In a new article published as part of the Wiley Online Library in the publication “Sociology Compass,” Pope combed through the testimony and court documents of many arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 riot, and found a pattern that is described as the “hero fallacy paradox.” That means that participants had rationalized committing political and physical violence by seeing themselves as heroic, even patriotic, as much of the world watched in horror.
Pope studies political science in the Department of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies at MSUB. He said his research centers on the language of politics and how people use it. In this particular area, he said many political scientists have wondered: What would motivate otherwise ordinary people to participate in political violence against citizens and government? The January 6th insurrection, he believes, helps answer that question.
He pointed out a large majority of those who participated in the riots had no previous criminal records or connection to extremists, fringe or nationalist groups. His research described the participants as a “cross section of mainly regular Americans.”
However, that changed when they stormed the Capitol, vandalizing it and searching to hang then-Vice President Mike Pence. Many of those charged and convicted also told authorities they were following former President Donald J. Trump’s instructions to stop the election certification, which the 45th president still alleges was stolen, without evidence.
“The theory of the hero fallacy paradox serves as an extension of narrative analysis and from the literary template of the hero’s journey,” Pope said in the article. “Not the hero of the story, but more so the villain of the story who believes themselves to be the hero…Villains are the heroes of their own stories… in their own minds, they do not think of themselves as evil.
“The hero fallacy paradox follows this concept: The villain believing their self to be the hero.”
The article also suggests that notion of heroic action in the 2021 riot was something suggested by Trump himself.
“As Donald Trump typically displays himself as the hero in most of his narrative statements, often presenting a ‘strongman’ metaphor, within the context of a ‘stolen election,’ Trump asks his followers to ‘stop the steal,’ which is both a call to action and placing them into the role of ‘hero’ to take control back from the conspirators,” Pope said in the article. “Therefore it can be argued that the hero fallacy paradox in this case was constructed by the narrator and not merely assumed by the January 6 attackers themselves.”
Looking at the language used by those participants, it was clear that many saw themselves as a next-generation of patriot, and many of the postings on social media had references to 1776.
“You can’t really look at how someone thinks, but we have their words. We talk the way we think, and speak the way we think,” Pope told the Daily Montanan. “I was shocked it was so brazen, but they saw their actions as patriotic.”
Pope points to the actions of the insurrection participants as evidence of their mindset. He said they didn’t act like many criminals who would otherwise make an effort to hide or conceal their crimes.
“Most of these narratives used by prosecutors against the insurrectionists were derived from their own social media accounts and text messages may indicate they viewed their actions with great positivity due to how freely they shared the evidence of their actions,” Pope wrote.
His research also suggests that confirmation bias, the process of reinforcing a belief even if it’s false by hearing or reading about it, played into the process.
“People tend to believe, remember and seek out information that supports their preexisting beliefs and values,” he said. “The more time people spend with selective sources that reinforced their preexisting views, the deeper those views become ingrained in their identity.”
In that way, Pope said what was surprising or shocking on Jan. 6 for most Americans was “inevitable.”
“Facts were irrelevant. It was an appeal to populism,” Pope said of Trump’s actions. “He was telling people what he wishes was true versus what is true. He talks about conspiracy or the deep state or a media plot, but he never defines it.”
Yet, even those veiled references, Pope said, allowed his supporters to fill in the blanks. For example, an exhortation to “stop the steal” implies halting the election certification, just as the slogan “Make America Great Again” doesn’t exactly reference what time period it refers to, allowing Trump supporters to “fill in the blanks.”
However, Pope’s research is not merely a description of what happened, or a larger insight into the motivations insurrectionists felt, it also points to thwarting a similar event in the future.
“This theory has some potential for predicting future acts of political violence,” his article concludes. “Prediction may be possible if individuals are expressing both violent ideation narratives combined with self-aggrandizing hero narratives.
“One person’s insurrectionist is another person’s patriot.”
While the professor makes many valid points, let’s examine the Jan 6 criminals and their criminal leaders — Trump, Giuliani, etc. — from another point of view.
These were not “regular” people. They had been immersed in tight wing ideology for years, beginning with Ronald Reagan portraying government as the enemy, Rush Limbaugh telling them they were victims of discrimination by liberals, and Fox News propaganda convincing them anything a Democrat says is a lie and anything a Republican says is truth, no evidence needed. You don’t have to be an official member of a hate group to have exactly the same beliefs. Most racists are not members of the KKK.
In their daily lives the Jan 6 rioters associated with people with identical beliefs and most of them had been to pro-Trump rallies before 1/6.
The fact they had not been arrested before does not mean they had not discussed violent right wing actions. That is why they went to DC that day and marched to the Capitol when Trump said they needed to make Congress listen to them. They knew he did not mean doing it with logic or evidence based discussion. The fact that a dog trained to attack on demand by their owner has not attacked anyone for five years does not mean he will not attack someone today given the right circumstances, especially when goaded to attack by their master. It also does not mean he was a regular, friendly, tail wagging dog up to the minute he killed someone just walking down the street.