Mob Rule in the Capitol

Two hours into the siege of the U.S. Capitol, as another puff of tear gas wafted over the melee with police, Sharon Krahn, a grandmother from Dallas, looked on approvingly. “Our congressmen should be shitting their pants. They need to fear, because they’re too posh,” she said.“Their jobs are too cush, and their personal gain has taken priority over their sense of duty. Maybe they all started off with a good heart, you know, but power corrupts. Our government is proof positive of that.”

She wore a plaid scarf and gray wool hat, studded with sequins. I asked if the violence in front of us was going too far. “Whose house is this? This is the house of ‘We the People.’ If you do a bad job, your boss tells you about it,” Krahn said. She nodded toward the Senate, where the elected representatives had already evacuated to safety. “We’re not happy with the job you’ve done.” She drew a distinction between the scene in front of her and the domain of enemies she called “Antifa and B.L.M.”: They have “no true aim except destruction and anarchy.”

The day had begun with another indistinguishable rant from the President—a dejected, deluded improvisation about a stolen election at a rally on the park south of the White House. But then it had turned. “We’re going to the Capitol,” he told the crowd, a maskless confederacy of the rebellious, the devout, the bored, and the bitter. “We’re going to try and give our Republicans . . . the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” In other circumstances, it might have passed as his usual taunt, but, in this case, it was received as a call to arms.

For anyone who has been to the U.S. Capitol, the scenes that followed were so unhinged that they took a moment to absorb. In the two decades since September 11th, much of the grounds of Congress have been encircled by rings of security. Now any sense of control was gone. The mob quickly overwhelmed the police, broke windows, and forced open doors. A jittery throng coursed through the Capitol, mugging with the statues and lounging at the desks of senators and representatives. They rummaged through drawers and brandished their loot for photographers. A man in a wool Trump hat, with a pom-pom on it, and a rictus of glee, carried off a carved wooden podium bearing the seal of the Speaker of the House.

Police hung back, outnumbered and seemingly unsure how to respond. As the hours ticked toward 6 P.M., the start of a curfew announced by Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., a white police van, led by a lone cop on a motorcycle, tried to part the crowd below the East stairs, but the crowd converged on it, banging on the metal walls of the van until the driver abandoned the attempt. The guy with the megaphone was still ranting: “We will not allow a new world order. . . . If you are truly innocent, you have nothing to worry about.” According to police, a woman who had been inside the Capitol died from a gunshot wound, and at least seven other people were injured.

I introduced myself to a hopped-up guy walking away from the Senate side of the Capitol, and he said, “The New Yorker? Fucking enemy of the people. Why don’t I smash you in your fucking head?” He made an effort to draw a crowd: “Right there in the blue mask! Enemy of the fucking people!” But the people had other things on their minds, and nobody bothered to join in. Five years after the Trump era began, a physical assault on American democracy felt both shocking and inevitable—a culmination of everything that had been building since 2015. What else was there to say of him that had not already been said? How much darker could his America become in its final fourteen days? Would the sight of government brought so low, so vulnerable, break the spell—or would it heighten it for another crescendo of fury?

Trump’s Presidency entered its last weeks as a strange concatenation of causes: doomsayers and Oathkeeper militia, QAnon, and Falun Gong. Members of the Chinese spiritual movement, banned by Beijing, are deeply enmeshed in Trump world, and, as rioters picked through the U.S. Capitol, a caravan of cars outside displayed signs that announced “Say no to CCP Chinese Communist Party” and “Stop forced organ harvesting in China.” A couple walked past the organ-harvesting sign, and the woman saw a resonance in her American cause: “See, that’s what we don’t want to get to.”

In the mob, a chant went up: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! When I met Krahn, a naturopath who operates a wellness center, I asked if she thought Trump’s victory had been stolen. “Absolutely, without a doubt,” she said. Why? “O.K.,” she started ticking things off on her fingers. “The vote count changing on TV, the more-votes-than-voters, boxes of blank ballots, and, honestly, probably the biggest one is the refusal to audit the votes. Because, if this was fair, if this was a legitimate election, then we should be above reproach. Just like when the I.R.S. comes in and audits my books, I don’t worry about it. ”

An hour or so later, after four o’clock, word passed through the crowd that Trump had put out a video. Two women who had flown in from Seneca, Missouri, crowded around a cell phone to watch it. Sara Clark owns a gun store that makes custom AK-47s. Her friend Stacie Dunbar is a secretary in a hospital. On the cracked screen of Dunbar’s phone, they watched Trump’s video, a hasty production seemingly taped in the Rose Garden. “I know your pain, I know you’re hurt,” he told his crowd. “We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now; we have to have peace. We have to have law and order.”

What do you think? I asked.

“I don’t know,” Clark said. “It’s not going to do us any good to beat the hell out of everything. But we didn’t lose. We shouldn’t give in.”

What do you do now? I asked. Clark turned the question on her friend. “I have no thoughts, honestly,” Dunbar said. “I’m at an absolute loss. We’re disenfranchised! It just sounded like he just gave up. Our President! Sounded like he just gave up. He gave in.”

Why? I asked.

“Because he doesn’t want us to do this,” Clark said, motioning toward the chaos.

“He doesn’t want anyone hurt. That’s what he said,” Dunbar added. Tears filled her eyes. “I did this for my kids,” she said. “I have a son in the Navy, and Trump’s done more for our military than any President ever has.”

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