Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Essays

Democracy’s Thorn

The Mob and the Voice of the People

Nancy Isenberg

Police use tear gas at the US Capitol riots, January 6, 2021; Lev Radin/SIPA USA/Alamy Live News.

On January 6, 2021, thousands of Donald Trump’s supporters marched from a rally at the National Mall to the US Capitol. Roughly 800 members of that throng breached the inadequately protected building, some invading the Senate Chamber and others vandalizing the offices of elected officials. In addition to wreaking physical destruction and temporarily halting Congress’s certification of the presidential election, the attack left more than 140 people injured and four dead—arguably five, if Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died after suffering multiple strokes the next day, is included. Just over a month after the insurrection, the House of Representatives launched the second impeachment trial of President Trump, summing up its position in a single article: that the president had incited the mob with his words, both in the weeks leading up to the insurrection and on the day itself, when he urged the crowd to take action, to “stop the steal” and “fight like hell.”

It is nearly impossible to discuss the violation of “the People’s House” without inviting reactions of moral condemnation. Even attempts to understand the motives of the mob are dismissed as somehow placating or excusing the crime. But dissecting the mob is necessary if we care about understanding the darker undercurrents in American democracy. In addition, looking for a simple or singular explanation—or what journalists have labeled “grievance politics”—ignores the actual range of motives and emotions displayed on January 6. Beyond grievance lies a sense of belonging: something more than rage, and something with disturbing historical resonances. Trump told the crowd that because of indisputable evidence of massive fraud, “you were allowed to go by very different rules.” He called the movement “extraordinary,” forged out of its “extraordinary love” for him personally and for “this amazing country.” The crowd responded by chanting “We love Trump.” Most of the people who went on to attack the Capitol felt exhilarated, even proud, to be participating in such a momentous, historic event.11xTom Jackson, “Police Union Says 140 Officers Injured in Capitol Riot,” Washington Post, January 27, 2021; on size of mob, see Davin Barrett and Spencer S. Hsu, “Justice Department, FBI Debate Not Charging Some of the Capitol Rioters,” Washington Post, January 23, 2021; “Impeaching Donald John Trump, President of the United States, for High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” House Resolution 24, 117th Congress (2021–2022), January 13, 2012; Aaron Blake, “What Trump Said before his Supporters Stormed the Capitol, Annotated,” Washington Post, January 11, 2021.

A Long, Tarnished History of Mob Violence

The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1970 that Americans “have a remarkable lack of memory where violence is concerned and have left most of our excesses as part of our buried history.” Forgetting is accompanied by the minimization of mob violence as an aberration. Alternatively, and not just in America but in other democracies, mob violence is often justified as the legitimate expression of popular will.

The violence of the French Revolution has long been a problematic example in the history of democracy, interpreted in strikingly different ways by progressives and conservatives. The storming of the Bastille, for the former, is the birth of democracy, expressing the determination of “subjects” to become equal citizens. (Denouncers of the January 6 events object that even using the word “storming” lends undue democratic legitimacy to criminal behavior.) For their part, critics of revolutionary violence point out that the siege of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, left at least a hundred attackers dead, and though few defenders were killed, two prominent figures (the garrison commander and the mayor) were executed, their heads paraded on pikes. Such critics highlight the danger of the “devouring” crowd and argue that the “inarticulate uproar” of mob violence replaced rational speech, setting the stage for the Terror, the guillotine, and other revolutionary excess that soon followed. However it is viewed, the mob mentality is neither dead nor gone, and its anarchic energies should not be seen as alien to our democratic politics. Thinking seriously about mobs and crowds still has much to teach us about mass violence in our own age.22xRichard Hofstadter, “Reflections on Violence in the United States,” in American Violence: A Documentary History, ed. Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace (New York, NY: Knopf, 1970), 3. On the influence of the French Revolution, Stefan Jonsson, “The Invention of the Masses: The Crowd in French Culture from the Revolution to the Commune,” in Crowds, ed. Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Tiews (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006): 47–75; William H. Sewell Jr., “Historical Events as Transformation of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille,” Theory and Society 25, no. 6 (December 1996): 841–81.

