Was the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 a conspiracy?
In court documents and statements in the months since an estimated 800 right-wing extremists smashed their way into the seat of American government, prosecutors and other officials have suggested that a great deal of planning went into the attack, dating back as far as some two months beforehand.
Members or associates of extremist groups including the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and the Three Percenters have been charged with conspiracy to obstruct Congress and related violations. Encrypted and other communications found by investigators show coordinated efforts to bring people to Washington, D.C., in advance of the attack, to make sure plenty of weaponry was available, to set up “quick reaction forces” outside the capital, to attack police and others, to breach the Capitol using organized paramilitary techniques, and more.
One Oath Keeper leader even bragged to other members of the group that he had formed an alliance with the Proud Boys and some Three Percenters.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told reporters that law enforcement had missed obvious signs of impending violence, and added, “The attack was, quite frankly, planned in plain sight.” Michael Sherman, who supervised the prosecution of Capitol invaders in the first months after the insurrection, said that the government might well bring seditious conspiracy charges, suggesting a high degree of coordination in the Jan. 6 attack. Even Christopher C. Miller, a former Trump administration official who led the Pentagon’s response to the insurrection, testified to Congress that events that day suggested “an organized conspiracy with assault elements in place.”
At the same time, government investigators and private researchers have uncovered a huge amount of both encrypted and open electronic communications that made clear that many individuals around the country were planning in advance for violence. Caravans to the nation’s capital were organized, weapons stashed in hotel rooms, maps of the Capitol tunnel system exchanged, possible entry points to the Capitol complex discussed, and meetups of various sorts arranged.
But was the insurrection a full-blown conspiracy?
What seems clear is that there were a number of smaller conspiracies, or at least well-developed plans, if not an overarching master conspiracy. Especially among those who were members of extremist groups, the evidence revealed so far strongly indicates that a serious amount of planning went on before Jan. 6.
That may be most obvious in the case of the Oath Keepers. Officials have revealed how a “stack,” or tightly lined up formation of members helped lead the initial breach of the Capitol, minutes after one of them spoke by radio to Stewart Rhodes, leader of the group. Rhodes boasted to members of the well-equipped “quick reaction forces” he had organized outside the capital in case violence in the city escalated. Prosecutors also say that Rhodes, who has not been charged with any crime, had been discussing ways to keep Trump in office despite his Nov. 3 electoral loss since Nov. 9, and had warned of “bloody, bloody civil war.”
Several associates of the Three Percenters started planning their trip to Washington about six weeks later, on Dec. 19, according to officials, with one of them declaring on the day before the insurrection, “We are at war tomorrow.”
Members of the Proud Boys, equipped with radio earpieces and orange tape to identify themselves, were at the Capitol on Jan. 6 well in advance of the main crowd, which was listening to a Trump speech some distance away, suggesting that they already expected that an attempt to breach the Capitol was imminent.
But real evidence of a grandmaster plan has yet to surface.
And, although things could change as more evidence and court testimony become public, that should come as no great surprise. It is always tempting to explain complex events with a single through-line, or organizing principle. But the vast majority of human events are not the result of some complicated scheme. That is the way conspiracy theorists think, and they are almost always wrong.
There was a time when the American radical right was more or less dominated by major groups and leaders, and it was then that larger conspiracies were more common. During the civil rights movement, there was a fairly large number of cases in which criminal attacks were in fact planned by groups.
But the radical right today is a far more organic movement. In the last few decades, the importance of individual groups and leaders has waned, even as the movement grew larger and increasingly invaded the political mainstream. Political crimes and terrorism are now generally the product of individuals acting alone or in very small groups. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by one man with some help from two friends, is a far more typical radical-right attack now than, say, the Klan’s planned assassinations of black activists in the 1960s.
It would be nice if a major crime like the Jan. 6 insurrection — a genuine threat to democracy itself, as well as to those individuals targeted by its violence — could be solved by cracking open a master conspiracy. But the radical right in the United States is not like a Mafia organization. There is no evil leader whose demise will mean the destruction of the entire movement. In fact, a Washington Post analysis showed only about 50 of the 411 people charged by mid-May were members of extremist groups. The others were apparently unaffiliated.
This is in line with a major report from the American intelligence community in March that stressed that individual actors and small groups were the most serious terrorist threat facing the country. These people, the report said, “often radicalize independently by consuming violent extremist material online and mobilize without direction from a violent extremist organization, making detection and disruption difficult.” And that is the precise difficulty, it seems clear, that investigators and prosecutors face in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
© Mark Potok. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).