Yet Ryan, 50, is accused of rushing into the Capitol past broken glass and blaring security alarms and, according to federal prosecutors, shouting: “Fight for freedom! Fight for freedom!”
But in a different way, she fit right in.
Despite her outward signs of success, Ryan had struggled financially for years. She was still paying off a $37,000 lien for unpaid federal taxes when she was arrested. She’d nearly lost her home to foreclosure before that. She filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and faced another IRS tax lien in 2010.
Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.
The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.
The financial problems are revealing because they offer potential clues for understanding why so many Trump supporters — many with professional careers and few with violent criminal histories — were willing to participate in an attack egged on by the president’s rhetoric painting him and his supporters as undeserving victims.
While no single factor explains why someone decided to join in, experts say, Donald Trump and his brand of grievance politics tapped into something that resonated with the hundreds of people who descended on the Capitol in a historic burst of violence.
“I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. “And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away — mobilized a lot of people that day.”
The financial missteps by defendants in the insurrection ranged from small debts of a few thousand dollars more than a decade ago to unpaid tax bills of $400,000 and homes facing foreclosure in recent years. Some of these people seemed to have regained their financial footing. But many of them once stood close to the edge.
Ryan had nearly lost everything. And the stakes seemed similarly high to her when she came to Washington in early January. She fully believed Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen and that he was going to save the country, she said in an interview with The Post.
But now — facing federal charges and abandoned by people she considered “fellow patriots” — she said she feels betrayed.
“I bought into a lie, and the lie is the lie, and it’s embarrassing,” she said. “I regret everything.”
The FBI has said it found evidence of organized plots by extremist groups. But many of the people who came to the Capitol on Jan. 6 — including Ryan — appeared to have adopted their radical outlooks more informally, consuming baseless claims about the election on television, social media and right-wing websites.
The poor and uneducated are not more likely to join extremist movements, according to experts. Two professors a couple of years ago found the opposite in one example: an unexpectedly high number of engineers who became Islamist radicals.
In the Capitol attack, business owners and white-collar workers made up 40 percent of the people accused of taking part, according to a study by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. Only 9 percent appeared to be unemployed.
The participation of people with middle- and upper-middle-class positions fits with research suggesting that the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the 1950s was fueled by people in the middle of society who felt they were losing status and power, said Pippa Norris, a political science professor at Harvard University who has studied radical political movements.
Miller-Idriss said she was struck by a 2011 study that found household income was not a factor in whether a young person supported the extreme far right in Germany. But a highly significant predictor was whether they had lived through a parent’s unemployment.
“These are people who feel like they’ve lost something,” Miller-Idriss said.
Going through a bankruptcy or falling behind on taxes, even years earlier, could provoke a similar response.
“They know it can be lost. They have that history — and then someone comes along and tells you this election has been stolen,” Miller-Idriss said. “It taps into the same thing.”
Playing on personal pain
Trump’s false claims about election fraud — refuted by elections officials and rejected by judges — seemed tailored to exploit feelings about this precarious status, said Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who studies political extremism.
“It’s hard to ignore with a Trump presidency that message that ‘the America you knew and loved is going away, and I’m going to protect it,’” Haider-Markel said. “They feel, at a minimum, that they’re under threat.”
While some of the financial problems were old, the pandemic’s economic toll appeared to inflict fresh pain for some of the people accused of participating in the insurrection.
A California man filed for bankruptcy one week before allegedly joining the attack, according to public records. A Texas man was charged with entering the Capitol one month after his company was slapped with a nearly $2,000 state tax lien.
Several young people charged in the attack came from families with histories of financial duress.
The parents of Riley June Williams — a 22-year-old who allegedly helped to steal a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office — filed for bankruptcy when she was a child, according to public records. A house owned by her mother faced foreclosure when she was a teenager, records show. Recently, a federal judge placed Williams on home confinement with her mother in Harrisburg, Pa. Her federal public defender did not respond to a request for comment.
People with professional careers such as respiratory therapist, nurse and lawyer were also accused of joining in.
One of them was William McCall Calhoun, 57, a well-known lawyer in Americus, Ga., 130 miles south of Atlanta, who was hit with a $26,000 federal tax lien in 2019, according to public records. A woman who knows Calhoun, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said he started to show strong support for Trump only in the past year. An attorney for Calhoun declined to comment.
Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police when she tried to leap through a door’s broken window inside the Capitol, had struggled to run a pool-service company outside San Diego and was saddled with a $23,000 judgment from a lender in 2017, according to court records.
Financial problems were also apparent among people federal authorities said were connected to far-right nationalist groups, such as the Proud Boys.
Dominic Pezzola, who federal authorities said is a member of the Proud Boys, is accused of being among the first to lead the surge inside the Capitol and helping to overwhelm police. About 140 officers were injured in the storming of the Capitol and one officer, Brian D. Sicknick, was killed.
Pezzola, of Rochester, N.Y., also has been named in state tax warrants totaling more than $40,000 over the past five years, according to public records. His attorney declined to comment.
The roots of extremism are complex, said Haider-Markel.
“Somehow, they’ve been wronged, they’ve developed a grievance, and they tend to connect that to some broader ideology,” he said.
The price of insurrection
Ryan, who lives in Frisco, Tex., a Dallas suburb, said she was slow to become a big Trump supporter.
She’s been described as a conservative radio talk show host. But she wasn’t a budding Rush Limbaugh. Her AM radio show each Sunday focused on real estate, and she paid for the airtime. She stopped doing the show in March, when the pandemic hit.
But she continued to run a service that offers advice for people struggling with childhood trauma and bad relationships. Ryan said the work was based on the steps she took to overcome her own rough upbringing.
Twice divorced and struggling with financial problems, Ryan developed an outlook that she described as politically conservative, leaning toward libertarian.
But politics was not her focal point until recently. She recalled being upset when President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012. And she preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton four years later. But she said she wasn’t strident in her support for Trump.
That changed as the 2020 election approached.
She said she started reading far-right websites such as Epoch Times and Gateway Pundit. She began streaming shows such as Alex Jones’s “Infowars” and former Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon’
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