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President Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier in front of the Capitol on January 6.
Julio Cortez/AP

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How a “March for Trump” rally led to clashes at the Capitol

A Trump rally devolved into a breach of the Capitol building itself.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Wednesday, while Congress met to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, thousands of supporters of President Trump convened in front of the White House to call for the overturning of the 2020 election results.

Speakers, including the president himself and his adult sons, called on Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to “stop the steal” — the certification of Biden’s Electoral College win.

“We will never give up! We will never concede!” Trump said during his Wednesday speech, before demanding Pence (unlawfully) reject the Electoral College results. “All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify — and we become president.”

The president calling for an authoritarian putsch in front of throngs of fervid supporters, including QAnon conspiracy theorists and members of the Proud Boys militia, seems bad enough. But as the day went on, it got even worse. In the afternoon, attendees stormed the Capitol, clashing with the police protecting it and eventually breaking into the building.

Before the event, websites and social media platforms popular with MAGA types lit up with posters’ threats to start killing people after the rally if Congress refuses to make Trump president. On Monday, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was arrested while carrying a high-capacity magazine for his guns. The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer, reporting on the ground on Wednesday, said that every single attendee he spoke with raised the prospect of violence if they don’t get what they want.

“They better start worrying about the 80 million people who voted for Trump and are armed,” rally participant Carmelo Prochilo told Sommer. “This will be a second American revolution.”

This is not, in short, an ordinary political rally. It’s not even an ordinary Trump rally.

The breach of the Capitol is an expression of what Trumpism has become, and maybe what it always was: an anti-democratic cancer on the American body politic that threatens to plunge an already-rickety democracy into even deeper chaos.

How this dangerous rally came together

Wednesday’s March for Trump was the third such pro-Trump rally organized in DC to protest the election result. It was originally planned in late December by a group called Women for America First, chaired by former Tea Party activist Amy Kremer.

But in the month since Kremer’s outfit filed its permit, Trump’s campaign to undermine the 2020 election escalated. His near-total focus in the past month has been delegitimizing the results, working overtime to convince Republicans that Democrats somehow stole the election from him — a campaign that polls suggest has been largely successful.

As options for staving off a Biden inauguration dwindled, Trump has focused on January 6 as the decisive day. He successfully convinced a majority of House Republicans, and some 2024 presidential hopefuls in the Senate, like Josh Hawley (MO) and Ted Cruz (TX), to support a challenge to the legitimacy of the election. He has privately and publicly pressured Pence to unilaterally invalidate the results, something Pence is not legally capable of doing.

The effort is flagrantly undemocratic, a kind of legal coup, but it doesn’t bother Trump’s hardcore supporters one bit. Because they have swallowed Trump’s line that this election is stolen, they are convinced that overturning an election is actually saving the Constitution — hence the slogan “stop the steal.” This long-scheduled rally has thus evolved into an event aimed at convincing Pence and Republicans in Congress to go along with Trump’s anti-democratic and illegal demands.

To be clear, this last-ditch effort has no real chance of succeeding. Pence has said he can’t do what they want, a solid majority of senators have already committed to opposing overturning the results, and Democratic control of the House means the entire effort was doomed from the outset. The protesters will be disappointed.

But they don’t recognize this reality. The “stop the steal” slogan that dominates the protests itself implies that such a thing is possible, that their efforts may actually reverse the election. These are people who watch the fervently pro-Trump news networks One America News (OAN) and Newsmax; many are believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory that Trump is secretly working to defeat a cabal of pedophiles who run the Democratic Party and the world.

These hardcore MAGA supporters exist in a kind of symbiotic relationship with Trump and his sycophantic media — the beating heart of the movement we call Trumpism.

A protester holds a Trump flag inside the Capitol building near the Senate chamber on January 6.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“We’ve seen OAN and Newsmax basically regurgitate baseless conspiracy theories from QAnon world,” Travis View, the host of a leading podcast on QAnon, told the New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo. Such theories “get into Trump’s brain, and then he regurgitates them back, and of course because he’s regurgitating the conspiracy theories he heard on the internet, all the internet conspiracy theorists believe that their conspiracy theory is validated, because Trump repeated it.”

This rally, then, has long since transcended its origins. It has become a vehicle for a pure personality cult, expressing the belief that Donald Trump cannot fail — he can only be failed. In such a worldview, whatever lengths Trump goes to in order to seize power is justified, because Trump tells his supporters that Democrats have so thoroughly corrupted the system that nothing can be trusted, and they believe what Trump tells them.

Such unquestioning loyalty, when wielded by a man with demonstrable authoritarian instincts, is toxic to democracy. And on Wednesday, we saw just how bad this can get.

Understanding the breach of the Capitol

At one of the prior DC MAGA rallies in December, four people were stabbed outside a bar popular with the Proud Boys — a pro-Trump street brawling group that the president specifically told to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate. The Proud Boys are a very strange group; in an explainer for Vox, Jane Coaston describes them as an “amalgamation of a men’s rights organization, a fight club, and what some may see as a hate group.”

The most characteristic Proud Boys activity is street brawling, particularly with antifa counterprotesters. To climb the ranks in the organization, a member is required to get in at least one physical fight with its ideological opponents.

The heavy Proud Boys presence in DC right now underscores the threat that lurks behind the protests: If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll try to take it by force.

Almost from the get-go, the events were marked by violence: On Tuesday night, pro-Trump demonstrators engaged in violent clashes with DC police. Wednesday, hundreds of rallygoers stormed the Capitol building’s barricades and fought with police in an effort to penetrate the area en masse. Members of Congress informed the public via Twitter that they were under siege, and reporters started sharing videos of protesters breaking in.

Again, some kind of violence was predictable before the event. The posts on pro-Trump social media prior to the rally were chilling: One Reddit user told others on the r/The_Donald subreddit to “travel in packs and do not let them disarm someone without stacking bodies.”

Trump himself has hardly calmed the situation. His heated rhetoric, particularly on Twitter, can easily be read as a call to arms by rallygoers:

But nobody anticipated just how bad things would get during the day on Wednesday. Shortly after the president himself spoke at a rally, demanding action, its attendees staged an attack on America’s legislature — literally disrupting the proceedings of Congress that would confirm Biden’s presidency.

That gives reason to think the Trump movement is not merely anti-democratic, but increasingly willing to use extrajudicial force to accomplish its authoritarian political ends.

And that is an alarming prospect.

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