As thousands of angry supporters of then-President Donald Trump swarmed the U.S. Capitol two years ago today, the scene was one of chaos.
But among that crowd were members of well-known extremist groups, some of whom had been planning their moves in the insurrection for months.
They included members of the paramilitary group the Oath Keepers, wearing head-to-toe body armor, whose co-conspirators waited across the Potomac with a stash of weapons. Members of the extremist street gang the Proud Boys were decked out in bright orange beanies, tattoos and more body armor. QAnon conspiracists carried banners and wore garb emblazoned with the conspiracy theory’s nonsensical slogans.
Members of these factions would go on to be charged with some of the most serious crimes of the insurrection. A Proud Boy would grab a riot officer’s shield and use it to break one of the first windows of the riot. Oath Keepers would march in a military-style “stack” formation into the building, hands on one another’s shoulders, carrying out a plan they had been hatching for months. A QAnon adherent would lead a vicious mob against a Capitol police officer.
In the two years since that day, these groups have come to define much of what is known about the insurrection. Members of the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and the extremist movement the Three Percenters have faced seditious conspiracy charges — the most high-profile cases to come out of that day. The man known as Jacob Chansley or Jake Angeli — the furry-horned-hat-wearing Arizona QAnon disciple who marched, bare-chested through the Capitol — would, for people across the world, become a human emblem of Jan. 6.
Now, two years later, these groups are fractured and leaderless.
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, was convicted of seditious conspiracy late last year and faces decades in prison. With his demise, his organization has all but disappeared from public view.
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The Proud Boys, with their leaders facing similar charges, have largely abandoned national politics and large protests in favor of smaller, localized gatherings.
And QAnon – with its figurehead, Trump out of office, increasingly shunned by Washington and facing multiple investigations – has largely shrunk back into the dark corners of the internet whence it came.
But the ideologies that underpin extremist hatred and conspiracy theories, and which galvanized thousands to march on the Capitol, are as present as ever in today’s America, and should not be underestimated or forgotten, experts on extremism warn.
Violent domestic extremism remains a top priority for federal, state and local law enforcement. Extremist ideologies including white supremacy and anti-LGBTQ hate have inspired or been linked to several mass shootings since the insurrection, with dozens of victims.
Thus, while the groups that were central to the Jan. 6 insurrection may have come undone, the ideologies that fueled them – stuck in the country’s subculture for decades – show no signs of disappearing.
Instead of forming specific groups, the far-right has spent the past two years rallied around opposing certain themes. They’ve fought COVID vaccine mandates. They’ve decried the teaching of ideas they dub Critical Race Theory. And, most recently, they’ve protested all-ages drag shows. Some saw the shows as a proxy for progressive politics, and some claimed (without evidence) that they’re havens for child predators.
What focus will unite extremists during 2023, experts aren’t sure. What they do know is that these ideologies, and their followers, haven’t gone away.
“Things are constantly evolving in the extremist landscape — it’s a fluid threat, not a static one,” said Jared Holt, a senior researcher at the think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and an expert on domestic extremism. “When power vacuums open up, whether that is a major figure going down, or somebody going to jail or a group breaking up, there’s always somebody standing out there ready to step into that vacuum.”
What’s become of the big extremist groups?
The most well-known extremist groups involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection have fractured over the last two years, but only one appears to have fallen apart.
Late last year, Rhodes and another senior Oath Keeper, Kelly Meggs, were convicted of seditious conspiracy and other felonies, along with three other Oath Keepers who were convicted of lesser charges. Rhodes and Meggs, who are yet to be sentenced, could spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Rhodes, who was arrested last January, spent most of 2022 in prison. With its charismatic leader behind bars, the Oath Keepers largely disappeared from public view, said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. Friedfeld said he expects things to stay that way.
“Rhodes has been the guiding force of the Oath Keepers since its founding and has been behind every major decision they make and organized everything and without him I think it’s going to be very difficult for the Oath Keepers to continue,” Friedfeld said. “I think it’s telling that Rhodes got arrested last January, and we still don’t know who’s running the group.”
The Proud Boys are a different story.
Founded as a men’s “drinking club” based on pro-western bigotry in 2016, the Proud Boys weren’t initially interested in a national political movement. But starting around 2018, the group began to step into the vacuum left by the fading “alt-right” movement. The group selected a national leadership that included a national “Chairman,” Henry “Enrique” Tarrio, and regional leaders.
By 2020, the Proud Boys were so ubiquitous that then-presidential candidate Joe Biden questioned Trump about them in a live televised debate. The President infamously responded that the group should “Stand back and stand by.”
Tarrio and four other Proud Boy leaders are currently on trial for seditious conspiracy. But unlike the Oath Keepers, the group hasn’t faded into insignificance, said Emily Kaufman, a researcher who specializes in the Proud Boys at the Anti-Defamation League.
“Where we might have expected the Proud Boys to be decimated by one of the highest number of arrests related to the insurrection, we saw the Proud Boys really become galvanized by their participation,” Kaufman said.
