Talking Points

The Jan. 6 'plot' that wasn't

The FBI has found "scant" evidence the Jan. 6 insurrection was the result of an organized plot, Reuters reported on Friday.

"Ninety to ninety-five percent of these are one-off cases," an anonymous former official said of the nearly 600 people who have been arrested for their involvement in the attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election. "Then you have five percent, maybe, of these militia groups that were more closely organized. But there was no grand scheme with Roger Stone and Alex Jones and all of these people to storm the Capitol and take hostages."

If true, that doesn't mean the events of Jan. 6 weren't dangerous, both to members of Congress and to the health of American democracy. What it does suggest is that the narrative of what happened that day is pretty straightforward and that it played out very publicly: Then-President Donald Trump lied for two months that the election had been stolen from him, a lot of people believed his lies, and then they (violently) acted accordingly.

There didn't need to be a secret conspiracy. Instead, it sounds more like self-radicalization as a mass phenomenon.

The term "self-radicalization" has been used in recent years to describe the underlying causes of lone-wolf terror attacks like the gunman who killed 49 people at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, or the Pensacola shooter who killed three at the Naval Air Station in 2019. Dylann Roof, who killed nine parishioners at a Charleston, S.C. church, was also described in such terms. In these cases, the phrase roughly describes individuals who were motivated to violence after seeking out and absorbing radical ideologies over the Internet and through social media. What is Jan. 6, if not a similar phenomenon — after a pandemic year in which millions of people had increasingly turned to the Internet for community and consolation — only with all the wolves gathered in a single, very important location for the same purpose?

None of this gets Trump off the hook, of course. Despite what the term suggests, self-radicalizers never truly act on their own. They need inspiration. The people who came to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6 did so at Trump's invitation, and then marched to the Capitol at his behest. He didn't have to plot with anybody — he just had to rile up his followers, then point them in the right direction.