Robert Pape on insurrectionist movement in U.S. – “Intelligence Matters”

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Robert Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, about the insurrectionist movement in the United States. Pape reviews the results of recent studies and polls carried out in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the Capitol and reveals troubling findings about the breadth and depth of anti-government sentiment in the United States. He also describes why more studies are needed to prevent additional violence from targeting the 2022 midterm elections. 

Highlights

  • Insurrectionist sentiment mainstream? Over 50 percent of those arrested for breaking into the Capitol on January 6 live in areas that are large urban areas that Biden won. That is, they’re not coming from the rural areas of America that are most associated with Donald Trump and support for Donald Trump. And this tells us something very important. It means that January 6 was not just another instance of far-right violence. This was a very different thing now. Different enough in degree to be different in kind. What we saw is an act of collective political violence, attacking our most cherished of symbols of our democracy, the U.S. Capitol, in order to change the results of our most cherished constitutional process, who becomes our president of the United States.”
  • American views on presidential legitimacy: “[W]hat we discovered was that nine percent of American adults, which equates to 23 million people, believed that force was justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. Within that nine percent over half – that is, five percent of all American adults – strongly agreed that force was justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. That’s 12 million American adults. That’s much larger than any of us would have thought before this poll.” 
  • Preventing political violence: “We need to realize that we’re moving into not just a politically tumultuous 2022 election season, but we need to understand the risks that that could break out into violence. Now, we’re never going to be able to put a probability on that, but we can do things to better survey and understand and diagnose the degree and risks of political violence in America.” 

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Intelligence Matters: Robert Pape

Producer: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: Bob, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. You’re becoming a regular.

ROBERT PAPE: Well, thank you very much, Michael. I am very proud to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL: And it’s good to talk to you. I always learn something profound, actually, so I’m really looking forward to this.

Bob, you were on our show in March, and at that time you were sharing with us the results of some fascinating research that your center had done on those individuals who had been arrested for their involvement in their insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. So I’d love to do two things today if it’s OK with you.

The first is I’d love to bring our listeners up to date on that research because I know it’s continued. And second, I’d love for you to walk folks through some very interesting new polling that you’ve done on the insurrectionist movement in the US. Does that sound OK?

ROBERT PAPE: That sounds great.

MICHAEL MORELL: Perfect. So let’s let’s start with the research that CPOST has been doing on those people who have been arrested for what they did on January 6, when you were with us in the spring. You had looked at the 290 people who had been arrested at that point. How many folks do you have in your database today?

ROBERT PAPE: Six hundred and four.

MICHAEL MORELL: Wow, wow. And did the new information from those additional 300 folks, did that information change your findings in any way or just make the findings that you already had more robust? And can you walk us through the findings where they stand today?

ROBERT PAPE: Absolutely. It pushed the findings even further in the direction so many people thought, initially with all the pictures of Proud Boys and other militia groups that what happened on January 6 was essentially a fringe group like militia members that had come together and for sure, they were there.

However, what we found is that when you study the 600, now, individuals who actually broke into the Capitol and were arrested for breaking into the Capitol, you get a very different picture. The folks who broke into the Capitol on January 6 were fundamentally coming from the mainstream in ways that previous far right extremists are not.
And why do I say mainstream? Because when you look at the 600, only 14 percent are members of militias like the Oath Keepers or extremist groups like the Proud Boys. That means 86 percent are not. Fifty one percent of those 600 are business owners or come from white-collar occupations: doctors, attorneys, I.T. specialists. This is very different than we’re used to seeing from past far right extremists, where many of them are unemployed.

Here, only about seven percent are unemployed, pretty close to the national average, by the way, on January 6. We’re not seeing them come from those marginal stratum of society.

