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“American Insurrection”: How Far-Right Extremists Moved from Fringe to Mainstream After Jan. 6 Attack

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Thursday marks one year since a violent mob of thousands of far-right and white supremacist Trump supporters descended on the U.S. Capitol, disrupting Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election and resulting in five deaths and hundreds of injuries. We look at where these movements are one year later, with the updated investigative documentary “American Insurrection” by Frontline in collaboration with ProPublica and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program. Director Rick Rowley explains how the far-right social movements have grown since the insurrection and says “the locus of the organizing has shifted really from a national platform to a local one, which makes it more difficult to track and increases the potential for local or regional violence.” Rowley and Frontline correspondent A.C. Thompson interviewed January 6 select committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson about what makes this a moment for “far-right mobilization” and discussed the significance of the widespread contradictory beliefs by many on the far right that antifa and Black Lives Matter dressed up as Trump supporters and carried out the January 6 riot, but that those who tried to overturn the election are patriots.

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StoryJan 15, 2021From Charlottesville to the Capitol: Trump Fueled Right-Wing Violence. It May Soon Get Even Worse
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Thursday marks the first anniversary of the deadly January 6th insurrection, when thousands of people attacked the U.S. Capitol with the goal of overthrowing the 2020 election. Many were part of far-right extremist and white supremacist groups. Today we look at where these movements are now with an investigation by Frontline, ProPublica and Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program that began in the wake of the deadly 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. In their reporting, they found many white supremacist groups started to splinter amidst the backlash following Charlottesville, but President Trump gave them new life.

This is an excerpt from American Insurrection with correspondent A.C. Thompson that actually begins before January 6, 2020, when, on November 14th, one week after the presidential election was called for Joe Biden, Trump supporters took to the streets of Washington, D.C., stirred up by Trump’s refusal to concede. They demanded the results be overturned.

A.C. THOMPSON: As night falls, Proud Boys merge with MAGA marchers and roam the city looking for fights. Trump supporters confront journalists, vandalize Black Lives Matter signs and fight with activists who try to stop them.

POLICE OFFICER: Get out of here!

A.C. THOMPSON: A month later, Trump supporters take to the streets of Washington again. And once again, the protests turn violent. And then, he calls his supporters to the Capitol on January 6th.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down to the Capitol! … You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing. … And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.

A.C. THOMPSON: As the clock runs out on his presidency, he urges them towards the Capitol building.

TRUMP SUPPORTERS: Whose house? Our house!

PROUD BOY: Ready?

A.C. THOMPSON: The Proud Boys are here, but they aren’t wearing their trademark yellow and black. The boogaloo bois are here, too, also out of uniform. They both blend into the pro-Trump crowd. Inside, Congress is trying to certify the election. Outside, the crowd is bearing down on them.

TRUMP SUPPORTERS: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! Whose house? Our house!

A.C. THOMPSON: But the police on the steps are outnumbered and unprepared.

TRUMP SUPPORTERS: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

A.C. THOMPSON: Around 140 police officers are injured. One officer, Brian Sicknick, will later die. A Proud Boy from New York state smashes through a window. The Capitol has been breached. A Proud Boy broke the window, but what about the crowd behind him? A mob, urged on by the president, willing to embrace an insurrectionary violence that was once confined only to the most extreme elements of the far right.

TRUMP SUPPORTER: It’s amazing!

A.C. THOMPSON: Bewildered, some wander through the halls. Others move towards the Senate chamber. Police struggle to hold them off while congressmembers flee through back exits. The mob surges through the hallways searching for them, coming within feet of their targets.

TRUMP SUPPORTERS: Break it down! Break it down! Break it down!

A.C. THOMPSON: Rioters try to break into a hallway that lawmakers are escaping through.

TRUMP SUPPORTER: Shots fired!

A.C. THOMPSON: A protester is shot and killed. Three other rioters die in the mayhem. It would be hours before the Capitol was cleared.

