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Crowds, power and Jan. 6

Jenny Cudd was a 36-year-old florist from Texas when she went to protest the elections at the U.S. Capitol two years ago; Robert Sanford was a retired firefighter living in Pennsylvania. Neither stood to gain personal wealth or power from their actions that day. They were like almost everyone else on the National Mall. They were like almost everyone you know. Yet they joined a violent mob of 2,000 people entering the U.S. Capitol that caused $1.5 million in damages and seven deaths. 

Much has been written over the past two years, but the focus has been on President Trump and a few militia group leaders. Why Donald Trump may have “summoned tens of thousands of supporters to Washington for January 6th,” investigated by the January 6th Select Committee, seems clear; although this seemed clear two years ago. Investigating power plays in Washington is like investigating gambling in a pool hall. Not much is learned, so it’s a topic that’s easily discussed, and, like a shibboleth, it reveals identities. 

The more important questions relate to the crowd. Almost all the Jan. 6 perpetrators arrived in D.C. with no history of violence. Of the one-third of Americans sympathetic to the idea of the Jan. 6 protest, just a small percentage showed up. Of the tens of thousands present, only about 2,000 knowingly broke the law. Although the QAnon leader in the Viking hat will be better remembered, the people in the background provide better insights into the future of violence.

Violent protests around the world provide context for this claim. In Iran, people are protesting theocratic tyranny, while others loyal to the rule of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei respond by arresting more than 15,000 people, with many beaten, shot at, tortured and abused. In Russia, people are protesting Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine but face similar violent treatment from internal security forces loyal to the state leader. Massive numbers of people in China are filling the streets to oppose the rule of Xi Jinping, causing challenges to the Chinese Communist Party at levels not seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. 

In 1960, the writer Elias Canetti published “Crowds and Power” in part to account for his own firsthand experience with Nazi mobs in fascist Germany. “Crowds and Power” offers a compelling explanation of how crowds form and what drives people to join activities they would normally condemn.  

Canetti frames crowd violence this way: An ordinary person does not transform into a violent person; instead, the individual assigns his or her decisionmaking to the crowd in exchange for the feeling of power. According to Canetti, powerful crowds have four traits: large size, high density, equality and a leader with a clear purpose. A crowd can act for good or for bad. Therefore, a powerful crowd can get people to take actions out of character — unusually noble or shameful. 

Following the 9/11 attacks, economist Ronald Wintrobe looked past bin Laden to explore why people join violent extremist groups, and he came to a similar conclusion. People trade autonomy for solidarity, he argues, and the deeper one gets into a group, the more one gives up additional autonomy. Canetti and Wintrobe don’t make the violence of the everyday people justifiable, just understandable.

Hitler needed a strong narrative and a large crowd. Bin Laden’s 9/11 attack showed growing power. Putin’s ability to punish protesters almost certainly enables the misleading narrative of overwhelming support. Opposition leaders in Iran need increasing numbers of individuals to make public the narrative of a powerful crowd seeking an end to Khamenei’s oppression. Crowds grew so powerful in China that Xi ended oppressive “Zero COVID” policies. Leaders are important, but power comes from the crowd. 

Two years after violence broke out at the U.S. Capitol, the most important questions relate to the crowd. If Donald Trump runs for president and wins, what will the crowds do? If he loses, what will the crowds do? If he is prosecuted prior to the election, what will the crowds do? 

Graydon Young also entered the Capitol on Jan. 6, but as a new member of the Oath Keepers, and he was prepared for violence. His group appeared to be growing in size, planned to convene in person and appeared to him to have the backing of the president. At the time of his crimes, he reported feeling powerful — answering a prosecutor’s question as if he was the crowd:   

Prosecutor: How did you feel at the time?

Young: I felt like, again, we were continuing in some kind of historical event to achieve a goal. 

Young added, “Today I feel extremely ashamed and embarrassed.” Thousands of Graydons, Jennys and Roberts perpetrated the Jan. 6 riots. Will the next protest become a violent insurrection? It depends on who these background people give their decisionmaking power to — whether it’s the man in the Viking hat or the Capitol Police officers. 

Each of us joins groups that provide power and demand autonomy. Each of us is susceptible to giving up decisionmaking to a crowd, and with the benefit of hindsight, we may judge our actions as noble or embarrassing. Each is in the background of someone else’s photo. This lesson can be uncomfortable. So, the retrospective of the Jan. 6, 2020, riots will likely focus on the details that are easy to discuss among friends, like past episodes of “The Bachelor.” Which side you choose will depend upon the narratives you follow. 

Gary M. Shiffman, Ph.D, is an economist, a Gulf War veteran and former chief of staff of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He created Giant Oak and Consilient and has authored two books, “The Economics of Violence: How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency, and Terrorism,” and “The Economics of Violence:  Influencing the Choices of Leaders.” 

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