Further, over 50 percent of those arrested for breaking into the Capitol on January 6 live in areas that are large urban areas that Biden won. That is, they’re not coming from the rural areas of America that are most associated with Donald Trump and support for Donald Trump. And this tells us something very important. It means that January 6 was not just another instance of far right violence. This was a very different thing now. Different enough in degree to be different in kind. What we saw is an act of collective political violence, attacking our most cherished of symbols of our democracy, the U.S. Capitol, in order to change the results of our most cherished constitutional process, who becomes our president of the United States. And they’re coming from the mainstream. They’re coming from forty-four states around the United States. They’re coming from California in large numbers. They’re coming from New York, and not just New York, but New York City in large numbers. And so we need to understand that what the January 6 event was, was something really quite different than we’ve experienced before. And the number one thing that’s different about it is how much it’s part of the mainstream of America.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves because I think the polling is really interesting and I want to spend a lot of time on that. But what’s the kind of bottom line for this? This is a much broader movement than most people think. This is deeper than most people think. How should we think about what these findings mean for where we go from here?

ROBERT PAPE: Well, the most important thing is studying what happened on January 6th is not just about the past. Yes, it’s very important to know who broke into the Capitol. They broke laws. Yes, it’s very important to prosecute them to the extent of the law. But this is not just about history, Michael. This is about what are the prospects for other instances of collective violence, especially related to elections going forward. And that really should be our focus that today I have to say I don’t think has been the focus.

So yes, we have congressional hearings. Yes, we have a congressional commission, but very much these are focused on drilling into the past, which is very important.

However, I think that we need to be aware that we are moving into already a politically tumultuous 2022 election season just in the last month with the events in Afghanistan, which has created tremendous amount of anger in many of our military circles, military communities; with the new mandates for COVID, which President Biden has just announced, which are already generating tremendous pushback against the federal government.

We need to realize that we’re moving into not just a politically tumultuous 2022 election season, but we need to understand the risks that that could break out into violence. Now, we’re never going to be able to put a probability on that, but we can do things to better survey and understand and diagnose the degree and risks of political violence in America. And those tools look a lot like the tools we would do in overseas conflicts. When we want to know what are the prospects here of the stability of Afghanistan going forward, we’re not just measuring counting number of Taliban. We’re doing surveys of the Afghan population in order to see just how legitimate or illegitimate the average Afghan believes their government is, just how secure they feel, just what are their attitudes? Because that environment of the political, the public environment is ultimately the sea within which violent folks swim and gain sustenance, gain oxygen, if you would, from that public support.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Bob, one more question before we get to the polling. Are you tracking the outcomes of each of these arrests, you know, whether they turn into indictments, plea bargains, guilty, not guilty? Are you tracking that as well?

ROBERT PAPE: We are. That end of the pipeline in terms of plea bargains, it’s just now starting to populate with enough numbers that we might be able to see patterns. So about 50 today have pled guilty. And so over time, those numbers are likely to grow rather substantially, especially over the next four to five months. So that end of the pipeline is something that we’re going to be able to study more, not just say but understand more clearly in the coming months. So yes, the answer is we are tracking it through the whole pipeline. But no, you don’t have that many of the 600 having gone all the way through to sentencing to be able to get that much additional clarity as of today, September 13th. I think by January 6, 2022, that’s going to be a different story. It takes time, not just through our due process.

MICHAEL MORELL: Gotcha. OK, so the new polling work, which h I think is absolutely fascinating, and which you you’ve shared with me already. And before we get to the to the results, though, Bob, why did you do the survey and what were the nature of the questions and what were you trying to get at?

BOB PAPE: The reason we did the survey is because of what we learned from studying the 600 arrested for breaking into the Capitol. That is that the 600 are far more mainstream than previous far-right extremist violence, and that right there told us we needed to understand the degree of those insurrectionists’ sentiments in the wider population, not just those who were arrested.

So think about it this way. We are often, in law enforcement, looking for a needle in a haystack. But here it’s very important to understand what the haystack looks like. So it’s very important to get a broader understanding of the communities, the populations that these needles are coming from because they are much more reflective of the mainstream. But that means we need to understand those sentiments in the mainstream.