AMY GOODMAN: Now in an update to the documentary American Insurrection that came out this week, Frontline correspondent A.C. Thompson examines how far-right extremist groups have evolved since January 6th and the threat they pose today.

A.C. THOMPSON: In Washington, D.C., the fences are gone. So are the National Guard patrols. The city no longer feels like a war zone. But when I come back to the Capitol almost a year later, there are many questions that remain unanswered.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: We cannot allow what happened on January 6 to ever happen again. We owe it to the American people, and we will not fail, I assure you, in that responsibility.

A.C. THOMPSON: The House of Representatives has impaneled a committee to investigate January 6th and to recommend changes that will prevent something like that from happening again. Representative Bennie Thompson is the committee chair.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: January 6th was a difficult day for me personally because I was in the Capitol. I’ve seen a lot of people come to this Capitol. People have the ability, I thought, in Washington, D.C., to express themselves regardless of position. But if I ever imagined that somebody would invade the United States Capitol, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that would occur. Despite what all had occurred, we were called back in the early morning hours to complete the certification, because if we don’t certify the election, then Donald Trump is still president. And he can do a number of things. Martial law is a potential.

A.C. THOMPSON: It could have been something looking like a coup.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. You get people, who I talk to on a daily basis, who will actually tell me that what I saw and experienced on January 6th really didn’t happen.

A.C. THOMPSON: People come to you, and they say January 6th didn’t happen?

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: Yeah, and say, “Look, it was the Black Lives Matter folk. It was antifa dressed up as Trump people who did that.” Or, in addition to that, you have those millions of folk who are out there who are convinced that those individuals who broke into the United States Capitol, they were some of the greatest patriots.

A.C. THOMPSON: Right, right. They say these are heroes.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: That’s right.

A.C. THOMPSON: They say that people like you are the enemy.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. And that’s why our mission on this committee is so important.

A.C. THOMPSON: Thompson’s committee has subpoenaed members of Trump’s inner circle and interviewed hundreds of witnesses, including some D.C. and Capitol Police officers.

SGT. HARRY DUNN: The fence came down, and still nothing has changed. If a hitman is hired and he kills somebody, not only does the hitman go to jail, but the person who hired them does. There was an attack carried out on January 6, and a hitman sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that.

Those windows up there, those were some of the first windows that were smashed. That door, they were able to breach that door.

A.C. THOMPSON: The big one up the steps?

SGT. HARRY DUNN: Yeah, up the steps right there.

A.C. THOMPSON: Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn walks me through what happened that day.

SGT. HARRY DUNN: I was on the other side of the Capitol. Once I cleared like this tree line right here, I was just looking out, and I just couldn’t believe what I saw. There were flashbangs going off. There were smoke grenades going off.

A.C. THOMPSON: From your side or from the other?

SGT. HARRY DUNN: Both.

A.C. THOMPSON: From both?

SGT. HARRY DUNN: I’ve never seen anything like that before. My number one thought was just to survive that day. Just to survive. At that time, we had no clue what was going on. We were fighting for our lives, fighting for democracy. And how is this going to end? Like, because we were hours and hours and hours — it’s got to end somehow. How is it going to end?

A.C. THOMPSON: And did you think, like, it might end with these guys overrunning this place?

SGT. HARRY DUNN: Yeah, yeah. It crossed my mind.

A.C. THOMPSON: So, I was interviewing recently an elected public official, and he was here. He said, “I think maybe that was an antifa event. It was meant to make Republicans and Trump supporters, MAGA people, look bad.” What do you think when you hear stuff like that? And he was here.

SGT. HARRY DUNN: The rioters that day in the building told us that “Donald Trump sent us.” I don’t know how to make that any more clear to anybody. Now, whether Donald Trump gave what they’ve been saying as the marching orders, whether he did or not, whatever, that’s not — that’s not my job. I just know what I experienced. I know what I went through. And they were there because Donald Trump sent them. According to them, “Donald Trump sent us.”

