The invasion of Congress was shocking and horrifically sad but should have come as no great surprise. President Trump had called for protests to occur on Wednesday for weeks and many of his supporters had used social media to show off weaponry they intended to bring. Beyond that signaling, the entire political system has been marked by violence and threats throughout the past year.
Buildings were boarded up in downtowns across the country in anticipation of potential violence on Election Day. That didn’t occur, but it’s become routine for loud protesters to show up outside the homes of elected officials. Public health officials and, more recently, election administrators have faced harassment and death threats. Multiple governors have been targets of kidnapping plots. And, throughout 2020, there were incidents when mobs angry about COVID-19 restrictions pushed their way into state capitols, presenting images of vandalism and confrontation that were echoed in Congress on Wednesday.
“I’m certain that Michigan inspired these folks,” said state Sen. Jim Ananich, referring to incidents in the spring when armed members of militia groups disrupted legislative sessions.
Pro-Trump protesters gathered at more than a dozen state capitols on Wednesday. For the most part, the demonstrations occurred without serious incident, but there were scattered clashes with police or counter-protesters.
In Washington State, dozens of protesters, some armed, stormed past the security gates around the governor’s mansion, making it to the front door but not breaching the interior. Protesters in Minnesota left the Capitol and headed for the home of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, one saying, “Let’s go raise some hell! Let’s make him uncomfortable.” In Oregon, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown was burned in effigy. State troopers warned about rumors of plans to storm the capitol, arresting one man for attempting to enter the building with a firearm.
As precautionary measures, capitol complexes were shut down in New Mexico and Texas, while city government buildings were closed in Denver. In Utah, state workers were told to work from home. State Treasurer David Damschen spotted firearms in the crowd of protesters “but nothing that was too alarming… It was suggested by the Department of Public Safety that the reason they wanted us to leave is some of the protesters could attempt to breach the building,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune.
In Arizona, where a guillotine was erected outside the Capitol, Capitol Police protected the executive tower with double-link chain fencing. In Georgia, where armed protesters have been a fixture since the election, the Capitol went into lockdown.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger has been a particular target of Trump’s ire and his office decided to evacuate. “We saw stuff happening at the Georgia Capitol and said we should not be around here, we should not be a spark,” election official Gabriel Sterling told The Associated Press.
The Secretary of State’s Office was still processing results from Tuesday’s Senate election runoffs. The fact that they had to pack up and leave says something about the nature of the current wave of protests. Protests at capitols and city halls have long been commonplace, but they’ve taken on a new intensity. The possibility of violence is so pronounced that it’s disrupting the workings of government.
That threat is not diminishing. The leader of the far-right Proud Boys promised further unrest to come. “This is going to keep happening if they don’t listen to the people,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
A local militia group has stated its intention to occupy the Washington Legislature when its session starts. Alley Waterbury, who sought a Minnesota congressional seat last year, called on the crowd rallying in St. Paul on Wednesday to meet weekly to protest at the homes of elected officials.
“My God, you guys, we are going to fight, we are going to go down, there's going to be casualties,” Waterbury said. “I’ll be the first casualty, I do not care.”
Picking Their Targets
Protesters and terrorists alike seek to stage events at locations with symbolic importance. If you’re protesting government actions, it makes sense to take your complaint directly to the seat of power.
The U.S. Capitol has been attacked fairly frequently. On Sept. 11, 2001, it was the most likely target of terrorists who’d hijacked United Flight 93, which was heroically brought down by passengers in Pennsylvania. Days later, letters laced with anthrax were mailed to members of Congress, leading to five deaths. Earlier incidents involved shootings by Puerto Rican nationalists and a bomb planted by a left-wing group. In 1998, a gunman killed two Capitol Police officers.
The scale and intent of Wednesday’s attack was something different. Thousands of insurrectionists gathered at the capitol, some making it all the way to the House and Senate floors and entering the offices of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members.
Gabby Giffords was a member of Congress when she was shot, along with 18 others, by a gunman in her Arizona district in 2011. Six were killed. Her husband, Mark Kelly, was elected to the Senate in November. “As I sat waiting for information about @SenMarkKelly’s safety today, I couldn’t stop thinking about what you must have gone through 10 years ago this week,” she tweeted on Wednesday.
The insurgency was denounced by all four living former presidents, along with elected officials across the political spectrum. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic, not our democratic republic,” said George W. Bush. “Insurrection could do grave damage to our nation and reputation.”