Now, this doesn’t tell us everything we want to know. So our study so far also suggests that political leaders such as Donald Trump calling for people to come to the Capitol on January 6, encouraging strength directly against the Capitol and weak Republicans in the Capitol, that may well have been quite important in terms of how that collective violence occurred. But what we want to understand is what is the degree of the sentiments in the population that political figures may be able to incite. And if that’s very, very tiny and trivial, then it’s not really going to matter very much. If it’s sizable, however, then we need to realize that the ability to have replays of January 6- like events could be far more possible than we think.

MICHAEL MORELL: So is it fair to say that what you’re trying to measure here is the tinder, right? And whether that fire gets lit is is another issue, right, and we can think about that. I think what you’re trying to measure here is how much dry fuel there is here.

ROBERT PAPE: I think that’s a great analogy. So when we look at wildfires on the West Coast, we know it takes a lightning strike typically to be in the match that sets off the fires. But it’s the tinder underneath that are drying out during global warming that’s really creating the possibility of wildfires in some places and not others.
So yes, there may well be specific matches that are also going to be important as triggers. But it’s the underlying hay in the haystack that’s actually going to do the part. And that’s why we need to understand what that tinder, the scope of that tinder, and what it looks like if we’re going to really get a sense of our vulnerability to those fires.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bob, how many people were surveyed and when were they surveyed?

ROBERT PAPE: Yeah. So our survey was fielded by NORC at the University of Chicago, which is one of the oldest and most respected polling agencies in the United States. It is based on a nationally representative sample, so it’s not just a handful of undergraduates dialing phones or sending emails. It’s done with a very well-constructed panel at NORC called AmeriSpeak, which is 40,000 strong. That is, NORC spends enormous sums of money to create nationally-representative pools of 40,000. And they refresh that. They repopulate that. And that’s used by The Washington Post, that’s used by the White House for COVID. In fact, the White House has recently, over the last several months ,talked about some of the COVID polling studies.

These kind of panels are the strength that are also very expensive. So it’s not just the five hundred hour poll.
Now from that 40,000, the draw is a random draw of a thousand. In our case, it was a 1,070 and they’re a random sample from that carefully put together panel of 40,000. And then these statisticians at NORC, they, of course, look at what the results are and they then know and can tell you if in fact, the random sample is biased in certain ways or not compared to the national average. So all of that is to say that the methods underneath the poll that we did are the gold standard. There is no better standard. It’s the standards that are used by the top media in the in the United States, by the federal government in the United States; we’re using those very same gold standard polling methods to get at the sentiments related to political violence in the United States.

MICHAEL MORELL: And because you’re drawing your 1,000from this, this representative sample of 40,000 that 1,000 can give you give you robust results on the overall population. Is that fair?

ROBERT PAPE: It allows us to have the confidence within about two percent. So the margin, there’s still a margin of error, but it’s actually a very respectable plus or minus two percent and allows us to extrapolate from the1,000 to the entire population of adults in the United States. So there are about 255 million adults in the United States. This process allows us to, with our survey, do a nationally representative sample, which then can be extrapolated to the population as a whole with about plus or minus two percent.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, so that’s great background, Bob. So walk us through the results.

ROBERT PAPE: So the key issues we wanted to understand are what are the scope and drivers of insurrectionists’ sentiments in the United States? And so we asked questions directly on point number one. We asked whether people believed the use of force was justified to restore former President Trump to the White House. We also asked whether people believed that the 2020 election was stolen and Joe Biden was an illegitimate president.

That is, we asked tougher questions than you typically see in political surveys of these topics. We’re not asking just about support for Donald Trump in a political way. “Would you vote for him?” We’re asking, “Do you believe force is justified to restore him to the White House?” We’re not asking, “Do you have some doubts or concerns about the 2020 election?” We’re asking, “Do you believe Joe Biden is an illegitimate president?” These are the harder edged questions. And again, I want to liken them to the background that we have in asking tough questions like this in, say, Afghanistan, where we want to know does the Afghan population believe the Afghan government that we installed is legitimate or illegitimate? And we’re asking the same kind of tough questions here in the United States.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what did you learn?

