June 24, 2022
IntelBrief: What the January 6th Committee Hearings Mean for the Future of Political Violence and Domestic Terrorism in the United States
The Capitol insurrection of January 6, 2021 triggered a significant debate as to whether this moment marked the beginning of a more intense phase of political violence and a decline of democratic processes in the United States. Much of the information that has resulted from the January 6thCommittee hearings seems to suggest that as Americans view the event and its consequences through a highly partisan lens, there was more widespread acceptance of the use of violence for political ends. Just this week, high-profile pundits compared the United States to Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles,’ arguing that what the U.S. is on the verge of is not civil war, necessarily, but a period of sustained low-intensity conflict and “heightened political violence.” Despite the shocking scenes at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, things could have been worse—two pipe bombs were left unexploded, one outside of the Republican National Convention (RNC) headquarters and the other outside of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) headquarters. The suspected assailant has still not been identified. Moreover, images of the insurrectionists carrying zip ties and inciting violence against the Vice President suggest that many were willing to carry out acts of political violence.
In the most extreme sense, this could include assassinations, bombings, and violent confrontations in the streets. This would be particularly challenging against the backdrop of an electoral system frequently plagued by constitutional crises and bitter disputes over claims of fraudulent elections. Spikes in violence around elections worldwide have highlighted the propensity for violence in environments where politics is presented as a zero-sum game. Electoral instability in the U.S. could be exacerbated and exploited by domestic violent extremists, particularly those influenced by the concept of accelerationism which holds that all Western governments are corrupt and thus need to be destroyed. The concept has been embraced by a range of violent extremists across the ideological spectrum including numerous extremist groups that participated in the violence of January 6th, including the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys. A focus on domestic turmoil and countering political violence at home will stretch U.S. government bandwidth to deal with a host of other serious threats, including inflation, pandemic recovery, and challenges on the international front with strategic rivals like China, Russia, and other nation-states. Politically and racially motivated violence at home also irrevocably undermines the U.S.’s international credibility as a champion of human rights and rule of law. When Washington is bogged down with civil unrest, it provides other state and non-state actors with opportunities to sow disinformation, promoting distrust of government institutions and amplifying social divisions.
The January 6th Committee hearings also remind the U.S., and the world, of exactly how close the United States came to catastrophe on the day of the insurrection. The hearings made clear that as a violent mob roved the Capitol grounds hunting then Vice President Mike Pence, then President Trump refused to intervene. Moreover, the hearings illustrate how the former President pursued an illegal plot to overturn a free and fair election and to this day, still perpetuates the “Big Lie,” energizing a small group of zealots and setting the stage for confrontations and potential election violence in the lead-up to mid-terms in November of this year. Ongoing denunciations by senior politicians of President Biden as illegitimate are more than just performance politics; the effects are both lasting and tangible. Narratives around the insurrection highlight that the barriers to entry for using violence to assuage political grievances are lowered when those grievances are perceived as just, even if they are underpinned by unsubstantiated narratives or conspiracies.
Politics has entered a different realm in the United States, crossing the Rubicon into something somewhat unrecognizable for most Americans, who are unaccustomed to repeated overt threats of physical violence in this current environment of hyper-partisanship that appears to put party over country. Bickering over politics and deep disagreements are par for the course in a democracy but Americans are seeing a different level of division. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill), a Republican on the January 6th Committee, has spoken about the death threats he and his family have received, including against his wife and 5-month-old child. The Georgia Secretary of State recalled threats against his wife that included violent “sexualized attacks” and break-ins at the home of a close relative. This past week, election workers who upheld their oaths of office despite tremendous pressure, spoke up about their decision to resist coercive efforts to overturn the election results in their respective states. Witnesses recounted a torrent of intimidation, threats, and harassment which forced many of them out of their jobs. Having been smeared as pedophiles and threatened with lynching, some of these public servants have gone into hiding to protect themselves and their families. Liz Cheney (R-Wy), the other Republican on the Committee, implored, “We cannot let America become a nation of conspiracy theories and thug violence.” It is no understatement to suggest that American democracy is imperiled, with surveys suggesting many believe that democracy itself may cease to exist in the United States in our lifetime. Unless we have politicians willing to grapple with uncomfortable truths, put aside differences, and work across the aisle—which seems increasingly unlikely—the country could very well reach a point where political violence is the norm and conspiracies continue to be mainstreamed.