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Pro-Trump whites afraid of being replaced attacked the Capitol. That's a race riot.

Let's call what happened on Jan. 6 what it was.
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The more a city's white population fell, the greater the odds they were at the Capitol riot, a new study says.Jon Cherry / Getty Images file

It’s been three months exactly since we watched — on live television — as supporters of former President Donald Trump climbed past barricades, shattered windows and besieged the U.S. Capitol. The president’s name echoed through the corridors of Congress as the insurrectionists unleashed their frustration at a nation they feared would soon no longer be recognizable to them, a rallying cry to defend the man who had positioned himself as their savior.

Since then, we’ve come to learn a lot about the mob that ripped through the building that day. And, vitally, a new study shows that this wasn’t just a group of people primed to believe the election had been stolen. These weren’t just people wracked with economic anxiety, as previously assumed. It wasn’t even mostly made up of members of the far-right’s front-line groups. What we witnessed was a race riot.

Robert Pape is a political scientist who runs the Chicago Project on Security and Threats. He and his team examined the demographics of the known Jan. 6 rioters, with surprising results. Here’s how Pape put it in The Washington Post on Tuesday:

The charges have, so far, been generally in proportion to state and county populations as a whole. Only Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Montana appear to have sent more protesters to D.C. suspected of crimes than their populations would suggest.

Nor were these insurrectionists typically from deep-red counties. Some 52 percent are from blue counties that Biden comfortably won. But by far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges.

In other words, “the people alleged by authorities to have taken the law into their hands on Jan. 6 typically hail from places where non-White populations are growing fastest,” Pape wrote. That’s a wildly fascinating — and terrifying — conclusion to draw.

It also tracks with the history of the United States. “If you look back in history, there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups,” Pape told The New York Times. “You see a common pattern in the Capitol insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future.”

Pape also mentioned the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the arrival of masses of Italians after World War I — along with their attacks on Roman Catholics, Jews, Blacks and anyone else who wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant — and the earlier Know Nothing Party’s formation in response to Irish Catholics emigrating to the East Coast. For an even more in-depth look at how demographic changes have always been viewed as a threat to the white masses, The Atlantic’s Caitlin Dickerson recently drew out how America’s immigration laws have always been based on race and the dehumanization of new arrivals:

The first American immigration laws were written in order to keep the country white, a goal that was explicit in their text for more than 150 years. (Over time, the understanding of “whiteness” changed and expanded. Well into the 20th century, only those of Northern and Western European descent were considered white; Italians and Jews, for instance, were not.) Even after the laws were finally changed, allowing large numbers of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa into the country starting in the 1960s, the eugenic ideas that supported earlier versions of them remained embedded in our society, and still provide the basis of many modern restrictions.

For years, we’ve known, and acknowledged, that America’s shifting demographics have promoted a backlash among white Americans. It’s why the “Great Replacement” conspiracy is so appealing to so many. What makes Pape’s findings so troubling is twofold: First, that the size and goals of the rioters on Jan. 6 shows that the movement that Trump seized and molded around him is still metastasizing. And second, that this contingency of aggrieved whites is growing more comfortable with violence — and less willing to see the ugliness of the message they’ve embraced when looking in the mirror.

There has been no period of self-reflection from Trump supporters or the Republican Party leadership writ large since the riots. No mea culpas, no pledges to become a more diverse and welcoming coalition. The culture wars the GOP continues to stoke — harnessing anger toward minorities and vulnerable populations for political gain — are only becoming more foundational to their ideology.

That’s then reflected in their voters’ beliefs in a tragic cycle. Indeed, a Reuters-Ipsos poll released on Monday showed that about half of Republicans think the attack was mostly nonviolent or a false flag from leftists trying to discredit Trump. And 60 percent still believe the election was “stolen” from Trump and that he should run again — a scenario the majority of Republican senators refused to head off in February during his second impeachment trial.

Much as the Lost Cause narrative managed to keep the focus of the Civil War on state’s rights and away from the brutality of chattel slavery, this mythology is obscuring the reality of the January riot. We’re watching it develop in real time. I’m afraid that what we saw in Washington won’t be the last white race riot we see in the next few years based on the lies — and fears — that Trump amplified.