by Ray Collins, Virginia Writers Club

This essay explores recent events surrounding the insurrection at the nation’s capital on January 6 with the goal of creating a context for fiction writers who seek authenticity in their work. If for nonfiction, research tops the writer’s priorities. If for fiction, authors may desire to ground their stories in real world episodes as a device to explore the characters, their narrative, within the denouement.

One month prior to the 2020 national election, President Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security released a report entitled Homeland Threat Assessment. The report highlighted, “Ideologically motivated lone offenders and small groups pose the most likely terrorist threat to the Homeland, with Domestic Violent Extremists presenting the most persistent and lethal threat.” Among that group, “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists—will remain the most persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland.”1

DHS’s report emphasized how some white supremacists “have heightened their attention to election- or campaign-related activities, candidates’ public statements, and policy issues connected to specific candidates, judging from terrorism plots since 2018 targeting individuals based on their actual or perceived political affiliations.”

The insurrectionists who stormed the U. S. Capitol on January 6 in support of former President Trump’s false claims the 2020 election was stolen are at the heart of the threat posed by violent white extremists identified in the Department of Homeland Security’s report. While some in the mob were members of well-known white supremacist groups (e.g., Proud Boys and Oath Keepers) the majority of those identified were not. 2

Among those arrested were the unemployed and residents of deep-red communities, but many did not fit common stereotypes. They included businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and a handful of law enforcement personnel. Communities that had large numbers of Trump supporters were most likely to be the home base of insurrectionists, whether the community as a whole voted for Democrats or Republicans.

While the sum total of those arrested so far for participating on January 6 is insufficient to support sweeping conclusions, they lend weight to the possibility that white supremacists are everywhere in these United States.

The Historical Record

How did a nation founded on Thomas Jefferson’s noble claim All men are created equal

1 Department of Homeland Security, October 2020. Homeland Threat Assessment. 2 “The Capitol Rioters Aren’t Like Other Extremists.” February 2, 2021. New York Times.

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come to this state of national crisis? Especially after the vision was broadened to include women, minorities, and others in the meaning of “all men.”

Has the wording one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all in the Pledge of Allegiance become a hollow mockery of today’s democracy?

Anyone with a passing acquaintance with American history recognizes both that the country started with a mixed record on race relations and striving for equality and that we have come a very long way, especially since FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s and attempts since World War II to reduce inequality and open doors to minorities and other oppressed groups.

But we had a rough beginning. Our most honored Founding Fathers and national heroes were slaveholders. President Andrew Jackson drove slave coffles where Black people, with ropes around their necks, were marched from town to town.

The Civil War (1861-1865) was sparked by the election of Abraham Lincoln. In secessionist Southern states a plantation economy, dependent on slavery, was threatened, together with white supremacy. General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox marked the effective end of the war and ushered in the Reconstruction era. Slavery was abolished and former slaves were granted civil rights. However, white supremacists did not disappear. After 1877, with the end of Reconstruction, discrimination against Blacks increased in severity.

Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, heroes of wars that ushered in the Twentieth Century, practiced blatant racism. During Calvin Coolidge’s presidency in the 1920s, forty thousand Ku Klux Klansmen (KKK) marched on Washington demanding immigration restrictions, which were embodied in the 1924 Immigration Act. At that time, “white supremacists took control of the newly established U.S. Border Patrol and turned it into a vanguard of race vigilantism.” 3

World War II brought an end to the Great Depression and ushered in a post-war era of prosperity. United States leadership sparked worldwide economic growth.

Social problems, however, are stubborn things. Economic gains were not distributed evenly, or even equitably, among geographic regions, sexes, or racial-ethnic groupings. Political resentments broadened, including Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade. White supremacists continued their attacks on minorities at home and immigrants seeking to enter the United States.

All this is not to deny moments of progress. A memorable one was President Harry Truman opening the armed forces to racial minorities. In 1948, Truman required equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin. He also desegregated the federal workforce. 3 Grandin, Greg. 2019. The End of the Myth—From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America Metropolitan Books: p. 163.

