LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This is what it sounded like to be in the middle of the mob laying siege to the Capitol on Wednesday.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOB AMBIENCE)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Crowds of aggressive, mostly white men in tactical gear fighting their way inside. Five people died in the attacks, including a Capitol Police officer who, according to some news reports, was beaten with a fire extinguisher. But those intense scenes tell only part of the story of who was actually there. NPR's Hannah Allam was at the Capitol that day, and she covers extremism for NPR.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. When we see this mob armed with sticks, some carrying Confederate flags, you know, it definitely looks like other things we've seen in this era. You've been looking at the question of what this group has in common with those that perpetrated the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
ALLAM: What we saw in Charlottesville in 2017 was really a watershed moment for the public's understanding and awareness of this far-right threat. And so there are these comparisons. You know, what have we learned in the years since? What I saw on Wednesday did reflect Charlottesville's mix of both planning and spontaneity. There was a broad cross-section of extremists there, but there were differences, too.
And I put the comparison question to Megan Squire at Elon University in North Carolina. She studies online organizing of racist, far-right movements. She says in the run-up to Wednesday's events at the Capitol, she did see similarities to the planning that went into Charlottesville - you know, people sharing information about lodging, bus routes, what they were going to pack. But listen to Squire on what she says was different about who was doing the planning.
MEGAN SQUIRE: I'm used to reading, you know, Terrorgram and the white supremacist, Nazi types. So I see this stuff all day, every day. This was, like, a Christian conservative group or a MAGA moms from Lancaster, Pa., or something like that. I'm going, oh, my gosh, what is happening here? We have what looks like a soccer mom talking about mask tyrants and stuff. I think, oh, man, we have really crossed a boundary here. It felt different.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So could you see that difference in the people who finally showed up?
ALLAM: I really see the crowd that day as the perfect illustration for what's been a central theme of my reporting for the past few years on right-wing extremism. And it's this vanishing line between mainstream and fringe. I mean, is it still accurate to say fringe if millions of Americans are now embracing conspiracies and hateful ideologies? I've heard domestic terrorism analysts start to call it a mass radicalization and stress that we're beyond both-sides political divisions.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit more about that. Who exactly did you see in that crowd?
ALLAM: We saw a big contingent of the Proud Boys gang, various militia groups, biker clubs, white supremacists, including some who'd actually been in Charlottesville. But if you pan out from that violent armed mob going inside, you back up and you see that the wider crowd is made up of hundreds of more sort of ordinary-looking Trump supporters, including families. We saw mom with a stroller, people with their kids, their dogs. These are the ones Squire calls the MAGA moms. So they're people like 67-year-old Brenda Gifford, who drove 34 hours from Apache Junction, Ariz., because she believes, she says, the election was stolen.
BRENDA GIFFORD: I hope that all of these people that are protesting will use this passion and this momentum to go back to their communities and to get involved locally and start running for school board and running for city council and running for local office.
NOLA: We need to take back our country.
GIFFORD: We need to take back our country.
ALLAM: So, no, Brenda Gifford wasn't there with her 87-year-old mother, Nola, who you heard there at the end, to smash windows and attack police officers. But this hard-right swing and conspiracy taking root among conservatives means that you get an Arizona grandmother showing up to the same events on the same side as extremists who are calling for the execution of members of Congress.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that is extremely chilling, and it's incredibly important to note how widespread this is. So I guess the next question becomes, what does this MAGA nation become with Trump outside of the White House?
ALLAM: Whether these pro-Trump extremists go on to work within the system or outside of the system, you know, it's clear they're not going to disappear. But for now, MAGA world is in turmoil. I mean, they've seen their leader kicked off Twitter. Some of his most diehard supporters are mad at him for denouncing the mob now.
And, you know, there's just a lot of anger and disillusionment and uncertainty about what happened. So even within some of the extremist groups, there's now debate because people have died. So this is an important, volatile period. And there's still more of these extreme-right events planned in the lead-up to inauguration on the 20th. But beyond next week, analysts who study political violence are warning that this is going to remain as a serious national security threat well into the Biden presidency.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was NPR's Hannah Allam.
Thank you very much.
ALLAM: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.