The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: Watching the riot at the Capitol unfold from the ground

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In this edition: The riot at the Capitol, the results from Georgia and a look at who voted to overturn the election results.

I don't feel like telling jokes today, and this is The Trailer.

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, where Vice President 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.

This newsletter usually avoids 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. Though Joe Biden was officially declared the president-elect early this 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 very 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.

And when I would engage someone in conversation, it often veered off into lunacy. One woman began talking about how Trump had promised to send out $2,000 checks; when I asked whether she believed Biden would send them, she changed subjects.

“Biden has… did you read what Lin Wood just posted?” she asked, referring to a lawyer working on behalf of the president and segueing to a long-dead Florida child. “He posted a link to an article, that was written by a journalist who had been doing an investigation into Casey Anthony.” Her explanation stopped when her phone buzzed with an emergency curfew alert.

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.

What I saw wasn't the worst of it. After the Capitol was secured, I talked to members of Congress who had been on the floor when rioters tried to storm the House chamber. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona (D) watched a Republican — he couldn't remember which one — pick up a hand sanitizer stand, remove the bottle of liquid and the base, and grab the metal pole in case he needed a club to defend himself. Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York, who had been sworn in 72 hours earlier, described the instructions House members were getting: Look under their seats for gas masks, lie down if they heard gunfire.

“It was the kind of moment where you think to yourself: Is this where I'm going to die?” Jones said.

Whatever investigation comes next will reveal what the rioters, the emboldened faction that used the size of their protest to storm Congress, were doing. We already know what they were thinking. 

They'd been told that Democratic victories meant not just gun control, but a national registry and door-to-door confiscation. They'd seen ads warning that a Democratic sweep of Congress would lead to the defunding of police departments, putting their lives at the mercy of Antifa. Some of their news sources, in sync with the president, told them that there was a way to prevent Biden from taking office. 

Why wouldn't they believe that? And who was there to tell them otherwise? There are only two reasons why so many people would charge into the Capitol, destroying property and committing crimes that the president himself had stiffened penalties for. One reason was that they believed the justice system would protect them, and they would get away with it. The other is that they expected to win. 

Reading list

“Trump supporters storm U.S. Capitol, with one woman killed and tear gas fired,” by Rosalind S. Helderman, Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim and Mike DeBonis

One of the darkest days in modern American history. 

“Congress affirms Biden’s presidential win following riot at U.S. Capitol,” by Rosalind S. Helderman, Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim and Mike DeBonis

The third or fourth conclusion to the presidential election, depending when you start counting.

“GOP trying to persuade Trump loyalists to abandon challenge to Biden’s win,” by Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim and Mike DeBonis

How Republicans worked, with some success, to get ambitious Senate Republicans to back down.

“What happens if the Senate is equally split after the Georgia runoffs? by David A. Fahrenthold and Paul Kane

An explainer of who'll control the Senate.

“Pence and McConnell defy Trump — after years of subservience,” by Ashley Parker

The end of the MAGA affair.

Meanwhile, in Georgia

When Georgia's runoffs began, Republicans were confident about winning, and irritated that Sen. David Perdue was forced into a second round of voting. Democrats, winless in every Georgia runoff for the past 20 years, had never managed to turn out Black voters for a lower-turnout race. And Republicans thought they had been gifted a message: Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told a crowd in New York that victories for his side in Georgia would “change America.”

What better way to turn out voters for the runoff? Schumer inspired an apocalyptic-sounding Republican campaign, with Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler running to “save America” from the radical armies of liberalism. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock distanced themselves from the party's most left-wing ideas, with Ossoff using his first interview of the runoff to run them down: No “defunding the police,” no “Medicare-for-all,” yes on statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

More than $500 million of campaign spending later, Ossoff and Warnock were elected to the Senate, giving their party control of the chamber in the 117th Congress. This was not what the GOP expected even a week ago. 

What happened? Here's a guide:

Democrats turned out the Black vote. That was decisive, and it was at the center of Democratic strategies. A falloff in Black turnout was decisive when Republicans won a 2018 runoff for secretary of state, and a 2008 runoff for the Senate seat that will, later this month, be held by Ossoff. For years, Democrats had a learned helplessness about runoffs, which were implemented in the first place to dilute the power of Black voters.

