The morning of the electoral vote count, I glanced out my window, just a few blocks south of the National Mall. Seeing the people headed to the Jan. 6 event, waving Trump flags and thin blue line flags, I thought of my mom. She and I don’t keep in touch — our differences are too great, and that gulf has only widened as she got into the far-right Internet — but I wondered whether she, who lives 1,450 miles away in Texas, might be among the marchers. I checked her YouTube channel, where she posts hour-long videos spreading conspiracy theories. Sure enough, a live stream showed she was just down the street, at President Donald Trump’s rally near the White House.
I texted a joke to my wife — you might run into your mother-in-law today, be prepared — then tried to put it out of my mind. (Knowing my mom’s beliefs, my wife was not surprised, but she kept an eye out as she started her morning patrol; she didn’t see her.) I switched off my mom’s footage of herself maskless, dancing in the streets. But then I watched Trump’s speech from the rally, telling his followers to “fight like hell.” “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he said. At that moment, I realized just how many people were in attendance — and that they were headed down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol.
Protests are a feature of life in Washington, and they’re a major part of my wife’s job. The Capitol Police safeguards members of Congress and dignitaries, but also supports and protects the public when they gather to exercise their First Amendment rights. This demonstration made me nervous, though. Whether it’s the Women’s March or the March for Science, gatherings like this usually follow an organized schedule, a clearly communicated order of events. That day, it seemed as if the authorities had no idea what might happen next. The tone of the event scared me more than the number of attendees: From what I was seeing on social media, the mood felt manic, frenzied. During tense protests, all it takes is one person — whether among the protesters or law enforcement — to make tensions tip over into violence.
This time, it seemed, that person was the president. Shortly after Trump’s speech ended, the mob broke down doors of the Capitol.
My wife and I have an established routine for crises: I don’t try to reach her; she texts me as soon as she can, sometimes just a single word, such as “OK” or “safe”; and I tell our loved ones. When I got her text at 2:19 p.m., I felt relieved, but not for long. Who knew what might happen at 2:20, or 2:21 p.m.? I filled the time between her updates — just a couple, spaced out by 90 minutes or so — by frantically scrolling social media. I toggled between Twitter and Parler, where people were posting more extreme content, hoping — or maybe fearing — to catch a glimpse of her in the corner of some stranger’s photo or video clip. Though I usually find my mom’s content too disturbing to follow, I was glued to her accounts, trying to make sense of what was happening. From what I could tell, she stayed a few blocks away from the Capitol building, her videos panning the massive crowds on and around the Capitol grounds.
Four long hours later, the Capitol was secured. My wife came home at midnight, and she returned to work at 6 the next morning; the police still had to protect the defiled Capitol and prepare for the inauguration. Friends and family checked in to make sure we were all right. Some of them are Trump supporters who told us they were horrified by what happened, and that if they had known that something like this would happen, they wouldn’t have voted for him. Many other Trump supporters we know said nothing; their silence has been deafening. My mom returned to Texas, and she never stopped posting videos. In them, she said the violence had been staged to trash and demoralize Trump supporters; she blamed antifa, a far-left anti-fascist movement, for everything.
I still feel deep anger at her. During a deadly pandemic, she got on planes and buses and stayed overnight with people she hardly knew so she could join this event. She stood shoulder-to-shoulder in maskless crowds, mocking social-distancing guidelines. It’s infuriating to think about the people whose health she might have endangered, just through coronavirus risk alone — and all of that was before that crowd physically forced their way into the Capitol, destroyed public property, threatened lives and harmed people. That she refuses to own up to her actions or take any responsibility, instead pointing the finger at some imaginary, shadowy enemy, is nearly unbearable.
I feel equal anger, if not more, for the leaders who helped cook up this disinformation.
My mother has always been a conservative evangelical with extreme religious beliefs. My childhood was shaped by her profound distrust in science, public education and vaccines. And yet my mom’s political activities basically tracked the mainstream of the Republican Party. I remember being taken to a Bob Dole rally when I was very young and listening to George W. Bush speak at our Houston megachurch. (Contacted by a Washington Post editor, Marshall’s mother did not return a request for comment.)
Only recently did my mother find numerous prominent politicians who would recklessly use incendiary speech to feed her most extreme ideas, her most outlandish paranoias and toxic hostility, leveraging her delusions for their own political gain. Now her worldview is confirmed, and further warped, by elected officials with the kind of power to inspire her to come all the way to Washington.
The violence on Jan. 6 was a self-inflicted wound. Politicians put lives and democracy at risk by exploiting and encouraging people like my mom. And that day, it was my wife who put her body on the line to save the lives of those very politicians.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.