COMMENTARY

Who were the Jan. 6 attackers? Isolated white folks, searching for meaning — and enemies

New research offers clearer picture: Capitol rioters were often suburban and middle-class — and many felt isolated

By Chauncey DeVega

Published January 21, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

President Donald Trump speaks at the "Stop The Steal" Rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks at the "Stop The Steal" Rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The Age of Trump empowered many "zombie ideas," both here in America and around the world. Fascism is the most dangerous of those zombie ideas. There is also the Big Lie that the 2020 Election was rigged or somehow stolen.

Donald Trump is no longer president, but zombie ideas continue to grow in number and force, devouring the unprepared or those who have left themselves vulnerable through carelessness or negligence or, in some cases, who are willing human sacrifices. America's democracy crisis is in many ways a story of zombie politics, about how lingering social, political, economic and other problems nourished an abomination that could no longer be easily denied or ignored.

The claim that the rise of Trump is primarily a story of "economic anxiety" among the white working class is one of the most powerful zombie ideas in recent memory. It appears highly resistant to facts, evidence or reason. Social scientists and other researchers have clearly established that white racism in its various forms explains why white voters support Trump, the Republican Party and neofascism.

It is of course true that questions of class cannot be easily separated from the color line in America. And it's unquestionably true that the working and middle classes in America (white or otherwise) have suffered greatly since the 1960s from deindustrialization and gangster-capitalist attacks on upward mobility, the commons and the overall quality of life. Those shocks to the system have definitely made right-wing authoritarians, demagogues, fake populists and "friendly fascists" like Donald Trump seem more appealing to many disgruntled white voters. 

RELATED: Trump's real base isn't the famous "white working class" — it's the billionaire class

But it is also true that, in practice, "economic anxiety" among white people has historically manifested itself through white racism and the politics of white supremacy. The evidence also undercuts the claim that Trumpism is primarily a function or corollary to economic suffering or "anxiety."

For example, the average 2016 Trump voter lived in a household with a median income of $72,000, slightly above the national median income at the time. Poor and low-income voters — well below that level, in other words — often do not vote, but are more likely to support Democrats than Republicans.

Black and brown people -- a community disproportionately impacted by globalization, neoliberalism and other economic shocks -- have overwhelmingly opposed Trump and his movement. If Trumpism was in fact an authentic revolt against the "the system", one would expect them to be among its most enthusiastic supporters. 

Last January's assault on the U.S. Capitol was a white supremacist attack against America's multiracial democracy. Yet these zombie ideas about the "white working class" still color how too many political observers understand that event.


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New research sheds additional light and clarity on the role played by white identity politics in the Jan. 6 attack.

A paper by social scientists Austin Wright (the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy) and David Van Dijcke (the University of Michigan) details how participants in the Capitol assault were more likely to come from areas of the country with comparatively high levels of Trump support. In addition, Wright and Dijcke also show that the likelihood of participating in the attack on the Capitol greatly increased if the participants came from a community that Trump narrowly lost.

Trumpists who participated in the insurrection were also more likely to perceive their communities as being politically isolated, i.e., they live in an area where their neighbors or the surrounding community do not share their affinity for Trump and his movement. This perceived isolation also heightens a sense of threat and vulnerability.

Wright and Van Dijcke's paper, "Profiling Insurrection: Characterizing Collective Action Using Mobile Device Data," also finds that people who participated in the Capitol attack were more likely to come "from Trump-voting 'islands,' where residents are surrounded by neighborhoods with higher numbers of Biden supporters."

Not surprisingly, Trumpists who participated in the insurrection were also more likely to have been radicalized by right-wing social media platforms such as Parler, and to live in close geographic proximity to right-wing extremist paramilitary, terrorist or hate groups.

These new findings complement the much-discussed research by Robert Pape and his colleagues at the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which shows — contrary to stereotypes about rust belt and rural America — that a large percentage of those who attacked the Capitol last January came from white suburban middle- and upper-class communities. Trump's attack force also included a large number of older, married white-collar professionals, in other words, people who would generally be considered part of mainstream American society. Another singular finding is that many people who participated in the insurrection came from formerly white-majority areas that have experienced rapid demographic change.

In an essay at the Conversation, Pape offers this additional context: "We have found that 47 million American adults — nearly 1 in 5 — agree with the statement that "the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president." Of those people, close to half, or 21 million, also agree that "use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency":

Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

Only a small percentage of people who hold extremist views ever actually commit acts of violence, but our findings reveal how many Americans hold views that could turn them toward insurrection.

