Supporters of then President Donald Trump protest inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Supporters of then President Donald Trump protest inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Experts worry that last month’s acquittal of former President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial will only embolden right-wing extremists and could potentially open the door to more acts of violence.

Dawn Blagrove wasn’t surprised when Senate Republicans voted last month to acquit former President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial over his role in inciting the Jan 6. insurrection at the US Capitol that left five dead.

The North Carolina attorney knew the GOP would not abandon the most popular politician in their party. Surely enough, on Feb. 13, 43 Republican senators decided that Trump was not guilty of “incitement of insurrection.” Despite Trump’s lies about the results of the 2020 election and his request that his supporters descend on the Capitol to block the certification of the electoral college votes, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis voted to acquit the former president.

Because of the Senate’s failure to hold him accountable, Trump continues to spew lies about the election being stolen from him to this day—even though courts and officials from his own administration have confirmed Joe Biden’s win was fair. 

As a result, many fear that message alongside the Senate’s refusal to convict could further ignite white supremacist terrorism in a state with a legacy of racist white vigilantism.

The Missed Opportunity to Squash a Growing Threat 

Of the more than 250 people charged for their roles in the siege on the Capitol, at least seven are North Carolinians and one has ties to the Oath Keepers. Others charged also have past connections to hate groups or the dangerous QAnon conspiracy theory. Still, that number represents just a small fraction of the number of extremist ideologies percolating within the state. 

There were 29 hate groups operating in North Carolina in 2020, virtually all of which adhere to racist, xenophobic, and bigoted beliefs, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). While that number has fluctuated up and down in recent years, the number of hate crimes surged in the state during the Trump era. There were 211 hate crimes reported across North Carolina in 2019, according to the latest FBI data, a 49% increase from 2018. Some of these local extremists and groups have already made clear they feel motivated by the Jan. 6 siege and have spoken openly about escalating violence.

The events of Jan. 6 and Trump’s acquittal one month later were a “master class” in highlighting these disparate systems, said Blagrove, the executive director of EmancipateNC, a Durham-based organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration and structural racism. 

“What I saw was a full on manifestation of white privilege and white supremacy at its absolute height,” she told Cardinal & Pine. “There are two systems that operate differently for Black people and for white people in America, and there’s no turning away from that at this point.” 

Blagrove said the lax law enforcement response and the lack of accountability not only emboldens right-wing extremists but opens the door to more acts of violence. 

“There’s no real deterrent for them not to do this again and to ramp it up. They got a rubber stamp,” she said.

Marcus Pollard, justice system reform counsel at the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, was also alarmed that Trump’s acquittal could give extremists carte blanche for more violence. 

“The Senate just signed off on their actions and signed off on their behaviors. They can say whatever they want to after the vote, but their words fall short of their actions when they vote to acquit somebody whose rhetoric over the last four years has emboldened these groups,” Pollard told Cardinal & Pine.

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Right-wing extremist groups emerged from the shadows during the Trump era and the number of hate crimes rose dramatically during Trump’s time in office, according to FBI data. In the first eight months of 2020, white supremacist groups were responsible for 41 of 61 “terrorist plots and attacks,” according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That trend culminated with members of the Proud Boys, the far-right militant group the Oath Keepers, and more than 10 other extremist groups participating in the Capitol Siege, according to the SPLC. 

David Schanzer, director of Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, said refusing to hold Trump accountable represents a “missed opportunity” to undermine the strength of the violent, extremist right.

“Individuals and small groups could be inspired by the notoriety and the success of the achievement of breaching the Capitol,” Schanzer told Cardinal & Pine.. “I worry that when they next feel aggrieved, they could try to take matters into their own hands by engaging in more violence.”

The One Successful Coup in US History Happened in North Carolina

The prospect of such a threat strikes a particular chord in North Carolina, which was the site of the one successful coup in American history. In 1898, a group of racist white vigilantes overthrew the democratically elected government of Wilmington, then a progressive, majority-Black city. Partnering with local militias, police, and businessmen, the white vigilantes  forced Black government officials out of their roles and replaced them with white supremacists. An unknown number of Black citizens were killed in the coup—some estimates peg the number at 60—and no one was ever prosecuted or punished. In the aftermath, Black residents fled the city in large numbers, and it would be 74 years before another Black citizen held public office in the city. 

The impact of that Jim Crow-era massacre still resonates today within pockets of North Carolina, even as some leaders—including Sen. Tillis, who as a state legislator in 2007 blocked a resolution apologizing for the massacre—have tried their best to banish it to the sands of time. Pollard of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who grew up just 45 minutes from where the racist mob attacked in 1898, said the story of the coup has become a warning in Wilmington’s Black communities: “You better not upset white folks.”

While the Jan. 6 siege failed to overturn the results of the 2020 election, it was driven by the same white supremacy that drove the perpetrators in Wilmington more than a century ago. And Schanzer said it’s always been present in politics but has been “much closer to the surface” since Barack Obama was elected in 2008. 

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Trump’s claims of a stolen election also brought white supremacy to the fore, as he frequently spread lies about “illegal votes” in heavily-Black cities like Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

Black voters, Schanzer said, are the very people that right-wing extremists believe are gaining “too much political power.” Trump, who promised to “Make America Great Again” and often used racist dog whistles evoking 1950s America, recognized that much of his base felt threatened by the growing diversity of the US and spouted lies that fed into those fears. 

That sense of grievance is “very explosive and therefore can continue to animate violence going forward,” Schanzer added. “Especially if the charismatic leader of that movement, that is former President Trump, is inclined to continue to stoke its rage.”

Schanzer believes that one of the best ways to deter future violence and extremist conduct is for the government to charge and prosecute as many crimes as possible related to the Capitol siege.

“I think having trials in American courtrooms where conspiracy theories and false statements don’t get you very far at all—as a matter of fact, they undermine your credibility very deeply—are going to be important things for for people to hear, for the historical record, for the media to cover, kind of send a very clear message.”

He also believes more resources need to be dedicated to penetrating the more organized extremist groups and preventing violence before it happens. The Biden administration has already announced its intention to draw up a comprehensive assessment on domestic violent extremism in the US in order to best assess how to tackle the growing threat.

Blagrove, who considers herself an abolitionist, said the events of Jan. 6 and Trump’s acquittal are further proof that true change will require an overhaul of the criminal justice system and American society at large. 

“All of our systems, all of our institutions, are built in a way to support and uphold white privilege and white supremacy,” she said. “Until we are ready to have the conversation around that, this country will continue to be terrorized by those folks who are determined to maintain their superior position in America.”

READ MORE: From Silent Sam to the US Capitol: Why We Should Have Seen the Violence Coming