March 22, 2023

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Experts Explain How 10 Capitol Riot Rally Attendees Won Elections

  • At least 10 “Stop the Steal” rally attendees won elected office earlier this month.
  • Two experts explain how — and why — the US was ripe for such wins and what it means for the future.
  • “Those willing to walk on the Mall now represent the mainstream of the Republican party,” Matthew Schmidt said.

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November 2, 2021, saw some of the first major elections held across the country since a mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6. 

But amid the buzziest races demanding attention, including two gubernatorial showdowns in Virginia and New Jersey, a quieter election day narrative was taking shape as voters in six states gave their stamps of approval to an unlikely contingent of candidates: individuals who gathered on the National Mall more than 10 months ago to protest the 2020 presidential election.

At least 10 Republicans who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the deadly Capitol attack won elected office at the local and state level earlier this month, according to a HuffPost report.

While most of the newly elected officeholders have denied breaching the Capitol or playing an active role in the chaotic insurrection that followed the rally (at least one was photographed outside of the Capitol), their victories offer prescient insight into the current state of the Republican party, and where it may be headed.

For experts, the election results are hardly surprising

Right-wing violence in the US has been on the rise in recent years, with alt-right organizations and extremist groups gaining unprecedented recognition and legitimacy during the Trump administration, which seemingly culminated in the deadly January 6 insurrection.

While ascertaining the individual motives of “Stop the Steal” rally attendees may be impossible, their communal participation in the symbolic “pre-show” to the Capitol riot nevertheless played a role in the ultimate outcome of that day: an attempt to circumnavigate American democracy, according to Eric K. Ward, an extremism expert and the executive director of Western States Center and a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“So by extension, it’s not surprising to see that they are increasingly, successfully expressing themselves through electoral vehicles, as well,” said Ward.

Of the 10 rally attendees elected earlier this month, three were sent to state legislatures, while the other seven won positions at the local level. Meanwhile, there are dozens of elected rally participants who faced no reelection this year and remain in political office, despite their presence in DC in January. 

Matthew Schmidt, a politics professor and director of the International Affairs program at the University of New Haven told Insider he wasn’t surprised by the election results either. 

“The electoral system is such that we aren’t really divided up in terms of population, but divided into arbitrary geographical boundaries,” Schmidt said. “So even though, say, most of the actual population…disagree with ‘Stop the Steal,’ that doesn’t mean people who agree with it will face political failure.”

Opinions that may be considered “extreme,” or which are held only among a minority of people at the national level, can find fruitful ground in the small microcosms of like-minded communities, where a local school board member can win support from his neighbor by championing Trumpism, Schmidt said. 

Proud Boys head to the Capitol on January 6

Proud Boys members walk toward the U.S. Capitol in Washington on January 6.

Photo by Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Politics has always been an expression, not of policy, but of identity, according to Schmidt

The Republican Party in recent years has primarily centered itself around a very specific identity: the white American male who believes his rights are being systematically destroyed by a government supporting social change, the experts said.

“Policy choices and things we think about as polices are actually proxies for identity,” Schmidt said. 

As the country slowly slouches toward progress with steps toward cementing racial and gender equality, a certain type of Republican voter has likely felt their own electoral power diminishing, he said.

“It is those victories toward equality and opportunity that have sparked this sort of racialized backlash,” Ward said of the growing white nationalist movement within American politics as evidenced by several of the Capitol rioters and rally participants. 

One GOP politician, more than any of the rest, has had unbridled success in harnessing Republican fear and frustration into electoral power.

Trump is the ‘ultimate expression’ of Republicans’ anxiety

“Donald Trump is an expression of those pent-up fears amongst Republicans about the widespread changes happening,” Schmidt said.

Both Schmidt and Ward were careful to note that Trump himself did not create the polarization so prevalent in US politics today, nor did he serve as a bonafide organizer or leader of burgeoning alt-right groups. Instead, his rise to power was a result of an increasing American divide, and his role is that of a symbolic figurehead among the far-right masses.

The former president was so successful because he was willing to express the often-crass thoughts and opinions that others in his party had previously kept quiet out of fear of societal backlash, according to Schmidt.

In 2016, Trump won the presidency because he was the only person verbalizing those ideas, Schmidt said. But now, his pathway to electoral success has seemingly become the blueprint for Republican candidates, as evidenced by last week’s 10 “Stop the Steal” victors.

Trump, and now his successors, have brought legitimacy to extremist ideology and a far-right movement that was once sidelined by both Democrats and Republicans, according to Ward. 

trump stop the steal

President Donald Trump arrives at the “Stop The Steal” Rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Now the GOP has no choice but to embrace it

“Those willing to walk on the Mall now represent the mainstream of the Republican party,” Schmidt said.

What were once fringe sects of the GOP — groups promoting white nationalism and other anti-democratic ideals — have now been embraced by the official party, according to Ward, who explained the GOP’s “lost battle” to its alt-right coalition.

And like Trump before them, Republican candidates in this month’s elections utilized flashpoint issues to secure their constituents’ votes.

In addition to the standard hot-button topics that dictate GOP politics, such as female reproductive rights and gun rights, musings on the newest controversial issues, like critical race theory and the coronavirus, dominated the most recent races.

Some of the most contentious battles were fought around the subject of critical race theory — a high-level legal framework that is rarely actually being taught in schools, around which conservatives coalesced.

“The inability of the Democratic Party and others to really hold accountable the scapegoating of a legal theory seemed to take its toll,” Ward said. “It looks like it helped move a portion of Biden’s base, white women, into the Republican extremist camp during this election.”

CRT school board meeting

Opponents of an academic doctrine known as “critical race theory” attend a packed Loudoun County, Virginia school board meeting.

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

The rally attendee’s wins send a message

Schmidt predicted the country is likely to see an influx of candidates like the 10 who won earlier this month.

“You will see more of these kinds of candidates for the foreseeable future until the inevitable social changes that these politicians and their constituents are afraid of, become overwhelming and change,” he said. 

The onus to fight extremism, according to Ward, must then fall on all Americans to come together and speak in defense of democracy.

“We need Americans to step up and be firm that we live in a republic that is founded on the practice of democracy,” he said. “If we hope to save democracy, we have to first believe in democracy ourselves.”