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Over time, Truman’s action resulted in upward mobility opportunities in the armed forces becoming available to racial minorities. A major factor was the roughly one million Black men and women who had served in the armed forces during World War II.4 Black people of merit rose to positions of power, including General Colin Powell, who became the first African American Secretary of State and General Lloyd Austin, who was confirmed as President Biden’s Secretary of Defense.

The 1954 Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education led, haltingly but inexorably, to the opening of educational opportunities to Blacks and other minorities. The Civil Rights Act, proposed by President John Kennedy and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, banned segregation on the grounds of race, religion, or national origin in public places. The Act also barred discrimination by employers and labor unions. The end of legal segregation in the United States was marked the following year when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited many discriminatory voting practices and the Fair Housing Act banned property discrimination.5

This decade of progress on the legal frontier was matched by turmoil in society, much of it triggered by protests against the Vietnam War, but also by violence in the South directed at Blacks. The murders of civil rights pioneers in Mississippi and other Southern states went largely unnoticed by the nation at the time.6 This changed with the televised reporting of the dramatic violence directed by state troopers (acting on orders of Alabama Governor George Wallace) at the marchers in Selma, Alabama led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis.7

The tragic decade of the Sixties witnessed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. The FBI identified the assassin as James Earl Ray, who pleaded guilty, then recanted his plea.8

Dr. King’s speech echoes through the years from the National Mall where he delivered it before a quarter of a million civil rights supporters. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths

4 Thomas C. Holt, Thomas C. 2021. The Movement—The African American Struggle for Civil Rights, Oxford University Press: p. 22.

5 Editors. January 25, 2021. Civil Rights Act of 1964.

6 Civil Rights Martyrs. Southern Poverty Law Center. 1988.

7 Klein, Christopher. 2020. “How Selma’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ became a Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement,” Los Angeles Times,

8 “Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.”. nd. Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.

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to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Jefferson and Dr. King’s dream is yet to be fully realized. White supremacists are determined it never shall.

Reaction to liberal achievements “brought Nixon into the White House and provided George Wallace a whopping 13.5 percent of the national vote.” Wallace spouted “harsh southern segregationist, anti-elitist rhetoric” while Nixon reflected conservative pragmatism. 9 However, Nixon’s “southern strategy” appealed to racist resentments, accompanied by a “border strategy,” getting tough on illegal immigrants and drug trafficking.10

President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought to power a newly respectable conservatism, fueled by Christians who were the social infrastructure of the movement. Anti-communism took a back seat, largely replaced by a pro-life and pro-family focus. The reworked conservative package attracted broad public support.11

After World War II, white supremacists were marginalized to far-right groups, such as neo-Nazis and the KKK. By 2008, the alternative-right (alt-right) rose to prominence in the Republican Party, under the leadership of Richard Spencer and others. During the next decade spokespersons for the alt-right and white supremacists gained in popularity, sparked by social technology. The website Breitbart News, under the control of Steve Bannon, became known as the “gateway” to alt-right ideas.

The media proved to be a crucial factor in the 2016 election, with Bannon as the head of Trump’s 2016 election campaign and later chief strategist in the White House.

In 2017, the Unite the Right rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, attracting white supremacists and other alt-right groups. James Alex Fields, Jr., rammed his vehicle into the crowd and was convicted of killing one woman and injuring other attendees. Then President Trump sparked controversy with his comment, “there were very fine people on both sides,” assigning a moral equivalence to civil rights counter-protesters and white supremacists.

The Trump administration over time included several individuals who were prominent leaders among white supremacists and the alternative right. These spokespersons such as Bannon and Stephen Miller helped translate grassroots white supremacy into national policy.

White Supremacy Groups

There are probably several hundred white supremacy groups scattered throughout the country, many with only a handful of adherents. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and major media organizations 9 Lisa McGirr, Lisa. 2015. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton University Press: p. 211. 10 Grandin, p. 213. 11 McGirr, pp. 260-261. Ray Collins Virginia Writers Club White Supremacy’s Resurgence Virginia Writers Club, page 76 attempt to keep track of them, with a present focus on those who participated in the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. In this article, we will sketch two groups: Oath Keepers and Proud Boys.