ROBERT PAPE: What we discovered was something really quite astounding. And we decided to spend a little bit of time before releasing it to the public because we went back to our NORC folks wanting to make sure we’ve got this story exactly right because what we’re finding here surprised us as much as anybody else. This was [done] at the end of June. So it was done six months after the insurrection. It was done after people have been arrested by the hundreds and hundreds for the insurrection. And what we discovered was that nine percent of American adults, which equates to 23 million people, believed that force was justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. Within that nine percent over half – that is, five percent of all American adults – strongly agreed that force was justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency. That’s 12 million American adults. That’s much larger than any of us would have thought before this poll.

We further discovered that effectively 65 million Americans, that’s 26 percent of American adults, believe that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. And that, again, over half of that number strongly agree.

Now, when you put both of those beliefs together – that is, do you both believe that force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency and believe that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president – you get eight percent of American adults having both of these radical beliefs. These are truly adamant insurrectionist beliefs because they agree on both. And that equates to 21 million adults. So that’s really quite a worrisome pool of insurrectionist sentiments in the country. And it’s something that then we’ve gone further and we ask further questions about the drivers because we wanted to know, What are the drivers of what put you in that 21 million compared to the other, say, 200 plus million who are not in that; are those adamant insurrectionists? What’s the big separator?
And there are two things, Michael, that really jumped out. Sixty three percent, the number one factor, 63 percent of the 21 million adamant insurrectionists in the country believe in the “Great Replacement.” The idea that the rights of Whites will be overtaken by the rights of Blacks and Hispanics. The second most important driver was a QAnon belief, where 53 percent of the 21 million believed that our government is run and controlled by a satanic cult of pedophiles. Those are the two radical beliefs that are really underneath, drive the key drivers of the insurrectionist sentiments in the country today.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the first one, right, the replacement theory – that makes sense, right? That makes sense to me. The second one is just so far outside of reality that you wonder how people in that large number can believe such a thing.

ROBERT PAPE: That’s exactly right, Michael. And by the way, that’s how why we’re now moving forward to still further deeper analysis of those sentiments in the U.S. public, much the way we use testing to understand the degree of COVID and different variants of COVID in the general population. We need to do similar testing or surveys of the degree of insurrectionist sentiments in the United States and the variants on those sentiments. That is how science works and how science adds clarity so that we can really develop useful tools here that can help inoculate us in the future.

So understanding where we are today, we now know that there are, just like with COVID, that there were certain subpopulations that were especially vulnerable. We now understand that. So the next step is for us to do more work. So as we speak, we are getting ready to field not just surveys, but focus groups, which are essentially deep conversations with people who hold these beliefs.

Because my work has been a combination over the last 30 years of qualitative and quantitative social science. So I definitely understand that we don’t just want to have a broad understanding. We want to have deep and rich understanding. And so rather than just though, make guesses here, we really want to do this based on empirical knowledge. And so I am with you. I want to know. I also want to know more about the “Great Replacement” because I want to know, well, what fear is exactly are underneath this? Is this a fear of economic loss? Is this a fear of physical safety? There’s a number of different possibilities about why someone might be so concerned with the “Great Replacement” they’d want to overturn our Constitution, you see.

So this isn’t just a degree of prejudice the way we normally seem to understand it, right? Based on the QAnon – like bizarre beliefs, the more we understand it, these are beliefs that are motivating people to want to overturn the Constitution that we really need to do some more work to understand that. And we’re actually making quite quite rapid progress here as the way science goes. You might remember it took us a long time to get a grip on COVID, and we’re still wrestling with that. And so we’re doing the same thing here.

