Michael Jensen is a senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, where he has led the center’s team on extremism in the United States since 2014.
Super Happy Fun America, the Woodland Wild Dogs and America First Bruins are not household names in the way the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and QAnon are. But they, too, are groups whose members or associates have been charged with participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year.
Proud Boys and Oath Keepers members face the most consequential charges in the attack - seditious conspiracy - yet it’s the role of these other groups and many more like them that has drawn the attention of my team at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
This constellation of groups that in some cases serve as incubators for insurrectionists - and bridges to like-minded extremist movements - challenges the popular notion that the mob was filled with “everyday Americans” who were “caught up in the moment,” as many of their defense lawyers have argued, or “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” as the Republican National Committee described them in its censure of the two Republican lawmakers serving on the House select committee investigating the attack.
The presence of so many of these groups at the Capitol also complicates the argument that the majority of the defendants “had no connections to extremism whatsoever,” as Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in an op-ed. Or that most of them were “from the mainstream,” as political scientist Robert Pape has asserted.
Over the past several months, my team has been collecting data on the backgrounds of the Capitol defendants in an attempt to verify these claims of their normalness. After poring through thousands of pages of court documents and scouring their social media pages, I have reached a different conclusion: They are not normal. They are not “everyday,” “ordinary” or “mainstream.” They are part of a supercontagion.
The “ordinary people” argument misses, or at least obscures, the extent to which the Capitol rioters were linked to dangerous groups and ideas.
According to my team’s research, at least 280 of the individuals charged with committing crimes on Jan. 6 were associated with extremist groups or conspiratorial movements. This includes 78 defendants who had links to the Proud Boys, a group with a history of violence; 37 members of the anti-government Oath Keepers militia; 31 individuals who embraced the similarly anti-government and militant views of the Three Percenters movement; and 92 defendants who promoted aspects of QAnon, a bizarre set of conspiratorial claims that tie liberal politicians, Hollywood celebrities and global elites to a fictitious criminal network engaged in child sex trafficking.
Considering that we are just beginning to learn about the Capitol defendants and the extent of their conspiring ahead of the riot, both from the select committee and from court appearances, these numbers are certain to grow.
These 280 individuals make up approximately 35% of the Capitol defendants. While it is true that they do not represent a majority of the more than 800 people who have been charged in connection with the riot, we should not understate what this figure represents. A 35% rate of participation in extremism among a collective of apparently “ordinary” individuals is an astounding number - one that should shake us to our core. Imagine if 35% of every workplace, college classroom or soccer club was made up of people with links to extremism. We would hardly call that, or them, ordinary.
Sure, these individuals are normal in the sense that they have families and friends and, before Jan. 6, most of them worked typical jobs. However, as someone who has been studying extremism in the United States for nearly a decade, I can tell you that no serious student of radicalization thinks these are the things that separate law-abiding citizens from violent extremists.
Radicalization researchers have long known that there is no one profile of an extremist. Extremism is not due to the presence of a single risk factor or criminogenic indicator, such as unemployment. It is not typically a product of psychopathy or rare personality disorders. Rather, it is a result of a cognitive, social and behavioral process by which seemingly “normal” individuals from various walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds adopt views that justify the use of illegal means, including violence, for achieving political, social, economic or religious goals. It often involves the formation of communities of like-minded individuals who mobilize one another to action. These are the dynamics that were on display at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
My team has found that the 280 Capitol defendants with links to extremism formed more than 750 dyadic relationships with radical movements and fellow Jan. 6 defendants. This means that, on average, each of these defendants was linked to approximately three groups or fellow rioters who openly espoused violence-justifying views and sought to undermine American democracy in the name of extremism. And they were not simply passive participants in an extremist moment that began and ended at the Capitol. Some, like the Oath Keepers’ Stewart Rhodes, are long-standing leaders of large, organized groups. Others, like Anthime Gionet, also known as Baked Alaska, and Brandon Straka, have built considerable followings on social media. And still others act as pivotal nodes in an expansive and increasingly interconnected network that allows harmful ideas to flow effortlessly from one movement to another.
