Two days ahead of a Trump-inspired rally outside the Capitol on behalf of people who have been charged with crimes in connection to the January 6 insurrection, former President Donald Trump released a statement supporting the cause of the Justice for J6 movement.
“Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election,” Trump said, invoking his oft-repeated lies about the 2020 presidential election, which he lost to Joe Biden. “In addition to everything else, it has proven conclusively that we are a two-tiered system of justice. In the end, however, JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL!”
Trump’s statement tosses fuel on a combustible situation. A Monday statement from the US Capitol Police warning about “concerning online chatter about a demonstration planned for September 18” already raised worries that Saturday’s Justice for J6 rally could spiral out of control and result in violent scenes reminiscent of January 6. But extremism experts are skeptical.
Jared Holt, a domestic extremism researcher with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, wrote recently on his website that online chatter indicates the event is likely to be a bust.
“I am highly skeptical that [right-wing extremists] would appear in any kind of significant numbers without at least some kind of indication of that appearing in the communities they so often frequent,” Holt wrote. Reached this week via Twitter direct message, Holt said he still isn’t seeing indications September 18 will amount to much. In fact, he is seeing members of far-right groups warning that the event is likely to be swarming with informants.
Holt’s assessment is backed up by Michael Edison Hayden, a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, who told Talking Points memo he’s “not witnessed anything that would indicate large numbers of far-right demonstrators, or Proud Boys in particular, will attend this event.”
But Capitol Police’s warning and decision to mobilize extra law enforcement resources illustrates how much of a concern Trump-inspired extremism remains nine months after the insurrection — as well as how focused law enforcement is on preventing another January 6 from happening.
It’s also indicative of how wrapped up a significant faction of Trump supporters continue to be in false beliefs about the election being stolen from the former president.
What September 18 is about, briefly explained
The September 18 event, which is being organized by a right-wing fundraiser and former minor Trump campaign official named Matt Braynard under the guise of his Look Ahead America nonprofit, is ostensibly meant to draw attention to the plight of the more than 560 people arrested in connection with the January 6 insurrection. But at its core, it’s about sustaining former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him.
An examination of the numbers actually indicates that January 6 defendants are getting off comparatively light. The Guardian reported in May that at least 70 percent of the people arrested in connection with the insurrection were sent home pending trial, compared to a typical rate of 25 percent for federal defendants. Talking Points Memo added this week that “only a few dozen” people remain behind bars in connection with the insurrection.
Of those convicted, their sentences so far have ranged from probation to a maximum of eight months in jail. The insurrection left 150 officers injured and five people dead.
Braynard, however, has gone as far as to tell BuzzFeed that the plight of the January 6 defendants is “the modern civil rights struggle of our time.”
In addition to advocating for the J6 defendants, Braynard has also been a leading voice in the Trumpist effort to make a martyr out of Ashli Babbitt. Babbitt was shot and killed on January 6 by a Capitol officer Lt. Michael Byrd as she tried to lead a mob through a glass pane that represented the last barricade between rioters and the government officials.
CNN, citing a law enforcement intelligence report, recently reported that online chatter about the September 18 event started increasing last month after Byrd revealed his identity in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. And as Ben Collins of NBC notes, some of that chatter has threatened more violence against law enforcement officers.
Still, the rhetoric on these extremist boards is insanely violent. They're telling fellow users not to go — but if they do, get violent.— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) September 15, 2021
It's standard far-right extremist fare: Beg other users to commit terror attacks, but, if it happens, say it was a false flag by the feds. pic.twitter.com/NjOoGWyFRu
The two focuses serve the same goal. As Holt explained to Vox, what’s really going on here is a “desire to rewrite the history of the January 6 Capitol riot into a story of government over-reaction and political persecution.”
Braynard recently told Steve Bannon as much, saying “this is really about fighting the narrative about what actually happened on January 6.”
September 18 will be very different than January 6 in security prep
Capitol Police is determined not to allow a repeat of January 6, when, for reasons that remain somewhat unclear, the force was caught unprepared by pro-Trump protesters and quickly overwhelmed, leading to scenes of chaotic violence in and around the Capitol. Temporary fencing is being reinstalled around the Capitol, all available officers will be on duty on September 18, and Capitol Police have reportedly asked the Department of Defense for National Guard support should it be needed.
These preparations, combined with law enforcement’s effort to prosecute the January 6 insurrectionists and monitor far-right groups in order to prevent future insurrectionists, appear to be having an impact.
As Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny report for NBC, “users in extreme far-right Facebook groups and extremist forums such as TheDonald and 4chan, which previously hosted pictures of users streaming into Washington hotel rooms and even maps of the Capitol tunnel system in the days before the Jan. 6 riot, are largely steering users away” from the September 18 event over concerns it’ll be “a setup for a ‘false flag’ event or ‘honeypot,’ in which they’ll be entrapped and coerced to commit violence by federal agents.” That reporting is echoed by Holt, who writes that far-right groups are “scared shitless” to attempt another January 6 and told Vox they’re focused on agitating at the local level.
“Many are instead ... applying that political energy into local and regional scenes,” Holt said.
Still, about 700 people are expected to attend the event, and while none may end up being Republican members of Congress, the false idea that Trump had the election stolen from him — and that therefore the January 6 insurrectionists were fighting for a righteous cause — continues to be central to mainstream GOP politics.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) on CNN won't denounce Trump's lies about the election, which are a key issue in Wyoming's Republican congressional primary pic.twitter.com/7uCl5SqmrR— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 16, 2021
So while the September 18 Justice for J6 event may not turn on to be another January 6, it highlights how central antipathy to free and fair elections has become on the American right — as well as how deeply invested Trump’s most fervent supporters, including Trump himself, are in the idea that the insurrectionists’ cause was fundamentally just.