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Why Did Trump Supporters Storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6? Because of Trump, New Harvard Study Finds

Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School analyzed documents from more than 400 defendants who have been charged with crimes related to the attacks on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School analyzed documents from more than 400 defendants who have been charged with crimes related to the attacks on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Miles J. Herszenhorn, Crimson Staff Writer

Former President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud and enthusiasm for his re-election drove supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, according to a study from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.

In the most comprehensive study to date of what motivated the Trump supporters to attack the Capitol, Shorenstein Center researchers found that 20.6 percent of the rioters, a plurality, were motivated to take part in the riot because they supported Trump. Another 20.6 percent of the rioters cited Trump’s fraudulent claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged as their primary reason for participating in the Jan. 6 riot.

The authors of the study — Joan Donovan, Kaylee Fagan, and Frances E. Lee — wrote that their analysis found that the largest proportion of defendants “were motivated, in part, to invade the US Capitol Building by Donald Trump.”

The third most common reason for attacking the Capitol: a desire to start a civil war or an armed revolution, according to the study. Almost 8 percent of defendants indicated it was their main motivation.

In an interview, Fagan said she was surprised by how frequently support for Trump and concerns about the election were cited as primary motivations for joining the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

“I don’t think I expected the result to be this stark,” Fagan said. “I also certainly didn’t expect those two motivations to come up nearly exactly as often as they both did.”

Though more than 800 have been federally prosecuted for their participation in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, the study focused on 417 defendants charged with federal crimes in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The study, which was released as a working paper because it has not been peer-reviewed, analyzed 469 court documents from the 417 defendants to determine why the rioters decided to join the Jan. 6 attack in Washington.

“The documents show that Trump and his allies convinced an unquantifiable number of Americans that representative democracy in the United States was not only in decline, but in imminent, existential danger,” the study said. “This belief translated into a widespread fear of democratic and societal breakdown, which, in turn, motivated hundreds of Americans to travel to DC from far corners of the country in what they were convinced was the nation’s most desperate hour.”

Other common reasons for breaching the Capitol included participating in an event of historical significance, engaging in peaceful protest, and committing acts of violence.

The QAnon conspiracy theory was one of the lesser motives, the study found, only motivating 4.1 percent of defendants to storm the Capitol. Fagan said she initially thought QAnon would play a larger role in motivating people to participate in the Jan. 6 attack.

“The folks with QAnon t-shirts, and signs, and flags were so prominently displayed in much of the visual imagery that came out of the Capitol attack,” Fagan said. “So we expected to see more QAnon-related concepts come through in the documents.”

The study stated that the absence of defendants’ court documents citing QAnon as a primary motivation for participating in the Jan. 6 attack “does not necessarily mean that the Capitol stormers did and do not, by and large, subscribe to the conspiratorial beliefs associated with QAnon.”

“This fact could simply be the result of most law enforcement officers deciding that the defendants’ conspiratorial beliefs were not relevant to their crimes,” the study added.

While the role of QAnon in motivating the Jan. 6 attack may still be unclear, Fagan said the rioters saw Donald Trump “as a leader and as a key player in the movement that they were participating in.”

“Obviously, I cannot speak to whether crimes were committed or whether any of this is intentional on Trump’s part,” she said. “That’s for the [House Jan. 6 select] committee to decide.”

“But it does seem clear to us that the largest portion of the attackers whose documents we analyzed, were compelled — at least in part — by their desire to support Donald Trump and their belief in his lies about the election,” Fagan added.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

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