The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For a divided country, riot at the U.S. Capitol becomes one more flash point

A supporter of President Trump bearing a Three Percenters patch on his tactical vest watches a live stream of Trump’s speech at a concurrent march in D.C. from outside the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Jan. 6. (Caitlin O'Hara for The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Pat Aquino, an Army veteran, served in the Korean War. Aquino served in the Vietnam War and in South Korea after the war. This version has been corrected.

PHOENIX — The protesters who had gathered here outside the Arizona Capitol building had been united in their adulation for President Trump and in their condemnation of the "stolen" election, spinning conspiracy theories about fraud and traitors. But then word came from across the nation that fellow Trump supporters had stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Suddenly, there was a schism. From the demonstration’s main stage, speakers warned against the use of violence to achieve political ends.

But to Tara Immen, dressed head to toe in American-flag-patterned gear, it was just perfect.

“Oh, I think it’s fantastic! They’re storming the Capitol!” she gushed. “I personally love it because you know what? It’s how this country was built, the way our Founding Fathers stormed the British Empire.”

Trump supporters overtook Capitol Police officers to enter the building as lawmakers attempted to count the electoral college votes on Jan. 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a bitterly divided nation, the mob that broke into the Capitol building — fighting with police, destroying property, perpetrating attacks, disrupting the certification of election results and involving at least one death — became yet another flash point on Wednesday. For vast segments of the population, even including some who have been devoted Trump supporters, the reaction was horror that the country has sunk to such a low place.

“I just wonder how people in the rest of the world see us now, watching this. We’re supposed to be the greatest democracy on earth. Let’s act like it,” said Randy Schmidt, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who twice voted for Trump, yet was alienated by the president’s unwillingness to accept the election results. “I’m very disappointed.”

Trump supporters storm U.S. Capitol, with one woman killed and tear gas fired

But in a sign of just how extreme some have become in their defense of the president, and his unproven allegations of election fraud, there also was early support for breaking into the Capitol and interrupting the certification of the election results.

“This may be the start of something,” said Juan Fiol, 48, a real estate agent in the Miami area who was an early grass-roots organizer for Trump. “People are only going to take so much before they start lashing out.”

Some Trump backers who disapprove of the violence were already blaming it on liberals posing as Trump supporters or on “antifa,” despite the lack of any evidence.

“I think it’s the Democrats making a last-ditch movement to try to stop what President Trump has to reveal,” said Enchantra Mead, 48, who was protesting the election in Austin on Wednesday.

From the other side of the political spectrum, there was revulsion, not only toward the pro-Trump rioters who breached the Capitol, but to how gently they appeared to have been treated.

Democrats, Republicans blame Trump for inciting ‘coup’ as mob storms Capitol

Many of those who participated in Black Lives Matter protests over the summer — and faced oftentimes brutal pushback from law enforcement — were stunned to see a mob of mostly White Trump supporters rush the Capitol. Photos from the scene showed what appeared to be police standing by as it occurred. Images circulated on social media that purported to show officers taking selfies with the rioters.

Kayla Reed, a veteran of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., and a social justice activist, said watching the chaotic scene unfold at the U.S. Capitol only confirmed that there were “two different realities” for protesters in America today.

“This just affirms that police are often complicit in white supremacy,” said Reed, who is Black. “One hundred years ago, the sheriffs knew all the Klan members in their town and were often the Klan members in their town. Now we’re watching officers take selfies with domestic terrorists who are angry that Black voters have delivered the Democrats victory in the White House and in Congress.”

World stunned by subversion of U.S. democracy after pro-Trump throng breaches capitol

Even before the violence, it was clear that Wednesday was bound to lay the nation’s divisions bare.

To Trump’s supporters and detractors alike, it was a day of deep apprehension, a possible moment of no return for the nation’s already fragile institutions.

In interviews nationwide — from northern California to South Florida — voters described their views in remarkably similar terms, whether they love Trump or loathe him. They expressed confidence that their side was in the right and appeared baffled by their fellow Americans’ capacity for denial. They offered that the country’s fortunes matched the season: dark winter, with the worst perhaps still to come. They reached for historical analogies to convey the gravity of a moment with no precedent in centuries.

While outlooks had a symmetry across the divide, facts did not. Critics of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election — including Republicans — accurately note that courts have repeatedly found that the president’s fraud claims lack any basis in reality.

But that has not stopped him from relentlessly pushing conspiracy theories that were echoed in the halls of Congress on Wednesday, and that were on the lips of his supporters nationwide.

“I grew up in the McCarthy era, and that was bad,” said Pat Johnstone, a retired educator who organizes Democratic campaign volunteers in Marin County. Calif. “I’ve never been so fearful for this country.”

Scenes from a violent day at the U.S. Capitol

The day’s events only amplified those fears, and stoked concerns about what else Trump might do in his final two weeks in office.

