After the November election, amid Donald Trump’s rising rhetoric about a “stolen” vote, I talked to counterextremism experts about what it would take to bring the president’s most devoted and deluded supporters back from the edge. John Horgan, a Georgia State University professor and the director of the Violent Extremism Research Group, told me at the time that violence had become inescapable. “The warning signs are all around us,” he said then. “I want to be wrong about this, but I see short- and medium-term violence in our future. It’s all around us.”
Horgan was closely following the chatter among right-wing groups leading up to the Jan. 6 Capitol assault. I called him back this week to ask if the attack was the kind of violence he had expected, what those images of rioters inside will mean for pro-Trump extremist groups, and what we can do to lower the temperature. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Aymann Ismail: The last time we spoke in October, you said the prospect of violence from radicalized Trump supporters “kept you up at night.” I’m guessing that hasn’t changed.
John Horgan: Oh, my God. I wish I could say I’m sleeping better, but no. It’s not happening. I got TV on here in the background, and I’m still looking at these images. I’m shocked and stunned and horrified and sickened, and no, I’m not going to say I was surprised. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last four years, it’s that it can always get worse. I still don’t think we’re headed toward civil war, but I think all bets are off the next few weeks.
I feel overwhelmed too. I was there as a reporter trying to document what I was seeing. Now that I’m home watching it on TV as nefarious details keep trickling out, I’m realizing how lucky I was to not get hurt. Is the Capitol attack the kind of violence you expected? Did anything happen between the election and now that raised your alarm level at all?
I study this stuff for a living, so I exist in a rather strange bubble, but I think there’s a societal sense in which a huge line had been crossed. Even last week, I don’t think it’d fully sunk in that we are now facing the consequence of unchecked right-wing extremism being nurtured over the past several years. This wasn’t anything new that Trump heralded. Yet we have seen Trump and his ilk feed it. The most disturbing trend I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks and months has been the way in which people like Ted Cruz haven’t just radicalized Americans, but mobilized them to action. In mobilizing people to come from across the United States to defend in D.C., this is the kind of thing that Anwar al-Awlaki would envy.
Were you worried when you first heard about the “Save America” march?
There are a lot of informed, smart people out there saying that this was spontaneous. That’s delusional. It shows just how removed we are from any sense of how dangerous this problem is that even a day or two before, people said that this is going to be simply another protest. What more do we need to start taking right-wing extremism seriously? The bombs, the bits of the story that are starting to emerge now about zip-tie guy, and about whether or not there was a plan to take hostages. People are still looking at this with eyes wide shut. I mean, it is truly stunning. Misinformation and disinformation constitutes nothing less than a major public health crisis. I think this is really the consequence of where we are now after the last four years. That’s what I’m very, very worried about right now.
When I was there in the riot, I saw aggressive instigators but also young people who were getting high, celebrating, and seemed to have no idea of what they’d done. Then there were the guys in tactical gear. How much does this riot look like coordinated and sophisticated violence to you?
Armed extremist groups had for a long time been calling for this storm. This is the language that they use. Their time has come. It’s now or never. Trump has led them to believe that their way of life is fundamentally at risk here, and unless they act now to save it, it’s the end of the country as they know it. You can’t have one encounter shape your perspective of the whole thing. There was a caravan of quite diverse people at the event. Some of them just wanted to be part of the circus. You had your gawkers, your tourists, your instigators, your preachers. And then of course you had your guys in military fatigues who came looking, not just for a fight, but they came with a plan. They were organized and they were looking to get their chance at infamy. Those are the kinds that I think about between now and Jan. 20. I spent hours and hours scrolling through raw footage and feeds over the last couple of days. It’s 50 shades of red, as I call it. You had quite a diverse group there all united, responding to the call of Trump, who said, “We need you here.”
On the ground, I saw Boogaloo Boys, Q supporters, and buttoned-up Republican types all joined forces. Do you think violent extremist groups have become indistinguishable from the rank-and-file people who showed up?
Have you ever come across the concept of millenarianism, something that religious scholars talk about? It’s a fairly obscure term. It refers to the onset of the millennium. Some ideologies, particularly religious ideologies, talk about affairs in terms of an impending catastrophe. Trump succeeded in convincing many millions of people that a catastrophe is coming. This is how he was so effective in polarizing the American public. I think there is a legacy here that we’re not going to be able to appreciate for likely a generation—seeing how conspiracy theories and misinformation, disinformation, has affected people. I mean, this is down to a family level. I’ve spoken to friends over the last several days and they said, “Listen, I can’t talk to my family about this stuff. It’s tearing us apart.”
