As it becomes clearer every day that the depravity of Donald Trump runs even deeper than we ever imagined, there is much conjecture about his ability to incite the violence he somehow thinks will extricate him from his legal problems.
With heavy-duty criminal indictments now likely on at least five major fronts, in three major jurisdictions, we can’t help but wonder if his predictions of widespread violence are indeed credible.
He did, after all, manage to summon a rather large swarm of armed miscreants for the Jan 6 capitol invasion, an event which now carries enormous symbolic value among his deluded supporters.
On the other hand, Trump no longer controls the levers of power he enjoyed that day, while the organizers — and many of their followers — are now under indictment, on trial, in prison, or singing to the FBI.
Is that reassuring to the reality-based community? Will one or more Trump indictments trigger widespread insurgency? Should we worry?
I, for one, don’t think so, but it took me a while to reach that conclusion. I set out to try to quantify the threat, to estimate how many Americans might be willing to go along with some form of insurrectionist scenario.
My suspicion was that there aren’t very many, but there seems to be no way to demonstrate that. The universe of available insurgents is inaccurate at best, unknowable at worst.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups, has identified 1,028 different organizations promoting one crackpot ideology or another. But it doesn’t even try to estimate the membership numbers of any of them.
Even where numbers are available, they vary wildly. The Oath Keepers have been estimated at anywhere between 1,000 and 35,000 members, the Proud Boys between a few hundred and 6,000. I couldn’t find any estimates for the Three Percenters, who were also well-represented at the Capitol. But I’m assuming that these three are the biggest of the hate groups, and that most of the thousand-or-so other groups identified by SPLC are far smaller, in many cases little more than clubs — a collegial space to mix alcohol and firearms.
I mention this not because the numbers, if available, might be intimidating, but rather because I suspect they’re not. I think we are overrating the power, the abilities, and the will of these groups to engage in organized violence. I don’t see their dedication to any coherent goal. I don’t see Trump as a convincing role model. And I don’t buy that the Jan 6 riot was “practice” for a bigger effort to come.
But in the absence of reliable numbers, I’m left with my own speculation. So I tried a thought experiment.
I hypothesized a universe of 100,000 registered hate-mongers, followers of some sort of radical ideology consistent with possible violence.
Is this number accurate? Of course not. Could it be much higher? Yes, though I suspect it’s lower, maybe by a lot. But let’s use 100,000 for now.
How many of these people are candidates for sedition? I think the 80/20 rule is probably apt here, and that 80 percent of that number are no threat at all. They’re armchair warriors — attracted to guns, social media, and silly ideas — but the difference between talking about violence and actually carrying it out is huge. Fewer than 20,000 in our sample would ever get past the fantasy stage.
Which leaves 20,000 who might. But I’m guessing 80 percent of those will decide against joining anything that might involve gunplay. They’ll have a million excuses — can’t take time off, can’t risk losing their job, can’t afford the travel, can’t get the wife’s permission — but the real reason will always be that even these fools can see it’s a really bad idea.
So that leaves 4,000 who could conceivably be recruited for coup-related activity. If we keep applying the 80/20 rule, the numbers get small in a hurry. Of those 4,000 possibles, fewer than 800 would have the skills and dedication required to follow their leaders into an armed action where they could be killed or, more likely, incarcerated for lengthy terms.
Just to get a feel for the consequences, an estimated 2,000 “protesters” breached the Capitol building on Jan 6. Of those, roughly 900 now have fraught relationships with the justice system. That is an extraordinary rate of attrition, which can’t help but have a chilling effect on future event-planning.
But let’s go back and say 4,000 people can, in fact, be recruited for armed insurrection. Highly unlikely, I think, but let’s just say.
That doesn’t seem like a lot of people for a country so huge. Especially when they’re so loosely distributed over such a broad geography. Especially when their organizations are riddled with informants and undercover agents. Especially when so many have long and highly visible social media trails. Especially when their training is sporadic and their leadership mediocre. Especially with their slack discipline and slapdash security. Especially when there’s no apparent cause being pursued, beyond fealty to Trump — which, as causes go, is perfectly stupid.
This is not to minimize the damage they could do, mostly through vandalism. They could take over buildings. They could shoot people indiscriminately. They could kidnap a governor or a congressman. They could commit any number of staged atrocities.
But meaningful blows against the system? No way.
Jan 6 took law enforcement by surprise, but that was a one-time thing — Trump was pulling strings he no longer has. From now on, governments at both federal and state levels will be alert to that sort of mischief, and they’re likely to have ample warning. Between indiscreet social media chatter and police infiltration, the coordinated movement of any sizeable group of this nature would surely be detected in advance.
Armed insurrection is a tall order, the longest of long shots. It carries sky-high risk with slim chance of reward. You don’t see it much in “comfortable” populations, which, for all its problems, ours remains. Hardship and mass abuse are important prerequisites, and even they aren’t necessarily enough to trigger a meaningful uprising — as we can see in Russia right now.
So as deluded and dangerous as they are, the people in these hate groups don’t fit that profile. Yes, they have warped ideas and way too many guns, but they also want to be home for dinner. They are not coup material.
Which doesn’t mean democracy isn’t in grave peril. It doesn’t mean the underpinnings of our society aren’t under attack. It doesn’t mean the government can’t indeed be toppled by wingnut seditionists.
It just means that armed insurgency isn’t a practical way of going about it. If antidemocratic forces take over — and they might — it won’t be through populist uprising. It’ll be through political machination.
But that’s another story.