A recent working paper entitled "Bowling with Trump: Economic Anxiety, Racial Identification, and Well-Being in the 2016 Presidential Election" expands our understanding of the relationship between white identity politics and support for American neofascism and Trumpism. Its authors explain:

We find that the oft-observed positive relationship between racial animus (prejudice) and Trump's vote share is eliminated by introducing an interaction between racial animus and a measure of the basic psychological need for relatedness. We also find that rates of worry have a strong and significant positive association with Trump's vote share, but this is offset by high levels of relatedness. Together, these two results imply that racial voting behavior in 2016 was driven by a desire for in-group affiliation as a way of buffering against economic and cultural anxiety. … This suggests that the economic roots of Trump's success may be overstated and that the need for relatedness is a key underlying driver of contemporary political trends in the U.S.

In keeping with the scholarship on fascism and other forms of radical and extremist movements, there is strong evidence that Trump supporters are driven by a search for belonging, meaning and identity. As an example of that dynamic, people — especially young men — who are attracted to extremist movements are often seeking out a type of family and community that is tied together, generally in opposition to some out-group or "enemy," by what sociologists describe as "bonding" social capital.

When it comes to zombie ideas, white supremacy and racism are among America's oldest examples. In many ways, America was actually founded on them. Donald Trump can be seen as a political necromancer who took those zombie ideas and made them powerful in ways not seen since the era of Jim Crow white supremacy, or perhaps the end of Reconstruction following the American Civil War. To this point, Joe Biden and the Democrats have shown themselves incapable of stopping or reversing these zombie ideas. America's democracy teeters on the edge of disaster as a result.

Social scientists Hakeem Jefferson and Victor Ray address this in a recent essay for FiveThirtyEight:

The idea that the racial reckoning of 2020 would last preyed on some of the most pervasive myths about race in America — in particular, optimism about what would come out of the protests and activism of 2020. It required that one believed, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, that the "arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

But history presents a much more complicated story than an optimistic read of King's famous quotation suggests. Racial progress has never been linear, nor has it ever been wholly forward-moving.

Yes, there are moments of racial reckoning — fleeting though they often are — that go some way to improve the lives of racial and ethnic minorities. But these moments that hint at a change in the racial hierarchy and a change in the status and social position of Black Americans are never met with uniform support from the American public.

Instead, these moments are often met with violent responses. They are also often met with new laws that attempt to weaken the political power of Black people while strengthening the political power of white people. And, yes, these moments are also often met by attempts to ensure a particular telling of American history that helps to maintain the mythology of racial progress that so many Americans find so deeply attractive.

White supremacy, racism, authoritarianism and fascism are intimately tied together. In fact, Jim and Jane Crow white supremacy was (and is) America's native form of fascism. As such, what today's Republican-fascist movement represent is not something exotic, brought from foreign shores, but something truly American.

On that point, political scientists Jesse Rhodes, Raymond La Raja, Tatishe Nteta and Alexander Theodoridis have conducted new research showing a clear relationship between white racism and support for Trump's coup and the Capitol attack. They summarize their findings in an essay for the Washington Post:

People who deny White racial advantages and the prevalence of racial inequities also doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, express more positive attitudes toward the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and absolve former president Donald Trump of blame for the riot.

These patterns suggest that the desire to maintain White advantages — the impulse that King identified as largely responsible for the nation's democratic failures — continues to threaten the well-being of U.S. democracy.

Too many white liberals, progressives and Democrats have convinced themselves that improving economic mobility and other life opportunities will slow or stop the neofascist movement by undermining its support among the "white working class." Considering the evidence, this is unlikely to be effective. Whiteness, white racism and white rage in their various forms are not that easily overcome — they pay their owners a potent psychological wage, and often a material wage as well. 

In short, Donald Trump, the Jim Crow fascist Republican Party and the larger white right made an offer to the "white working class," which a large proportion of the latter did not refuse. For many reasons, tens of millions of white Americans chose racism, racial resentment and white supremacy. By doing so, those white Americans decided to make the lives of black and brown Americans and other marginalized groups much worse with the hope that somehow it would elevate their own collective feelings of power and self-esteem.

The sooner the Democrats come to grips with that fact, and fully recognize the compelling power of zombie ideas such as racism and white supremacy, the faster they can focus their energy on mobilizing their own base and doing the hard work of preserving, defending and redeeming the country's democracy. Time is running out.

More on the aftermath of Jan. 6 and the one-year anniversary:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Donald Trump Jan. 6 Racism Republicans Social Science White Working Class