Take, for example, Alan Hostetter, a police chief turned yoga guru turned Capitol defendant. Hostetter sits at the intersection of most of the extremist ideologies that were present at the Capitol. Charging documents describe him as an anti-government Three Percenter who has expressed the belief that all it will take to topple the tyranny of the Democrats is a small number of dedicated patriots who are willing to grab their guns and fight. He has spoken at QAnon events. At the height of the pandemic, Hostetter regularly organized rallies against shutdown measures and was eventually arrested in connection with a riot at a California beach pier. (He has pleaded not guilty to charges including trespassing and refusing to disperse.) And he seems to be well versed in the legal theories of the “sovereign citizen” movement, which he is now making use of as he represents himself in federal court on charges that include conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding of Congress.
What is troubling about Hostetter’s case is not simply that he is familiar with a wide range of extremist beliefs but that he has also acted as a conduit, allowing those ideas to spread from one community to another, radicalizing people along the way. Hostetter used his connections in the Southern California alternative-healing and wellness communities to form his own group, the American Phoenix Project, which he told the IRS was dedicated to defending “human and civil rights” and providing information about the coronavirus. He introduced his group and its followers to the views of the anti-government militia movement, thus forming a bridge to violent extremist groups. According to a federal indictment, after the 2020 presidential election, he and his co-defendants used their leadership positions in the American Phoenix Project and its communication networks on YouTube and Telegram to spread lies about election fraud. And in the days leading up to Jan. 6, the indictment said, he used his influence to advocate for violence against elected officials, proclaiming that their executions would be “just punishment” for stealing the election from Trump.
A look at the social networks of the Capitol rioters reveals dozens of defendants who acted as this type of connection from one extremist movement to another. According to the data we have collected, defendants like Hostetter helped form a network that linked no fewer than 47 extremist groups and movements to one another on Jan. 6. This network included groups like the Proud Boys, which played a starring role in the initial recent televised hearing of the House select committee and has, along with the Oath Keepers, garnered most of the attention since the riot. However, it also linked high-profile groups to organizations that have been virtually ignored by the media but are nevertheless potentially dangerous - groups like Super Happy Fun America, which has organized “Straight Pride” and anti-vaccine-mandate events and sent five buses to Washington on Jan. 6; the Woodland Wild Dogs, a paramilitary training group run by a Capitol defendant who charging documents say appears to have been affiliated with the Three Percenters; and America First Bruins, a UCLA campus organization whose founder is an election denier who expressed support for the violent, racist 2017 march in Charlottesville, Va., according to the FBI.
Many readers will undoubtedly now be aware of an infamous meeting between Enrique Tarrio and Rhodes, the leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, that took place in a Washington parking garage the day before the attack on the Capitol. This meeting has attracted considerable attention, including from the select committee, which featured it in one of its hearings, and prosecutors will most likely use it to try to prove that the two groups conspired with each other to violently overturn the results of the 2020 election.
However, hardly anyone seems to be aware that the meeting was also attended by Joshua Macias, co-founder of a group called Vets for Trump, which promotes itself as the official veterans coalition working in support of the former president. If Macias’s name sounds familiar, that is because he gained national headlines in November 2020 when he and another man, Antonio LaMotta, packed guns, ammunition and a samurai sword into a Hummer adorned with QAnon stickers and drove to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to try to interfere with vote-counting. Macias was released on bail pending a trial, scheduled for October, but citing evidence that he participated in the attack on the Capitol - he has not been charged in the attack - the Pennsylvania prosecutor moved to have his bail revoked.
This case - and dozens like it - illustrates that the extremist connections that were present at the Capitol on Jan. 6 did not begin there. Rather, they were a product of a years-long process of mass radicalization that was fueled by rampant disinformation, the explosive growth of online extremist communities and the mainstreaming of dangerous ideas that were once the exclusive domain of fringe groups. Nearly 18 months later, the contagion that produced the networks that were present on Jan. 6 continues to work its way through our democratic institutions and threaten the well-being of our communities, as was painfully clear last weekend when 31 members of the Patriot Front were arrested in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and accused of planning to wreak havoc at a Pride rally.
By continuing to promote the “ordinary people” narrative that has developed around Jan. 6, we make this problem worse. Not only does the narrative overlook how well-orchestrated much of the violence at the Capitol was, but it also normalizes the event by portraying it as the kind of thing “ordinary” people do in the pursuit of their political interests.
There is nothing ordinary about a collective of individuals who align themselves with extremist movements, adopt their beliefs and mobilize one another to violence. The Jan. 6 select committee has it right: This was a coordinated attack on American democracy in which extremist groups and their followers played a fundamental role.
Originally published by The Washington Post.
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