So at the moment, we now understand much more clearly the scope and the core drivers of the phenomenon. We also understand something else that really opens the door to a potential helpful future because we also asked people about how they think about different levels of government in terms of friend or enemy. And what we discovered is, not surprisingly, about half of folks who have these adamant insurrectionist beliefs see the federal government as an enemy. So of course, overturning the Constitution, you might not be too surprised about that. But what we were surprised to find is that 75 percent of those saw the local government, their local government, as either a friend or at least neutral. That is, this was not just a generalized hatred or animosity toward any type of government. And what that tells us is that we may well be able to work more with mayors and local governments here than we thought. So that’s one of the one of the issues here is, well, just what level would you try to cut into this? And we’re we’ve learned something very important this summer.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bob, one of the things that struck me about the survey was you actually looked at both the views of people regarding political violence and their capacity to engage in it. Can you talk about that a little bit?

ROBERT PAPE: Yes. So it’s very important to take into account not just somebody’s willingness to be either aggressive or to have angry sentiments against the U.S. government and U.S. Constitution, but their capacity – and capacity in this situation means relationship to gun ownership or relationship to the US military. And what we discovered is that about 15 percent of those with these insurrectionist sentiments have military service, and that may seem at first like a relatively small amount.

But what that means is that we actually have a core where there some skills in violence in this rather large pool of adamant insurrectionists. So what does that mean for us as we go forward? Well, now that we know that, we know that there is a significant capability component to these insurrectionists sentiments. We are going forward – and I’ve been asked this summer by the Pentagon to study what makes individuals with military service susceptible to insurrectionist sentiments or recruitment by militia and extremist groups. And we are about to go forward with that survey in just the very near term.

But that, too, is just the natural next step. So this is how science progresses. So we learn something about the sentiment, something about the capability. Now we have real reason to focus on those more difficult diagnostics to really drill into the size of those particular tumors. And the capability side is important because it’s not just a will that leads to the actual activity of insurrection, it’s will plus capability. And so it’s very important that we tackle both sides of that at the same time.

MICHAEL MORELL: One of the things that struck me is that there’s a difference, right, between someone saying violence is justified and that same person being willing themselves to engage in violence. And I’m just wondering how you think about that.

ROBERT PAPE: That is for sure. And that is true also when we study political violence overseas so that we know that only a small fraction of people who are willing to engage in violence will ultimately engage in violence. What’s important to see is that the size of the pool matters tremendously.

So internationally, it matters tremendously whether an international terrorist group has 300 and whether that 300 is a part of an iceberg that’s all above the waterline, say, 10 percent of the waterline. And so we want to know the size of the underlying iceberg, not just simply the part that’s actually mobilized. Same here. So we can’t really say, “I wish we had really precise metrics to say, ‘Oh, it’s 1 in 10 or 1 in 15 that we really have,’ to, we can really say, could be, would be actually mobilized. I’m afraid we can’t quite go that far, but what we can do is we can look at things like how far people had to travel to D.C. to be engaged in the insurrection itself on January 6. Going back to our first set of studies and what we discover is that we can actually make some capability assessments. And that’s important as we go forward because we could also then extrapolate that to more localized areas in the 2022 election, where we can say, “Oh, so the distance to a state capital may be much shorter than the distance to Washington, D.C.,” and that can help us establish real risk assessments for different states in the 2022 election. 

MICHAEL MORELL: Bob, do you have any sense, if you survey Muslims worldwide, what percent of them would say that violence is justified to defend their religion? I’m trying to make a comparison here at the end of the day between the insurrectionist movement and Islamic extremists.

ROBERT PAPE: So we have at particular points in time done exactly those kinds of studies. Let me use a case that many of your listeners will be familiar with. That is the Palestinians in Israel in the 90s and then in the Second Intifada. So in that situation, that conflict went on long enough that we had quite good opinion polls of Palestinian attitudes toward violence and particularly suicide terrorism over a period of time from, say, the 1990s through 2005, the height of the Second Intifada.

And what you can see in those polling numbers is that in the 90s, relatively small numbers of Palestinians believe that suicide attacks were justified to end Israeli occupation. But during the Second Intifada, those numbers spiked up. They spiked up to well over 50 percent, and that went side by side with the growth in the actual violence. So it’s not like what you saw was the growth of the violence separately from the rise of support, public support for that violence. You saw them go up together side by side.