A.C. THOMPSON: After the attack, we tried to get information from the Justice Department about its investigation and the people who had been arrested. Along with other news organizations, ProPublica sued for access to evidence they had been gathering.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ: Trump called us. Trump called us to D.C. I thought that there was going to be battles across the country. I thought that there was going to be fighting. I kept thinking that we’re going to go to like a civil war.

A.C. THOMPSON: In late November 2021, the DOJ made public its interrogation of Daniel Rodriguez, who had admitted to assaulting a police officer.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ: What do you want me to tell you? That I tased him? Yes. I thought we were going to do something. I thought that it was not going to end and happen like that. I thought that Trump was going to stay president.

A.C. THOMPSON: Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers have argued that he was manipulated by the agents. But his words echo the narratives I’ve heard before.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ: We felt that they stole the election. We thought — we felt that they stole this country, that it’s gone, it’s wiped out, America is over, it’s destroyed now.

A.C. THOMPSON: The arrests after January 6th may have quieted the movement for a time, but it would turn out to be short-lived.

RALLY SPEAKER: We need to fight back now.

A.C. THOMPSON: In rallies across the country, I see momentum building around overturning the 2020 election. The crowds include fewer of the characters and groups I’ve been tracking. I see more and more mainstream Americans. According to polling data, around two-thirds of Republicans have come to believe that the 2020 elections were stolen. About a third say violence may be necessary to save the country. I go back to talk to Mary McCord.

What do you think has happened to those organized groups now — the Proud Boys, the boogaloo bois, the militias? Like, where are they at in terms of strength at this point?

MARY McCORD: Well, within days, literally days, they started finger-pointing. Some dissolved. Some reconstituted themselves. You know, I think the Three Percenters said, “We are no longer.” And you had all these Three Percenters nationally saying, “OK, we need to find another group.” And they also started, you know, making up other disinformation, like this was all an antifa plot, this was a law enforcement plot. But, you know, Americans have really short memory. And time has passed. Many months have passed now. And we’re starting to see, at least in the social media and online forums, you know, organizing again in very dangerous ways.

A.C. THOMPSON: So the movement lives on.

MARY McCORD: It does live on. And, you know, in a way, it’s harder for law enforcement to deal with when it’s so disparate like that, right? You know, a dozen individuals going to a local school board meeting in a rural county without a big police force, that’s harder to protect against than the Capitol, right? The Capitol will not suffer an insurrection like that again.

A.C. THOMPSON: Where do you see the threats coming from at this point and into the future? What keeps you up at night?

MARY McCORD: I mean, a lot of the threats I still see coming from disinformation getting into our political discourse. And particularly as we come into another election year, what I’m really seeing is, you know, the seeds are just being planted already of fraud rampant throughout our election systems.

A.C. THOMPSON: Polling on this issue is pretty chilling. There are tens of millions of Americans that absolutely believe that the 2020 election, it was a fraud. And a lot of them have said, “I’m willing to use violence to change things.”

MARY McCORD: First of all, it’s astounding to see that data. And I tell myself sometimes that surely there’s something wrong about that data collection and that some of that is hyperbolic, right? All of that said, you know, we know that gun purchases were up dramatically over 2020. We have seen more and more armed individuals coming out to government proceedings, whether it’s the counting of the vote after the elections, whether it’s public health meetings, school board meetings. The willingness to be threatening government officials, and even threatening them with arms, is — you know, is something that really needs to be addressed, because that could just snowball.

