WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As most Americans recoiled in horror at scenes of rioting and chaos in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, some right-wing and anti-government extremists saw the violence as the fulfillment of a patriotic duty or opportunity to advance their agenda.
Among the inspired was Mike Dunn, a 20-year-old follower of the “boogaloo” anti-government movement, whose adherents anticipate a revolution toppling the federal government or a second U.S. civil war.
Dunn, who lives in Virginia, said three or four groups of loyalists under his command helped storm the Capitol this week amid a motley mix of rioters who supported President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the November presidential election. While most “boogaloos” are libertarians who largely oppose Trump, Dunn said the group embraced the moment to strike against the government.
The mob swarmed the home of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, succeeding in temporarily interrupting a formal vote to confirm Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Dunn’s hope is that the incident - which resulted in five deaths - will trigger more actions in the months ahead. He said his group would seek to advance its own agenda by participating at protests and other events with those angry over Trump’s loss, even if they held other beliefs.
Dunn said boogaloos would be “working overtime” to advance their cause. When asked whether boogaloos had planned to attack the Capitol, he responded: “Just know there is more to come.”
While Dunn said he did not participate in the Capitol siege himself, he shared footage on social media that purported to show boogaloo members tussling with police and forcing their way through barriers outside the building.
The assault - one of the most destructive breaches of the Capitol since invading British forces set it ablaze in 1814 - marks a critical moment for extremists who have seized on false claims, spread by Trump, that the U.S. election system is fraudulent and rigged. Some say they will keep fighting in support of the Republican president’s baseless allegations of a stolen election. Others said they would put immediate activities on hold but threatened to re-emerge later.
Pundit Nick Fuentes, who was permanently suspended from YouTube last year for hate speech, praised the storming of the Capitol in his livestream video on Thursday, calling it “glorious” and “awe inspiring.”
Reuters photographer Jim Bourg, who was photographing protesters trying to break down doors to the Capitol building, said he heard three older white men in red “Make America Great Again” caps talking about finding Vice President Mike Pence to hang him from a tree as a “traitor.”
Bourg said shouts of “traitor” were common among other demonstrators as well. Pence was presiding over the electoral vote count, a largely ceremonial duty to confirm Biden’s victory. Trump had falsely suggested to his followers that Pence could ignore the official count and hand Trump a second term. Security agents rushed Pence from the Senate chamber after protesters breached the Capitol building.
The assault on the building led to the shooting death of a protester and the death of a U.S. Capitol Police officer from injuries sustained during the melee. Three more people died from medical emergencies, dozens of police officers were injured and congressional offices ransacked as law enforcement failed to control the mob. U.S. Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Department said on Thursday they had arrested a combined 82 people during the unrest.
The attack generated widespread backlash among U.S. officials of both parties and America’s allies worldwide. Fifty-seven percent of Americans want Trump removed from office immediately, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on Thursday and Friday. And seven out of 10 of those who voted for Trump in November opposed the actions of hard-core supporters who broke into the Capitol, the national opinion survey showed.
But the mob’s strike at the symbolic heart of the U.S. government suggests that Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud may have unified a broader coalition of extremists who could pose a threat again when Biden takes office on Jan. 20 and into his four-year term in office, experts said.
Far-right groups have praised the siege in encrypted chat rooms and defended the participants as “patriots” on social media. Experts tracking protests expected actions in Texas and the Pacific Northwest in coming weeks, as well as around the inauguration in Washington. But turnout for those events remains unclear as Trump on Thursday finally conceded defeat and said he will be leaving office.
“Tempers must be cooled and calm restored,” Trump later said in a brief video posted to Twitter.
A NEW COALITION
Protesters who gathered at the Capitol building on Wednesday included some of the most extreme elements of the president’s base, including white nationalists, militia groups and QAnon conspiracy theorists, according to Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which tracks extremism.
The mix of ideologies have been drawn together in recent weeks by “Stop the Steal” protests in cities across the country, pro-Trump efforts that seek to overturn the results of the presidential election, Burghart said.
“They formed this kind of new coalition and have been holding rallies virtually nonstop ever since the defeat,” he said.
When demonstrators forced their way into Congress on Wednesday, the tumult blurred the lines between more mainstream Trump supporters and adherents of different extremist movements, according to Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. Some people likely came to the protests with no plans for anything beyond a demonstration and then joined the mayhem, he said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued memos last year warning that threats by domestic extremists would likely increase around the election.
Alleged domestic violent extremists in the United States killed 48 people in 2019 - more than in any year since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, according to a DHS report released in October.
Trump has faced criticism during his presidency for failing to take seriously the threat posed by far-right extremists in particular. Following a deadly 2017 rally organized by white supremacists and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was killed, Trump blamed “many sides” for the violence. On Wednesday, amid intense pressure to disperse the Washington mob, he told his supporters in a video posted to social media to “go home,” adding, “We love you. You’re very special.”
The right-wing, white nationalist and militia groups that participated in the Capitol siege have not tended to coordinate in the past, due in part to infighting and clashing personalities, according to Amy Cooter, a senior sociology lecturer at Vanderbilt University who has studied extremist groups for a decade.
But Wednesday’s spectacle, which brought them together in Washington, might inspire them to try to work more closely in the future, Cooter said.
Biden’s inauguration stands out as a possible target for disruptive or violent protests, but any new Biden policies that deal with race and gender equity could also trigger actions, she said.
‘THE FIRST SHOT’
Tom O’Connor, a former FBI special agent, said he worries that far-right extremists and people who embrace conspiracy theories will feel that the Capitol attack represents “the first shot” in a broader war. He said lone actors may feel increasingly “victimized by the continued beat of the drum of conspiracies which will cause them to act out violently in a plethora of potential actions.”
Enrique Tarrio, the Florida-based leader of the right-wing Proud Boys, told Reuters on Thursday that he would not broadly denounce people who entered the Capitol building during riots a day earlier, calling it “a form of protest.”
Tarrio is under a court order to stay away from Washington following his arrest there Monday for destruction of property and possession of two firearm magazines. He said he did not participate in the siege.
Tarrio said the Proud Boys did not have plans to reconvene for Biden’s inauguration later this month, but would be active during the Democrat’s presidency.
“You’re definitely going to see more of us,” he told Reuters.
Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Ned Parker in New York; Julia Harte in San Francisco; and Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles; Editing by Marla Dickerson in Los Angeles
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