Let’s understand there’s many things that also happened to trigger those. We have leaders of Hamas. We have terrorist leaders. I don’t mean to say that understanding the general public’s attitudes to violence is the only predictor of the future of violence. However, I do think that it is an important part of context, and it’s the part of the context we often overlook because these require tools of social science. These require tools that are not simply investigative tools of individual cases. So it’s a different kind of understanding of intelligence that is not really tactical. It’s more at the strategic level, but it is a very important part of the picture.

And I dare say, had we had such polls back in December of 2020, we might have been much better positioned to expect violence on January 6. I believe the key missing ingredient, if I had a time machine, and we could redo this, was not to get better tactical intelligence on what was going to happen on January 6. It was to get better strategic understanding of the sentiments here that that political leaders could touch off, and it wouldn’t take much to touch them off because the sentiments were already dry kindling ready to be set of fire.

So I think the same thing happens here with Palestinians and terrorism, and that’s a documented case where we have many, many years of data. And your listeners, many of them will actually know this from what I’m saying, we’ll be able to see a tremendous amount of evidence to support what I’m saying in the Palestinian case.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. The reason I asked the question, Bob, is I was having a drink with with a foreign ambassador on the 10th of January, and we were, of course, talking about January 6th and he said to me, “Michael, this is your al Qaida.” And that really struck me. Let me just just finish up with with a kind of big picture question here, Bob. How dangerous is this, do you think, in the end, and in particular, you know, in the context of American history, have we seen times like this? How dangerous is this?

ROBERT PAPE: Well, we have not seen a mob, anything like the mob we saw on January 5, attack the Capitol in our country ever. Because it’s a domestic mob. When people point back to events that might be similar and say, the War of 1812 -that’s a long time ago, of course, but it was also the British. This was not America attacking our own most cherished symbol of democracy.

So back to Al Qaida. So on 9/11, we’ll remember that fourth plane, the one that went down in Shanksville thanks to the bravery of those passengers – many believe that that target was the US Capitol, and why the US Capitol? Because that in many ways is the undeniable symbol of our American democracy. And so this is historically unprecedented If you look at other democracies around the world, the last time the Israeli Knesset had a mob attack, it was 1952. So a long time ago. If you look at the British parliament, never since World War II. If you look at the German parliament, the Bundestag, never since World War II. So we are not seeing in mature democracies like the United States, Britain, others and Western Europe, anything like this behavior as a routine matter.

And we need to understand that since January 6, there’s been a tremendous effort to legitimate the the actions of those in who acted on January 6, right? In fact, we have television channels now, One America, Newsmax that routinely are legitimating these actions as legitimate acts of patriotism. And that’s really something that we need to understand is also very different and very new.

We’re not used to thinking that a patriot means overturning the existing constitutional process in the United States. That’s something that we we really don’t want to see evolve any further. And the only way I think that we can be confident is by doing this, by really having real science and social science come in to monitor insurrectionist sentiments over time. See how these are ebbing and flowing? Are they getting worse? How can we act before the next event before our 2022 election? Should we be deploying the National Guard to different state houses around the country?

Well, these surveys of insurrectionist sentiments are going to be our best strategic information to help mayors, governors and our national leaders make those very, very difficult decisions. They won’t be the only piece of information. But short of those events happening again, this is our best way to monitor those possibilities. And they’re important because what would have happened? Could we imagine what would have happened had Joe Biden not been certified by the Congress here on January 6? What life in our country would have been like it if it hadn’t only taken three days to certify? This is really not something we want to confront.

MICHAEL MORELL: Bob, thank you so much for joining us. When you get those focus group results, we’d love to have you back on and walk us through them. This is obviously an extraordinarily important issue, but thank you so much for joining us today.

ROBERT PAPE: Well, thank you, Michael, and thank you as always for allowing a very full discussion of the information that we have. Your podcast is one of the most valuable things we have for our security on many issues going forward. And it’s a privilege to be part of it. Thank you.