An interesting, honest assessment, by a Professor of Sociology at Duke University. Plus a BBC Timeline at the end.
Source: Kieran Healey
I don’t know what happened. But here’s my current theory of what the White House thought was going to happen. I don’t have any more information than you do, and here I’m not concerned with the broader question of how the country came to this end. I am just trying to make sense of what happened on Wednesday.
From the moment he knew he’d lost the presidential election, Trump absolutely wanted to get the result overturned. Some large proportion of his own staff and Congressional Republicans thought there was no harm in humoring him. Many surely knew him well enough to realize he was quite serious about it. But most, falling into a way of thinking that Trump has repeatedly benefited from over his entire career, and especially during his Presidency, figured that he could not possibly overcome the weight of institutional and conventional pressure behind the transition of power. Still, by the first week of January he had not relented in his efforts to find some way to do it, whether through bullying local election officials, chasing wild geese through the courts, or directly intimidating state officials. That all failed, or looked like failing. The next thing on the horizon was Electoral College certification.
So, Team Trump organized a big day of protest to coincide with the certification. The MAGA hats and Q people got all excited. Initially, Pence was going to be the guy who’d sort things out by using his made-up authority to reject the votes. But then he said he wouldn’t do this, which complicated things considerably. By this stage they were running out of rope, but Trump’s whole m.o. is just to keep pushing and pushing until those charged with stopping him just get tired, give in, or give up.
The plan for Wednesday was to have Trump go down and rile up the MAGA crowd, have them march up to the Capitol steps, and look like a big mass of people demanding something be done. Thanks to some preparatory cleansing of the DoD leadership last month (again, in outline pretty clear evidence that they intended to subvert the election), the White House had made sure there wouldn’t be much to stop the crowd from getting real close and making a lot of noise. The optics would be good. And the cops on duty wouldn’t go too hard on their MAGA buddies in any case.
Once the ructions were underway, and the objections from Hawley and Cruz and others were being debated, Trump would call some Senators to push them to object or generally delay or whatever. At a minimum, anything to derail the process. And as a best outcome—well, this bit is one of those ?????? Underpants Gnomes stages that features in all half-thought-out Trumpy plans—between the direct pressure from Trump and the noise from the masses gathered outside (just look at those TV pictures!), there would be some big shift as Senators realized their base was against them and they’d vote to reject the Electoral votes and send everything back to the States. Or there would be chaos on the Senate floor and someone like Cruz would hope to capitalize on it to reach some quasi-legitimate “Compromise of 2021”. Or something. I’m not saying this makes much sense in terms of things that definitely had to happen. It’s more that they saw potential to seize the initiative in some real-time moment of uncertainty with the house divided and the crowd outside.
The crowd outside. People in the White House or the Trump family entourage undoubtedly spend enough time hanging around the MAGA scene to be in touch with some of the key figures in it. There’s plenty of communication. The movement is disaggregated and full of weird shit and features more than a few complete lunatics. Still, there’s coordination with the rank and file when it comes to getting the crowds to show up. Now, because this was an event that Trump was going to be at himself, the idea was probably that from the crowd’s point of view it’d go more like a regular rally, as opposed to something like Charlottesville or the Michigan Statehouse. That is, from the White House’s point of view, the crowd was not actually supposed to get inside the Capitol. The MAGA/Q contingent are the useful marks in all this. They believe all the crap they’re fed. But obviously they’re not going to get into the building. It’s the US Capitol for God’s sake! The very idea that the rush of events would propel them right into the chambers was not something the White House wanted to happen, or thought was going to happen.
Of course, before the rally some of the actually dangerous Q-marinated nutters absolutely did want to get inside the building, find Pence, and Pelosi, and the rest, and literally take them hostage and string them up. They talked about this a lot on their message boards. The White House was probably well aware of these ideas. Normally, the presence of that part of the base provides a pleasant frisson of Lib-Owning danger. It pleases the White House to see that sort of person hanging around looking vaguely menacing. But people like that always talk a big game. And while some hard core would come prepared to actually do this stuff, at least inasmuch as they had the gear to do it, I don’t think the White House thought they’d ever come anywhere close to actually being able to pull off something like that. Similarly, while a much wider penumbra of goons, weekend warriors, failsons, radicalized realtors, and other assorted jokers really liked the idea of storming the Capitol, so that they could stream it in the name of MAGA and Q, the White House most likely did not consider that they’d ever get inside the building.
