A Sociologist’s Take on the Capitol Siege

We check in with hate-crime expert Randy Blazak on how the events of January 6 fit in with other recent history.

By Margaret Seiler January 17, 2021

Bulletin board with connected images of TImothy McVeigh, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Janet Reno, and conspiracy iconography

When a mob stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, some people were surprised, while others pointed to clear signs it had been coming, from egging-on statements by Donald Trump after he lost the 2020 election to the increased visibility and escalating violence of white supremacists over the past year or the past decade. For sociologist and extremism expert Randy Blazak, chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, the roots of the DC siege stretch back even farther. We talked to Blazak a few days after the event.

So the storming of the US Capitol Building didn’t surprise you. How do you see what happened as part of a continuum?

There’s sort of two ways of framing it, and they’re both very different. One is that this is all about a cult of personality around Donald Trump, and these are a bunch of people that are highly motivated by one individual—and we used to use a term for that, which was fascism—and it will magically go away once Trump returns to Mar-a-Lago and never lets any of these people past the gate. I really wish it was just that—that’s bad enough—but the larger context has been the growing antigovernment underground that has now become the overground thanks to the internet and the president. That’s something that was most expressed in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, that was a part of a quote-unquote patriot movement that saw a conspiracy at work in the federal government.

What’s happening now with MAGA and Q and the “Deep State” conspiracies is that way of thinking that was kind of a fringe subculture in the 1990s has now become a massive part of our overground culture: the idea that there needs to be a second revolution, trust the plan, as these people say. It manifested Wednesday in the Capitol, and it’s going to continue. It’s not going to go away on the 20th. It’s building steam, and the Capitol incursion on Wednesday was like a big advertising for that movement, that they could do that and largely get away with it.... It is what these folks have prophesized.

After Oklahoma City, they were all focused on Y2K as the supposed collapse of society, when the computers would all crash, prison gates opened, and airplanes fell out of the sky, and that was going to be their moment to launch this second American revolution. But they didn’t really have the numbers, and the FBI under the Clinton administration and Janet Reno really broke up a lot of those plots—it’s amazing the plots they broke up in 1999 leading up to Y2K. That small fringe patriot militia group of the ’90s is now everywhere. Those people in DC came from everywhere, and they not only came from the traditional white supremacist groups, but they were cops and sheriffs and people who work for government, lawyers, coming from all types of backgrounds. As someone who’s been following this for 30 years, that’s the most chilling part, how widespread this counterculture has become.

What about those people who work for the government, as part of this system they see as utterly corrupt? How are they seeing themselves?

There’s a book that was kind of the guidebook for Timothy McVeigh in the ’90s, The Turner Diaries. It was actually written by an OSU professor named William Pierce. It’s a fictional novel written in the ’70s, set in the ’90s, about how white nationalists take over the government, and McVeigh used that as his guidebook. There’s a truck bomb full of ammonium nitrate that blows up the FBI building, and when you read that chapter it’s like reading a media account of the Oklahoma City bombing. Part of that plan is to have infiltrators, have people on the inside, have people in the military, people in the police, have people in the government who can open the door, like we saw in Oregon, who can literally open the back door to let these people in. To me, that was a very symbolic moment at the Salem Capitol when that guy lets those people in, because that’s literally part of the vision, that you have people on the inside who help the barbarians storm the gates.

What about culpability? With such a large group, who is there to punish, or who can be punished? Thinking about things that have happened in Oregon, in Portland, it’s hard not the think about the Tom Metzger trial [in which the white supremacist leader was found civilly liable in the racist murder of Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw, committed in Southeast Portland by some of his followers].

This is core to the issue in the United States about free speech and what crosses the line of free speech. Elinor Langer wrote a great book about the Mulugeta Seraw killing [A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America], and she made the argument that if Metzger had had a good ACLU lawyer instead of representing himself he probably would have won. This is the fine line: was Twitter justified in taking Trump off or are they just being politically motivated? This is something for a pay grade much higher than I to figure out. The Supreme Court wrestles these issues, it did in Virginia v. Black in 2003 when it ruled that you can burn a cross on your property, but you can’t burn a cross on your property that’s adjacent to someone’s property that’s going to be offended by it. There are these limitations, like yelling “fire!” in a crowded movie theater.

So the culpability thing is key to this. A model we’re using comes from a civil rights activist in Montana, is a funnel. At the top of that wide funnel are a lot of mainstream issues that people on the right care about, like gun rights and land rights and taxes, things that a lot of people are motivated by. And when you go down the funnel, you get fewer people but it becomes more about an antigovernment movement, and then when you get down a little bit farther it’s a conspiracy theory, that there is a shadow government which we’ll now call the Deep State. And then when you get down a little bit farther you lose some more people, but it now becomes an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about a global Jewish cabal, and then when you get down to the bottom there are the revolutionaries.... We talked about this funnel model in the 90s, there were a lot of antitax people that were starting to end up down at the bottom where Timothy McVeigh was.

But now all of a sudden there is this massive movement pushing people downward, and a lot of that is coming from the Trumps, the people that have a mainstream megaphone, whether it’s Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or Ted Cruz, who are really shoving people into the funnel. The more people that come in at the top of the funnel, the more people are going to make it to the bottom. They’re not all going to make it to the bottom, but as we saw on Wednesday there’s a whole bunch of them.

I was just talking with a friend of mine who works at a senator’s office, because I wanted to make sure she was OK. She said the image of the guy with the zip ties—inside the Capitol, looking for congressional staffers to abduct—will forever haunt her. Those people are at the bottom of the funnel, and there is a shit-ton of people down there now. And it’s fueled by the rhetoric. There is culpability there. They can play dumb, you know: Ted Cruz, can say well, you know, they crossed a line. But they definitely play a role ... in feeding people into this funnel, and it’s pushing people toward violent civil war. I would love to be wrong on so many of these issues.