It was the table setter for what would come, with nearly 2,000 people gathering in Washington on Tuesday evening for a “Rally to Save America.” Speaker after angry speaker stoked stolen-election conspiracy theories and name-checked sworn enemies: Democrats and weak Republicans, Communists and Satanists.
Still, the crowd seemed a bit giddy at the prospect of helping President Trump reverse the result of the election — though at times the language evoked a call to arms. “It is time for war,” one speaker declared.
As the audience thinned, groups of young men emerged in Kevlar vests and helmets, a number of them holding clubs and knives. Some were aligned with the neofascist Proud Boys; others with the Three Percenters, a far-right militia group.
“We’re not backing down anymore,” said a man with fresh stitches on his head. “This is our country.”
That night reflected a disconcerting mix of free speech and certain menace; of everyday Americans supporting their president and extremists prepared to commit violence for him. All had assembled in answer to Mr. Trump’s repeated appeals to attend a march to the Capitol the next day that he promised would be “wild.”
It was. By Wednesday afternoon, a narrow group of Trump supporters — some exuberant, some hellbent — had been storm-tossed together into infamy. A mob overran the nation’s Capitol, as lawmakers hid in fear. Wholesale vandalism. Tear gas. Gunfire. A woman dead; an officer dead; many injured. Chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
But the insurrection failed.
It had been the culmination of a sustained assault by the president and his enablers on fact-based reality, one that began long before the November election but took on a fevered urgency as the certainty of Mr. Trump’s defeat solidified. For years, he had demonized political opponents and the media and egged on thuggish behavior at his rallies.
Since losing to Joseph R. Biden Jr., he had mounted a campaign of lies that the presidency was being stolen from him, and that marching on the Capitol was the last chance to stop it. To many Americans, it looked like one more feel-good rally to salve Mr. Trump’s wounded ego, but some of his supporters heard something altogether different — a battle cry.
Now, dozens of them have been arrested — including an armed Alabama man who had Molotov cocktails in his car and a West Virginia lawmaker charged with illegally entering the Capitol — and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is asking for help in identifying those who “actively instigated violence.” Many participants in the march are frantically working to erase digital evidence of their presence for fear of losing a job or being harassed online.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has been broadly condemned and cut off from his social media megaphones, as a new administration prepares to take power.
Kevin Haag, 67, a retired landscaper from North Carolina who ascended the Capitol steps as the crowd surged forward, said he did not go inside and disapproved of those who did. Even so, he said he would never forget the sense of empowerment as he looked down over thousands of protesters. It felt so good, he said, to show people: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!”
Now, back home after several days of reflection, Mr. Haag, an evangelical Christian, wonders whether he went too far. “Should I get down on my knees and ask for forgiveness?” he said in an interview. “I am asking myself that question.”
But the experience seemed to have only hardened the resolve of others. Couy Griffin, 47, a Republican county commissioner from New Mexico, spoke of organizing another Capitol rally soon — one that could result in “blood running out of that building” — in a video he later posted to the Facebook page of his group, Cowboys for Trump.
“At the end of the day, you mark my word, we will plant our flag on the desk of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” he said. He paused before adding, “And Donald J. Trump if it boils down to it.”
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Plans take shape online: ‘Pack a crowbar’
The advance publicity for the “March for America” had been robust. Beyond the repeated promotions in tweets by the president and his allies, the upcoming event was cheered on social media, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
But woven through many of the messages to stand up for Mr. Trump — and, if possible, block the congressional certification of the election he claimed he had won — was language that flirted with aggression, even violence.
For example, the term “Storm the Capitol” was mentioned 100,000 times in the 30 days preceding Jan. 6, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company. Many of these mentions appeared in viral tweet threads that discussed the possible storming of the Capitol and included details on how to enter the building.
To followers of QAnon, the convoluted collection of conspiracy theories that falsely claims the country is dominated by deep-state bureaucrats and Democrats who worship Satan, the word “storm” had particular resonance. Adherents have often referred to a coming storm, after which Mr. Trump would preside over a new government order.
In online discussions, some QAnon followers and militia groups explored which weapons and tools to bring. “Pack a crowbar,” read one message posted on Gab, a social media refuge for the far right. In another discussion, someone asked, “Does anyone know if the windows on the second floor are reinforced?”
Still, the many waves of communication did not appear to result in a broadly organized plan to take action. It is also unclear if any big money or coordinated fund-raising was behind the mobilization, though some Trump supporters appear to have found funds through opaque online networks to help pay for transportation to the rally.
“Patriots, if you need financial help getting to DC to support President Trump on January 6th, please go to my website,” a QAnon adherent who identified himself as Thad Williams, of Tampa, Fla., posted on Twitter three days before the event. He said he had raised more than $27,000. (After the Capitol assault, the money transfer companies PayPal and Stripe shut down his accounts. Mr. Williams did not return a phone message, but the website for his organization, Joy In Liberty, said it had given out $30,000 to fund transportation for “deserving patriots.”)
