Millions of Americans think the election was stolen. How worried should we be about more violence?

Lois Beckett in Los Angeles
·8 min read

Three months after an insurrection at the US capitol, an estimated 50 million Republicans still believe the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, according to a recent national survey. But it’s far from clear how many Americans might still be willing to take violent action in support of that belief.

Early research on the continued risk of violence related to Trump’s “big lie” has produced a wide variety of findings. One political scientist at the University of Chicago estimated, based on a single national survey in March, that the current size of an ongoing “insurrectionist movement” in the US might be as large as 4% of American adults, or about 10 million people.

Other experts on political violence cautioned that survey results about what Americans believe provide virtually no insight on how many of them will ever act on those beliefs. Researchers who have interviewed some of Trump’s most loyal supporters over the past months say that many of them appear to be cooling down – still believing the election was stolen, but not eager to do much about it. The handful of attempts by far-right extremist groups to mobilize nationwide protests after 6 January have mostly fizzled.

Related: Why aren't we calling the Capitol attack an act of treason?

“Lots of people talk the talk, but very few walk the walk,” Michael Jensen, a senior researcher who specializes in radicalization at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (Start), told the Guardian. “Only a tiny fraction of the people who adhere to radical views will act on them.”

More than 800 people from a crowd of more than 10,000 are estimated to have breached the Capitol building, the acting capitol police chief said in February. Nearly 400 of them are now facing charges.

Extremism experts have called the 6 January attack an example of “mass radicalization,” with a majority of people charged in the incident having no affiliation with existing extremist groups, according to early analyses. More than half of the people charged in the insurrection appeared to have planned their participation alone, not even coordinating with family members or close friends, according to one analysis. Nearly half were business owners or had white collar jobs, and very few were unemployed, a sharp contrast with the profiles of some previous violent rightwing extremists.

Today Trump’s relative silence and the gradual return to more normal life as more Americans have been vaccinated, have created very different conditions than in the days and weeks before 6 January.

“The charismatic leader has been silenced for the most part. He might find his way back into the public spotlight, but as of right now, he’s been effectively muted,” Jensen said.

“We were in a really unique situation with the pandemic, and the lockdowns, and people being isolated and fearful. You had a vulnerable population,” he added. Today, “people are getting back to their lives.”

The ‘cooling out’

In the aftermath of the Capitol attack, a large majority of Americans condemned the rioters and said they should be prosecuted.

But research in the past months has also shown that many Republican voters are still loyal to Trump and receptive to lies from him and other Republican politicians about the 2020 election and the insurrection that followed.

A March survey from Reuters/IPSOS found that more than half of Republicans endorsed a false claim that the attack was “led by violent leftwing protesters trying to make Trump look bad”, and also said they believed that the people who gathered at the Capitol “were mostly peaceful, law-abiding Americans”.

Six in 10 Republicans in that survey also said they believed “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.” That percentage of the sample would correspond with roughly 50 to 55 million Americans, Chris Jackson, the IPSOS senior vice-president for public affairs, told the Guardian.

In mid-March, researchers at the University of Chicago attempted to home in on the percentage of Americans who still believed in Trump’s “big lie,” and who also may be willing to act violently as a result, using a nationally representative sample of a thousand American adults.

Two-thirds of the respondents said they believed the election was legitimate, the researchers found. Another 27% said they believed the election had been stolen from Trump, but endorsed only non-violent protest. Only 4% said they believed the election was stolen, and also expressed a willingness to engage in violent protest.

That 4% would translate to roughly 10 million American adults, said Robert Pape, a political scientist at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats who specialized in global suicide terror attacks, and who pivoted last year to focus on political violence in the United States.

Other experts have argued that what survey respondents mean when they say they support using violence to achieve their political goals is far from obvious, according to Nathan Kalmoe, a political scientist at Louisiana State University who has been polling Americans about political violence since 2017.

The findings of that research are concerning: as of February, 20% of Republicans and 13% of Democrats now say violence is at least “a little” justified to advance their party’s goals.

But only a small fraction of the respondents who had said violence by their side was at least “a little justified” in a previous survey endorsed armed, fatal violence, Kalmoe said, instead mentioning fistfights, property destruction and non-violent actions like insults. “‘Violence’ doesn’t mean mass death or even killing even among the people who think some violence is OK,” Kalmoe said.

More than 800 people from a crowd of more than 10,000 are estimated to have breached the Capitol building.
More than 800 people from a crowd of more than 10,000 are estimated to have breached the Capitol building. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

“There are many steps from attitudes to behavioral intentions to behaviors that stop people from acting violently, even when they hold violent views,” he added. Knowing how many people might complete all of those steps is a “nearly impossible question.”

Christopher Parker, a political scientist who studies race and the evolution of American rightwing movements, said that a preliminary finding that 4% of American adults believed the election was stolen from Trump and endorsed violence was a plausible survey result, given that about 7% of American adults had said they participated in a Tea Party event.

A March survey by the Pew research center found a similar proportion of Americans expressing the most skeptical view of a crackdown on the Capitol rioters, with 4% saying it was “not at all important” for them to be prosecuted.

But it was also very possible that the attitudes of Trump supporters were shifting over time, Parker cautioned, and that the 4% figure from mid-March may already be shrinking.

In focus groups with Trump loyalists in Wisconsin and Georgia that Parker worked on, Trump supporters appeared “angry, but also despondent, feeling powerless and uncertain they will become more involved in politics.” Trump voters appeared to be much less threatened by Biden than they were by Obama, the focus groups indicated, and were interested in what Biden’s post-pandemic recovery plan might do for them personally.

Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist who is currently conducting interviews in the region, found that in eastern Kentucky, even among dedicated Trump supporters, there’s been a “cooling out.”

I think a lot of people have felt abandoned. Trump did not pardon [the Capitol rioters]. He went away

Arlie Hochschild,

Hochschild, the author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, said that Trump’s most ardent supporters, the ones who believe the election was stolen from him, “are in a squeeze”, feeling threatened by the law enforcement crackdown on the Capitol rioters on one hand, and a sense of abandonment at Trump’s behavior on the other.

On 6 January, some Trump supporters “had felt proud, patriotic, defending democracy, and in a day’s time that had turned around to dishonor, criminalization. They were put down. The law was looking for them,” she said.

At the same time, “I think a lot of people have felt abandoned. Trump did not pardon [the Capitol rioters]. He went away, disappeared into silence. They feel like: ‘Wait a minute: why isn’t he speaking up for us? Why isn’t he defending us?’”

A minority of Trump supporters Hochschild is interviewing today are doubling down on their election fraud beliefs, she said, expressing paranoia about big government taking over, and feeling “monitored and unsafe”. But the majority has “divested emotion from the issue” of “election fraud”.

Experts cautioned that even the tiniest fraction of people willing to use violence in support of their extreme beliefs is dangerous, particularly in the US, where political violence in recent years has often taken the form of high-casualty mass shootings in places like churches, synagogues and stores.

Hochschild said she is more concerned about further political violence in the long term than the short term. “I do feel there are a lot of people whose position is extreme,” she said. “I just don’t see it mobilized at this point.”

“The reality is, when you see 6 January, that was not a large share of Americans that did that,” said Jhacova Williams, a Rand Corporation economist who has studied the after-effects of lynchings in the American south.

Still, she said, political violence can have devastating, lasting effects, on both people and on democracies, while being driven by relatively small numbers of people, as long as the majority does not intervene.

While lynchings were held in public and attracted crowds, “If you look historically, it wasn’t as if you had masses in the south that were lynching people,” Williams said. “It was a subset of people who were doing that.”