Today marks two years since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, led by far-right insurrectionists.
The second anniversary of the deadly attack is an appropriate time to take stock of what we have learned, what progress we have made, and what we must do to protect against current and future threats to our democracy and our democratic institutions.
The bipartisan House select committee investigating the insurrection, which issued its final report late last year, provided us with a road map for this important national reckoning.
Over the 18 months of its tenure, the committee conducted 10 public hearings, interviewed over 1,000 witnesses, and reviewed more than 1 million pages of background information. This was the most important congressional investigation since the 9/11 Commission.
Beyond the essential historical record, the true measure of the committee’s work will be whether the planners, perpetrators, funders and those who inspired the insurrection – including former President Donald Trump, his allies and other politicians who sought to forcibly uphold white supremacy and overturn the 2020 election – are held accountable, with serious consequences. The committee’s report and accompanying materials have provided a blueprint toward these objectives for Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Southern Poverty Law Center commends the members of the committee, led by Chairman Bennie Thompson and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, for its groundbreaking contribution to efforts to expose and stop extremists from moving further into the mainstream. The committee’s investigation, final report and accompanying criminal referrals are essential steps toward transparency and accountability.
What we have learned
The violence on Jan. 6 was planned and was never meant to be the end goal. The committee report documented in great detail how Trump called for his supporters to come to Washington on that fateful day and then knowingly inspired an armed mob of his followers to go to the Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.
As we have previously documented, far-right antigovernment extremists – and Trump himself – had laid the foundation for the violent insurrection in the years before. The lies of a stolen election and the extremist ideologies and conspiracy theories that fueled the attack were the culmination of a months-long, coordinated strategy by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election and steal the presidency.
The committee report also documented that Trump and his allies used racism as a principal driver in immediate post-election efforts to disenfranchise voters in major urban areas in Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania and other states. Over the next months, the false allegation of a stolen election led many state legislatures with Republican majorities (including in Deep South states where the SPLC operates) to enact discriminatory anti-voter laws and create new, racially gerrymandered congressional districts. These new districts disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color and are designed to undermine elections and control election outcomes in 2024 and beyond.
We have also learned that white supremacy and hard-right extremism have been normalized and mainstreamed to a dangerous degree. White supremacist groups played a lead role in organizing, coordinating and executing the deadly Capitol attack and in other efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. SPLC Intelligence Project experts submitted testimony to the committee on how extremist groups and individuals – like the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and white nationalist Nick Fuentes – have infused once-marginalized, white supremacist ideas into mainstream Republican discourse and politics with the goal of maintaining a grip on power and silencing communities of color.
The threat of political violence substantially increased in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack. According to a June 2022 poll jointly conducted by the SPLC and Tulchin Research, the mainstreaming of hate and antigovernment thought, and the willingness to engage in political violence, are now widely accepted on the right. For example, the poll found that 41% of Republicans agreed with the statement that “some violence might be necessary to protect the country from radical extremists.” Over half of Republicans also said they believed the country is headed toward a civil war.
The committee report did not adequately address the failure of law enforcement and domestic intelligence agencies to recognize the scope of extremist threat from hate and antigovernment groups and prepare for the violence at the Capitol. But after the violence of Jan. 6, both federal law enforcement officials and the Department of Defense have substantially expanded their attention on domestic extremism and sharpened their focus on this threat.
On his first full day in office, President Joe Biden ordered a comprehensive review of government efforts to address domestic terrorism. In June, the White House issued the first National Strategy for Confronting Domestic Terrorism, which stated that “the two most lethal elements of today’s domestic terrorism threat are (1) racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists who advocate for the superiority of the white race and (2) anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, such as militia violent extremists.”
Since that time, in periodic reports and congressional testimony, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have consistently reiterated that assessment and have provided resources to address that threat.
The FBI and the Justice Department, working in coordination with state and local law enforcement officials, have pursued attack planners and perpetrators with considerable urgency: Almost 1,000 people have been charged with crimes linked to the Jan. 6 insurrection; more than 460 people have pleaded guilty to charges connected to the riotous attacks.