Oath Keepers. The Justice Department initially lodged charges against nine members of the Oath Keepers accused of being part of a “plot to attack the Capitol.”12 Aware that “guns were not allowed in Washington,” the group planned to wear military gear and bring mace, gas masks, and batons to the Capitol. The organization, founded by Stewart Rhodes, includes many former members of the military and law enforcement. At one time, a leader of the Oath Keepers called for hanging Senator John McCain.13 Based on the latest information, of 230 people charged with being part of the insurrectionist mob, 31 have known ties to a “militant extremist group,” of whom 26 (over ten percent) are affiliated with Oath Keepers or Proud Boys.14 More than onethird of the militants had military and/or law enforcement experience, many of whom were involved in organizing the attack.

Proud Boys. Early information indicated that two members of the Proud Boys were indicted for conspiracy, physical violence (including assaulting officers), and other crimes related to the 1/6 riots.15 A more current report noted Proud Boys were facing Federal charges in the attacks. Proud Boys leaders led a group of approximately 100 people from Mr. Trump’s speech to the Capitol.16 The Proud Boys is an all-male white supremacy group that has engaged in violence at numerous rallies across the United States. Canada became the first country to designate the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity.17 Enrico Tarrio, former chairman of the Proud Boys, called the designation “ridiculous.” Tarrio was arrested shortly before the Capitol Riot, accused of vandalizing a Black Lives Matter banner at an historic Black church. 12 Feuer, Alan and Katie Benner. February 19, 2021. “More Oath Keepers Charged in Capitol Riot Plot.” New York Times. 13 Broadwater, Luke and Matthew Rosenberg. January 29, 2021. “Republican Ties to Extremist Groups Are Under Scrutiny.” New York Times. 14 Valentino-DeVries, Jennifer, Denise Lu, Eleanor Lutz, and Alex Leeds Matthews. February 21, 2021. “A Small Group of Militants Outsize Role in the Capitol Attack.”New York Times.. 15 Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Columbia. January 29, 2021. “Two Members of the Proud Boys Indicted for Conspiracy Other Charges Related to the Jan. 6 Riots.. riots. 16 Valentino-DeVries. 17 Gilles, Rob. February 3, 2021. “Canada designates the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity,” AP: Toronto.

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The Threat of Political Violence

The January 6 insurrection at the Capitol forces us to consider the likelihood of future violence by white supremacists or other political actors. In the aftermath of 1/6, a survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life (a project of the American Enterprise Institute) provides some preliminary insights.18 The survey included a random sample representative of U.S. adults in all 50 states.

Not surprisingly, the survey found that Trump “retains considerable influence among GOP rank and file voters.” Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of Republicans say President Biden’s win was not legitimate; in contrast with virtually all (98 percent) Democrats and nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of Independents who believe the election victory was legitimate.

The survey explored other conspiracy theories, including the QAnon belief that the political left in the United States (prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites) includes a “group of child sex traffickers.” A quarter (22 percent) of Republicans believe this conspiracy is mostly or completely accurate; another 41 percent report they are uncertain.

Not all conspiracy theories studied involved the far-right. The survey also analyzed claims that antifa (the anti-fascist group who supposedly instigate violence at demonstrations sponsored by left-leaning or liberal groups) was responsible for the 1/6 insurrection. Half (50 percent) of Republicans endorsed that view, as did 28 percent of independents and one-fifth (20 percent) of Democrats. There is no evidence antifa instigated or participated in the capitol riots.

The survey found widespread skepticism about how well today’s democracy is responsive to the needs of “everyday Americans as opposed to the wealthy and wellconnected.” Over two-thirds (69 percent) agreed with the view that “American democracy serves the interests of only the wealthy and powerful.”

The issue is not just what people believe, but what actions they are prone to take. The most explosive finding of the survey was that “More than one in three (36 percent) Americans agree with the statement: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” While six in ten (60 percent) Americans reject use of force, a majority (56 percent) of Republicans “support the use of force.” Almost four in ten (39 percent) Republicans endorse force “if elected leaders fail to act.”19

Implications for Writing Fiction

18 Cox, Daniel A. February 11, 2021. “After the ballots are counted: conspiracies, political violence, and American exceptionalism.” Findings from the January 2021 American Perspectives Survey (Survey Center on American Life,). 19 Fellow Larry Bartels Studies Antidemocratic Sentiments Among Republican Voters. October 30, 2020. The American Academy of Political & Social Science.

