Why Did Trump Supporters Storm the Capitol?

Consider some theories of crowd psychology.

Posted Jan 17, 2021

Certain events, like last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol by an angry mob, are markers of a generation. The televised images of that attack will remain with most Americans for their lifetimes. Surely, the vast majority of those viewers recoiled in horror from what they saw, a country proud of its legal traditions violated in this way. Others took a certain pleasure in what occurred: a scruffy crew emboldened by flags and weapons overwhelming our public defenders.

Whether this division of viewpoint, and of allegiance, will heal remains unclear. Similarly unsettled is the issue of whether there will be more events of this sort in the coming days.

For such reasons, it is important to think about how and why activities like this occur. After all, rioting, sometimes politically inspired, is not new. Neither is the circulation of unfounded beliefs and the use of those beliefs to galvanize movements. In that context, let us look at some theories of what behavioral scientists call “collective behavior.”

Contagion theory. This theory owes its origins to French psychologist Gustave Le Bon, especially in his 1896 book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Like many Frenchmen of his time, Le Bon disapproved of the crowd violence during his country’s revolutionary era and of the aggressive political movements in the decades that followed. He believed that large crowds excite people to the point that emotion overcomes reason. A good part of that volatility stems from the seeming anonymity the mob grants. Participants race about doing things they would not ordinarily do, in large part because they believe they can avoid apprehension.

Most of us understand this theory well enough. We have been in settings like open-air concerts, parties, or festivals where the energy of the crowd rises and falls. Excited, we may do things our better selves would not. After all, many others are misbehaving too. No one is stopping them. Nighttime, with its decreased visibility, enhances those feelings.

To be sure, many in the Trump-inspired crowd must have been amazed at the weakness of the police resistance, and at their consequent ability to storm the Capitol so easily. Spirits were soaring. There was the thrill of entering sacred grounds and seeing others, much like themselves, exuberant. However, remember that the insurrection occurred during the daytime. The rioters could have worn masks, but they chose not to. They must have known they were entering territories with a vast network of video cameras. For such reasons, look at some other theories.

Convergence theory. Developed by Floyd Allport, this explanation is almost the opposite of the one I just presented. In Allport’s view, participants in collective behavior are quite rational about their activity. Like most people, they have ambitions they are unable to realize in their ordinary lives. Instead of living with that blockage, they choose to come to certain environments where they can act out those wishes. Once there, they find many others who share those goals. In that sense, the crowd is less a cause of their behavior than it is a result of those many individual choices. People converge. Interests align. Think of students who go to warm beaches for spring break or people who join a riot so they can steal goods. The resulting scenes are not happenstance.

One can say the same about many of those who assaulted the Capitol. They arrived in Washington with all manner of equipment. They traveled in buses and vans. They communicated beforehand online. Inspired or not by the President’s speech, they knew what they were up to. The presence of so many like-minded persons gave them courage for the assault.

Emergent-norm theory. Most of us think of mob violence as a relatively spontaneous, unpredictable affair. Participants find themselves in the midst of the vast surging organism that is the crowd. No one knows what will happen next. Sociologists Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian disagree with that view. To be sure, crowd behavior is less orderly than most things people do; it seems disconnected from the routine responsibilities of life; its beginnings and ends may be uncertain. Nevertheless, it has its own patterns that arise, sometimes very quickly. So this theory claims.

Think about a mob in action. Individuals who were roaming about suddenly find themselves joined in a common pursuit. People call to one another: “He’s getting away. Chase him!” “There’s an open window over here!” “Turn this car over!” “Break this door!” Turner and Killian insist that these commands are new norms that are emerging very quickly. There are, oddly, roles of rioter, looter, and insurrectionist that most of us understand well enough. Any rioter — or potential rioter — expects to have opposition from authorities; they know there will be danger; they expect to have high emotions and be physically vigorous. They know to be careful of their allies as well as their enemies. In the end, they must escape.