Other rally goers set up fund-raising accounts through the online service GoFundMe; Buzzfeed News cited at least a dozen, and GoFundMe has since closed them.
One of the most conspicuous figures in the Capitol assault — a bare-chested man with a painted face, flag-draped spear and fur hat with horns — was linked to the online fund-raising. A familiar presence at pro-Trump rallies in Phoenix, Jacob Anthony Chansley, a 33-year-old voice-over actor, is known as the Q Shaman. He started a GoFundMe account in December to help pay for transportation to another Trump demonstration in Washington, but the effort reportedly netted him just $10. Mr. Chansley retweeted Mr. Williams’s funding offer on Jan. 3, but it is unclear whether he benefited from it.
On Tuesday, the eve of the march, a couple thousand people gathered at Freedom Plaza in Washington for “The Rally to Save America” event, permitted as “The Rally to Revival.” The disparate interests of those attending were reflected by the speakers: well-known evangelists, alt-right celebrities (Alex Jones of Infowars) and Trump loyalists, including his former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the self-described Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone, both of whom he had pardoned.
The speakers repeatedly encouraged the attendees to see themselves as foot soldiers fighting to save the country. Americans, Mr. Flynn said, were ready to “bleed” for freedom.
“The members of the House of Representatives, the members of the United States Senate, those of you who are feeling weak tonight, those of you that don’t have the moral fiber in your body, get some tonight,” he said. “Because tomorrow, we the people are going to be here and we want you to know we will not stand for a lie.”
Then came tomorrow.
Inside, the Capitol descends into chaos
It was President Trump’s turn. At about noon on Wednesday, he emerged from a viewing party in a tent, strode onto a stage set up in a park just south of the White House and, for more than an hour, delivered a stream of inflammatory words.
He exhorted the crowd of more than 8,000 to march to the Capitol to pressure lawmakers: “Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”
Even before he had finished speaking, people started moving east toward the Capitol. The crowd included supporters who had come by caravan from across the country, Trump flags rippling in the wind, as well as people so moved by the president’s appeal for support that they had jumped into their cars and driven for hours.
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They traveled from various corners of resentment in 21st-century America. Whether motivated by a sense of economic disenfranchisement or distrust of government, by bigotry, or conspiracy or a belief that Mr. Trump is God’s way of preparing for the Rapture, they shared a fealty to the president.
Now the moment had come, a moment that twinned the thrilling with the ominous.
“I’m happy, sad, afraid, excited,” said Scott Cyganiewicz, 56, a floor installer from Gardner, Mass., as he watched the throngs of Trump loyalists streaming through the streets. “It’s an emotional roller coaster.”
Mr. Cyganiewicz said he was on his way out of town. He did not want to be around if violence broke out. Only a portion of the broader crowd continued onto the Capitol grounds.
Soon word spread that Vice President Mike Pence — who would oversee the pro forma count by Congress of the electoral votes for certification — had announced he would not be complicit in the president’s efforts to overturn the election.
“You can imagine the emotion that ran through people when we get that word,” said Mr. Griffin, the county commissioner from New Mexico, in a video he posted on social media. “And then we get down to the Capitol and they have all the inauguration set up for Joe Biden.”
He added, “What do you think was going to happen?”
Many in the crowd spoke portentously of violence — or even of another Civil War. A man named Jeff, who said he was an off-duty police officer from York County, Pa., said he didn’t know what would happen after he and his wife Amy reached the Capitol. But he felt ready to participate if something were to erupt.
“There’s a lot of people here willing to take orders,” he said. “If the orders are given, the people will rise up.”
By the time the bulk of the crowd reached the building, its leading edge had metastasized into an angry mob. A man barked into a megaphone: “Keep moving forward! Fight for Trump, fight for Trump!”
“Military Tribunals! Hang them!” shouted someone wearing a cowboy hat.
“Arrest Congress!” screamed a woman in a flag scarf.
People surged past a few Capitol Police officers to bang on the windows and doors. Many eyewitness accounts and videos have since emerged that convey the pandemonium as hundreds of people overwhelmed the inadequate law-enforcement presence. In several instances of role reversal, for example, rioters are seen firing what appeared to be pepper spray at police officers trying to prevent mobs from getting closer to the Capitol Building.
After a few minutes, the crowd broke through and began streaming into an empty office. Glass shards crunched under people’s feet, as the scene descended into chaos.
Some stood in awe, while others took action. As one group prepared to break through an entryway, a Trump supporter raised a wine bottle and shouted, “Whose way?” To which the crowd responded, “Our way!”
Confusion reigned. “Hey what’s the Senate side?” said a tall man in camouflage and sunglasses. “Where’s the Senate? Can somebody Google it?”
