Argument

The Jan. 6 Insurrectionists Aren’t Who You Think They Are

The people who stormed the U.S. Capitol weren’t poor, unemployed red-staters. Many were middle-class professionals motivated by the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol before the attack in Washington.
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol before the attack in Washington.
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol before the attack in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Jon Cherry/Getty Images
By , a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats.

For decades, Americans have become used to thinking of right-wing extremism—or really extremism of any kind—as emanating from the awful edges of society. Extremists make up just a tiny fraction of the country, far less than 1 percent of the population—so the logic goes—and they are economically destitute, often unemployed, and come from the rural parts of the United States.

That picture has changed—at least when it comes to the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 and the insurrectionist movement today. An in-depth look at who broke into the U.S. Capitol, the size of the insurrection movement in the United States today, the ideas motivating the movement, and their media consumption habits shows that the old patterns in right-wing extremism no longer apply.

Our new analysis at the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats of the demographics of those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and multiple nationally representative surveys paint a new, startling reality: The insurrectionist movement is mainstream, not simply confined to the political fringe.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol before the attack in Washington.
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol before the attack in Washington.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol before the attack in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

For decades, Americans have become used to thinking of right-wing extremism—or really extremism of any kind—as emanating from the awful edges of society. Extremists make up just a tiny fraction of the country, far less than 1 percent of the population—so the logic goes—and they are economically destitute, often unemployed, and come from the rural parts of the United States.

That picture has changed—at least when it comes to the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 and the insurrectionist movement today. An in-depth look at who broke into the U.S. Capitol, the size of the insurrection movement in the United States today, the ideas motivating the movement, and their media consumption habits shows that the old patterns in right-wing extremism no longer apply.

Our new analysis at the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats of the demographics of those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and multiple nationally representative surveys paint a new, startling reality: The insurrectionist movement is mainstream, not simply confined to the political fringe.

Consider the economic profile of the 716 people arrested or charged, as of Jan. 1, 2022, for storming the Capitol. Of the 501 for which we have employment data, more than half are business owners, including CEOs, or from white-collar occupations, including doctors, lawyers, architects, and accountants.

Only 7 percent were unemployed at the time, almost the national average, compared with the usual 25 percent or more of violent right-wing perpetrators arrested by the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement from 2015 to mid-2020.

Furthermore, only 14 percent of those who broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6 were members of militias such as the Oath Keepers or extremist groups such as the Proud Boys; 86 percent had no affiliation.

In other words, these were people who had something to lose when they went to Washington and carried out this violence.

They were people like Jenny Cudd, owner of a floral shop and former candidate for mayor in Midland, Texas, who stayed at the pricy Willard Hotel the night before breaking into the Capitol; Bradley Rukstales, the CEO of the data analytics marketing firm Cogensia; Jeffrey Sabol, a geophysicist from Colorado; Luke Russell Coffee, an actor, producer, and director of films from Dallas; and Federico Klein, who lived in Virginia and worked as a special assistant at the U.S. State Department and had a top secret security clearance.

Hundreds more are from the mainstream just like them.


To understand the state of the insurrectionist movement in the United States after the assault on the Capitol, our teams at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats in conjunction with the National Opinion Research Center conducted nationally representative surveys in the summer and fall of 2021.

Extrapolating from a random sample of 2,000 American adults, we found that an estimated 21 million people hold two radical beliefs in America today: (1) Joe Biden is an illegitimate president, and (2) the use of force to restore Donald Trump to the presidency is justified. With a margin of error of 2.9 percent, this insurrectionist movement could be as small as 13 million or as large as 28 million.

At the low end, the numbers are disturbing; at the high end, alarming. In any case, the number is so large that it represents a significant part of mainstream America.

These 21 million Americans are active and dangerous; an estimated 2 million of them have attended a protest in the past 12 months, 4 million have prior military service, and 8 million own guns.

Their media sources suggest they could be further radicalized. Conservative news outlets are the most prominent; 42 percent of the respondents to our survey with insurrectionist sentiments report that their main media source is Fox News, Newsmax, or One America News Network. Yet 32 percent of those respondents watch channels like CNN and MSNBC. Only 10 percent are getting their news mainly from right-wing social media like Gab or Telegram. Fringe social media matters, but the insurrectionist movement is mainly consuming mainstream media.

Race is also an important driver. When we look at the counties that the 716 people arrested or charged for storming the Capitol came from, where they live, what we see is more than half live in counties that Biden won. They do not mainly come from the reddest parts of America. They also come from urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Houston, and Dallas. But the key characteristic uniting them is that they come from counties where the white share of the population is declining fastest.

These facts dovetail with a popular right-wing conspiracy theory called the “great replacement.” Coined by the French far-right writer Renaud Camus, cited as inspiration by the mass murderer who attacked two mosques in New Zealand, and popularized in the United States by right-wing media personalities such as Tucker Carlson, the central idea is that majority white populations are being replaced by minorities and that liberal leaders are deliberately engineering white demographic decline through immigration policy.

Our national survey shows that the No. 1 belief among insurrectionists—shared by fully 75 percent of respondents—is the “great replacement” of the electorate by the Democratic Party and that this idea is also the most important separator of people in the 21 million from the general population, where the theory doesn’t hold much sway.


The United States is now moving into a highly volatile 2022 election season. The insurrectionist movement is akin to a stockpile of combustible material, much like a vast amount of dry wood that can be set off from a lightning strike or a spark, causing a wildfire. The 2022 election season is a tinderbox, where there could be many sparks at the local levels made even worse by the recent changes in election laws in Georgia, Texas, and other states where the counting of the vote has been greatly politicized.

Georgia’s upcoming governor’s race is just one precarious election. Stacey Abrams—who officially lost the 2018 election for governor, did not concede, and claimed the election was rigged against her—is running again. This time, however, politics is now more a part of counting the vote in the state than before. Last year, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill that would allow it to demote the elected official who chairs the state’s election board—and who did not bend to pressure by then-President Trump to upend the 2020 presidential election results—and appoint a majority of their choosing to the board.

So there could again be political pressure on the state’s election board to put its thumb on the scales in favor of the Republican candidates for governor and other offices. If so, the United States could see a cycle of protest, confrontation, and escalation.

Many millions of Americans sympathize with the rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol. This large mainstream, popular support for insurrectionist sentiments makes it easier to rationalize political violence in the future. There is a large mass of kindling waiting for an incendiary moment. Georgia is only one such potential moment in 2022, to say nothing of 2024.

As 2022 approaches, it’s crucial that political leaders grasp this new empirical reality and that aspiring leaders weigh in on it. Citizens and journalists should ask every candidate running for office a simple question: “Some people are saying that the use of force is justified to retore Donald Trump to the presidency—what are your thoughts on that?”

Robert A. Pape is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats.

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