A.C. THOMPSON: A year later, the country is still living in the shadow of January 6th. The trail that began for me in Charlottesville has taken another turn. Along the way, I’ve seen up close the peril posed by a resurgent white supremacist movement, armed militias pledging to execute police and elected officials, ultranationalists brawling in the streets, would-be revolutionaries wearing Hawaiian shirts, and now this: millions of people convinced that the 2020 election was a fraud, some of them angry enough to turn to violence. Charlottesville and January 6th had once seemed like bookends to an era. But today it’s clear: The movements I’ve been covering have been changing, evolving, but they are not going away.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from the updated version of the American Insurrection documentary with correspondent A.C. Thompson. It was released this week. You can watch the full report at PBS.org/frontline and on YouTube.

For more, we’re joined by the director and writer of this documentary, Rick Rowley. He’s also the director of their Emmy-winning series Documenting Hate.

Rick, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, you now have this updated version of American Insurrection, where you look at these white supremacist and extremist militias, if you will, and where they are today. What do you think is most important to understand about what we’ve learned in this last year?

RICK ROWLEY: It’s great to be with you, Amy and Juan.

Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, Mary McCord does a good job of summing up where the movement has landed at this particular moment. I mean, there was a real backlash against the perpetrators of January 6th in the immediate weeks afterwards, just as there was a backlash after Charlottesville. And so, some of the big above-ground national groups splintered. But that backlash was really short-lived. And over the course of the next months, they reconstituted themselves. Mostly, the national networks have disarticulated themselves, and they’re being organized locally — so, Proud Boys chapters showing up at school board meetings around the country. And the locus of the organizing has shifted in many ways from a national platform to a local one, which makes it more difficult to track and increases the potential for local or regional violence, which was already a trajectory we were seeing — right? — with the plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, last year. So that is really where the kind of threat is now, I think, for right-wing violence.

But I think it’s important also to remember that, like — or, think of these things as — of this as a far-right social movement. So, you have groups inside it, small, committed, militant groups, like lifelong white supremacist organizations or militias that are committed to catalyzing a civil war now. You have those groups, that are always sort of pushing the envelope. But they’re swimming in a sea of a much larger group of people, millions of people, who, in the words of the national security analysts, are vulnerable to radicalization, you know, a sea of people who are on the edge and could be recruited into violence by these groups. And that pool of people, of radicalizable people, of vulnerable people, is just growing bigger and bigger and bigger. More people today believe that the election was stolen than believed it on the morning of January 6th. More people today believe that violence might be necessary to defend America than believed it on the morning of January 6th. So, that broader kind of milieu that these movements and that this violence has generated inside has only gotten bigger.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rick, I wanted to ask you — you did get a chance to interview Congressmember Bennie Thompson, who’s chairing the House investigation of the January 6th insurrection, his committee. All the attention has been focused in the media in recent months, really, on will Trump and his circle be able to draw out the demands or the subpoenas for investigation into the next election season. What was your sense of how — of Thompson’s resolve and what his committee has already found and is seeking to prove?

RICK ROWLEY: Well, Representative Thompson said that January is going to be a big month for them. They’re going to start to make — much of the work that the committee has been doing in private, it’s going to become public. And there will be more public hearings, and we’ll begin to see, you know, what’s going on there.

I mean, I think — I mean, the danger that I fear is that, you know, this — so, Trump obviously played a key role, and has over the entire course of this rise in far-right violence, from before Charlottesville through today. A key player in that and a catalyst for these organizations has been Trump, his candidacy first and then his presidency. And then, obviously, on the morning of January 6th, he pointed to the Capitol and said, you know, “You’ve got to fight.” So, you know, his role is absolutely key.

But I think it’s important for us to remember that it doesn’t have to be a smoke-filled room with three people who, like, planned a very sophisticated operation. I mean, what you have is currents, like deeper political sicknesses inside America, that are being — and fault lines and fissures, that are being tapped into, cynically sometimes, by political players that make this, you know, moments like this, kind of happen. So, you know, I mean — and there’s many things that make this a moment that is incredibly ripe for far-right mobilization and populist mobilization. I mean, things that create this [inaudible] are the rampant economic inequality of our moment, the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, those were both major elements in creating a large chunk of the population that has lost faith or believes that the institutions of this country have failed them in some ways. And lots of those grievances are legitimate. So, in that milieu, you then have old, legacy, far-right, white supremacist groups who are pushing the envelope constantly, and then you have political actors, like Trump and others, who are able to mobilize, crystallize, unite and exploit those energies that existed already and point them in a direction.