Historians have no shortage of examples of America’s long and tarnished experience with mass violence. Before and during the American Revolution, mobs of patriots subjected Loyalists, customs officials, and other critics of their movement to the brutal ritual of tarring and feathering. After the United States won its independence, armed rebellions and squatter wars pitted fellow citizens against one another. The Indian wars, already underway in the colonial era, resulted in massacres of men, women, and children on both sides. In the 1830s and ’40s, nativist mobs vandalized and burned Catholic convents and churches. Mobs were variously composed of “gentlemen,” workers, women, soldiers, and teenage boys. Mobs invoked the common law in justifying their actions, with the glorious heritage of the Boston Tea Party in mind. They disrupted antislavery meetings and ransacked print shops; in the heart of Philadelphia, amid a three-day rampage, a mob burned the newly dedicated Pennsylvania Hall, where antislavery advocates had begun to meet. In 1844, twelve years after a mob had tarred and feathered Joseph Smith, another armed band, which included local militiamen sent to guard his jail cell, murdered the Mormon leader and presidential candidate. Nearly a thousand people were killed in mobs and riots between 1828 and 1861, and as historian David Grimsted has observed, the draft riots of 1863 added “about another thousand to that toll.” The Civil War only escalated the violence and let loose other passions.33xMaya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York, NY: Knopf, 2011), 22–23, 28; Benjamin H. Irvin, “Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768–1776,” New England Quarterly 76, no. 2 (June 2003): 197–238. William M. Osborn, The Wild Frontier: Atrocities during the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee (New York, NY: Random House, 2001), 119–63; Daniel A. Cohen, “Passing the Torch: Boston Firemen, ‘Tea Party’ Patriots, and the Burning of the Charlestown Convent,” Journal of the Early Republic 24, no. 4 (Winter, 2004): 527–86. David Grimsted, “Rioting in Its Jacksonian Setting,” American Historical Review 77, no. 2 (April 1972): 361–97, esp. 364; Richard B. Kielbowicz, “The Law and Mob Law in Attacks on Antislavery Newspapers, 1833–1860,” Law and History Review 24, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 559–600; Ira V. Brown, “Racism and Sexism: The Case of Pennsylvania Hall,” Phylon 37, no. 2 (1976): 126–36; Spencer W. McBride, Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021), 192–94, 200.

Famed bank robber Jesse James got his start riding with pro-Confederate guerrillas terrorizing Missouri civilians during the Civil War. During Reconstruction, armed civilian massacres of African Americans and white Republicans occurred across the South. Race rioting by whites brought death and destruction to New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Tulsa, among other places. Lynchings were committed not only in the South but also in midwestern and western states. Between 1880 and 1930, it is estimated that 4,697 people were murdered by lynch mobs; 3,344 (71 percent) of the victims were African Americans. New studies of the same period show that 133 black women and thirteen white women were lynched.44xT.J. Stiles, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2003); George Rable, But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1984). Michael J. Pfeifer, The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 140 note 90. Pfeifer claims that around 2,500 African Americans were murdered in ten southern states from 1880 to 1930. On the number of lynchings, see W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 8; and Lauren M. Davis, “‘A Novelty in the Line of Lynching’: Female Victims of Lynching in the United States, 1882–1901” (master’s thesis, Baylor University, 2012), 90.

The deadliest lynching on record occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when eleven Italian immigrants, accused of killing a popular police chief, were dragged out of jail and cut to pieces. Ritual mutilation was more common than we might imagine, with prominent citizens sometimes participating in this particular outrage. After a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, the lynchers leered at the camera as they posed for a group photo beneath the bodies of two African American men still hanging from a tree. It’s no surprise, then, that amid the violence and chaos last January 6, members of the mob gleefully posed for selfies.55xManfred Berg, Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), 117, 128–39, 144; Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2001), 111–15.

The violent fantasies that sprouted in the “Trump ecosystem” were nourished by old forms of fertilizer. Some of his supporters saw Trump as the “new Messiah”; many more wanted to hang “Commies,” and others believed that the forty-fifth president was a superhero, fighting to save America from a dystopian “1984” New World Order. Anti-Semitic slogans on T-shirts, white supremacist boasts, and misogynist taunts aimed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were all on display. Members of the mob were not simply “duped”; they gleefully embraced violence and anarchy. They enjoyed the thrill of turning the world upside down and, as one older woman sniped as she was being escorted out of the Capitol, “We scared the bastards off.”66xLuke Mogelson, “Among the Insurrectionists,” The New Yorker, January 15, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/01/25/among-the-insurrectionists.

