NGS Insight: USA – Risk of unprecedented political violence

January 18, 2021



Following a rally held by outgoing President Donald J. Trump at the National Mall outside the White House in Washington D.C. on 6th January, protesters made their way toward Congress to voice their discontent for – what they argue – electoral fraud by the political establishment. Congress was in session to certify electoral votes from the November 2020 election to confirm President-Elect Joseph Biden’s win. The gathering gradually deteriorated into an outright assault on the U.S. Capitol. Demonstrators breached the negligible security perimeters, with the intent of disrupting the session. Eventually, D.C. and federal authorities regained control of the Capitol, pushed back the demonstrators, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a curfew, later followed by a state of emergency. The assault resulted in five confirmed fatalities, with two more deaths reported in the following days. The 6th January riots in Washington D.C. and the subsequent attack by domestic far-right wing extremist actors on the U.S. Capitol have since resulted in increased fears for further similar incidents leading up to and on the inauguration day on 20th January.




What triggered the 6th January riots?


The significant triggering factor for the riots on 6th January was President Trump himself. Even preceding – and after – the election defeat in November, the president had repeatedly voiced unsubstantiated claims that he would and did indeed win a second presidential term, and that any other result would be a product of electoral fraud. Despite an overwhelming number of defeated legal cases attempting to challenge the outcome of the election across the 50 states, President Trump – and his base – remain defiant.  His rhetoric has since switched from denial to a mix of open defiance (displayed when directed to his supporters) and ever-increasing instances of reluctant acceptance (as President Trump himself now has come to understand he will not retain the presidency). Yet it cannot be ignored that approximately 75 million Americans voted for the President, and many of these supporters – involving far-right activist groups including Proud Boys, Women for America First, QAnon and others – have voiced frustration toward the “anti-Trump establishment” and called for violence. Several demonstrators have directly stated they “answered the call from our president”. These threats were telegraphed well in advance of the riots and have since been observed repeatedly across various social media platforms and by various U.S. intelligence agencies. Suggestions that the D.C. riots were a one-time incident are fading, while concerns that more is to come are growing.




Underlying frustrations and risk factors


While President Trump’s consistent challenging of the U.S. election’s legitimacy did play a significant role in inciting the violence on Capitol Hill, the suggestion that President Trump’s rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims of election fraud alone caused this incident is a dangerous one as it neglects other substantial political, economic, and social risk factors in the United States. It would suggest that the attack on Capitol Hill was an impulsive and unplanned event.




The pandemic


A considerable source for dissatisfaction has been the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, at least 2 million global fatalities have been reported. Of these, approximately 395,000 (which equals 132 times the fatalities suffered by the 9/11 attacks) are in the U.S. alongside at least 23 million confirmed cases. This trend does not appear to be slowing down, although the incoming Biden administration clearly appreciates the threat and impact of the pandemic more seriously than President Trump. Further are the economic consequences, as 27.5 million Americans were reportedly unemployed by 31 December 2020. The economic situation will likely take an initial turn for the worse as President-Elect Biden is likely to enforce stricter laws that will affect business operations. While his proposed $1.9tn corona stimulus package could assist small businesses in surviving the storm (provided it passes through Congress), increasing and enforcing existing lockdown measures more strictly is certain to generate further anger among conservative hardliners (especially since President Trump was widely praised for pushing down the unemployment rate).




A fractured society


Social tensions remain prevalent and unaddressed. The death of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked massive demonstrations across the U.S. throughout the summer that highlighted the many incidents of police abuse and the overall issue of underlying structural bias that have denied people of colour the same amount of access to economic opportunities through available jobs and education, as well as the same access to basic security services. As a biproduct of the demonstrations across America, opportunistic riots targeting small businesses and big organisations alike, including Walmart and Amazon, became a common occurrence. This in turn generated – and is still generating – instances of counterviolence. This was clearly displayed in Washington D.C. during the summer of 2020 when unidentified security forces pushed back demonstrators using excessive force that left protesters and even journalists injured. It is worth noting that the use of teargas and tasers by security forces against Black Lives Matter activists was not repeated against the 6th January rioters.


Yet pro-Trump supporters argue that it is the other branches of government – specifically officials who appear to be more liberal (such as Dr. Anthony Fauci who leads the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases) – that have mismanaged the pandemic while also appearing to restrict individual liberties by recommending social distancing, face masks and other safety measures. Right-wing extremists also argue that Democrats in Congress – such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ihan Omar – enable and encourage more Black Lives Matter rhetoric and, in their view, more division and violence. On top of all this is the role of the media, which President Trump and his supporters alike refer to as “fake news” or “enemy of the people”. President Trump remains perceived as a political outsider, someone who understands and champions the marginalised and “forgotten” Americans, but one who has been continuously frustrated by the political establishment since his inauguration in 2017. As such, he is absolved by conservative hardliners of any blame, while Congress and the media – the anti-Trump political establishment – as a whole are to blame.




What are the risks?