At the Pentagon, shocked by the fact that more than 90 current or former service members faced criminal charges for participating in the Capitol attack, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a memorandum in February 2021, ordering a department-wide stand-down to educate Department of Defense personnel on the threat posed by supremacist and extremist activity. In March, the SPLC presented testimony at hearings on the issue before the House Armed Services Committee.
In April, Secretary Austin established a Countering Extremist Activity Working Group composed of Defense Department personnel, with outside stakeholder involvement. The working group’s report, issued in December 2021, outlined a number of initiatives designed to address extremism, including clarifying service-wide prohibitions against involvement in supremacist or extremist activities, expanded screening to prohibit recruitment of extremists, and education initiatives to prevent radicalization of active-duty personnel. The report also provided an update to the standardized transition checklist for veterans as they reenter civilian life.
No one is above the law in a democracy. The House select committee has outlined vulnerabilities in our electoral systems and provided an opportunity to prove that the Jan. 6 attack on American democracy and the ongoing effort to sabotage future elections will not succeed.
To build on the progress we have made, we must work together to protect our democratic election procedures, push white supremacy out of the mainstream and combat hate, hard-right extremism and disinformation.
To succeed in these efforts, we must do the following:
Act against extremism and political violence.
- It is impossible to overstate the importance of elected officials, business leaders and community officials using their public platforms to condemn and act against hate, hard-right extremism, political violence and attacks on our democratic institutions.
- As the select committee recommended, the Biden administration must develop and implement an interagency strategy to complement enforcement actions with resources devoted to prevention initiatives. One model could be new work promoting public health approaches to countering radicalization that the SPLC is currently developing in partnership with American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL).
- The Department of Education and the Department of Justice should fund and support civics education, digital literacy initiatives, culturally competent and linguistically accessible conflict resolution programs as well as initiatives to reduce structural racism.
- The Biden administration must provide adequate funding for the wide array of interagency anti-hate and extremism initiatives and public-private partnerships announced at the September 2022 White House United We Stand Summit.
Protect voting rights.
- Congress has already accomplished one committee recommendation by including Electoral Count Act reforms in the omnibus spending act enacted at the end of last year. These reforms, which provide clear guidelines for certifying and counting votes for president and vice president, are a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done.
- Congress must restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. Until that objective can be accomplished, the Biden administration must take legal action to protect voting rights and the electoral process.
- Funding for election administration must be increased to address the rise in fear of political violence against voters and poll workers.
- We must prevent efforts by state government officials to change rules after elections happen and stop partisan state officials from interfering in elections.
Confront white supremacy in the military and in law enforcement.
- Address hate and extremism in the military at every stage: screening recruits; expanding and clarifying prohibitions against advocating for – or involvement in – supremacist or extremist activity for active-duty personnel; and tailored efforts for veterans to transition to civilian life, including counseling, mental health and social welfare services.
- Prevent the hiring, promotion or retention of law enforcement personnel who actively promote unlawful violence, white supremacy or other bias against people because of their personal characteristics.
Promote online safety and hold tech and social media companies accountable.
- Tech companies need to answer for their role in promoting false claims about the election and providing a platform for extremists to plan their violent acts.
- Tech companies must develop – and enforce – terms of service and policies to ensure that social media platforms, payment service providers and other internet-based services do not enable the funding or amplifying of white supremacist ideas or provide a safe haven for extremists spreading disinformation or planning political violence.
- Tech companies should be required to disclose information about who is paying for specific online political advertisements.
To turn the page on Jan. 6 and heal the nation’s deep wounds, together, as Americans, we must unite to reject hate and extremism and push white supremacy out of the mainstream.
We must hold anyone who inspired or funded the insurrection accountable. And we must adopt preventative approaches to countering radicalization instead of waiting to arrest extremists after they commit crimes.
We must build resilience, learn more about diverse communities in our country, and strengthen democracy to achieve liberty and justice for all.
Picture at top: Pro-Trump protesters in front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In its final report released late last year, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection documented in great detail how former President Trump knowingly inspired an armed mob to go to the Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. (Credit: Jon Cherry/Getty Images)