Jan. 6 Capitol riot's most serious offenders are sentenced. What that means for 2024

More than two years after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, rioters who stormed the building that day are facing consequences for their actions.

A D.C. federal judge on Thursday began sentencing members of the right-wing militia Oath Keepers who were tried — and in large, convicted — for seditious conspiracy, including the group's leader, Stewart Rhodes. Rhodes will serve 18 years in prison for his role in a plot to stop the peaceful transfer of power from then-President Donald Trump to Joe Biden. His lieutenants will serve lesser, albeit still significant, sentences.

The sentencings came on the heels of a federal jury deeming members of the right-wing extremist Proud Boys guilty of numerous felonies in connection with Jan. 6. Four Proud Boys, including leader Enrique Tarrio, were convicted of sedition.

In the years since the Capitol attack, the Justice Department has made good on its promise to prosecute rioters to the fullest extent of the law. More than 1,000 people have been arrested in nearly all 50 states and D.C.

Experts in extremism told USA TODAY the legal consequences Jan. 6 defendants are facing do act as a deterrent for other politically-motivated bad actors. But the underlying ideologies that spurred the riot continue to fester.

"As I'm looking forward, I still see those those same forces at play; the environment has not really changed all that much," said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "All it is is waiting for someone to come along and, again, activate it in some way to focus those forces."

What happens to the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys now?

With high-ranking Oath Keepers sentenced to long prison terms and Proud Boys leaders not far behind, the groups' political power has inevitably changed since 2020.

As founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, Rhodes was the militia's "driving force," said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

"The idea that he is going to be in prison for the next 18 years...it makes it very difficult to see how the Oath Keepers are going to continue to exist in the future without him," Lewis said.

The Proud Boys' future looks different, experts previously told USA TODAY. Without the national leadership provided by Tarrio and other co-defendants, Proud Boys chapters around the country splintered off and focused on localized directives. Despite that, they continue to be a significant force — and top Proud Boys' prison sentences won't change that fact.

Legal consequences act as deterrence

The legal ramifications of the Capitol attack have lent fodder to right-wing claims that the government is targeting conservatives for their beliefs. But they've also acted as a deterrent, Friedfeld said. Any efforts at large-scale organizing, like those made after Trump's Mar-a-Lago home was raided or after his New York indictment, have fizzled thanks to fear that the events are "honeypots," or federal entrapment operations, he said.

"Even though they're not using this as an opportunity for self reflection — they're still kind of doubled down on these conspiratorial elements — the end result is they have been very wary to show up in public in large numbers and engage in public spaces in a way that they previously, prior to Jan. 6, were not," Friedfeld said.

As investigative counsel for the House Jan. 6 committee that investigated the attack, Sandeep Prasanna was tasked with interviewing Rhodes, acting as the main point of contact for everything related to the militia leader. Rhodes' 18-year sentence after a federal D.C. jury found him guilty of seditious conspiracy was consistent with the committee's findings, he said.

"This sentence sends a really strong message," Prasanna said. "Hopefully, the nation is listening."

Jan. 6 '2.0' unlikely, but coalition persists

Extremism experts agreed that a Jan. 6 reprise — where a rag-tag Stop the Steal coalition comprised of established right-wing extremists, political influencers and average Joe MAGA supporters, emboldened by local elected officials and some U.S. lawmakers, all focused their attention toward the Capitol at the behest of the president — is unlikely.

"We've all kind of recognized that was a very unique kind of flashpoint," Lewis said. "But what I think does still exist and has continued to permeate under the surface is a lot of that coalition."

As the 2024 presidential election grows nearer, it's individual bad actors and the still-festering narratives that inspired the riot in the first place that raise greater concern.

"They're not trying to do it again, at least in this moment." Lewis said. "Their focus is not on, 'How do we get every single person who believes this to march on the Capitol 2.0,' it's, 'How do you how do you mobilize locally?'"

At a local level, the mutual enemy is the "flavor of the day," he added, be that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband, the LGBTQ community, school boards, the IRS, proponents of critical race theory or Budweiser.

"That broader movement, that broader overlap on the far-right, has continued — and, to some extent, increased — since then," said Lindsay Schubiner, program director at the Western States Center. "In some extent, they no longer need Trump as a focal point because they've built enough overlap and and political power that there's ongoing mobilizations, largely at the local level, that is aligned with these movement schools of undermining inclusive democratic institutions."

Still, Trump remains a factor. The former president has continued to spread false claims of election fraud, repeatedly denying he lost the 2020 election and suggesting during a CNN town hall last month he'd only accept the results of the 2024 contest if he believed them.

But 2024 isn't 2020, Prasanna said, and Trump isn't on the same playing field. That alone could minimize the ability he has to influence the upcoming race.

"He doesn't have access to those same levers of power," Prasanna said. "He still has his voice, he still has his following, but he doesn't have access to the same institutions that he did back in 2020."

Trump might not act as a focusing lens to mobilize this newfound coalition on his behalf. But the legitimacy he and other lawmakers lend to the cause still ensures a risk of political violence in 2024 and beyond, Friedfeld said.

"For a lot of these guys, it's not that anyone's being told what to do; it's that they connect the dots themselves and decide that violence is the solution to this problem," Friedfeld said. "If your vote doesn't matter — you have no way to change things — all of a sudden the idea of voting through the barrel of your gun becomes a lot more reasonable. Because how else are you going to protect your country?"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jan. 6 extremists face legal consequences. What that means for 2024