“This was his mission all along. He incited a riot. And the riot ensued,” Johnstone said. “It’s just horrifying. I don’t know how we ever come off the edge of this cliff.”

Amanda Beck, a 39-year-old owner of a small business who lives in a Phoenix suburb, had been concerned enough about the potential for violence to send her four children to stay in the family cabin in northern Arizona.

She had watched in horror as Trump goaded Republican lawmakers and his vice president to back an unconstitutional reversal of election results while encouraging protesters to swarm the U.S. Capitol, and feared it would lead to violence in Washington, Phoenix and beyond.

“It’s terrifying,” said Beck. “It’s like, how much proof do you need to have that no fraud happened?”

A day for ceremony descends into anarchy on Capitol Hill

After the violence, she said she was thinking of joining her kids — and feeling grateful that she had taught them both gun safety and how to defend themselves.

“I know it sounds a bit overcautious,” she said, “but I’m that kind of mom.”

As anxiety deepened among Trump’s critics, divisions were growing among his conspiracy-minded supporters.

At a pro-Trump rally in Lansing, Mich., on Wednesday afternoon, a speaker in a cowboy hat told a crowd of about 200 that “Mike Pence did not stand with Donald Trump” and that their counterparts in Washington were reacting angrily. “It’s getting a little chaotic, so I would like to pray for that situation,” he said.

The news about Pence was met with boos from the crowd. Several subsequent speakers made a point to underscore to the audience that the reports about both Pence’s decision was unconfirmed, even though the information had come out in a letter from the vice president himself.

Former congressional candidate and far-right activist Mike Detmer said he hoped it wasn’t true. “But if not,” he said, “we can add one more to the traitor column.”

Similar protests occurred in cities across the country Wednesday, often with hundreds of Trump supporters gathering outside statehouses to declare that the presidential election was riddled with fraud — and demand that Republican leaders in their state fight for Trump to be declared the winner.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) — who has rebuffed Trump’s attempts to alter election results in the state in the president’s favor and been repeatedly attacked for it — had to evacuate his office, along with his staff. Pro-Trump protesters in Arizona shouted for Gov. Doug Ducey (R) — who certified his state’s election results despite calls for him not to do so — to come outside and meet with them, pounding on doors and cracking a window.

In the state of Washington, protesters entered the grounds of the governor’s mansion, according to state police. Meanwhile, statehouses in New Mexico and Texas were mostly evacuated or closed as a precaution. For many of the president’s most ardent backers, there had been hope that Wednesday would mark an inflection — the moment when their fellow Americans woke up and realized the truth of their claims. And if they didn’t, Trump supporters said they were prepared to further escalate their grievances.

“We’re not going to sit here and allow anyone to steal an election. We’re going to stand up,” said Fiol, the Miami area real estate agent. “This is a country that was built on resistance. This is a country that was built on revolution and not allowing for big government to tell us what to do.”

Fiol said he was convinced that Democrats have cheated for generations — their transgressions ignored by the courts, the press and the political establishments of both parties.

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But this year, he said, their malfeasance was so brazen and widespread that he wants the popular vote thrown out. Instead, the presidential election should be decided for each state based on the political makeup of its statehouse — which would probably make Trump the winner.

It’s that sort of talk that alienates Pat Aquino from his fellow Republicans.

Aquino, a 77-year-old Army veteran who served in Vietnam, is a resident of the Villages, the Florida retirement community where Trump golf cart parades became a vivid feature of the campaign — and didn’t end with Election Day.

There was one Tuesday. Trump flags continue to fly, just as they did before the vote. At backyard gatherings, Aquino said, his pro-Trump friends continue to insist that their candidate was the rightful winner, had it not been for the fraud.

“I tell them, ‘These are things that have already been checked.’ But they won’t listen to the arguments,” Aquino said.

A Republican and a gun owner who had consistently voted for the GOP nominee since his retirement from active duty, Aquino couldn’t bring himself to cast a ballot for Trump because of the president’s tendency toward “lying, cheating and stealing.”

All, Aquino said, have been especially evident since the election. That didn’t shock him. But he is surprised that so many Republicans lawmakers have gone along with it.

“I’m disappointed more than anything else. I fought for you to be able to say and believe what you want,” he said. “But you have a responsibility to uphold the Constitution. It’s not just the people in uniform.”

As police continued to push back rioters from the U.S. Capitol late Wednesday afternoon, Aquino said he could only shake his head and feel sadness for the state of his nation.

“So much for law and order,” he said. “There’s only person that can be blamed: the one that keeps propagating all the lies, Mr. Trump.”

Johnson and Witte reported from Washington. Annie Gowen in Topeka, Kan.; Dan Simmons in Milwaukee; Carissa Wolf in Boise, Idaho; Eva Ruth Moravec in Austin; and Kayla Ruble in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.