So, that, I think, is why you see that this is not — it’s an argument that can be won with facts and evidence, right? I mean, the whole narrative around the 2020 election being stolen, time and again it faces what appear to be — on the surface, to be sort of crippling defeats — right? — the Arizona recount, or audit, you know, every single one of the cases brought by Giuliani and company being thrown out of court. Those don’t actually matter. I mean, the narrative that is feeding the social movement underneath it all survives and continues and reconstitutes itself and will continue, I think, until the underlying problems and sicknesses that feed this kind of movement are addressed in a kind of more systemic way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking about those lies and those narratives, this narrative that the right-wing media especially push, still claiming that, somehow or other, antifa was involved in the insurrection, could you talk about that and the importance of that to the narrative?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, it’s kind of amazing. And one of the things that is characteristic of authoritarian narratives and authoritarian politics, in general, is their ability to have completely contradictory ideas simultaneously held inside the same movement. So, on the one hand, you have people who say it was all fake; it was a false flag operation; antifa and Black Lives Matter dressed up as Trump supporters and organized this whole, like, operation. And then, inside the same movement, shoulder to shoulder with them, you’ll have — and inside the same person sometimes — you’ll also have the belief that the January 6th rioters are patriots and that they’re being crucified in these trials that are just now beginning to happen against them. So, those two contradictory ideas are being held together.

But the creation of this sort of bogeyman on the left of antifa and Black Lives Matter, turning them from what they are, like broad kind of social movements or tactics or whatever, turning them into this communist conspiracy that is going to take over America, undermine it from the inside and destroy it, like, that has been key to the reformulation of far-right groups since Charlottesville. In fact, one of the things we explore early in the film is the way that Charlottesville launches this new kind of political take for these movements.

So, one of the guys we talk to in — we interview in America Insurrection is Brien James, who’s a lifelong, hardcore leader in white supremacist groups — you know, the Klan, the early militia movement where he met Timothy McVeigh, skinhead gangs. And then, after Trump rode down the golden escalator and started his campaign, he said that he realized that the more effective political move was to jettison the most explicitly racist politics and rebrand himself, take off the swastika armband, wrap himself in the American flag and become a Trump supporter. So he joined the Proud Boys. He’s a regional leader of the Proud Boys in Indiana. And he says that using — rather than naming a racial enemy, saying, “We’re against Blacks or Mexican immigrants,” or whatever, naming a political enemy — “We’re against the communists who want to destroy everything that you love about this country” — was the way that they retargeted their political message so that they could reach into the mainstream. And it was incredibly effective. I mean, Brien James says that throughout his career in the far right, he’s always had 20 guys in Minneapolis, you know, maybe 40 statewide. Now he has 200. We saw with our own eyes him in Washington, D.C., with a crew of former skinhead gang members with racist tattoos on their faces, who were dressed in yellow and black of the Proud Boys and were embraced by a throng of mainstream Trump supporters. So, yeah, I mean, you’re right, Juan, the creation of this leftist kind of communist threat to mobilize against, of that kind of enemy to mobilize against, is central to the work that the extreme far right is doing to penetrate the mainstream.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rick, we want to thank you for being with us, Rick Rowley, director of the PBS Frontline-ProPublica documentary American Insurrection, now updated and available at their website, in collaboration with correspondent A.C. Thompson.

Next, “Is the 'smoking gun' in Trump’s Jan. 6 attempted coup hiding in plain sight?” We’ll speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Will Bunch. Stay with us.

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Columnist Will Bunch: Trump Came Much Closer to Pulling Off a January 6 Coup Than People Realize

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