The dome of the U.S. Capitol.
The violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday by supporters of President Donald Trump is likely to have long-lasting consequences. (Getty Images)

What will be the impact of the pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol?

The violent event will have long-lasting consequences, VCU homeland security expert William Pelfrey said: “One could not have designed better recruiting images and video” for extremists.

Share this story

The violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday by supporters of President Donald Trump is an example of the most significant terrorism threat facing the U.S. today: right wing extremism, says William V. Pelfrey Jr., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Pelfrey, a faculty member in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs who researches policing, terrorism prevention and more, said he expects the events of Jan. 6 will have long-lasting consequences. He spoke with VCU News about the chaos that unfolded in the nation’s capital.

From a security perspective, what do you see as the significance of Wednesday's events at the Capitol?

We tend to think of certain locations as impenetrable. Clearly, the Capitol is not one of those. It is apparent that the Capitol Police were woefully underprepared for the protest. Once the protest turned into a riot, pandemonium ensued. The stark contrast between police handling of the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer with the Trump-incited riot of Jan. 6 demonstrates some of the key questions law enforcement needs to face regarding racial inequality.

William Pelfrey.
William Pelfrey, Ph.D.

What do you see as the long-term effects? Does this puncture forever the assumption that the seat of government is secure?

A key long-term effect is in the area of domestic terrorism. The most significant terrorism threat facing the United States today is domestic terrorism, particularly right wing extremism. The ideology espoused by right wing extremists frequently revolves around overthrowing the government.

One could not have designed better recruiting images and video than what happened at the Capitol. Images of domestic terrorists sitting in the Senate president's seat, walking through the Senate halls with a Confederate flag, and similar acts will substantially further recruiting and indoctrination tactics.

Trump calling the rioters, vandals and domestic terrorists "special" and saying that he loves them only buttresses their perceived importance. This pattern of Trump failing to condemn radicals and terrorists is long running. When he said that there were good people on both sides of the Charlottesville protests, he emboldened right wing extremists. He has generally failed to condemn racial and seditious vitriol. The riots at the Capitol were the inevitable conclusion of that approach. 

Are there homeland security reforms you anticipate in the wake of what happened?

Future protests in Washington and other locations will likely face much more heavily armed police and military personnel. There is a concept in protest preparedness called “soft power.” Instead of police arriving in riot gear, holding long batons or heavy weaponry, police face protesters in regular uniforms.  Police speak with protest leaders, reach reasonable agreements, and then enforce them. If things go poorly, the riot police are close at hand. Thanks to the domestic terrorists that invaded the Capitol, one can reasonably expect that "soft power" is a thing of the past. The militarization of the police will be furthered by the events [at] the Capitol and law enforcement will be much less tolerant of protests, and protesters, in the future.

A few months ago, a domestic terrorism sect attempted to kidnap the Michigan governor. They were thwarted by the FBI. Jan. 6 was not the first coordinated attack on a seat of American government, and likely not the last. Preparedness is key in handling protests. That preparedness was not evident at the Capitol. Investigations into decision-making and accountability will likely influence policy and administrators for many years to come.