As we mark the anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, and as different judicial processes attempt to deliver their various forms of accountability, we still lack an adequate understanding of one of the day’s imminent dangers: the threat of militias to American democracy.
The invasion of the Capitol is best understood as the collision of three streams of right-wing activity: the Trump base (itself containing a range of extremism), the QAnon movement, and white power and militant right groups. This third segment — although probably smaller than the others involved that day — was highly organized, connected, outfitted with tactical gear and weapons and well-trained. These activists often led the charge, and they were the first to breach the Capitol. Their own ideology, which descends from decades of violent white-power organizing, reveals them to be dangerous, intent on the destruction of democracy and the propagation of race war.
One question that stands out: Why did these activists who attended the Jan. 6 action mostly not wear Nazi and Klan gear or carry symbols of organized white power? Why, instead, did they show up in yellow and black, in paramilitary gear, and carrying militia flags?
I have spent 16 years researching the history of white-power and militia activity. One consistent attribute of the militant right is that it is fundamentally opportunistic: White power and militia groups tack not only to the prevailing winds that point toward likely scapegoats, but also toward cultural acceptability. Even before Jan. 6, these groups received information (in the form of condemnation from politicians and other sources) that outright racist mobilizations would not curry favor with a broad group of supporters. Although the groups donned white polo shirts and khakis in Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally in 2017, most politicians condemned their openly racist and antisemitic message. This point was surely driven home later by the federal jury verdict in Sines v. Kessler, which in November found the organizers of the Unite the Right rally liable for $25 million in damages.
But militias, as the scholar Joe Lowndes has documented, have not received similar condemnation. Even before Jan. 6, militia groups appeared regularly in semi-legitimate and legitimate settings, at anti-mask actions and even at Black Lives Matter protests.
And on the day of the electoral vote count, even groups that espouse white power ideology cloaked their most offensive symbols.
This shows us, once again, that Jan. 6 was meant as a recruitment and radicalization action — an attempt to raise awareness about the militant right and bring people into the fold. For this reason, the pressing work ahead will be clarifying the threat that extralegal militias pose to people, governance and institutions.