How Christian Nationalism, Conservative Psychology, Conspiracy Theories, & Online Radicalization Fueled an Insurrection
PART I: Christian Nationalism & Conservative Psychology
One year ago, while Congress was in session to certify the electoral college votes for the 2020 election, a group of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, presumably to overthrow the election results — and possibly, the government itself.
Since then, over 700 people have been charged for their role in the attack.
Sympathizers are quick to argue that most of the charges are for trespassing, which conveniently fits within their narrative that these people — some would call them insurrectionists; others, rioters — were simply “taking a tour” of the Capitol as Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde (R — of course) suggested.
These attempts at downplaying the actions of January 6th are grave, uninformed underestimations at best; poor, partisan-fueled excusals and justifications of a literal assault on our democracy at worst.
Several of the January 6th defendants have been charged with possessing a firearm or other weapon on Capitol grounds — contrary to the right-wing media and voters’ assertions that the event was nonviolent with peaceful intentions — while others reported bringing them to D.C. with them if not to the Capitol itself.
70 have been charged with some form of assault; at least 16 with some form of physical violence.
13.3% have current or historical ties to law enforcement or the military, while 16.9% have documented ties to extremist fringe groups — and, unfortunately, there is a significant overlap between those two groups.
Nearly 1 out of 10 have directly cited their allegiance to Trump as an explaining or defending factor for their actions on January 6th.
Even though court records exist for 729 defendants thus far, the FBI estimates that over 2,500 individuals were involved in the events of January 6th, and are still seeking the public’s help in identifying the remaining perpetrators.
One officer, Brian Sicknick (42), died that day, later determined to have suffered two strokes that he arguably wouldn’t have experienced outside of the extreme stressors of the day.
Following January 6th, four other officers that responded committed suicide.
Washington Metropolitan Police Department Officer Jeffrey Smith took his life nine days after the harrowing event, having suffered a debilitating neck injury on top of psychological trauma, both of which his wife said made him a different person prior to his shooting himself on the day after he was ordered to return to duty.
Four officers went before Congress on July 27th to testify before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. According to NPR, Michael Fanone, of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police, “decried those in Congress who are ‘downplaying or outright denying what happened’ that day, saying, ‘I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them.’”
“The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful!” Fanone shouted as he pounded the witness table. “Nothing, truly nothing has prepared me to address those elected members of our government who continue to deny the events of that day. And in doing so betray their oath of office.”
The Capitol Police’s Pfc. Harry Dunn “was in the speaker’s lobby outside the House chamber when one of the insurrectionists said that ‘Trump invited us here’ and that Donald Trump was still the president.”
Dunn, who is black, said that he was repeatedly called “n*****” that day, something that had never happened to him before while in uniform.
D.C. Metropolitan Police officer Daniel Hodges commented on the displays of Christian nationalism he witnessed during the attack on the Capitol, saying:
“It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians. I saw the Christian flag directly to my front. Another read, ‘Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.’ Another: ‘Jesus is king.’ … Another had crossed rifles beneath a skull, emblazoned with the pattern of the American flag.”
— Religion News Service
That sentiment was a pervasive — if unironic — element of those who attacked the Capitol, RNS points out. “A flag that waved above the first crowd to attack and overrun police officers was adorned with a fish painted in the colors of the American flag, positioned beneath the words ‘Proud American Christian.’”
Of course, this kind of violence doesn’t appear to be antithetical to the heart of the Trump brand of Christian patriotism at all, but rather an integral part of it.
While Christians, particularly those of the Evangelical variety, have long had a stranglehold on conservative politics in the U.S., it seems that the overall feeling amongst conservative Christians in recent years — particularly following the election of our nation’s first black president — has become less theological and more militant in nature.
It is a well-known fact that Trump enjoyed the support of the modern-day equivalent of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” of the ’80s, but more striking is the fact that most White Americans who regularly attend worship services voted for Trump in 2020, 71% to Biden’s 27%.
Black American Christians, conversely, voted for Biden at a 9 to 1 ratio for those who attended worship services once a month or more, while 94% of those who attended a few times annually or less often voted the same.
The perception of what constitutes justice and righteousness, it seems, is still strikingly divided along racial lines.
One group of these White Christians took to the streets of D.C. in the days before the certification of votes to hold a “March on Jericho” — first, they circled the Supreme Court seven times on January 5th in a partisan imitation of the biblical story of the Israelites’ march on Jericho, whose walls fell on the seventh day when they blew their trumpets.
