US Capitol riots: How ordinary Americans became extremists

A five-time Olympic swimming medallist, a stay-at-home dad, an army psyops officer and an unemployed “shaman” who lives in his mother’s basement – a motley crew of individuals who do not immediately appear to have much in common.

But a shared, extreme ideology had brought them together at the US Capitol in Washington on January 6.

It was the day that a far-Right fervour which had been fermenting for years in America spilt out into the open, in one of the ugliest episodes in the country’s recent history.

The UK’s Sunday Telegraph spent the past week reviewing the dozens of criminal charges filed against those accused in the riot and speaking to their friends and family members to understand just how the more extremist fringes of US society became mainstream. The mob was an unlikely melee of highly educated graduates, accomplished athletes, veterans and high school dropouts.

The views expressed by those indicted over the Wednesday before last’s insurrection – laid bare in court for the first time – show sympathies to far-Right causes and in many cases clear links to white extremist groups.

Ashli Babbitt, who was shot dead by a Capitol police officer as she tried to storm Congress on January 6, had been a follower of QAnon, a wild conspiracy theory that claims the president is defending the world against a Satan-worshipping paedophile cabal masterminded by Democrats.

“She was not casual about it, she was deep into it,” one friend of Babbitt, an air force veteran from California, said.

“She didn’t used to be this angry, but a few years ago she started following these theories online and made friends there,” said the friend, who asked not to be named.

Her online accounts show she had voted Democrat in the past and praised former president Barack Obama as recently as 2018.

But as her professional life collapsed – she left the air force and her small pool-service business was struggling – she became more obsessed with online propaganda and ever more devoted to Donald Trump.

In the week leading up to her trip to Washington, friends noticed her fury had turned into excitement about a new mission – to bring down the Capitol.

Olympic gold medallist Klete Keller’s now-deleted social media feeds were filled with Trump-conspiratorial rabbit holes.

The 38-year-old, who had spoken on his accounts of his divorce and a period of homelessness, posted messages urging “patriots” to speak out about the “stolen election”.

Keller struggled acutely to adapt to life after swimming. “I had a really difficult time accepting who I was without swimming in my life,” he told NBC a few years back.

“He was lost,” said Rowdy Gaines, a three-time gold medallist and friend. “Sometimes when you get lost, you become a follower instead of a leader,” Gaines said of Keller’s apparent devotion to Trump. Keller could not be reached for comment.

Richard “Bigo” Barnett from Arkansas, a Trump supporter and self-described “white nationalist”, was photographed sitting in House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, his left foot propped up on a desk.

The Saturday before the riot, Barnett, a 60-year-old former firefighter, had criticised Nancy Pelosi in a Facebook post for using the description “white nationalist” as a “derogatory term.”

In October, Barnett helped raise more than US$1000 ($1400) for #SaveOurChildren, an anti-child-trafficking campaign.

Facebook limited the use of the national campaign’s hashtag because it found that content tied to the campaign was associated with QAnon.

Barnett, who appeared in court earlier this week, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Many of the seemingly disparate individuals had communicated in online forums in the days leading up to the storming of the Capitol, joining forces last week in a dizzying alliance.

The leaders of several of these groups have been pictured over the last few years with people close to the president, including Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, and Roger Stone, his former political strategist.

Algorithms on social networks like Facebook “amplified the likelihood of a collision with far-Right and QAnon content and communities,” offered Shannon Foley-Martinez, a self-described former white supremacist who now works at the Polarisation and Extremism Research Lab. Many retreated even further into these online communities after losing jobs and facing isolation in the real world due to the coronavirus.

“We have long held a stereotype that the far-Right is white, rural and uneducated. That’s no longer the case,” said Colin Clarke, head of research at the Soufan Centre.

Trump has played a key role in making white nationalist ideas part of the national conversation.

“The movement has diversified geographically, it has diversified demographically and socio-economically,” said Clarke.

“You have an increasing number of educated and urban people sharing these opinions. The internet has allowed people who wouldn’t normally cross paths to converge online.”

Clarke, who used to study Islamist extremism, sees similarities in the “radicalisation” of the far-Right with that of jihadists.

“The profile of the far-Right rioter and that of the foreign fighters are not all that different,” he said. “They are looking for brotherhood, a place to belong.”

According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies analysis, Right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in the US in 2019, and more than 90 per cent between January and May, 2020.

A recent poll found that eight per cent of Americans supported the attack on the Capitol.

Clarke does not believe the threat from the far-Right will go away overnight.

“Eight per cent? That might not sound like a lot but that’s millions and millions of people,” he said. “We’re in for a world of trouble.”

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