The larger question is this: Why were the rioters so invested in the “group charisma” of Trump’s movement? How did they come to believe that Congress and Trump’s up-to-that-point unfailingly loyal and deferential vice president were their enemies, and that breaching and defiling the building, kidnapping, and possibly even murder were the answer? Conspiracy theories give some clues to a state of mind. Just as important were the psychic rewards people derived from imagining themselves as patriots and revolutionaries who were reviving the “spirit of 1776.” Mobs have a psychology all their own, one that releases normal inhibitions and allows individuals to lose themselves in the exhilaration of righteous power.


The Violent Economy of the Crowd

What did his followers hope to gain from their devotion to Trump? Most of all, a symbolic bond with a powerful figure who had declared his “love” for them and assured them of a place of prominence in an America “restored” to greatness. The missing ingredient in most characterizations of Trump’s fan base is the electric current that flowed between the former president and millions of avid followers. People do not resort to violence only out of feelings of grievance, revenge, and alienation; they also do so to satisfy the emotional need to belong to something bigger than themselves. North Carolinian Kevin Haag expressed this feeling perfectly, as he stood on the Capitol steps and looked out at the thousands assembled: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!” Another man shouted, “Our president wants us here.” Some believed he would pardon them, if necessary. Others felt that he had granted them the liberty and license to indulge their fury. QAnon promoter Jim Watkins, who became an Internet celebrity, voiced the same feelings. In the documentary QAnon: Into the Storm, as he looked out onto the crowd at the Trump rally on January 6, Watkins said to the camera that the movement he had fostered was no longer virtual but “real,” adding that “it’s American history now.”77xDan Barry, Mike McIntire, and Matthew Rosenberg, “‘Our President Wants Us Here’: The Mob That Stormed the Capitol,” New York Times, January 9, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/us/capitol-rioters.html; Jacob Silverman, “Is This Q?,” The New Republic, March 23, 2021, https://newrepublic.com/article/161775/q-qanon-hbo-ron-watkins.

After all, Trump said in his speech at the rally, “Just remember this, you’re stronger, you’re smarter. You’ve got more going than anybody, and they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.” Trump told his followers they were the heirs of 1776, the direct descendants of a grand mythology, the last hope for restoring that America. They, not Congress, embodied the will of the people.88xBlake, “What Trump Said before His Supporters Stormed the Capitol, Annotated.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but mobs are not just the madding crowd, acting purely on impulse. They have to feel justified in taking the law into their own hands. There is a “moral economy of the crowd,” English historian E.P. Thompson concluded, that inevitably defended “popular justice” or the extralegal right to use violence. The triggers for most mobs have been outrage, powerlessness, feelings of betrayal, and perceived threats to entrenched customs—and, in the case of January 6, the “stolen” election. The violation becomes a totem, a symbol of some grander injustice or conspiracy.99xE.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present 50, no. 1 (February 1971): 76–136, 78, 113, 136. Feeling cheated and punishing retribution are major motivations of mobs; see John Bohstedt, “The Moral Economy and the Discipline of Historical Context,” Journal of Society History, Vol. 26, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 265–84, esp. 267, and William Beik, “The Violence of the French Crowd from Charivari to Revolution,” Past & Present 197, no. 1 (November 2007), 76–80, 107.

Mobs can have an internal law, but also display a range of emotions. They are mobile and never completely premeditated or planned; they might begin with a popular protest, a march with some political action in mind. But large crowds and mobs are inherently unstable, open to spontaneous acts of violence. The English word crowd comes from the idea of being closely pressed together, a throng, a dense multitude.

