May 21, 2024

The Justice Department in recent weeks has won decades-long sentences for key leaders of the Proud Boys in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, sending a clear signal of consequences for political violence.

Whether that will actually convince extremists to stay away from political violence as the 2024 presidential election nears, however, is a hotly debated topic.

With former President Trump and other political figures describing Jan. 6 defendants as political prisoners and a sequel to the 2020 race quickly shaping up, a number of experts on extremism are pessimistic the nation will see a waning of political violence.

Many also suggest the country’s political actors have not taken the steps to ensure there is no repeat of Jan. 6, 2021.

“What should have happened after Jan. 6 is a total reset, where people looked at the underlying causes and the rhetoric that led to the attack on the Capitol and said, ‘Never again,’” said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

“We have not seen that take place,” he added.

Former Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio was sentenced last week to 22 years in prison for his role in the Capitol attack. It’s the highest Jan. 6 sentence handed down by a judge yet, and is unlikely to be superseded since no one else is facing more serious counts.

The sentence, like others in recent weeks, was lower than what federal prosecutors had recommended.

Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said it is unlikely to shift attitudes of those motivated to act as foot soldiers in America’s culture wars.

“They’re not going to look at Tarrio’s sentence and say, ‘You know, I was gonna bring my gun to the drag show but because Enrique Tarrio is in jail now…I probably shouldn’t do that,’” Lewis said. “Folks who are so wrapped up in the rhetoric and the vitriol – they are always going to find that mobilizing concept, that motivation to engage in the conduct that they think they need to engage in.

“I don’t think for a lot of them that this sentence is going to do anything but serve as more fodder in this victimhood mentality that we’ve seen become a constant in this movement,” he said.

Lewis’s remarks reflect another shift in the actions of extremists and the fight against them.

Instead of mobilizing large factions of like-minded individuals, many extremists – including members of the Proud Boys – have staged smaller protests that have sometimes resulted in violence at LGBTQ events or school board meetings.

“They’re still out there, but when it comes to really big, national politics – ‘Let’s get everyone into D.C., let’s hold a big rally’ – they tend to fizzle out because people are very wary about participating in those types of things at this point,” Friedfeld said.

Prosecutors argued that a harsh sentence for Tarrio and the other Proud Boys tried alongside him for seditious conspiracy would act as a deterrent for Americans thinking of using violence to achieve their preferred political outcome.

“We need to be sure that the consequences are abundantly clear to anyone who might be unhappy with the 2024, 2028, 2032 or any future election for as long as this case is remembered,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Conor Mulroe said at Tarrio’s sentencing.

Friedfeld said the Jan. 6 prosecutions and sentencings likely have helped curb participation in large actions like the riot that occurred at the Capitol more than two years ago.

But  the Justice Department’s aggressive prosecution also has fed into the narrative pushed by right-wing media and provocateurs that the rioters are being politically persecuted, especially as the 2024 election creeps closer.

In March, members of the House Oversight Committee, led by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), toured a Washington, D.C., jail where many Jan. 6 defendants are being held. Greene told reporters that the rioters have been “treated as political prisoners” within a “two-tiered justice system.”

“When you have members of Congress showing up to the prison that these folks were held in D.C., and calling these folks political prisoners, it certainly helps to mainstream, in some ways, that belief that these folks [have] only been put in jail because of their political views,” said Stephen Piggott, a program director at Western States Center.

The narrative helps recast defendants arrested and convicted of criminal acts as people being unfairly persecuted for their beliefs, Friedfeld said.

“It flips what happened on that day and turns it from a criminal act – an attack on our democracy – into a patriotic cause that they are now being persecuted for,” he said. “And…who’s doing the persecution? It’s the government.”

That makes it even more challenging to stave off political violence as the country barrels toward the 2024 presidential election as well as a series of criminal trials of former President Trump – the frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary.

Just this summer, criminal charges have been filed nationwide for threats made against Trump, President Biden, election workers and officials tied up in Trump’s trials, like judges and jurors.

Deciding who will control the country for the next four years raises the stakes to a degree that engaging in violence becomes much more feasible, Friedfeld said.

“That’s where that narrative about Jan. 6 insurrectionists being political prisoners is so important, because it’s saying that…Democrats have already used the power of the government to come after you; it’s happening as we speak,” he said. “It takes it out of the realm of the hypothetical for these people into the world of ‘this is happening.’”

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” method for deterrence, Lewis said. While the 1,100 rioters arrested for Jan. 6 may be enough for one person to take pause, the same situation could be viewed by another as a catalyst – the “first step in this war” to take back the country, he said.

“I think the unfortunate reality is that despite the fact that we’re entering another election cycle with all the same key players in place, all the same narratives in place, the threat being in the exact same state it was — if not even more pervasive at this point — it’s not really clear that there have been meaningful steps have been taken to kind of reckon with the realities of this,” Lewis said.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.

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