There are fliers already being shared on right-wing chatter websites like Gab organizing for more “rallies” on Jan. 17 and on Inauguration Day. Do you think those are credible threats? What do you expect to happen?
I didn’t live in the United States when 9/11 happened, but I certainly don’t remember feeling like this before. I mean, it’s a deeply concerning time. There is an almost certainty of political violence between now and Jan. 20. These problems have been years in the making, and we just have a perfect storm of lots of different things happening at the same time. Twitter’s deplatforming of Trump in my view is four years too late, but at the same time a necessary drastic step. That will undoubtedly have some effect in terms of taking the steam out of these times.
Do you think social media stepping in right now to push these groups further underground may hurt our ability to counter them? Can’t it legitimize their victimhood mentality?
It’s going to agitate them in the short term, but we are talking about a trade-off here. There are always unanticipated consequences, but the danger of not platforming Trump—he literally caused an insurrection. He tried to destabilize this country. So there is no way that we could afford to entertain him any further on that.
I admit I was wondering why we would want to stop Trump from incriminating himself further.
I totally understand that, but the potential consequences of allowing him to remain unfettered on that platform could be disastrous. I understand why we’re asking this question of what comes next, but we’re going to be dealing with the fallout of what we’ve seen last week for a generation. These kinds of images, like the Confederate flag being paraded through the Capitol building, these images will constitute the fuel for the next generation of white supremacists in this country.
What do you think the Capitol moment means for these extremist groups going forward? What are you seeing in the groups you monitor?
It’s a rallying cry. I have seen chatter that suggests there are credible attempts to coordinate violent protests at each of the state capitals. That makes sense because these groups are spread out. I’m not worried about the people that were caught up in these arrests. I’m not worried about the people that were at the protest. I’m worried about the Timothy McVeighs who are out there now realizing that their time has come. They are radicalized. They are mobilized. They are bereft of direction because their leader for whom they are clearly ready to give their lives has lost the platform that he needs to communicate with them, so now they’re trying to figure out what to do, and it makes them unpredictable. After the IRA tried to kill Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and she survived, they said, “Remember, we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.” That’s where we are right now.
Republican politicians are starting to step in now. Marco Rubio saying cast out QAnon from conservative circles. Lindsey Graham reversed course on contesting the election. Many appear ready to vote to impeach Trump. Do you think the horror of those images, especially of the Capitol Police officer being dragged and beaten with an American flag—do you think that will dissuade any believers?
Deradicalization only works when people want it to work. There are Trump supporters who will look at these images and will go, you know what? This is not what I signed up for. One of the implications of just how polarized we have become is that those of us who are not Trump supporters view them as being a monolithic group. And of course, they’re not like that. They are far more diverse. There’s no doubt in my mind that some Trump supporters will view those images with absolute horror and will try to distance themselves from it, for sure. But there are others who will look at those images and will take solace, and a sense of pride for their impending victory.
If you had to predict what the next year will look like, what do you see happening, broadly?
Violence, mistrust, and utter confusion. I think we have no ability to understand the consequences on us. If we don’t take misinformation and disinformation seriously, and if we don’t treat it like the public health crisis it is, we’re never going to find our way out of this hole. I firmly believe we do not have any real sense of just how bad things are. This is something that is affecting every single person in the country. It is something for which there is absolutely no plan to deal with. And this insurrection is only a symptom of the consequences of allowing disinformation to go unchecked.
The fact that millions of people are willing to believe that the election truly was stolen. The fact that hundreds of people were willing to lay down their lives for Donald Trump. I mean, we can’t even have agreement over what constitutes facts anymore. What began as sound bites and clichés like “fake news” and all of these things that we just dismissed as farce a few years ago—this is the accumulation of that. Deradicalization was always meant to be this lower-level, one-on-one type engagement, but the reality is we’re going to have to figure out how to have conversations with people again. We’re talking about basic stuff here.
Do you see any way to slow this down or change course?
I think impeachment is important to reassure the country that this is being taken with the seriousness that it deserves. Failure to decisively and aggressively address a coup and Trump’s role in this is simply saying, “That was your dress rehearsal. That was your dry run. You can now do it for real next time.” There has to be consequences. There absolutely have to be consequences because failing to do so will simply be tacit encouragement to the extreme right-wing sphere. As if to say, “OK, you just need to come back and do it better next time.”