In the 1670s, the English “mob” acquired a legal definition. It was an excitable, disorderly crowd that disturbed the public peace, usually associated with the lower classes, the mobile vulgus, the rabble. Inheriting English law, the United States defined mob action in 1843 as the “design to create in the public mind, an obstruction to the execution of a particular sentence of the law.” As they took hold in antebellum America, mobs were an extralegal form of expression; participants engaged in “wild and loose festivity,” the violent theatrics of carnival, often culminating in the “physical destruction of the symbols of the ruling order.”1010xE.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Work Class (New York, NY: Penguin, 1963), 77–8; Robert B. Shoemaker, “The London ‘Mob’ in the Early Eighteenth Century,” Journal of British Studies, Vol. 26, no. 3 (July 1987): 273–304, esp. 273; Ronald Paulson, “Four American Riots,” The Hopkins Review 2, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 560–84, esp. 560–62. On mob action, see D. Macdill, “Article VII: Free Institutions, Regulated Liberty, and Pure Religion. Three National Blessings,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 15 (January 1843), 124. On how mobs and groups “stage violence for graphic effect,” see Lee Ann Fujii, “The Puzzle of Extra-Lethal Violence,” Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 2 (June 2013): 410–426, esp. 411, 413–14, quote on 411.

Although many in the January 6 mob felt that Trump had deputized them to defy the law, his encouragement was not all that drove them. As Nobel Prize–winning writer Elias Canetti underscored in his 1960 masterpiece Crowds and Power, mass gatherings have an organic nature. In his anthropological rendering, Canetti compared violent crowds to a ritualized dance. The physical pressing of bodies together, the wave of emotions, compelled individuals to surrender to the will of the crowd. The chaotic noise, the pulsating rhythm of pounding feet, the jostling of bodies, conditioned participants to feel as if they were “stepping out of everything that binds,” whether that was the rule of law, civility, reason, repressed desires, fears, or frailties.1111xElias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1962), 18–21, 30–32, 380. On Canetti’s corporeal theory of crowds, see Christian Borch, “Body to Body: On the Political Anatomy of Crowds,” Sociological Theory 27, no. 3 (September 2009): 271–90, esp. 284–6. See also Richie Robertson, “Canetti as Anthropologist,” in Critical Essays on Elias Canetti, ed. David Darby (New York, NY: K.G. Hall, 2000), 158–70.

Crowds and mobs are transformative experiences. While mobs are typically motivated by feelings of powerlessness and revenge, they acquire through sheer force of numbers a sense of omnipotence. Mobs create their own autonomous universe apart from society, allowing their members to embrace extralegal authority, defy the law, and justify criminal behavior. Shedding one’s individuality can be liberating, even empowering, but the overwhelming sense of the invincibility of the mob can override even self-preservation.

Part of that liberation, or excitement, comes from what the twentieth-century Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin called the welling up of “anarchic energies,” the sheer pleasure that comes from flagrantly mocking cultural norms. Bakhtin also observed that as the carnivalesque crowd suspended normal rules of civility, it imagined itself as the “people as a whole.” In their minds, crowd members became the voice of the people. In his 1921 work Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Sigmund Freud arrived at a similar conclusion. Transgression of the most “sacred commandments” was pleasurable and empowering because it allowed individuals to escape feelings of insignificance. What appeared impossible to the lone individual now seems obtainable as part of the group. For as long as the mob existed, participants felt entitled to turn the world upside down; they defied the social order while simultaneously setting their own rules. Violence became a form of speech. The crowd was at once both its own stage and its own audience.1212xMikhail Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981), 41–83; Mikhail Bakhtin, “Carnival and Carnivalesque,” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey (Boston, MA: Pearson Prentice Hall, 1998): 250–60; Mikhail Bakhtin, “Folk Humor and Carnival Laughter,” The Bakhtin Reader, ed. Pam Morris (London, England: Edward Arnold, 1994): 194–205, esp. 198; Sigmund Freud, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” in Civilization, Society, and Religion, trans. James Strachey (New York, NY: Penguin, 1985): 91–178, esp. 163–4; on the mobs performing for themselves, also see Fujii, “The Puzzle of Extra-lethal Violence,” 416–17.

