Insurrectionists standing in front of the U.S. Capitol holding flags.

Echo Chambers

Anthony Antonio has been charged with five crimes related to his participation in the January 6, 2021 insurrection, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. His attorney, Joseph Hurley, does not deny Antonio engaged in illegal and violent actions on that day but claims that his client suffers from “Foxitis.” As Hurley tells it, after Antonio lost his job he sat at home and watched Fox News endlessly “and started believing what was being fed to him.” Other defense attorneys have made similar claims about their clients. In an expletive-riddled interview, attorney Albert Watkins said of the insurrectionists, “Fuck, they were subjected to four-plus years of goddamn propaganda the likes of which the world has not seen since fucking Hitler.”

Blaming powerful political figures or the press for insurrection has a long American history. For those of us who study the era of the American Revolution, this construction is all too familiar. The language was different, of course, but the sentiment was the same. Eighteenth-century men and women held the belief that a few designing men could convince otherwise-innocent people to act irrationally. There was no Fox News, of course, but there were newspapers and pamphlets, town meetings and tavern toasts, all of which had the potential to delude the multitudes and open the doors to violence and insurrection.

We can see this in the events leading up to the American Revolution. If General Thomas Gage were keen on coining new words, he might have come up with “Hancockitis” or “Adamsitis” to explain the growing rebellion of North American colonists in early 1775. In the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Gage vainly attempted to restore obedience to the British government in the Massachusetts Bay colony. He believed that in their hearts the majority of the colonists preferred law and order to the growing rebellion but that their minds had been deluded by powerful and conniving men, chiefly John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

If Gage had been a judge rather than a general, and if Joseph Hurley could take his wayback machine to 1775, Hurley’s defense strategy would have been effective. Gage offered pardons “to all persons who shall forthwith lay down their arms, and return to the duties of peaceable subjects” in order to show those he considered deluded individuals an alternative and rational path. In the document that extended these pardons, he wrote that the “infatuated multitudes” had been subjected to propaganda produced by Hancock and Adams, men he called “well known Incendiaries and Traitors.” These men had riled up the public by suppressing the truth and engaging in “the grossest forgeries, calumnies and absurdities that ever insulted human understanding.” In addition, these men had managed to prostitute the press “to the most contrary purposes.” Gage argued that those who had taken up arms against the British were not entirely to blame. Likewise, in 2021 Hurley wants us to believe that Antonio and others like him were part of the infatuated multitudes acting under the influence of propaganda. Both men asserted that insurrectionists were swayed by grossly inaccurate and conspiracy-loving media: speeches, newspapers, and pamphlets in Gage’s formulation and Fox News in Hurley’s.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how faulty Gage’s analysis was and thus should be leery of any similar modern-day formula. Gage’s analysis made perfect sense to intelligent men and women who shared a political worldview and existed in what we now call an “echo chamber.” As he spoke and listened to others, he tuned out the most contradictory voices. He continued to believe he could reason with the majority of the men in power in Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts Bay, even as rebellion continued to grow and spread. To his peril, and to the peril of the British Empire, he believed in a simplistic explanation for the complexities of the discontents of and protests by Massachusetts colonists.

Painting of a man in a red coat.
Portrait of General Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley, c. 1768. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Perhaps one lesson we can learn from Gage’s experience is that it is human nature to see something that scares us and try to find an easy explanation. The problem is that while media undoubtedly influences people, and the echo chambers we all exist in embolden us in our worldviews, assigning responsibility or blame so narrowly as to privilege one or two political actors (or a small range of media) blocks understanding and undermines the ability to respond effectively.

The actions of some of those who have taken up arms against the government in the past may very well have been fueled in part by falsehoods propagated through the media. In 1775, some of those who joined the call to resist Parliament’s power may have been swayed by John Hancock and Sam Adams or the propaganda they produced. In 2021, some of those who stormed the Capitol likely believed Trump had called them to revolution or believed the conspiracies repeated endlessly on Fox News and right-wing websites. In neither case are “forgeries, calumnies and absurdities” enough to fully understand the participants’ actions. What was it that made colonists take up arms in 1775 or caused Americans to storm the Capitol in 2021? In neither case is the answer simple.

In his classic work, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, historian John Shy examined what he calls the “psychic web spun from logic, belief, perception, and emotion that draws people to commit terrible acts and to hazard everything they possess.”[1] Shy concluded that the motivations of those who engaged in violent warfare during the period of the Revolution were likely many and varied, ranging from anger at the British political and military policies, other forms of ideology, financial need, ideas about manhood, and peer pressure, among others. The same must be true for those engaged in insurrection in 2021.

For these reasons, Americans should be nervous both about attempts by attorneys to engage in a “Foxitis” defense to mitigate their clients’ sentences and about the ways those who have never been in thrall to the Trump lies can so easily dismiss this same defense. If history is a guide, we need to avoid overly simplistic explanations for complex events. If we skate on the surface of understanding we may find ourselves, like Thomas Gage, holding on to our belief that a few powerful and rotten Americans have persuaded their followers to take violent actions, even as the ability to prevent future violent actions slips away from us. While it may be comforting for some Americans to tuck the insurrection away in their minds as an anomalous and unfortunate event already in the past, doing so ignores the ongoing danger that the insurrection can change forms and grow stronger.

We should be discomfited by the response from Congressional representatives in the immediate aftermath of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. Members of Congress portrayed this event as a blip, including Democratic Representative Joe Neguse, who told listeners that “it was important to send a signal to Americans and to the rest of the world that a violent mob would not intimidate us into not fulfilling our constitutional oath to ultimately certify the election.” This formulation also creates an echo chamber, one which allows those within to believe that the insurrection was an anomaly and that the ongoing stability of the system is greater than the power of the mob, a formulation that is eerily similar to Gage’s in 1775. While it is easy to understand how members of Congress needed to believe in a stable system when they went back to work in the midst of the wreckage of the day, the reconvening of government was not an unmitigated triumph.

We need to step outside of that echo chamber. The containment of the insurrection can offer only a modicum of comfort, particularly when many Congressional Republicans seem to be rewriting the event, as Georgia Representative Andrew Clyde did when he compared the breaching of the Capitol to a “normal tourist visit.” In addition, Senate Republicans blocked the creation of an outside commission and many of them voted against the Select Committee to investigate, dismissing it as a partisan committee without credibility.

The outside commission, of course, could never have been the only body that answered the questions Americans need to know about the dangers in the world we occupy. Nevertheless, if it had been allowed to exist, it would have been an important step toward uncovering some of our misunderstandings and stepping outside of the surface explanations offered. If it had been allowed to exist, Americans would have had a harder time dismissing the findings as simply partisan posturing and could have gained access to facts and information. This would have allowed all of us to come to a deeper comprehension of what had taken place, not in some facile and false “both sides” kind of way, but in a real way. We need to hear and unpack the delusions, to get to the bottom of the planning for the insurrection as it existed, to understand the multiple reasons Americans took it on themselves to try to overthrow the workings of government. In order to do that, we need data that help lawmakers enact measures to respond to the real dangers around us, rather than the dangers as we imagine them to be.

Notes

  1. John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence (University of Michigan Press, 1976), 109.

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