Who Heeded Trump's Call on Jan. 6? | Opinion

Pundits and politicians are rightfully captivated by the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, though explanations of who participated and why are frequently complicated by political motivations and a tendency to (badly) generalize from individuals to groups and vice versa. To more carefully answer these questions, my colleagues and I investigated, across several studies, the psychological, political, and social characteristics exhibited by people who believe that "the riots at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th were justified" and who support the use of political violence more generally.

Only a small proportion of Americans — around 15 percent — agree that the events of Jan. 6 were justified; likewise, about 14 percent of Americans agree that "violence is sometimes an acceptable way for Americans to express their disagreement with the government." On the one hand, these represent relatively small portions of Americans and even fewer than 14 percent to 15 percent are likely to act on violent impulses. On the other hand, 15 percent represents tens of millions of Americans, and the events of Jan. 6 demonstrate that only a few hundred bad actors are necessary for uncontrollable violence to erupt.

Having examined dozens of characteristics that are potentially related to support for political violence, from political orientations to emotional states to sociodemographic traits, I found that five groups of characteristics are strongly related: racial group orientations, a sense of victimhood at the hands of an evil political elite, anti-social personality traits, a tendency toward conspiratorial thinking, and desire to build and protect a Christian nation-state.

Jan. 6 Hearing
Former President Donald Trump is displayed on a screen during a hearing by the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on June 09, 2022, in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Specifically, those exhibiting higher levels of white identity and racial resentment toward black Americans are more likely to support the use of political violence generally, as are those who register high levels of authoritarianism and feelings of political victimhood. Perceived victimhood, white identity, Christian nationalism, and identification with the QAnon movement are also strongly related to support for the Jan. 6 riot specifically.

While each of these characteristics are non-trivially related to support for political violence on their own, they are most dangerous when they act in concert. Individuals who exhibit high levels of white identity and feelings of political victimhood and conspiracism, for example, are most likely to register support for the Jan. 6 riot.

Importantly, left-right political orientations, such as partisanship and liberal-conservative ideology, are not among the most explanatory characteristics. Political violence is not a uniquely right-wing or left-wing phenomenon. Even though the vast majority of individuals who participated in the Capitol riot were supporters of former President Donald Trump, most Trump supporters were not present, nor do most Trump supporters or Republicans, more generally, believe the riot was justified.

Instead, what likely distinguishes rioters from non-rioters is elevated levels of other psychological and political orientations — authoritarianism, perceived victimhood, racial prejudice, Christian nationalism, and conspiratorial thinking. Each of these traits are reflected in the most organized and dangerous elements of the Capitol riot: members of anti-governmental and white nationalism extremist groups. Proud Boys and Three Percenters, for example, subscribe to ideologies founded in feelings of victimhood by the state and the changing racial and religious composition of the population. Likewise, QAnon supporters –– who are more supportive of political violence than others, and who tend to exhibit anti-social personality characteristics, such as narcissism and psychopathy — feel victimized by a political establishment that only Donald Trump can dismantle and rebuild through his clandestine fight against the deep state.

Finally, political action — especially norm-breaking action — doesn't occur in a vacuum. Rather, it is frequently a reaction to political conditions or other situational factors. Indeed, upwards of 40 percent of Americans always anticipate fraud going into presidential elections and many of those on the losing side regularly pin their loss on fraud; yet, perceptions of fraud have not regularly resulted in violence. Jan. 6 was different because of the president of the United States and his acolytes. Trump explicitly invited supporters to the White House and subsequently encouraged them to march to the Capitol Building. Who showed up were not rank-and-file Republicans or even average Trump supporters, but those exhibiting the characteristics that encourage violent political action — the aggrieved, conspiratorial authoritarians who desire a whiter, more Christian America.

Altogether, blame for the events of Jan. 6 can be laid at the feet of two groups: those individuals exhibiting a toxic profile of psychological and political characteristics, and the political leaders — principally Trump — who were willing to mobilize such toxic features for their own political ends.

Adam M. Enders is assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville, where he teaches and researches the psychology of conspiracy belief, political extremism, and polarization.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.