Democrats accused Trump of riling up the crowd at a rally held just outside the White House. Some called for his impeachment or removal from power by means of the 25th Amendment. “I don’t make a statement like this lightly: Two weeks is too long for Donald Trump to remain in office, where he can continue to incite more untold violence,” said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Some Republicans also laid the blame squarely on Trump. “There’s no question the president formed the mob,” Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said on Fox News. “The president incited the mob. The president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”
Several state legislators attended Trump’s rally but did not join the mob entering the Capitol, including Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano and Michigan state Rep. Matt Maddock. Missouri state Rep. Justin Hill, who sponsored an unsuccessful resolution to express lack of faith in the election outcome, skipped his own swearing-in to attend the Trump rally but said it was a “sad day” following the violence and vandalism.
West Virginia GOP state Rep. Derrick Evans was a participant. “We’re in! We’re in! Derrick Evans is in the Capitol!” he said during a livestreamed video, which he later deleted, claiming he was there only as an “independent member of the media.”
“He will need to answer to his constituents and colleagues regarding his involvement in what has occurred today,” said West Virginia Speaker Roger Hanshaw. “While free speech and peaceful protests are a core value of American society, storming government buildings and participating in a violent intentional disruption of one of our nation’s most fundamental political institutions is a crime that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Laying the Blame Elsewhere
Protests against police brutality and racism were for the most part peaceful but sometimes spiraled into looting or violence. Trump supporters at times have used pepper spray on protesters and journalists. There have been examples of protesters and counter-protesters killing each other, the most famous case involving the August shooting of three individuals in Wisconsin by Kyle Rittenhouse, two of whom died. Rittenhouse, a teenager who had driven up from Illinois and was heavily armed during unrest in Kenosha following a police-involved shooting, has said he acted in self-defense. He pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.
The driver of a car decorated with a sign reading “We Are All Kyle Rittenhouse” drew cheers from a crowd of protesters outside the Texas Capitol yesterday.
Throughout the year, Proud Boys and armed members of other militia groups have shown up at protests and even wildfires, stating their intention to protect property or the flag in the face of rumored attacks involving antifa, a loose movement involving left-wing groups opposed to fascism.
On Wednesday, some conservative commentators and politicians were quick to attempt to blame the attack on Congress on antifa, or at least claimed that the group had infiltrated the pro-Trump crowd in hopes of making them look bad.
Newsmax host Greg Kelly said he condemned the attack “unambiguously,” but expressed doubts about the perpetrators, many of whom waved Trump flags. “These people don't look like Trump supporters,” Kelly said. “Trump supporters don't do these things.”
Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase, who called on constituents to arm themselves in June in light of a coming antifa riot (which proved to be a hoax), said on Wednesday that “antifa and BLM agents of destruction” were fueling chaos, using the acronym for Black Lives Matter. “They’re trying to paint Trump supporters as rioting on the Capitol,” said Chase, who is running for governor this year.
A flash poll on Wednesday found that most voters saw the attack as a threat to democracy, but 45 percent of Republicans said they actively supported the actions of those at the Capitol, with 43 percent opposed.
Threat from Within
Trump himself applied a “both sides” argument to the riot. “He kept saying: ‘The vast majority of them are peaceful,’” an administration official told the Washington Post. “‘What about the riots this summer? What about the other side? No one cared when they were rioting. My people are peaceful. My people aren’t thugs.’”
Throughout his political career, Trump has applauded rough treatment of protesters against him, encouraging his supporters to “knock the crap” out of his opponents, offering at one point to pay any resulting legal fees. His April tweets calling on people to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia were taken as a green light by extremist groups preparing for “boogaloo,” or armed conflict.
For weeks, Trump has called on supporters to come to Washington on Wednesday, the day Congress would officially count electoral votes, promising it would be “wild.” Some made up merchandise promising “civil war” on Jan. 6, making clear their intent.
At his rally on Wednesday, Trump called on the crowd to head to the Capitol to “fight like hell” against what he called “this egregious assault on our democracy.”
“Let the weak ones get out,” he said. “This is a time for strength... You’ll never take back our country with weakness.”
Some Republicans said that Trump intended only for the crowd to protest on the Capitol grounds, not attempt to break into the building. As things got out of hand, Trump released a video calling on them to go home. Even then, Trump praised the rioters, rather than condemning them. “We love you, you’re very special,” he said.
Those words carried an echo of his comments after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Given Trump’s own incendiary rhetoric and the willingness of some fraction of his supporters to employ violence, Wednesday’s events should not have come as a complete surprise.
“This path has always been predictable,” said Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed by a white nationalist in Charlottesville. “And for people to now go, ‘I never knew this would happen,’ why not? How would you not see this happen?”