On January 6th, they did the same at the U.S. Capitol in an apparent attempt to seek divine intervention and for Mike Pence to intercede — and intervene — with the election results.
Despite the ultimate failure of that mission, the threat posed by unchecked — and often, encouraged — Christian nationalism cannot be understated.
Christians, after all, have a lengthy history of violence.
Despite the parallels between Christianity and our Muslim brethren, eighth century Christians identified Mohammed as a false prophet. By the 11th century, Pope Urban had launched the First Crusade against Islam.
What has followed since — another five Crusades and countless other wars in the name of Christianity — has been a continual pattern of Christians forcing others to convert, flee, submit to slavery, or die.
Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas in 1492 was simply another example of Christian colonization and dominionism.
The Protestant Reformation in 1518 allowed the countries of Northern Europe an unrestricted subjugation of other nations free of papal permission or profit.
And America itself was the inevitable culmination of Christian domination as the Puritans used their newfound freedom to take the indigenous peoples’ own lives, liberty, and happiness in the name of “saving” them.
In modern times, this phenomenon of superiority thinly veiled as preeminent redemption has taken the form of Christian missions that bring a distinctly Americanized form of Jesus — white, sanitized, and reflective of their personal religious and political ideologies — to “shithole” countries as Trump so eloquently described them in 2018 during an Oval Office meeting on immigration in which he advocated for more immigrants from places like Norway. In other words, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white folks that speak English.
Today’s Christian colonialism includes the descriptors and ideas of American exceptionalism, Western civilization (see also: the Proud Boys’ “Western chauvinism”), patriot, and law and order, which is inevitably applied to the relatively mild infractions of black and brown people.
They seem to legitimately believe that their way of life, their very existence as a conservative Christian, is under real attack and threat by liberal, ungodly sources who seek to limit their religious freedoms in the name of secular domination — in other words, they’re afraid of their own strategies being used against them.
The removal of public prayer in equally public schools, or monuments to the 10 Commandments in public squares (the majority of which were erected to advertise Cecil DeMille’s 1956 film of the same name), or the (19)50s-era motto “In God We Trust” from civil law enforcement vehicles have all drawn intense pushback from American Christians.
They decry the threat of Muslim Sharia law while simultaneously taking no issue with the Jewish version in Israel and espousing their own brand that egregiously violates the principle of the separation of Church and State that the U.S. was founded on — they’ve seemed to have forgotten that the freedom of religion includes the freedom from it, but not the ability to impress their individual beliefs onto others.
Also ironically, the religion whose identity is inseparable from a “pro-life” political ideology — that includes both a fundamental decrial of abortion along with the intrinsic ideas of universal healthcare, federal financial assistance, and individual freedom outside of their narrow view of white, cisgender, straight Republican Christianity — is responsible for 50 million deaths between 1492 and 1899 in the name of colonization.
As Brian D. Mclaren, the author of Do I Stay Christian?: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned, points out,
“Many white Christians would be appalled to think of themselves as white supremacists, but they would be proud to think of themselves as Christian supremacists.
As a result, their whiteness is concealed in their Christianity, hidden to both others and themselves.”
The Christian mandate to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28: 18–20) has, unfortunately, been interpreted as a command to make slaves of all nations, forcing them to either obey everything they believe or be killed in the name of it.
This has never been more true than now, when the simple designation of oneself as a Christian in America so reliably confers the simultaneous and inseparable inheritance of racism.
White Christians are consistently more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural racism — nearly twice as likely, according to one survey done in 2018 by PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute.
According to Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, “compared to nonreligious whites, white Christians register higher median scores on the Racism Index,” which is “a measure consisting of 15 questions designed to get beyond personal biases and include perceptions of structural injustice.”
“The results point to a stark conclusion: While most white Christians think of themselves as people who hold warm feelings toward African Americans, holding racist views is nonetheless positively and independently associated with white Christian identity.”
— Robert P. Jones
So what might racism have to do with the insurrection at the Capitol, much less Christianity itself?
For many who identify as white, working class, red-blooded conservative Christian patriots, the threat to their existence — to their very identities — is at stake.
According to the same 2018 survey by PRRI, the most important issues given for the way Republicans voted that year were the economy (44%), national security (40%), and immigration (36%). The lowest-valued issues on their radar were LGBT issues (1%), racial inequality (6%), and the growing gap between rich and poor (8%).
These results reflect what decades of research data have shown in regards to the social and psychological factors that lead to someone identifying as a political conservative.
