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How We Got Here: Making Sense of the Siege

A selection of readings, podcasts and documentaries help explain what led to the insurrection at the Capitol.

by James Napoli
January 19, 2021 | Our Future
Two National Guard members stand in front of a fence surrounding the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., capitol siege
Credit: Geoff Livingston // Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The attempted siege of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6 was terrifying and, frankly, traumatic to witness.

For me, watching the event unfold in real time on Twitter and via live-streams brought back haunting memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But, for many journalists and scholars who've been covering the rise of extremist activity in recent years, the chaotic insurrection that disrupted the certification of President-elect Biden's election victory didn't come as a surprise.

Understanding this assault on democracy requires untangling a messy web of interrelated factors: the rapid spread of online disinformation in recent years; the emergence of conspiracy theories from dark corners of the internet into mainstream culture; and the growth of white nationalism, anti-government militias and far-right extremist groups. 

The articles, documentaries and podcasts listed below offer a bit of context to help make sense of the various social and historical forces that converged in Washington, D.C., and at state capitols around the country in early January.

An overview of the insurrection

Luke Mogelson provides a detailed, on-the-ground account of the breach of the Capitol building in this New Yorker essay. The article also explores the role of conspiracy theories and extremist groups in the lead-up to the attack, which he describes as "a predictable apotheosis of a months-long ferment." The New Yorker also released Mogelson's video footage here.

Chaos at the Capitol, an episode of the FRONTLINE Dispatch podcast, explores the forces behind the attack and examines how the event unfolded.

The investigative journalism podcast Reveal shares a conversation with a lawmaker and two journalists who were at the Capitol during the insurrection in Democracy Under Siege. The episode also explores haunting parallels with a coup by white supremacists in North Carolina in 1898.

Post Reports, the Washington Post's daily news podcast, presents an immersive and comprehensive oral history of the insurrection, as reconstructed through interviews with the legislators, journalists and law enforcement officials who experienced it first hand.

Online disinformation, conspiracy theories and radicalization

Poynter shares a roundup of comments from distinguished media experts on how online disinformation played a key role in the attack on the Capitol.

New York Times columnist Kevin Roose exposes how the internet, and specifically YouTube's algorithm, leads to the radicalization of users and the spread of conspiracy theories in the podcast Rabbit Hole

In The Atlantic, Timothy McLaughlin also traces the insurrection back to extreme rhetoric and misinformation on the internet, and draws comparisons to violent incidents abroad that were fueled by social media platforms. For more on the rise of conspiracy theories into the mainstream, see The Atlantic's series of Shadowland articles.

New York Times opinion writer-at-large Charlie Warzel joins PBS NewsHour to discuss online extremism and the spread of radical rhetoric in the weeks leading up to the insurrection.

The QAnon conspiracy

Roose also provides an overview of the rapid rise of the sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon, including its movement from online communication channels to offline violent crimes.

For a deeper dive into QAnon's origins and growth, as well as profiles of a few steadfast believers, check out this cover story from The Atlantic.

The Reply All podcast also conducted a revealing investigation into the likely perpetrators of the original QAnon conspiracy.

White supremacy and white nationalism

The second season of Scene on Radio, a podcast from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, explores the history of white supremacy and deconstructs the very notion of whiteness.

In the two-part series Documenting Hate, FRONTLINE and ProPublica team up to investigate white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally and the anti-Semitic attack at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

Far-right extremist groups

The Southern Poverty Law Center provides a detailed overview of the history, rise and philosophies of the Proud Boys, a group of self-described "western chauvinists."

Australia's SBS Dateline offers a glimpse into the lives of members of the Proud Boys and speaks with the group's founder, Gavin McInnes, in this documentary.

This episode of WBUR's On Point explores the origins of another far-right group, the Boogaloo Bois, a loose collection of anti-government extremists whose goals include exploiting civil unrest to foment a second civil war in the U.S.

VICE's documentary The Making of a Boogaloo Boi takes a deep dive into the life of Mike Dunn, a young Boogaloo adherent who was reportedly involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Where do we go from here?

PBS NewsHour's American Reckoning covers a range of factors that have polarized the country in recent years — economic inequality, racism, misinformation, extremism — and explores the question of how the country can start the process of healing after the attack at the Capitol.

Portrait of shaggy-haired local man with arms folded, wearing a cap, in front of pine trees
James Napoli, a former editor at Rewire, is a freelance writer, photographer and radio producer. Find him on Twitter @jamesnapoIi or Instagram @james.napoli.
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