Facing Our Real Fears

Terry Schwadron
5 min readApr 11, 2021

Terry H. Schwadron

April 11, 2021

Fear about the loss of white power and influence is primarily what distinguishes the Jan. 6 rioters at the U.S. Capitol, says an analysis of survey and demographic data by political scientist Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

Setting out to determine attitudinal reasons behind the attack, he found that that there is a significant racial component to perceived fears in this country. That by itself is hardly breakthrough, but his conclusions outline extended trouble for a country that proves daily that it cannot even talk about such things.

Pape, who is the director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST), set out to study what motivated the 380 people arrested in connection with the insurrection attack at the Capitol. His expectation going in was to find lingering economic or even partisan political concerns. Instead, his data analysis found that most who took part in the assault came from places “that were awash in fears that the rights of minorities and immigrants were crowding out the rights of white people in American politics and culture.”

As Pape outlined in an op-ed column in The Washington Post, “the insurrection was the result of a large, diffuse and new kind of protest movement congealing in the United States . . . by far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges.” Put another way, he said, those facing charges “typically hail from places where non-White populations are growing fastest.”

His group also ran two surveys in February and March, including a National Opinion Research Council survey, to help understand the roots of rage involved in the Washington mob attack. Again, what stood out, Pape argued, was “fear of the ‘Great Replacement,’ a theory spreading among white nationalists that sees minorities progressively replacing White populations due to mass immigration policies and low birthrates. Pape’s results also confirmed that social media is driving the fears.

As a result, Pape prescribes that mayors and police need better intelligence and sounder risk analysis arising from these fears. “To ignore this movement and its potential would be akin to (Donald) Trump’s response to covid-19: We cannot presume it will blow over. The ingredients exist for future waves of political violence, from lone-wolf attacks to all-out assaults on democracy, surrounding the 2022 midterm elections.”

The Study

Pape also found that those arrested — admittedly a pretty small group for data analysis — were by older and more professional than right-wing protesters surveyed in the past, with fewer having ties to right-wing groups, 95 percent White and 85 percent male. Most were not from politically deep-red areas, though there were more arrestees from four states than others. CPOST looked at demographic and county characteristics in 250 counties in 44 states.

In the case of rioters from Texas and New York, for example, insurrectionists’ home counties lost White percent of populations since 2015. The raw numbers are small, but by comparison with the country’s 2,900 counties, these 250 “had an 18% chance of sending an insurrectionist to D.C., while the counties that saw the least decline in the White population had only a 3% chance. This finding holds even when controlling for population size, distance to D.C., unemployment rate and urban/rural location. It also would occur by chance less than once in 1,000 times.”

You can argue about social science, of course. Tucker Carlson on Fox News noted the three months since Jan. 6 by ridiculing criticisms, and attempted to spin the narrative as just “a mob of older people from unfashionable zip codes” protesting mass voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Still, what Pape says fits with generalized concerns that have been growing about the White Supremacist movement since Charlottesville, and that harken to earlier years of outward racism.

Pape told The New York Times that “You see a common pattern in the Capitol insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future.”

That’s a different story, if related, to the idea that particular militia-like White Supremacist groups like the Oath-Keepers or Proud Boys organized and planned the attack.

America’s History

Pape has cited the repeat of previous mass movements in response to large-scale cultural change, including the emergence of the Know Nothing Party in the mid-1800s, in response to Irish Catholic immigration, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after World War I. Clearly, immigration has been a hot-button campaign issue for Republicans, and Trump consistently and repeatedly called on racial and ethnic tropes to stir followers against Mexicans, Central Americans, Muslims worldwide, Blacks, Jews, gays and transgender people — a rainbow array.

And it has been Trump’s own clarion calls for response to his claims of a stolen election behind the insurrection attack, for which he faces a number of lawsuits and possible attention from federal prosecutors still investigating the Capitol attack in which five were killed.

We’re seeing the questions Pape poses to us as a nation play out daily. The trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the knee-on-neck death of George Floyd in a routine police matter in Minneapolis is a perfect public explosion of unrest in the making, depending on the verdict that emerges. A constant in the nationwide hesitancy in taking coronavirus vaccine has a heavy racial component, as has had the disparate effect of the pandemic itself. Our national discussions about voting rights, schools, budgets, environment, even the military are replete with disparate treatments for White and non-white populations.

Tucker Carlson, the Fox News commentator, is going out of his way to disparage “replacement” concerns, prompting the Anti-Defamation League to call for his firing for “his long record of race-baiting.” Carlson insists that Joe Biden wants to open borders to replace white Americans with Central Americans.

Sure, we should be paying attention to the demographic changes, whether know as Great Replacement or social progress, and perhaps we should be inviting the discussions about addressing how society needs to adjust rather than arming ourselves literally as well as figuratively for our nation’s future. It is a truism that the racial and cultural anxieties that underscore the riot at the Capitol are not going away.

“If all of this is really rooted in the politics of social change, then we have to realize that it’s not going to be solved — or solved alone — by law enforcement agencies,” Pape told The Times. “This is political violence, not just ordinary criminal violence.”