“Battle-hardened” Donald Trump supporters may pose an even greater threat in the future despite the change in presidency to Joe Biden, one expert says.
Elliott Brennan, research associate at Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre, has been monitoring the social media accounts of right wing groups for years and said he saw the riots coming.
“You had the President calling for people to come to that (Save America) rally for weeks, advertising it and encouraging people to travel to Washington, highlighting to everyone how important that date was,” he said.
While the chatter online among certain groups was always pretty alarming, Mr Brennan became worried that something would happen when Mr Trump confirmed he would be speaking at the rally, which also attended by groups including Stop the Steal.
The rally in Washington DC was organised to protest the US Congress’s January 6 certification of Joe Biden’s election victory.
“I will be speaking at the SAVE AMERICA RALLY tomorrow on the Ellipse at 11AM Eastern,” tweeted Mr Trump, who has refused to concede defeat two months after the November vote.
“Arrive early,” he added.
Mr Brennan said Mr Trump’s appearance was the “firestarter” the community of far right extremists and conspiracy theorists needed.
“The (Trump supporters) are made of up of so many people with different ideological beliefs but they have one thing in common — the idolisation of Donald Trump,” he said.
“He is the factor that energises them and can transform their intent into action.”
He said the US had been dealing with the rise of far right terrorism since at least the election of Barack Obama as US President but debate had been “bedevilled” by politics after Republicans accused Mr Obama of likening party members to terrorists.
The response had been to “quieten down the conversation” about the threat but Mr Brennan said the Washington riots had shown how important it was to monitor these groups.
‘NO WAY WE CAN IGNORE THE DANGER’
During the pandemic, Mr Brennan said militia groups, street gangs like the Proud Boys and far right extremists took advantage of the situation to stir up conspiracy theories.
“Australia dealt with the pandemic well but the US hasn’t had the government assistance and so its people were hit much harder,” he said.
“There was also record internet use, especially among older people who don’t know their way around the internet.
“The picture that painted in 2020 and coming into 2021 is dire.”
Mr Brennan said that ahead of the January 6 riot, groups were providing advice on how to smuggle guns into Washington DC, which has some of the strongest gun laws in the country and requires a permit for each weapon.
On the day, authorities found a truck parked two blocks from the Capitol building packed with 11 homemade bombs, an assault rifle and a handgun. Another man had an assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, according to CNN.
“This incredible arsenal was brought into the halls of America power and was organised online for a week in public,” Mr Brennan said. “Nothing was done about it even though what was happening was so dangerous.
“The January 6 riot put lawmakers lives at risk. There is no way now that we can ignore what a real and present danger this is,” he said.
RISK FROM ‘BATTLE-HARDENED’ SUPPORTERS
The full legacy of the riots may also yet to be played out.
Mr Brennan said many of Trump supporters drove to Washington in caravans, picking up people in different states on the way.
“They have now returned back home and we have a legion of insurrectionists who now feel they are battle hardened,” he said.
“They are dispersed across the country after also forming physical bonds with those who share their goals.”
Mr Brennan said research had shown people who attended protests were more likely to stay involved in the political process.
“Now that they’ve engaged in political violence, there’s nothing to say that’s where it will stop,” he said. “There’s no reason to think they are just going to go home and accept the election results.
“If anything I think we’ve arrived at a more insidious stage.
“The action on the Capitol was a large coordinated event that took place in nearly perfect conditions, including a misstep from Capitol Police that still demands an explanation.
“Even if the Republican Party distances itself from Trump, that will do nothing to change the view of the people there, or to stop the militia groups, street gangs and far right groups from using the images as propaganda and to recruit in the future.”
AUSTRALIA ALSO AT RISK
Mr Brennan said a lot of people had been radicalised on social media and there were even elected members of the Republican Party who believe in QAnon conspiracy theories.
“We have to look at how that’s become the case, while treading lightly around those who have those beliefs,” Mr Brennan said.
“Unless we do that, efforts to find out how this has come to pass will fail.
“Importantly, prevention is the best cure and I think conspiracy theories need to be looked at as a threat to national security, but also a social health problem.”
Mr Brennan said conspiracy theories were a global issue and the failure in the US to deal with them, would also hurt places like Australia.
Even Australian politicians have posted conspiracy theories, including Liberal MP Craig Kelly, who has been criticised for claiming head lice treatment could cure COVID-19.
While Mr Brennan said conspiracy theories were crazy, he said the thing to remember was that no one starts by believing the crazy part.
“All conspiracy theories start with a seed of truth,” he said.
“But it’s quite clear that if these threats are not taken seriously and laughed off, the situation can get very serious.”
He said during the Washington riot, Trump supporters also protested in Australia and also seemed to be experiencing the same reactions as their overseas counterparts.
“There was a mix of elation among some, while others were calling out (left-wing anti-fascist group) Antifa,” he said.
“Australia is not immune from these forces and while Australia’s democracy is in a lot of ways safer than the US, taking it for granted that this won’t happen in Australia is a very dangerous position.
“Australia has got an opportunity to deal with this at an earlier stage and I think it should take every option to deal with this seriously.”
Last year the director-general of Australia’s national security agency ASIO said up to 40 per of its counter-terrorism workload was now related to right-wing extremism, up from 10 to 15 per cent before 2016.
“There is a threat to Australia posed by conspiracy theories,” Mr Brennan said. “This problem will only grow if not given the full weight and consideration of Australia’s policy makers.”