The Capitol Hill rioters express these themes. Sadly, some had backgrounds as soldiers and police officers. They knew how to behave in social conflicts, indeed how to initiate them. Other participants were members of paramilitary groups, who like to divide, threaten, and bully. The insurrection that day featured the usual shouts and encouragements. Mobile phones helped coordinate the event. There is speculation, still unsubstantiated, that non-rioters may have helped the intruders learn about building floor plans, points of entry, and the like. Things happened very quickly, but they did not occur chaotically.

Value-added theory. The above theories focus primarily on the crowd disturbance itself, how and why it happened as it did. Sociologist Neil Smelser offers a much broader explanation, which describes that disturbance as one element of a much longer process. 

The name he gives to his theory comes from economics. Imagine a car constructed on an assembly line. As the car moves down that line, workers add parts that increasingly define the product. Each of these “adds value.” By the end, a fully assembled product appears. Social events, including forms of collective behavior, are not so different. The finished product — in this case, a riot — is the outcome of certain preexisting conditions. Smelser identifies four of these.

Structural Strain. Insurrections are responses to perceived social problems that cause their perpetrators to feel frustrated, blocked, or angry. They may feel that the powers-that-be do not care about their plight and that normal governmental processes are ineffective. Poverty and racism are common reasons for such protests. However, any group can convince itself that their standing is in jeopardy and that other groups are receiving more favorable attention than they are.

Generalized Beliefs. To be successful, insurrections must have some person or group to blame and some remedy for the perceived injustice. That target of blame might be a government official or party. It could also be some perceived power-behind-the-throne, such as an “elite.” Disadvantaged categories of people — think of immigrants or racial and ethnic minorities — may be targets. Most generally, there is a belief that these groups threaten the standing of the insurrectionists. They must be “taken out” and replaced with leadership that supports the protestors’ concerns and sometimes “way of life.”

Precipitating Factors. These conditions and beliefs may linger for years. For concerted action to occur, some event (or series of events) must happen. That might be a murder of a revered leader by an opposing group, some threat to public safety like a bombing or fire, or the scandalous behavior of a government figure. This may lead to fiery speeches, editorials, and Internet posts calling for action. Increasing numbers of people conclude, “Something must be done.”

Lack of Social Control. Still, public insurrection may not occur. That is because law enforcement agencies carefully monitor extremist groups and thwart their plots. Church and community leaders call for carefully considered, peaceful approaches. Government officials acknowledge the grievances of the discontented group. So do educators and leaders of media. However, sometimes these influences fail.

The rebellion of the Trump supporters fits this model. Over the past several decades, working-class white people have experienced economic decline. Rural areas and small towns have faced similar challenges. Conservative Christians object to what they see as the secularization of moral values. Such people believe that the lifestyles of cities, celebrated by mainstream media, are crowding out their ways of living. For many Americans, Donald Trump is a champion, who defends economic deregulation, community control, family authority, salvationist religion, nationalism, gun rights, and white superiority.

That champion lost the 2020 election. His claim, without basis, that this was a “stolen election” was a flashpoint for the protest. So was his organization of the Washington rally to oppose the official vote tally. His calls to Georgia election officials to have them alter records and his demand that the Vice President somehow interfere are additional elements. These strategies proving unsuccessful, the President encouraged the protestors to march to the Capitol. The imponderable failure of law enforcement to anticipate the danger at hand and to prepare their defenses led to the terrible scenes we witnessed.

Clearly, and as the above theories maintain, there are different reasons why people join protests. Some find themselves caught up in them; some provoke them with deadly intent. Others drift away from the mob, knowing that the proposed action is too much for them. This is the case for protests of every type, on both the left and right. Common banners unite different kinds of people.

None of this justifies the criminal invasion of Congress. Neither does it excuse a leader’s dissemination of false information to mobilize frustrated groups, his efforts to convince them that other citizens are their enemies, or his encouragements to interfere with the chartered responsibilities of our legislators.