WASHINGTON — On Wednesday morning, when I heard people chant “storm the Capitol,” I didn’t take it seriously.
It was 11:42 a.m., and I’d arrived on the East Lawn of the White House, where Vice President Mike Pence would enter, to check on the “Stop the Steal” protests. The crowd consisted of less than a thousand people, smaller than rallies I’d seen in the same place for opposing the Affordable Care Act, or blocking the Iran nuclear deal or, eventually, opposing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
The president had begun his marathon speech outside the White House, and I was listening to a dozen people pray before an image of Jesus Christ when I heard a shout: “We love the Proud Boys!”
As I moved out of the way, a gang of Proud Boys, a male-chauvinist group with ties to white nationalism, marched past. “They can’t stop us!” yelled the march leader, through a bullhorn. “I say we storm the Capitol!”
“Storm the Capitol!” someone else shouted, through another bullhorn.
“Seventeen-seventy-six!” yelled someone else.
It took 90 more minutes for me to grasp the significance of that. A career covering politics, much of it spent on the conservative movement, had conditioned me to revolutionary rhetoric that nobody acts on. Yet here they were, acting out the plan they’d screamed into reality, walking right past me.
I usually avoid first-person writing. My initial plan for Wednesday was to talk to supporters of the president as the plan to throw out the results of the election foundered. But events have made that impossible. Although Joe Biden was officially declared the president-elect early Thursday morning, that moment was delayed by an attempt to overthrow the government. I’m calling it that because it’s what a critical mass of rioters believed they were doing.
It was clear, early yesterday morning, that the usual work of approaching political activists, asking for their names and writing up their opinions was not going to be easy. The first person I talked to, a man from Delaware holding the state flag, would only give his name as “Chris.”
“What are you expecting to happen today?” I asked.
“To be honest, I’m just kind of holding my breath here, waiting for someone to make a (expletive) move,” he said. “If they don’t start (expletive) arresting people and hanging people real soon, they’re going to be burning and hanging off these (expletive) trees out here.”
I laughed awkwardly, and stopped at his next sentence: “We have the Constitution in this country. It defines the responsibilities and the limitations of the government.” A few minutes later, I saw a reporter for the BBC being harassed by two activists, moving back with his camera as they moved toward him. When I walked over to help him, one of the activists began screaming for us both to leave.
“He has a right to be here, as do you,” I said.
“No,” she said. “You’re communists. You’re bought by China. Get out.”
The whole day went like that, only worse. I never planned to enter the Capitol itself, due to restrictions on how many people could be inside at once. Instead, I watched thousands of people psych themselves up into crashing police barricades, cutting fences and eventually smashing windows to halt the certification of the election.
For about an hour, I positioned myself on the West Lawn near a wall that activists were climbing over as they marched from the president’s speech. One group of men shouted “build the gallows” as they looked for a path to the Capitol. A man egging on the wall-climbers shouted “military tribunals,” trying to get a chant going, with a few people joining in. When there was a bang near the Capitol itself, there was a loud cheer: People assumed that the invasion was on.
The events of Jan. 6 will be with us for a long time, from the immediate political consequences to a criminal investigation that will make use of countless photos and videos, often taken by the people committing federal crimes. I don’t know what effect it’ll have on campaigns. But it felt like the end of something.
Everything I heard, from the threats to murder members of the government to the snarls meant to scare reporters away, was familiar from the rhetoric I’d seen online. I’d been conditioned to see it all as hyperbole, intentionally provocative trolling.
But when these rioters said “storm the Capitol,” they meant that they would storm the Capitol. When they said “Hillary for prison,” they meant that they wanted to jail the president’s 2016 opponent. When they said “Biden’s a pedophile,” they meant that they thought the president-elect was either a member of an international ring of child rapists, or a freelancer with the same predilections. When they said “1776,” they meant that the incoming government was illegitimate and tyrannical, and should be overthrown by force.