But they did get inside. The cops seemed to divide into segments that were genuinely overwhelmed and unable to hold the line, and segments that just let the invaders in—either because they were fellow-travelers, or because they were more like Mall Cops unused to mass action literally at the doors of the building, and who just couldn’t quite believe what was happening. (In the footage these ones often look genuinely confused.) While it matters a great deal for their culpability in the long run, in terms of immediate events their motives are irrelevant. Once the doors were opened to the insurrectionists, things moved quickly. One group of goobers found themselves wandering in to the atrium and, much like the cops, seemed almost unable to believe they were inside. Initially they even stayed in between the velvet guide-ropes. Another group, or category, of entrants—like the Shaman guy and his ilk—were off and streaming and lulzing as fast as they could. And a third group—like the Ziptie guys and the woman who was eventually shot—were really and truly prepped and making a beeline for where they thought people they wanted to capture and harm would be. The violence that happened seems to have been mixed between this third group and the goobers. The latter ended up in a sort of Forward Panic, barreling along reactively, chasing anyone who ran away, descending on journalists to harass, and so on.
As the chambers were being evacuated, Trump was on the phone with Tuberville. Most likely, the President wasn’t grasping the enormity of what was actually happening. There seems to have been a period of general confusion and near panic as resistance to activating the National Guard continued. I assume we’ll learn more about that in detail soon, both how those conditions were created and who ended up authorizing their deployment. Again, while extremely important in itself, this is less relevant here. Given that the Senators and Representatives ended up being successfully secured, very quickly there wasn’t really anyone official for the Ziptie contingent to harm. Meanwhile, the regular MAGAs also had little to do. And so they degenerated into small clumps of invaders, wandered about vandalizing stuff, shitting on the floor, and accidentally tasering themselves to death while trying to steal things. It’s around this time that CNN’s Jim Acosta tweeted that “A source close to the White House who is in touch with some of the rioters at the Capitol said it’s the goal of those involved to stay inside the Capitol through the night.”
In summary, the theory is that these are not the brightest guys, and things got out of hand. Trump and the White House et al knew there were genuinely dangerous people in their MAGA/Q mob. The MAGA people they were in communication with (as per Acosta’s tweet) were likely more on the leading edge of the rank and file, rather than the true loons. They thought things would go as protests outside the Capitol usually go, and as their rallies usually go. The crowd would serve as a loud prop. The really dangerous people would be diluted by the rank and file and kept out by the Capitol Police in any case. There would be a great deal of immediate drama and a great deal immediately at stake. Trump loves his crowd, but he has no tolerance at all for the individuals who make it up. As soon as they got inside the building and resolved once more into identifiable individuals, Trump was reportedly and unsurprisingly grossed out by all the “low class” stuff he was seeing. What he envisioned, I think, was a mass of adoring supporters at the very gates of the Capitol, expressing their love and loyalty for him, and together, they would make Congress capitulate to their will.
This is all just speculation on my part. There are many other plausible scenarios. People who know much more about American history than me have argued that some subset of people in the Administration and the GOP really did want protestors to get inside the Senate chamber and gum up the works such that an 1877-style “compromise” would be the wise way for cooler heads to prevail. There’s a lot to be said for this view. On this interpretation, Trump did imagine something like a direct replay of the Michigan Statehouse events, where armed militia end up in a public gallery and intimidate the legislators below. Personally, I have difficulty seeing how those involved could feel at all confident that they could foresee anything manageable or controllable flowing from a large group of armed MAGA protesters actually getting inside the building. It just seems far beyond the space of fluid but playable uncertainty. Instead it is right out in the far orbit of utter chaos—which is indeed what happened once people got inside. For that reason I think it’s more likely that the White House, meaning most people who were behind the rally and incitement, really did not envisage a breach of the Capitol, even as they absolutely did seek to orchestrate the crowd outside and the legislators inside to the point where the election could be subverted. That said, even this interpretation depends—as I think any explanation of these events must, including the true one, whatever it is—upon key players having what seem like fundamentally unrealistic or crazy ideas about how things were going to play out, given that they didn’t happen. Events like this always have people who are absolutely willing to take things far beyond what even most people in their own movement would be comfortable with. The contingencies of how things actually play out shape whether we retrospectively assess them as fringe or vanguard.