Leaders have a curious role to play. Mobs can develop affective bonds with leaders and forge a “group charisma,” while leaders can help shape the symbols and influence the emotional temperature of the crowd. Gustave Le Bon had the most to say about mob leaders in his influential bestseller The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, published in 1895. Indeed, his description of mob provocateurs eerily resembles Trump’s playbook. Grand oratory was pointless, because only “startling images” and the most “improbable exaggerations” could animate speeches. Crowds did not need to be convinced by reason or fact; they should instead be bombarded with repeated affirmations, devoid of proofs and explanations. Words were mind-numbing bludgeons. Having signs of social prestige (a vast fortune, celebrated reputation, or high office) were attractive because the public often admired (and envied) what they themselves lacked. Some leaders only needed a “magnetic fascination,” some personal charisma, to captivate excitable crowds. Nevertheless, leaders were not invincible. They maintained power over the crowd only as long as they appeared strong. The more they upped the ante in making outrageous claims, the longer they held on to power. In Le Bon’s succinct phrase, “The affirmation is never too violent, the declamation never too threatening.” Fears must be constantly stroked. The crowd must be constantly wooed.1313xGustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (Atlanta, GA: Cherokee Publishing, 1982), 54–6, 120–21, 127–30, 200–202, 204. First published (in French) 1895.

While Le Bon’s strongman leaders were merely skilled manipulators, Freud characterized them as narcissists, living for themselves yet capable of seducing a crowd with a feeling “similar to being in love.” Leaders had to be chameleonlike, responsive and adaptive, and channel the untapped resentments and desires of the crowd. Average people always were (and still are) looking for magic, some kind of fantasy or higher power, that will give greater meaning to their daily lives. In this analysis, the crowd provides a disruptive space where people blur fiction and reality, release pent-up emotions, and reconstitute themselves as the “inarticulate uproar” of the masses. This is exactly what came into being on January 6.1414xBoth Le Bon and Freud think of leaders as hypnotists. See Urs Stäheli and Eric Savoth, “Seducing the Crowd: The Leader in Crowd Psychology,” New German Critique no. 114 (Fall 2011): 63–77, esp. 68–9, 71–2.

That day, the people drawn to the Capitol, and those who forced their way into the building, were there because they imagined they had the right of the people to “stop the steal,” topple the illegitimate election—using force, if necessary. They saw themselves as obeying a higher law in order to rectify a wrong. Compelled by adoration for President Trump, they were also motivated by an irrational antipathy toward Congress and Vice President Michael Pence. The vice president was at the center of the carnivalesque performance. The gallows erected outside the Capitol were built for the once loyal second in command, whom the crowd transformed into the ultimate traitor. The revolution always ends up eating some of its children—usually the ones who won’t go far enough.

Florists and Other Revolutionaries

More than one kind of mob assembled on January 6. It is indisputable that there were members of white supremacist groups, antistate militias who arrived with explosives, guns, and other weapons, dressed in camouflage and ready for a violent confrontation. Some participants were police officers; some were former or current military. A retired New York policeman assaulted an officer of the US Capitol Police, a fellow man in blue who had become, ironically, his enemy. Some members of the mob believed that the national media coverage signaled the beginning of their “revolution.”1515xClare Hymes, Cassidy McDonald, and Eleanor Watson, “275 Charged from More Than 40 States: What We Know about the ‘Unprecedented’ Capitol Riot Arrests,” CBS News, February 25, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/capitol-riot-arrests-2021-04-16/.

But many others, perhaps the majority, came to the Capitol for less pronounced reasons. A University of Chicago study has shown that this mob did not fit the typical law enforcement pattern of domestic terrorism: There were more women, the group was older (average age 45), and 89 percent had no affiliation with extremist organizations. This tension was apparent among the mob. When a member of the rowdy Capitol crowd declared before the camera that it was a “great day,” and that “we came peacefully,” another took issue, saying, “We are well armed.”1616xRobert A. Pape and Keven Ruby, “The Capitol Rioters Aren’t Like Other Extremists,” The Atlantic, February 2, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/the-capitol-rioters-arent-like-other-extremists/617895/; for the original study, see Robert A. Pape and Keven Ruby, “The Face of American Insurrection: Right-Wing Organizations Evolving into a Violent Mass Movement,” Chicago Project on Security and Threats, University of Chicago, January 28, 2021, https://d3qi0qp55mx5f5.cloudfront.net/cpost/i/docs/americas_insurrectionists_online_2021_01_29.pdf?mtime=161196620; also see Barry et al., “‘Our President Wants Us Here.’”