But organizers had worked for years to reach those voters, and in the runoff, they succeeded. Ossoff and Warnock ran well ahead of their vote from the Nov. 3 election in the rural counties of the “Black belt,” in Atlanta, and in smaller cities with majority-Black populations.

The effort to change the electorate, and keep Black voters excited, was widely reported. Organizations such as the New Georgia Project and Black PAC, which had been working toward this turnout for years, found tens of thousands of Black voters who had skipped the November election; Biden's narrow win punctured the idea that Republicans, who had not lost a presidential or Senate race in 20 years, would inevitably take it. And Democrats benefited from a disastrous Republican strategy, shared by Loeffler's campaign and the GOP's American Crossroads PAC, to attack Warnock based on the content of sermons he'd delivered. That backfired in another way.

Republicans lost the suburbs, but worse this time. The premise of the “Save America” campaign was that only Loeffler and Perdue could stop a breakneck race toward socialism; if they lost, Democrats would control the White House and Congress. 

The president undermined that message throughout the campaign; more about this below. But one effect of his rhetoric was that Loeffler and Perdue struggled to credibly portray a Republican Senate as a reasonable check on the Biden administration. Every week, the Republican candidates' messaging was drowned out by the effort by the president and far-right allies, from protesters to members of the state legislature, to overturn the presidential election. Seemingly brutal stories for Warnock, from his arrest around a police investigation of a church camp to the release of a video of police talking to his ex-wife about a domestic violence accusation, did not get the airtime that Republicans hoped for.

The damage was visible throughout the Atlanta suburbs. Democrats ran stronger in those counties yesterday than they did in November. Ossoff got 54 percent of Cobb County's vote in November, but won 56 percent yesterday. In Gwinnett County, Ossoff expanded his support from 57 percent to nearly 60 percent. Warnock ran even stronger, carrying Cobb with 57 percent of the vote and a bit more than 60 percent in Gwinnett. 

Perdue did out-run Loeffler in the outer Atlanta suburbs, and gained ground compared to November in some traditionally Republican precincts. But Republicans got disappointing numbers even in the deep red Atlanta exurbs where they'd won easily. In the first round, Ossoff won 28 percent of the vote in Cherokee County and 31 percent in Forsyth County, the biggest troves of Republican votes in the greater Atlanta area. Perdue and Loeffler targeted those areas throughout the runoff, but Ossoff's vote share bumped up to 29 percent and 32 percent, respectively, while Warnock won 30 percent and 33 percent of the vote. They ran about as strong as Biden had in November, making it difficult — and in Warnock's case so, impossible — to catch up with votes cast elsewhere.

Democratic areas outvoted Republican areas. The GOP did not expect to win the election in the Atlanta area anyway. Its clearest path to victories was revving up rural turnout, reactivating Republicans who voted for the president in November and needed motivation to vote again.

It's remarkable that this didn't work. Turnout was simply higher in Democratic congressional districts, where every local elected official had their back against the wheel, than in Republican districts, where Republicans such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was focused on whether Trump could remain in office.

Take the two counties where the president campaigned in person: Lowndes in southeast Georgia, and Whitfield in the northwest. Trump and the Libertarian nominee for president grabbed 26,239 and 26,086 votes, respectively, in the November election; remember, Republicans viewed Libertarian protest voters as potential anti-Trump but anti-“change America” voters. Perdue and Loeffler fell well short of the Trump vote in both counties, with 22,162 votes and 22,154 votes in Lowndes, respectively, and 22,429 and 22,440 votes in Whitfield. In each case, that was around 85 percent of the November vote for Trump and Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgenson.

Compare that to Rockdale County, one of the Atlanta-area counties that moved mostly sharply toward Democrats. Biden got 32,237 votes there; Ossoff and Warnock won 29,048 and 29,136 votes, around 90 percent of the Biden total. Shifts like that, across the state, ended Republican control of the Senate.

How they voted

Before Wednesday, Republicans hoped that at least 140 House members and 14 senators would stick to their pledge to contest the results of the 2020 election. They fell short — but not by much. While most Senate Republicans who had previously pledged to contest the vote backed down, a majority of their House conference voted to reject the results of elections in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Only the refusal of chastened senators to sign more objections prevented votes to reject the results in other states. 

All told, 139 of Republicans across both chambers voted to reject results from at least one state. The vast majority came from deep red states or red districts. A few of them wound up in interesting categories. 