According to a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 separate studies across 12 countries involving over 22,000 individual cases, the primary positive motivating factors that predict political conservativism include death anxiety; system instability; dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity; needs for order, structure, and closure; and fear of threat and loss.
On the flip side, these individuals tend to score low on measures of openness to experience; uncertainty tolerance; integrative complexity; and self-esteem.
The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.
For those who are adverse to the verbiage of academic studies, here’s what that means.
First, conservatives tend to be very fearful of death.
This, of course, is confirmed by their disproportionate emphasis on Second Amendment rights (which, presumably, exist to protect them from tyrannical governments as well as maliciously-motivated individuals) as well as their self-reported prioritization of national security — not only do they reserve for themselves the ability to protect their lives (and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, objectively speaking) from government overreach; they also lay claim to American exceptionalism and the preservation of a birthright they did nothing to earn.
Furthermore, I would venture a guess that the vast majority of so-called preppers (individuals who ascribe to and prepare physically for a variety of doomsday predictions) primarily lean toward the right (or at least right-of-center) on the political spectrum.
This is an exhibition of an observable phenomenon in which people trend rightward in times of economic and societal instability.
During times of societal crisis, people are more likely to turn to authoritarian leaders and institutions for security, stability, and structure.
Sales (1972), for instance, found that during periods of severe economic threat (the depression years of 1930–1939), people were more likely to join authoritarian churches, such as Southern Baptist and Seventh Day Adventist, and less likely to join nonauthoritarian churches, such as Northern Baptist and Episcopalian, compared with periods of relative prosperity (1920–1930).
Similarly, years of heavy unemployment in Seattle, Washington (1961, 1964,
1969, and 1970), were accompanied by higher than usual conversion rates there for an authoritarian church — Roman Catholic — and lower than usual conversion rates for a nonauthoritarian church — United Presbyterian — whereas relatively good economic years in Seattle (1962, 1965, and 1966) coincided with lower than usual conversion rates for the Roman Catholic Church and higher
than usual conversion rates for the United Presbyterian Church.
— Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition, John T. Jost et al.
Sales, Jost et al. point out, “reviewed disparate evidence in support of the
general hypothesis that poor economic conditions in society are associated with social and cultural trends that emphasize authoritarian themes of power, toughness, cynicism, superstition, submission, and aggression.”
Going back to the economic crisis of 2008, many who identified with capitalistic values (and therefore conservatism) experienced economic instability that hadn’t occurred in such widespread levels since the Depression.
Undoubtedly, those conservatives saw Barack Obama’s administration, which was arguably slightly left-of-center-oriented, as a threat to the financial prosperity they’d previously enjoyed. After all, they see any measure of equality in terms of fewer rights and benefits for themselves — even though, as many have pointed out, equality isn’t pie, and fewer rights for others does not mean less for you.
The same can be said of systemic instability and a general fear of threat and loss which was also observed in contemporary terms beginning with 9/11.
The attack on the Twin Towers began a War on Terror that ultimately resulted in a vast authorization of racial and religious profiling — a legal loosening of constitutional protections against unlawful investigations absent any facts of wrongdoing — in the name of national security.
The Trump administration only served to further these efforts when he issued a ban of travel from several Muslim-majority countries in 2017, blocking both refugees and travelers with passports from Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
He also “halted the US refugee resettlement program for 120 days, and indicated that when this restarts the US will slash the maximum number of refugees it will receive from 110,000 to 50,000,” according to Amnesty International.
Notably, not included in Trump’s travel ban were Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. According to Bloomberg, “They’re located in the same region as the countries subject to the ban and they’re home to large Muslim populations. They also have something else in common: They all do business with Trump.”
Also notable is the fact that despite the reason given for this ban — “In this era of worldwide terrorism and extremist movements bent on harming innocent civilians, we must properly vet those coming into our country” — all of the 9/11 hijackers hailed from the countries that Trump excluded.
In fact, if the terrorism that lead to 9/11 taught us anything, it should be a skepticism of dogmatism — and yet, as much as conservatives seem to ascribe to policies and measures that are intended prevent these things from taking hold — and demonize terrorists of the Muslim variety — they have overwhelmingly began to take on the very characteristics of the very things they claim to want to prevent.
According to Oxford Languages, dogmatism is “the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.”
In other words, it’s the stubborn adherence to beliefs that contradict reality and scientific evidence — the hallmark of modern right-wing ideology.
This phenomenon of alternative realities, of course, harkens back to then-political advisor and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s explanation of Trump’s faulty interpretation of his inauguration crowd sizes, stating, “I’ll answer it this way: Think about what you just said to your viewers. That’s why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.”
