Law enforcement officials might have been caught off guard by the assault on the U.S. Capitol in January, but “American Insurrection” makes it painfully clear that the pieces for the attack had been put in play years before Donald Trump told his supporters to “take back” their country in Washington D.C. Part an examination of the various extremist groups that gained prominence during Trump’s presidency and part a condemnation of the forces that have aided and abetted them, PBS’ “American Insurrection” offers a wholly compelling portrait of how the nation’s most notorious fascist organizations operate and recruit members.
The 90-minute documentary, an investigative collaboration between Frontline, ProPublica, and the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program, follows journalist A.C. Thompson as he reports on some of the nation’s most violent incidents over the last several years and interviews a variety of right-wing extremists, former government officials, and various counter-terrorism experts. Thompson’s reporting begins at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where white nationalists and neo-Nazis assaulted peaceful protestors while the police looked on. Thompson notes that the event was the largest gathering of white supremacists he had ever seen — and a sign of things to come.
From there, “American Insurrection” examines several of the pivotal incidents of right-wing violence leading up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol, including the murders of David Patrick Underwood and Damon Gutzwiller and the kidnapping plot against Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Considerable time is dedicated to the causes, investigations, and perpetrators of each case, but Thomson consistently ties each seemingly disparate narrative string into his overarching investigation into the key forces behind the January riot. It’s a credit to the documentary’s pacing and sobering, facts-first presentation that “American Insurrection” is as gripping as it is despite its relentlessly bleak subject matter.
“American Insurrection” features analyses of extremism in the military and organizations such as the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys and interviews with several prominent members of those groups, and these segments prove to be the documentary’s most compelling. While a handful of extremists offer their justifications for violence in interviews, the documentary never feels like it is providing a platform to amplify their world views. On the contrary, “American Insurrection” uses these justifications — which range from concerns about neo-Nazis being “financially deplatformed” to a belief that we’re living in the biblical end of days — to help explain how extremist movements recruit members. Most of these interviewees are outspoken racists but downplay race issues in favor of marketing themselves with more broadly-accepted tactics, such as by railing against certain political groups or buzz phrases such as “cancel culture.” Former skinheads begin mingling with members of the Proud Boys, who in turn begin attending events with “mainstream” Trump supporters. Elsewhere, it’s explained that members of the Proud Boys and Boogaloo movement, who are known for wearing all black and colorful Hawaiian shirts, respectively, intentionally dressed down when assaulting the U.S. Capitol.
Thankfully, the documentary is balanced out by a variety of interviews with journalists, current and former government officials, and anti-terrorism and extremism experts that help provide context and clarity to Thompson’s investigation, as well as interviews with people whose family members have been killed by extremists. Heather Heyer’s mother is the documentary’s first interviewee and Underwood’s sister is interviewed shortly thereafter; they provide a much-needed compassionate contrast to the white supremacists and neo-Nazis that Thompson interviews.
As for the extremists that Thompson interviews, though their justifications may differ, they’re united by their fanaticism and eagerness to kill — and many of them say they were emboldened by Trump. “American Insurrection” is hardly breaking new ground by linking Trump’s presidency to the resurgence of white nationalism and other forms of racism in the United States, but the documentary’s footage of violent Trump supporters, combined with the extremist interviewees’ lack of humanity and clips of Trump encouraging both kinds of people, makes for a more damning portrayal of the former president than any newspaper editorial or bit of hysterical cable news punditry.
There are calls to action near the documentary’s end: Rep. André Carson (D-IN), who previously served in an anti-terrorism unit as a police officer, argues that the FBI must focus more on stopping white supremacists, while Thompson notes that extremism in the military is a serious issue that the government has historically downplayed. That said, it’s the extremist interviewees’ outlooks on the future, rather than the prospective solutions to stopping them, that are most likely to stick with viewers. The assault on the U.S. Capitol was a potential recruitment opportunity for extremist organizations, more violence is likely coming, and, as Thomson says in the documentary’s final moments, “The threat is not going away.”
“American Insurrection” covers subject matter that many prospective viewers may be sick of, but it’s a concise and gripping deconstruction of how racist organizations and domestic terrorists have become emboldened in the United States, and what their expansion could mean for the country going forward. The documentary might not have all the answers, but it offers a clear-eyed and damning portrayal of an increasingly fractured country that makes one thing clear: This is not sustainable.
“American Insurrection” premieres on PBS at 10 p.m. ET on PBS.