Republicans in Biden districts who rejected results: two. Just a handful of Republicans now represent districts carried by Joe Biden in November, and only Rep. Mike Garcia of California and Rep. Beth Van Duyne of Texas voted to challenge the results. Garcia, who ran five points ahead of the president to hold his seat by a few hundred votes, challenged both states; Van Duyne only challenged Pennsylvania's, saying in statement that the state's alterations of election rules represented a “grave constitutional threat that must be remedied. Democrats, who had expected to win those close races, were quick out of the gate to say the protests aligned Garcia and Van Duyne (along with every other objecting Republican) with “terrorists.”

Republicans who supported the Arizona challenge, but not the Pennsylvania challenge: 18. Van Duyne was joined by Rep. Cliff Bentz of Oregon, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, Reps. Virginia Foxx and Greg Murphy of North Carolina, Rep. David Kustoff of Tennessee, Reps. Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart of Utah, vice-presidential sibling and Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana, Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, and four members of Congress from Pennsylvania: Fred Keller, Daniel Meuser, Lloyd Smucker and Glenn Thompson. In the Senate, they were joined by Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. 

Republicans who signed the amicus brief challenging Pennsylvania's vote, but didn't challenge the election: 19. That number included both the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and several Republicans who planned to contest electoral votes until Wednesday's riots. Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, Reps. Buddy Carter, Drew Ferguson, and Austin Scott of Georgia, Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber of Minnesota, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, Rep. Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana, Reps. Bill Huizenga and John Molenaar of Indiana, Rep. Tom McClintock of California, Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse of Washington, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio and Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas.

What's next

Wednesday's vote was never going to be the end of challenges to the 2020 election. From here, they're taking two forms: ongoing and futile efforts to undo the victory of president-elect Joe Biden, and more serious efforts to restrict access to the ballot, on the premise that making voting easier during the coronavirus pandemic, which led an election in which Democrats slightly underperformed their polling, was somehow riven with pro-Democratic fraud.

The first charge is underway on several fronts. While the riot at the Capitol was getting underway, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas filed an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court, asking it to hear his lawsuit that argues that the vice president has the power to reject slates of electors. That has failed, as Vice President Pence's certification of the election results made it moot.

But there are other ongoing efforts to toss the election results, even though it's far too late to do so — and has been too late for weeks. State legislatures are beginning their 2021 sessions, and in New Mexico, one legislator has introduced legislation to “decertify” Biden's victory, and his five electors, when the full session begins on Jan. 19. (Yes, one day before the inauguration.) New Mexico Republicans had previously endorsed an “alternate slate” of electors, which had no legal status, even though Biden's 11-point margin of victory was too large to be overturned by any allegation of fraud. And Republicans didn't actually make a concrete allegation.

“I can tell you that New Mexicans are contacting lawmakers in record numbers and asking us to address the fraud,” Rep. Cathrynn Brown said in a statement, endorsed by the state GOP. “When cheating is used to manipulate the final tallies, voters have every right to insist that truth and justice prevail.”

Democrats control every branch of government in New Mexico; accordingly, this effort won't go anyway. But Republicans control the legislatures of five states that were contested by the local GOP, and as they begin their sessions, many are looking at the second challenge: changing election laws. In Georgia, the Republican majority that held hearing after hearing to air dubious “fraud” claims could consider legislation to unwind a series of changes that were largely uncontroversial before November.

The targets named so far were not tied to any illegal voting, but they are believed to have helped Democrats rack up votes. They include requiring a reason to cast an absentee ballot; including a copy of a photo ID with every ballot; prohibiting drop boxes; and prohibiting either a private group or a government entity from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters. And in Pennsylvania, Republicans are considering rolling back Act 77, the law they passed to allow no-excuse absentee voting.

Some legislatures won't seat until later this month, or even later, so the post-2020 legislation is a moving target. As they whittled down their objections to the certification yesterday, several Republicans endorsed the idea they were demanding as a condition of certification: some kind of election reform commission, to review what happened last year.

But Republicans began making that demand when they expected a divided government. With control of both Houses, Democrats can decide what makes the floor; even before yesterday, House Democrats had intended to pass a voting restructuring package that would override much of what state Republicans are proposing.


… 13 days until the inauguration