“Alternative facts” and the final factors present in the psychology of political conservatives — needs for order, structure, and closure and the fear of threat and loss — have been a fundamental part of the allegations that the 2020 election was stolen that culminated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
When Biden’s victory over Trump was announced on November 7, 2020, four days after the election, Trump’s more extreme supporters began spreading baseless claims about cases of cheating.
Even though these assertions were quickly dismissed as having no factual basis by anyone who looked at them objectively — and anyone with any knowledge of how elections work and the laws that govern them — Trump’s most ardent fan base continued to propagate them as incontrovertible truth.
A “Stop the Steal” Facebook group that was created the day after the election gained more than 365,000 members before being shut down by the social media platform 48 hours later. The group called for “boots on the ground to protect the integrity of the vote”.
“In line with the exceptional measures that we are taking during this period of heightened tension, we have removed the group ‘Stop the Steal,’ which was creating real-world events,” Facebook told The Independent.
“The group was organised around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” the social media platform added.
— The Independent
One such post read, “Grab your guns, the second amendment is not about hunting, and how many bullets you need it about taking down a tyrannical government,” according to Vice News.
This all played out exactly according to the strategy Trump laid out in the months leading up to the election, when he said that the only way he could lose was if Democrats cheated.
Of course, Trump is no stranger to making false claims about election fraud.
Following Obama’s reelection in 2012, Trump called for Republicans to “fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice,” because “the world is laughing at us…We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”
During the 2016 primaries when he himself was running, he said that Ted Cruz “stole” votes in the Iowa Caucuses, in which Cruz bested him by three percentage points.
In October 2016, he Tweeted, “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary — but also at many polling places — SAD.” He never clarified what he meant in those claims, or provide any evidence of their veracity.
After his electoral college victory over Clinton, he continued to make the unfounded claim that he had also won the popular vote.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” said Trump.
The president lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, and there was no evidence of voter fraud then, just as there is no evidence of voter fraud now.
— ABC News
By the fall of 2020, Trump’s warnings about the illegitimacy of mail-in ballots had become commonplace despite his simultaneous encouragement of their use.
In July, he Tweeted, “Mail-In Voting is already proving to be a catastrophic. The Dems talk of foreign influence in voting, but they know that Mail-In Voting is an easy way for foreign countries to enter the race.”
In August, he said, “Absentee voting is a secure process. It’s initiated by the voter — you request it — and every voter is verified. Every vote is verified. It’s the exact opposite of Democrats’ voter fraud scheme. They want to mail ballots to every eligible voter all over the state.”
In September he curiously told his supporters to vote by mail, then again in person to make sure their vote was counted.
Despite Trump’s indecision over the security of voting by mail, studies have shown it to be consistently free of fraud.
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found only 0.00006% of 250 million votes by mailed ballots nationwide were fraudulent.
Additionally, scholars at Stanford University analyzing 1996–2018 data in California, Utah and Washington found vote-by-mail did not advantage one political party over another.
— National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare
Republicans, in fact, have long encouraged their voting base to take advantage of the convenience, as it allowed more of the elderly and active-duty military — both groups who traditionally vote more conservatively — to cast their ballots.
In the 2016 presidential election, about one in four voters cast their votes via ballots mailed to them, and Trump certainly did not seem to take issue with it then.
And in 2020, 41 percent of voters age 50–64 (53% of whom voted for Trump) and 55 percent of voters over age 65 (52% of whom voted for Trump) voted by mail in the 2020 election, meaning that despite Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on the vote-by-mail process, he stood to lose 22–29% of the votes cast by the two age groups whose majorities voted for him if mail-in ballots were summarily thrown out.
Even as the votes were being counted in key swing states, Trump publicly declared victory hours before the sun had risen on the following day.
That action only served to fuel the fires of those who believed in earnest that the election was stolen from Trump, a group whose particular psychology makes them especially vulnerable to outcomes that do not resolve in their favor and which lead to fears of threat and loss.
Going back to the conclusions of the meta-analysis of political conservatism as motivated social cognition — The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat — it should be obvious that the very things that make political conservatives conservative — the resistance to change, the justification of inequality when it doesn’t apply to them, the shifting set of needs that vary according to the circumstances — make them prime candidates for political extremism when things do not turn out as they expect or would like them to.
In Part II of this post, I will explore how conspiracy theories and radicalization — particularly of the online variety — played an integral part in the events leading up to and on January 6th.