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The stories we tell arise from common cultural themes. Authors often ride the wave of thematic, current themes. For instance, during major wars, wartime themes are in demand. During year one of the COVID-19 pandemic, classic dystopian novels had a comeback in paperback form, including George Orwell, 1984; Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451; Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale; and Stephen King, The Stand. Dramatic changes in the world tend to influence choices of what to read fueled by what is written.

The resurgence of white supremacy has yet to have a major impact on fiction writing. This article hints at ways in which that might change, but not as a Dummies Guide on How-To-Do-It. The intent is not to predict or advocate, but simply to pose the question what if? The purpose is to highlight certain issues impacted by the resurgence of white supremacists.

Patricia Highsmith observed: “It is impossible to explain how a successful—that is readable—book is written.”20 She was speaking about suspense fiction, but it applies to all genres.

Carolyn Wheat showcased techniques for how to write mysteries and thrillers, including how a writer can use a novel to explore social problems. Like the hard-boiled detective story, popular over the 1920s-50s America, the hero or heroine’s role is “restoring order to a world that was once well-ordered but lost that serenity through violent death.”21

Three common elements of writing to remember: setting, plot, and character. Each is potentially affected by the changes brought about by the cultural and political shifts attributable to white supremacists.

• Setting. Hallie Ephron wrote, “Some events feel too big to be left out of any story set in the fictional present. The 9/11 terrorist attacks are a case in point.”22 The capitol riot of January 6 falls in the same category, unless or until some more horrific event occurs.

• Plot. In a how to book by James Frey, he cites Ed McBain (author of the 87th Precinct Series) who once said, we read mysteries because they “reconfirm our faith that a society of laws can work.”23 McBain further said the modern mystery is “a running commentary on our times, to filter it through the author’s imagination and illuminate 20 Highsmith, Patricia. 2001. Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, (St. Martin’s Griffin: p. ix. 21 Wheat, Carolyn. January 1, 2003. How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery & the Roller Coaster of Suspense. Daniel {John} & Co Publishers, U.S.: p. 3. 22 Ephron, Hallie. September 1, 2005. Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. Writer’s Digest Books: p. 58. 58. 23 Frey, James N. 2004. How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. St. Martin’s Press 2004: pp. 1, 23, and 26.

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it for someone else.” In thinking about plot, Frey recommends, “start with an idea, then create biographies for the major characters, including, of course, the murderer. The murderer has a plan for murder, the plot behind the plot.

• Character. News coverage of the past four years has given us a plethora of characters within government at federal, state, and local levels on all sides of the white supremacy issue. The same is true of developments related to alt-right organizations. The imperative is to take seriously behaviors that veer between buffoonery and being deadly in intent and consequence. At one end of the political tug of war that represents the struggle for the soul of the GOP is Representative Liz Cheney (the Number 3 Republican in the House) who voted to impeach Trump for the second time. At the other end are Republicans who dismiss cries of “Hang Mike Pence” in the effort to stop the then vice president from carrying out his role in the process of confirming the results of the 2020 election.

Writers face a serious dilemma when considering the impact of white supremacists on American society and their future writing. They should take heart from a piece of wisdom shared by Britain’s crime novelists.24

Write what you know is one cliché of writing lore. It is advice that shouldn’t be taken too literally. There is really no need to commit murder before writing a crime novel.”

A tale that blends current pathos to traditional writing forms blends the insider’s grasp of events, and the personalities that feed them. The primary lesson for us: We cannot escape the framework of authenticity, an appreciation for the plausible. These tales are staged through an appreciation of scientific empiricism, and the deeper dive into the culture, linguistics, and psychology of persons acting out these complex narratives. If the writer is unsympathetic to these characters, the author crafts the person as a contrast to those with whom the reader feels empathy.

Writers may not view themselves as crusaders. Crusaders seek to reveal through their characters the underbelly of social unrest. Serious writers express dissonance between what is observed, and the ground upon which this dissonance displays energy.

24 Martin Edwards, Martin (ed). 2020. Howdunit. A Masterclass in Crime Writing by Members of the Detection Club, Collins Crime Club: p. 191. Betty Jamerson Reed Appalachian Authors Guild Sequoyah: The Son of a Virginia