Though heavily Democrat, Illinois is not immune from the forces leading to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters intent on preventing Congress from formalizing President Joe Biden’s election.
Election denial. Emboldened right wing groups at Chicago area events. Some 20 federal prosecutions of Illinoisans in the Capitol on Jan. 6 with more to likely come. Even a member of Congress from Illinois who is planting seeds to cast doubt on the 2022 election results.
Here’s a review and preview of the rising right in Illinois and brewing threats to our democracy: Tom Schuba, who has reported on far-right extremism in the state; Jon Seidel, who follows the federal court cases of the 20 from Illinois facing Jan. 6-related charges and Lynn Sweet in Washington, who tracks the Illinois political fallout.
Expert: Jan. 6 ‘not the end’
During Donald Trump’s presidency, those aligned with extremist groups and the so-called far right became emboldened by his nationalistic leanings and apparent sympathies.
The profile of the Proud Boys, a far-right gang Trump declined to disavow ahead of the election, rose significantly during his term as chapters in the Chicago area bolstered their ranks.
Members of the neofascist group have since emerged as key targets of the sprawling federal investigation into the insurrection. James Robert “Jim Bob” Elliott, the lone adherent from Illinois charged in the riot, stands accused of using a flagpole to assault police officers during the Capitol breach.
David Goldenberg, the Midwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the forces of extremism and conspiracism that drove the insurrection have now “become normalized in many ways, not just on the fringes, but within the mainstream.”
“You have governors in the country, you have elected officials, you have democratic institutions, you have schools that have historically rejected a lot of these things that are now in some cases embracing pieces or elements of it,” Goldenberg added.
Meanwhile, the Proud Boys and other extremists have exploited and coalesced around cultural flash points and more mainstream conservative events, including a Downers Grove board meeting in November and a rally in Little Italy in July demanding the city restore monuments to Christopher Columbus.
Elliott attended that rally alongside Edgar “Remy Del Toro” Delatorre, a Proud Boys leader who was also present for the insurrection and the contentious school board meeting in Downers Grove.
“Jan. 6 was not the end,” Goldenberg has said of the continued threat of extremism. “It was just the end of the beginning.”
The Illinois defendants charged in connection with the Capitol riots
Bradley Rukstales of Inverness, the onetime CEO of a Schaumburg tech company, became the first known Illinois resident to face federal charges for his role in the Capitol breach when prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against him and five others Jan. 7, 2021.
One year later, Rukstales will likely soon become the first Illinoisan imprisoned as part of the massive prosecution that followed. A judge ordered Rukstales to surrender Feb. 1 to a Michigan prison to serve a 30-day jail sentence.
But Rukstales is just one of at least 20 Illinois residents to face charges related to the Capitol riot. Only two others, Douglas Wangler and Bruce Harrison of the Danville area, have managed to resolve their cases. Each received probation for spending about 20 minutes inside the Capitol.
That leaves the fate of 17 Illinois residents — including a Chicago police officer — up in the air. More than 725 people have been arrested nationwide.
Most Illinois defendants face misdemeanor charges alleging they wrongly entered the Capitol. At least two are accused of making their way to the Senate floor. Some are accused of violence. Prosecutors say Elliott, from Aurora, assaulted officers with a flagpole and faces a maximum 20-year sentence. They also say he admitted his membership in the far-right Proud Boys group.
Four Illinoisans are awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty like Rukstales, Wangler and Harrison. But it’s unclear how many of the remaining cases against Illinoisans will be resolved. Some defendants from Illinois could face trial.
Hardliner U.S. Rep. Miller
The arc of downstate GOP Rep. Mary Miller’s freshman year — and how her reelection in 2022 may depend on the power of Trump’s endorsement — is a snapshot of the far-right hardline movement in Illinois.
Miller and her husband, Chris, a state representative, were at the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, where she said Hitler was right about one thing. She apologized.
After that, Miller made choices. She could have thrown-in with the other downstate pro-gun rights anti-abortion conservatives from Illinois — Reps. Darin LaHood, Mike Bost or Rodney Davis — who she will be running against in the June Illinois primary.
Instead, as the year went on, Miller allied herself with the fringe House GOP Freedom Caucus, whose best-known face is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican pusher of conspiracy theories, from QAnon to that “Jewish Space Laser.”
Neither LaHood, nor Bost nor Davis — nor any of the Illinois Republican officials or donors with any juice — consistently speak up against Trump’s “big lie” of election denialism. Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger does and, as is well known, doomed his House career.
Miller has taken up the cause of Jan. 6 defendants held in the D.C. jail — she seems to consider them political prisoners — and is part of the hard right embrace of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Antioch youth acquitted in his killing of two men and wounding a third during protests against police brutality in Kenosha.
Miller kicked off her reelection bid last week with Trump’s endorsement, planting the seeds in Illinois — for voters to question, with no evidence — the credibility of state elections.
In her announcement video, Miller said, “I’m fighting for real election security so that voters decide elections, not the ballot counters.” Her statement is puzzling, since votes need to be counted. But for those tuned in, that dog whistle was likely heard.