All the while, members of The Oath Keepers, a self-proclaimed citizens’ militia, seemed to be standing guard — for the transgressors. They wore olive-drab shirts, helmets and patches on their upper-left sleeves that said, “Guardians of the Republic” and “Not on Our Watch.”
American flags flapped beside “Trump 2020” flags, and people wearing “Make America Great Again” regalia moved beside people wearing anti-Semitic slogans. Chants of “Hell No, Never Joe” and “Stop the Steal” broke out, as did strains of “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Derrick Evans of West Virginia, who just two months before had been elected as a Republican state delegate, wandered the halls of the Capitol Building, filming himself and joining in the occasional chant. At one point he shouted, “Derrick Evans is in the Capitol!”
Outside the building, Mr. Griffin, who was once photographed wearing a 10-gallon hat and sitting across from President Trump in the Oval Office, was now gleefully addressing the camera from atop one of the crowded terraces, declaring it “a great day for America.” Asserting that “we came peacefully,” he was interrupted by a man wearing a jacket with a hand-grenade logo, who said, “Believe me, we are well armed if we need to be.”
Amid the cheers and whoops of excitement were questions of what to do next. Some can be heard hunting for specific members of congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose office was broken into by several people. She and other lawmakers were hiding for fear of their safety.
One image showed a trim man moving through the Senate chamber in full paramilitary regalia: camouflage uniform, Kevlar vest, a mask and baseball cap obscuring his face. He carried a stack of flex cuffs — the plastic restraints used by police. The image raised a question yet to be answered: Why carry restraints if not to use them?
Several rioters wielded fire extinguishers. One stood on a balcony on the Capitol building’s west side, spraying down on police officers trying to fend off the crowd. Others carried them into the building itself, one into Statuary Hall and another onto the steps outside the Senate Chamber, spraying in the direction of journalists and police officers.
“Our president wants us here,” a man can be heard saying during a livestream video that showed him standing within the Capitol building. “We wait and take orders from our president.”
Despite his followers’ hopes and expectations, President Trump was missing in action as rioters rampaged through the halls of Congress. It would be hours before he eventually surfaced in a somewhat subdued videotaped appeal for them to leave.
“We have to have peace,” he said. “So go home, we love you, you’re very special.”
Some of Mr. Trump’s supporters expressed frustration, even disbelief, that the president seemed to have given up after they had put themselves on the line for him.
Mr. Haag, the retired landscaper, was among the disappointed. Still, he said, the movement will continue even without Mr. Trump.
“We are representing the 74 million people who got disenfranchised,” he said. “We are still out here. We are a force to be reckoned with. We are not going away.”
One man wandered away from the Capitol in the evening gloom, yelling angrily through a megaphone that Mr. Pence was a coward and, now, Mr. Trump had told everyone “to just go home.”
“Well, he can go home to his Mar-a-Lago estate,” the man shouted, adding, “We gotta go back to our businesses that are closed!”
As some rioters face fallout, others mull a repeat
In the aftermath of what Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, called a “failed insurrection,” scores of those who responded to the incendiary words of the president now face a reckoning.
A chief target of investigators will be whoever struck Brian Sicknick of the Capitol Police with a fire extinguisher; the 42-year-old officer died Thursday after being injured in the riot. At the same time, authorities are investigating the fatal police shooting of Ashli Babbitt, 35, an Air Force veteran who had joined those breaching the Capitol.
Among those charged so far with federal crimes are Mr. Chansley, the so-called Q Shaman; Mr. Evans, the West Virginia lawmaker — who resigned on Saturday; and Richard Barnett, an Arkansas man who was depicted in a widely circulated photograph sitting with his foot on a desk in Ms. Pelosi’s office.
Meanwhile, Mr. Griffin, the commissioner from New Mexico who runs Cowboys for Trump, saw his group’s Twitter account suspended and calls for his resignation.
The anger, resentment and conspiracy-laced distrust that led to Wednesday’s mayhem did not dissipate with Thursday’s dawn. Along with the smashed furniture in the Capitol Building, there were smashed expectations of a continued Trump presidency, of lawmakers held to account, of holy prophecies fulfilled.
Signs of potential violence have already surfaced. Twitter, which terminated Mr. Trump’s account on Friday, noted that “plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating” online, including “a proposed secondary attack on the U.S. Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17.”
The urge for more civil unrest is being discussed in the usual squalid corners of the internet. Private chat groups on Gab and Parler are peppered with talk of a possible “Million Militia March” on Jan. 20 that would disrupt the presidential inauguration of Mr. Biden.
There is chatter about ride shares, where to find lodging in the Washington area — and what to bring. Baseball bats, perhaps, or assault rifles.
“We took the building once,” one commenter posted, “we can take it again.”
Reporting was contributed by Sabrina Tavernise, Sheera Frenkel, David D. Kirkpatrick, Campbell Robertson, Mark Scheffler and Haley Willis.