There are several indicators of further short-term violence in the U.S. One of the key takeaways from the events on 6th January is that the attack was not as spontaneous as it first appeared but was in reality a (loosely) co-ordinated effort to interrupt and impede the ongoing transition. This is further illustrated by photographs of rioters inside the Capitol equipped with both homemade and professionally made riot gear such as helmets, shields and handcuff-zippers, while some protesters carried lethal and non-lethal weapons. Calls to repeat the D.C. riots – which many far right-wing extremists view as “a success” – is a clear indicator that more is coming. This has been corroborated by the FBI having been vocal of its concern for protest gatherings across all 50 states and, once again, in Washington D.C. on 20th January. Shops and businesses have closed all around Washington D.C., fences around federal buildings have been installed, checkpoints manned by the national guard have been set up around D.C, and several bridges and metro stops are closed until after 20th January. Between 15,000 – 20,000 national guard troops are currently deployed to the capital. While authorities have repeatedly asked the public not to attend the inauguration ceremony, nor to celebrate widely across the country due to Covid-19, people will most likely be out in force to either celebrate or demonstrate.


The intermediate and long-term risks must also be mentioned. Staunch pro-Trump supporters carried out a small demonstration outside Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco on 11th January following the platform’s suspension of President Trump. Twitter has also clamped down hard on other far-right wing extremist accounts. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others have joined in these efforts, and Parler – an app resembling Twitter – has been suspended on Google and Amazon servers due to the amount of right-wing extremist activity that helped incite the riots. This move is somewhat morally contentious, and more backlash targeting major social media platforms can be expected.


The heated political climate is likely to turn dormant following an exhausting post-election period, but ever-present throughout the pandemic. Despite the outcome of the Senate trial following a second impeachment, President Trump is unlikely to disappear from the scene. He will remain a force in U.S. politics either through direct involvement, as indicated by his potential candidacy in 2024 (unless found guilty by the Senate for inciting the D.C. riots, which would ban him from holding public office), or indirectly behind the scenes of his remaining political allies, as he clearly remains widely popular. Extremist groups such as Proud Boys or the Three Percenters will not disappear and will likely attach themselves to conservative politicians that adhere to “Trumpism”. During the riots, it was reported that state lawmakers were involved in breaching the Capitol. One identified lawmaker was Derrick Evans, a Republican member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. While attracting criticism, including from Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia, others have celebrated his involvement and thereby accelerated his popularity among conservative hardliners. Conversely, this political frustration will fuel further protests against new Covid-19 measures, and most likely towards liberal politicians. On 8th October 2020, the FBI apprehended 13 men suspected of planning to kidnap the Democrat Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. She was one of the first governors to issue a stay-at-home order to limit the spread of Covid-19, which generated substantial rallies against her in April, and attracted criticism from President Trump. Similarly, Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York faced numerous threats for closing the state in April 2020. More often than not, the people protesting lockdown measures tend also to align with the conservative end of the political spectrum – especially since President Trump has directly criticised state officials closing down their states. Also, the Democratic Party itself remains deeply divided but managed to rally behind the short-term objective of dislodging President Trump, as well as the momentum gathered by the Black Lives Matter movement. Frustrations on the left will also re-emerge, both within the party and among its supporters, and it remains to be seen what overall current frustrations will spill over in the U.S. midterm elections in 2022.




The private sector and risk mitigation


The risks specifically affecting the private sector are also significant. There is an immediate concern that protests this week could turn violent. Various retail stores across DC and located near state capitals across America are boarding up their businesses in preparation for imminent protests that could boil over to violent riots. Shops and businesses that remain open despite Covid-19 are at risk of suffering spill-over effects. Since several bridges linking D.C. to Virginia have closed, alongside several metro stations temporarily suspending operations, it is advised that travellers allocate a significant amount of time for delays when traveling across the capital area. Companies and organisations must also look to mitigate and safeguard themselves from reputational risk. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others moved swiftly to denounce the president in efforts to distance themselves – and have received praise for doing so – but this is more than just social media giants. Several financial actors on Wall Street such as Citigroup Inc., JP Morgan Chase & Co., and Goldman Sachs Group have ceased their political donations to both the Republican and Democratic parties in the aftermath of the D.C. riots, and there is genuine concern among the Republican party – which is itself facing large internal divisions – that several donors will not return soon. Marriot International Inc. went further, suspending donations to Republican senators who voted against Biden’s certification on 6th January. AT&T, Exxon Mobil Corp., Bank of America, and others are also reportedly reviewing their policies on political donations.


Now more than ever it is essential for private sector companies to understand current and long-lasting political, economic, and social risk factors to navigate the contemporary political risk environment to maximise operational capacity. The consequences of the attack on Congress have only just begun to unravel themselves and while overall risks and security concerns in the U.S. are remain relatively low, the immediate and intermediate risk indicators somewhat resemble that of an unstable emerging market. To this effect, to assist companies in navigating the threat environment and helping to secure operational maximisation, NGS can provide immediate operational assistance, strategic analytical support, and other security services to ensure clients are equipped and prepared for rapid decision-making and risk mitigation at both tactical and strategic level.