Mobs are the product of an unstable alchemy. They are violent and carnivalesque; they wish to upend the power structure, even if only for a day. Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman, was the very embodiment of the “Lord of Misrule.” Strutting around bare chested, dressed in his wild-man costume, he was the high priest of anarchy. Chansley strode into the Senate Chamber and sat down in the vice president’s chair. He had every right to do so, he bragged, because Pence was a “traitor.” He asked another rioter to take his picture. Richard Barnett, a sixty-year-old man from Arkansas, performed the same ritual after breaking into Nancy Pelosi’s office. He sat down in her chair, put his foot on her desk, and smiled as he took a selfie.1717xOn Chansley, see Mogelson, “Among the Insurrectionists.” On “king for a day” and “Lord of Misrule,” see Marc Jacobs, “King for a Day: Games of Inversion, Representation, and Appropriation in Ancient Regime Europe,” in Mystifying the Monarch: Studies on Discourse, Power, and History, ed. Jeroen Deploige and Gita Deneckere (Amsterdam, Netherlands: University of Amsterdam Press, 2006), 117, 132–4, 138; see also Jeff Smith, “Lords (and Ladies) of Misrule: Carnival, Scandal, and Satire in the Age of Andrew Jackson,” Studies in Humor, New Series 3, no. 12 (2005): 52–82. On Richard Barnett, see Jason Hanna, “Key Arrests So Far from the Capitol Riots,” CNN Politics, January 15, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/13/politics/notable-arrests-capitol/index.html.

Two days after the riot, Jennifer Cudd of Texas told a television reporter she “would do it again in a heartbeat.” Cudd was a florist and a former mayoral candidate in Midland, and had protested mask requirements. Patrick Montgomery of Colorado captioned photos on Facebook: “We stormed the Senate…opened those Chamber doors for Transparency!” Montgomery didn’t see himself as a lawbreaker or a rioter but as a warrior for democracy.1818xRebecca Harrington, Madison Hall, Skye Gould, Azmi Haroun, and Jacob Shamsian, “More Than 250 People Have Been Charged in the Capitol Insurrection So Far. This Searchable Table Shows Them All,” Insider.com., February 2021, https://www.insider.com/all-the-us-capitol-pro-trump-riot-arrests-charges-names-20211; Elise Schmelzer, “Hunting Guide from Littleton Is Fourth Coloradan Arrested in Connection with U.S. Capitol Riot,” Denver Post, January 19, 2021, https://www.denverpost.com/2021/01/19/us-capitol-riot-colorado-arrest-patrick-montgomery/.

Where have we seen such behavior before? To cite one instance, in the riots of the 1830s, whose leaders and participants invoked “1776” as a defense—just as Representative Lauren Boebert, a newly elected Colorado Republican, did on January 6, tweeting, “This is 1776.” Rush Limbaugh likewise compared the storming of the Capitol to “Lexington and Concor.1919xSee Mogelson, “Among the Insurrectionists”; on Limbaugh, see “Citing the American Revolution, Rush Limbaugh Implicitly Endorses Political Violence,” On Media Matters, January 7, 2012, https://www.mediamatters.org/january-6-insurrection/citing-american-revolution-rush-limbaugh-implicitly-endorses-political.

The historical parallel is striking. The 1828 election was one of the most divisive in our history. As David Grimsted has argued, President Andrew Jackson (whose portrait enjoyed a place of prominence in the Trump Oval Office) became an “anarchic hero.” Jackson viewed himself as a law unto himself, the true voice of the people. He claimed an authority superior to that of Congress or the courts and went on “to kill” the National Bank. When a bank riot erupted in Baltimore in 1835, the mob attacked the home of the mayor and four men connected with the institution, while thousands stood by and watched. Printed handbills had aroused them. Some had lost money from the bank’s failure, and others had become infuriated when officials escaped punishment. They felt robbed. Government had failed them. A “stop the steal” kind of furor mobilized the mob.

In 1835, as on January 6, rioters were drinking and celebrating, and some were later convicted because they had bragged about their exploits. The 1835 mob reveled in destroying the library of a bank official, his leather-bound books a sign of elite power going up in flames. One prominent rioter declared himself mayor and appointed friends to imaginary positions. Like this self-appointed mock-mayor, rioters Barrett and Chansley imagined that they were taking the places of the vice president and the speaker of the house. As they became “king for a day” (at least on Twitter and Facebook), they recorded the moment of ecstatic celebration for all to see.2020xOn the 1835 Baltimore Bank riot, see Grimsted, “Rioting in Its Jacksonian Setting,” 367, 376–377, 380.