The Proud Boys pivoted away from a brief stint as a national force to more localized activity, organized on a chapter-by-chapter basis, Kaufman and other experts said. Instead of sending people to march in Washington, Proud Boys in 2022 were much more likely to be seen at local school board meetings or protesting all-age drag shows.
“What’s concerning is that now, with the absence of national leadership that was at least ostensibly concerned about optics, it really is going to be up to individual chapters to determine the direction of the group going forward,” Kaufman said.
More of a movement than a group: QAnon
Followers of the conspiracy theory QAnon never had an “organization” per se. The QAnon community has never had leaders, or a command structure. Instead, it relies on an organic web of “influencers” and so-called “experts” who have helped shape and direct QAnon followers.
But QAnon has always had a de-facto leader: Trump.
The conspiracy theory was largely based on the belief that Trump was engaged in a complex “game” that would eventually result in the imprisonment of powerful Democrats, liberal celebrities and other left-leaning global power brokers. According to QAnon lore, which was dispensed online in “drops” of cryptic information, those global elites were engaged in widespread pedophilia and “harvesting” children for a compound called “adrenochrome.”
This is, of course, all nonsense, and, after countless defeats for the QAnon belief system, including the 2020 election, the 2022 midterms and a dozen failed prophecies in between, even the most ardent supporters began to distance themselves last year. QAnon, some even claimed in a short-lived effort in 2022, never really existed anyway, but was made up by the media.
“The Q community really has transitioned away from the Q branding and become a mainstream anti-vaccine, anti-trans … popular movement,” said Mike Rothschild, a conspiracy theory researcher who wrote a book on QAnon. “People share Q memes and slogans without knowing what they are, and Q promoters make little effort to push the drops or Q mythology.”
Several adherents to QAnon arrested for their activity on Jan. 6 have already been convicted, including Chansley, who was sentenced in November to 41 months in prison and 36 months of supervised release.
A fourth extremist group that sits somewhere between the Oath Keepers and QAnon is the Three Percenters. More of an idea than a formalized organization, the Three Percenters was founded by an Alabama gun rights activist on the (again, untrue) theory that only 3% of Americans took up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War.
Unlike the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters movement has never had a clear leader or leadership structure. Self-professed members of the group espouse similar beliefs to the Oath Keepers, with the central themes being a deep mistrust of Washington, D.C., and the belief that Americans will have their guns taken away by a tyrannical federal government.
Six men affiliated with the Three Percenters are also facing charges of seditious conspiracy and will go to trial later this year. Experts said it’s too soon to know whether that trial, which has received little media attention in the shadow of the more well-known Proud Boys and Oath Keepers prosecutions, will have much of an impact on the Three Percenters’ legacy or popularity.
Extremist groups come, and go
This is certainly not the first time in history that well-known far-right groups have fallen into disarray.
In the 1980s and 90s, civil rights groups mounted challenges, often in the civil courts, against overtly white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. Court rulings eventually brought these groups to their knees, financially, with a corresponding erosion of their support base.
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In the mid 2000s and 2010s the alt-right movement, led by white supremacist Richard Spencer, gained traction among American racists, culminating in the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The ensuing lawsuits and criminal charges eventually gutted the Alt-Right, all but silencing Spencer, and leaving white supremacist groups bankrupt and languishing.
In 2017, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, who published what was then perhaps the most influential white supremacist website, was sued by a woman who claimed his trolling subjected her and her family to months of abuse and death threats. Anglin lost the case, was ordered to pay $4 million, and claims to have fled the country. A judge ordered an arrest warrant for him in November.
As one far-right group, or influencer, fades away, there’s always somebody to take their place, said Kesa White, a researcher who tracks extremists at the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University.
“They’ll always still be there,” White said. “Just because they aren’t doing any action right now doesn’t mean they’re not planning what they might do tomorrow.”
Watch the ideologies, not the groups
While much media and law enforcement attention is paid to organized extremist groups, some experts believe that attention would be better focused on understanding how the extremist ideologies underpinning them are spread, and how they can best be countered.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, PERIL’s director, said research shows that only between 7% to 15% of extremists ever participate actively in groups or organizations. And not one hate-based mass shooting has been carried out by a card carrying member of an extremist group in recent years, she said.
The man who shot up a Buffalo supermarket last year, killing 10 people, wasn’t a member of any specific organization, but he espoused the same ideas spread by hate groups.
“Generally the most dangerous actors are not the ones that are messing around in the groups,” Miller-Idriss said. “The groups are reshuffling, but I think the question is what happens with the other 85% of people who are radicalized and are looking for something to glom on to.”
As American extremism enters its third year since Jan. 6, then, experts like Miller-Idriss caution it’s vital to watch which groups emerge to take the place of those fragmented by the Jan. 6 prosecutions. But, no matter who or what takes up the far-right mantle, they say, the ideas underpinning the movement always have a way of re-emerging.
“Where I have caution is when I hear people say ‘Oh, well, it’s over — like that moment has passed,’” Miller-Idriss said. “I don’t think you can put the genie back in the bottle quite that easily.”