerous, gain momentum, and mutate. Case in point: Following his video condemning the violence at the Capitol, some of Trump’s most hard-core followers turned on him, arguing that he had abandoned his effort to save America after they had risked their lives for it. As an insurgency progresses, it can “become an end unto itself,” “providing a sense of meaning” for its members.

Institutions across government and society respond will be critical

In charting the course ahead, we cannot forget that all the people involved are American: the victims and assailants; the onlookers and insurrectionists; the law-abiding electorate across the political spectrum and the violent insurgents. Law enforcement must take care to protect freedoms, including the freedom to hold odious views, while still holding violent actors strictly accountable. If we are to emerge a more united nation, one that upholds civil rights, the process of dismantling the movement and preventing further violence must remain aligned with U.S. democratic values.

A Rand Corporation report based on the qualitative and quantitative study of 71 cases found that an “iron fist” strategy that does not focus on “the incentives to support or participate in an insurgency” is historically less successful in ending it. In moving toward resolution, government leaders at all levels must find ways to substantively address the underlying issues that brought us to this point without sacrificing hard-earned social progress. Additionally—and perhaps critically important—viewing these events through the lens of insurgency does not mean a counterterrorism response is appropriate or would be successful in ending this violent movement. Government agencies already have a strong suite of existing investigatory tools and prosecutorial authorities that they should fully leverage to counter this violent movement. History shows that the creation of new law enforcement authorities, particularly in haste following a violent event, has not worked well. Many believe the expansion of the domestic legal response to 9/11 and expansion of surveillance powers created real harms that have not yet been addressed. Special care must be taken to ensure that efforts to reduce or eliminate white supremacist violence are not and cannot be used to increase targeting of communities of color. With political and social tools, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should address the vulnerabilities, misconceptions, and ideologies that lead people to extremism and action.

Last week’s insurrection and the breach of the U.S. Capitol was a failure on many levels. The incompetence as well as dereliction and potential complicity of police, domestic intelligence, and other security forces requires closer examination. Indeed, as new details emerge, arguments for D.C. statehood, which would give it control over its National Guard, seem stronger. As former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said the morning after, “It was an embarrassment for American law enforcement.” Reports have emerged that military members and off-duty police officers were among the insurrectionists, flashing ID badges to the Capitol police; that some police officers actually directed rioters to Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) office; and that police union leaders have offered vocal support for the insurrection. We are still learning the facts, but what we know is enough. Participation in a violent insurrection by anyone in a position of trust undermines public confidence in the institutions tasked with the heavy responsibility of upholding and enforcing the nation’s laws. In addition to thoroughly assessing what went wrong on January 6, all levels of the military and law enforcement must begin to actively root out violent extremists, including white supremacists, from within their ranks.

Outside government, the complicity of the right-wing media ecosystem in polishing and amplifying Trump’s incendiary speech and disinformation cannot continue. Even on the day of the insurrection and in the coverage since, Fox News, One American News Network, and Newsmax gave cover to the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, falsely claiming that Antifa was to blame. The injection of falsehoods and conspiracy theories by major media companies into the minds of their viewers must stop if America is to prevent an insurgency and begin to heal its deep and widening fissures. Supporting and strengthening independent local news would help by producing trusted civic information and local accountability.

Similarly, social media companies bear a significant share of responsibility for these events, and they have an important role to play in resolving them. From his earliest days spreading lies about President Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump has consistently used Twitter to advance spurious and unfiltered claims to millions of people around the world. This continued throughout Trump’s presidency, despite repeated infractions and warnings from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, all of which eventually removed Trump’s posts when they contained misinformation about COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election but did not suspend his account until after he incited a violent insurrection. Beyond Trump, conservative influencers online served as key nodes in both spreading Trump’s election lies and in providing misinformation for Trump to promote, and they are inexorably tied to the right-wing media ecosystem. Any actions aimed at countering the threat from violent white supremacy and associate groups must also address key nodes of influence on major social media platforms beyond the president. Policy solutions will also need to address the movement of many extremists and sympathizers to new, obscure platforms, such as Parler, Gab, 8kun, and other encrypted direct messaging networks like Telegram, through which members of the pro-Trump extremist movement can recruit, train, mobilize, and plan.

Conclusion

The pro-Trump extremist movement that stormed the U.S. Capitol was likely not an isolated event made up of independent groups or an assembly of uncommitted members. As unthinkable as it is, it may more properly be thought of as the early stages of an insurgency. Ending it will require a sustained, whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach that stands firmly against those who incite and commit violence. Solutions must also address the unifying ideology—however baseless it may be. In developing solutions, political leaders must adhere to the principles of our democracy so that we do not emerge from resolution in an uglier place than we are now. An immediate, unwavering bipartisan response to the crisis is needed. We should not underestimate the moment we are in. History tells us why.

Katrina Mulligan is the acting vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.