King for a day, or vice president for a day, as it were, gives us some crucial insights into Trump followers’ magical thinking. The constant blurring of fantasy and reality had a powerful hold over the rioters. Many of Trump’s supporters felt emboldened not merely by feelings of grievance but by the collective aura of seeing themselves as the will of the real people. Trump’s stolen election was their stolen election and called for the restoration of “order” in their minds. Christian Suprean is one example. He drove for 15 hours from Slidell, Louisiana, to Washington. He recorded and posted the entire trip and rally with videos and photos on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. He created his own virtual feedback loop and gained 30,000 followers. His rallying cry was: “We won everything.” The key word here is “we.” He and Trump were one.2121xOn Christian Suprean, see Amanda Seitz, “Mob at U.S. Capitol Encouraged by Online Conspiracy Theories,” January 7, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-conspiracy-theories-michael-pence-media-social-media-daba3f5dd16a431abc627a5cfc922b87.

It is interesting, though, that some followers felt the once-powerful bond dissolve when Trump told the mob to go home. One man shouted: “Well, he can go home to his Mar-a-Lago estate…. We gotta go back to our businesses that are closed!” In this moment, that man understood the fundamental difference between fantasy and reality. He realized that he wasn’t in the same class-defined universe as Trump. Trump’s love was neither enduring nor all-inclusive. The reality show had ended. At least for this participant, the mob mentality had lost its enchantment.2222xBarry et al., “‘Our President Wants us Here.’”

The Symbolic Force of the Mob

In his confirmation hearing to serve as US attorney general, federal appellate judge Merrick Garland described the January 6 insurrection as “the most heinous attack on democratic processes,” something he “never expected to see” in his lifetime. Following the attack, journalists ritually repeated the soundbite that the Capitol had not been invaded since the British did so during the War of 1812. This is historically accurate, but as a historian I maintain that the torching of government buildings in 1814 is far from the only history lesson here. The fact is that most of the mobs I have described defended themselves by invoking “the will of the people” and “democracy” as their justification. That should give us pause.2323xMeg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Mike Hays, and Veronica Rocha, “Merrick Garland’s Attorney General Confirmation Hearing: Day 1,” CNN Politics, February 24, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/politics/live-news/merrick-garland-ag-confirmation-hearing-02-22-21/. For the comparison between 1814 and 2021, see Amy Sherman, “A History of Breaches and Violence at the US Capitol,” Politifact, January 6, 2021, https://www.politifact.com/article/2021/jan/07/history-breaches-and-violence-us-capitol/.

Americans have long recognized mobs as a common and recurrent danger to democratic order. Le Bon’s popular book on crowds even influenced the development of modern US sedition law. In 1923, the highly regarded jurist Roscoe Pound wrote in his book Criminal Justice in America that average Americans were prone to take the law in their own hands, and to “right their own wrongs, conduct feuds, organize vigilante committees, hold lynchings and exert offhand extra-legal pressures.” The recognized fact of “popular excesses,” the antidemocratic mob masquerading as the democratic will, was (and remains today) a problem embedded in this nation’s violence-tinged political culture.2424xRoscoe Pound quoted in Richard W. Steele, “Fear of the Mob and Faith in Government in Free Speech Discourse, 1919–1941,” American Journal of Legal History 38, no. 1 (January 1994): 55–83, esp. 57.

There is a disturbing irony here as well. The very physicality of crowds and mobs might reflect not only our past practices but also our current environment, one that is defined by an increasing reliance on virtual interactions. Amid the pandemic, we have discovered the extent to which people crave human contact. As a result, even though mobs or crowds may represent only a small percentage of the American public, the mere fact of their physicality gives them great symbolic force. It is strange, too, how the symbolic meaning of raw human contact in mobs is conveyed ad nauseum through digital images on the Internet and mass media outlets.

Trump’s carnivalesque, symbolically violent style and his combative presidency have brought to new heights (or lows) the delusion that he somehow was a voice of democracy giving power to the popular voice. As the authors of the University of Chicago study of domestic terrorism concluded, the group storming the Capitol reflected a “broader mass movement,” with people drawn from “larger swaths of mainstream society.” Yet it was mobilized “with violence at its core.” This was a very American mob.2525xPape and Ruby, “The Face of American Insurrection.”