Published March 30, 2021 by Tom Porter

Conversations on Democracy: White Power and the Capitol Riots

As a scholar of the American white power movement, Kathleen Belew watched the dramatic events of January 6 unfold on her television screen with a chilling sense of familiarity. Although unprecedented, this attack on the central seat of government reminded her of an ongoing trend in the movement.

Kathleen Belew

“Manifestations of white power tend to come on the heels of a major war,” said Belew in a lecture she gave to the Bowdoin community on March 24. She is assistant professor of US history at the University of Chicago, where she specializes in the recent history of the US, examining the long aftermath of warfare and the place of violence in American life and culture. Her 2018 book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, finds that “the best predictor for surges in clan and vigilante violence in the US is not poverty or populism or immigration or civil rights gains: the best predictor is the aftermath of warfare.”

Belew’s talk and the ensuing discussion, moderated by Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matthew Klingle, was part of a semester-long series organized in the wake of the January 6 storming of the US Capitol and efforts by former president Trump and his allies to overturn the election. "After the Insurrection: Conversations on Democracy" consists of virtual discussions with leading experts on subjects that relate to the current state of and future prospects for American democracy.

This connection between the aftermath of warfare and right-wing political violence at home is consistent across the broad sweep of American history, said Belew. Why does this happen? Is it due to the number of veterans returning home, brutalized by warfare and trained in violence? This is certainly a factor, said Belew, but there is more to the story.

“The inescapable truth,” she said, “is that all of us become more violent after warfare.” Sociologists, she added, have found this to be a phenomenon that goes across age and across gender and affects veterans and nonveterans alike. “We're currently living through the longest, most protracted aftermath we've ever seen,” argued Belew. “My undergraduates don't remember a time before the global ‘War on Terror’ and yet it is not even in what most people might list as the top five crises facing our country at any given moment.” Warfare and its consequences have simply become a normal part of American life for the current generation.

capitol riots
The storming of the Capitol, January 2021. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Different groups unite

Belew divided the people who forced their way into the Capitol on January 6 into three broad groups:

First, there were what she called the “garden variety President Trump faithful… the MAGA ‘stop the steal’ ralliers. A lot of those people,” she said, “were there simply to demonstrate their support for Donald Trump to exercise their right of assembly and free speech and to peaceably demonstrate.”

Second, there were the far-right conspiracy theorists who follow the “QAnon” movement. “These people have been recently radicalized,” said Belew, “most of them being only one or two years into radical activity. QAnon, as a whole, represents a somewhat new phenomenon in many ways.”

The third strand of this crowd, she said, is one that poses a substantial threat to democratic institutions and to the nation as a whole, and that is the organized white power movement, which comprises several different groups. “We know that many of these groups preplanned their attack. We also know that they made a deliberate plan to work together. There was communication about setting aside group differences and banding together to deliberately attack the workings of democracy.”

Belew stressed that the behavior witnessed on January 6 is not new. “It’s part of a movement that’s been in our public life since the late 1970s. It's a movement that is well organized, includes people in every region of the country, and in all ways but race is quite diverse and opportunistic, willing to incorporate a broad array of people and beliefs, bringing them together through this shared sense of emergency.”

It’s also a movement that has already carried out mass casualty attacks, most notably the 1995 attack on a federal building in Oklahama City that killed 168 people, including nineteen children. The attack was perpetrated by extremists Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran, but Belew said it’s wrong to attribute the atrocity to a few “bad apples” or “lone wolves.” The attack was the culmination of decades of organizing. “The movement that carried it out, the white power movement, brought together a bunch of different currents of activity. It united Klansmen, neo Nazis, radical tax resistors, and later on skinheads and parts of the militia movement.” Worryingly, said Belew, this kind of collaboration within the white power movement could also be seen on January 6.

The next event in the “Conversations on Democracy” series will be on April 13, when US Senator Susan Collins (R) will talk about “The State of Our Democracy and Political System.”