After the fact, the White House very quickly found itself in a supercharged version of the situation that Cruz and Hawley are also in. They presumed they could cynically ride this movement for their own ends. They gleefully lit match after match, and eventually to their horror they managed to set themselves on fire along with everyone else. They clearly incited these events. They saw them spin rapidly out of control. They ended Wednesday afternoon with five people dead, the Capitol defiled, and the country stunned. They definitely wanted to overturn the election, which by itself is a subversion of representative government. Their efforts produced a messy putsch into the bargain, and got people killed. They should be punished for it as severely as the law permits, and they should never be allowed to live down their responsibility for what happened.
The 65 days that led to chaos at the Capitol
By Shayan Sardarizadeh and Jessica Lussenhop
BBC Monitoring and BBC News WashingtonPublished7 hours agoShareRelated Topics
Many were taken by surprise by the events in Washington, but to those who closely follow conspiracy and extreme right groups online, the warning signs were all there.
At 02:21 Eastern Standard Time on election night, President Trump walked onto a stage set up in the East Room of the White House and declared victory.
“We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”
His speech came an hour after he’d tweeted: “They are trying to steal the election”.
He hadn’t won. There was no victory to steal. But to many of his most fervent supporters, these facts didn’t matter, and still don’t.
Sixty five days later, a motley coalition of rioters stormed the US Capitol building. They included believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, members of “Stop the Steal” groups, far-right activists, online trolls and others.
On Friday 8 January – some 48 hours after the Washington riots – Twitter began a purge of some of the most influential pro-Trump accounts that had been pushing conspiracies and urging direct action to overturn the election result.
Then came the big one – Mr Trump himself.
The president was permanently banned from tweeting to his more than 88 million followers “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”.
The violence in Washington shocked the world and seemed to catch the authorities off guard.
But for anyone who had been carefully watching the unfolding story – online and on the streets of American cities – it came as no surprise.
The idea of a rigged election was seeded by the president in speeches and on Twitter, months before the vote.
On election day, the rumors started just as Americans were going to the polls.
A video of a Republican poll watcher being denied entry to a Philadelphia polling station went viral. It was a genuine error, caused by confusion about the rules. The man was later allowed into the station to observe the count.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=BBCNews&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1323615834455994373&lang=en-gb&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fworld-us-canada-55592332&siteScreenName=BBCNews&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550pxThe BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter
But it became the first of many videos, images, graphics and claims that went viral in the days that followed, giving rise to a hashtag: #StopTheSteal.
The message behind it was clear – Mr Trump had won a landslide victory, but dark forces in the establishment “deep state” had stolen it from him.
In the early hours of Wednesday 4 November, while votes were still being counted and three days before the US networks called the election for Joe Biden, President Trump claimed victory, alleging “a fraud on the American public”.
Mr Trump did not provide any evidence to back up his claims. Studies carried out for previous US elections have shown that voter fraud is extremely rare.
By mid-afternoon a Facebook group called “Stop the Steal” was created and quickly became one of the fastest-growing in the platform’s history. By Thursday morning, it had added more than 300,000 members.
Many of the posts focused on unsubstantiated allegations of mass voter fraud, including manufactured claims that thousands of dead people had voted and that voting machines had somehow been programmed to flip votes from Mr Trump to Mr Biden.
- ‘Stop the steal’: The deep roots of Trump’s ‘voter fraud’ strategy
- US Election 2020: The ‘dead voters’ in Michigan who are still alive
- US Election 2020: Trump claims about Dominion machines fact-checked
But some of the posts were more alarming, speaking of the need for a “civil war” or “revolution”.
By Thursday afternoon, Facebook had taken down Stop the Steal, but not before it had generated nearly half a million comments, shares, likes, and reactions.
Dozens of other groups quickly sprang up in its place.
The idea of a stolen election continued to spread online and take hold. Soon, a dedicated Stop the Steal website was launched in a bid to register “boots on the ground to protect the integrity of the vote”.
On Saturday 7 November, major news organisations declared that Joe Biden had won the election. In Democratic strongholds, throngs of people took to the streets to celebrate. But the reaction online from Mr Trump’s most ardent supporters was one of anger and defiance.
They planned a rally in Washington DC for the following Saturday, dubbed the Million MAGA (Make America Great Again) March.
Trump tweeted that he might try to stop by the demonstration and “say hello”.
Previous pro-Trump rallies in Washington had failed to attract large crowds. But thousands gathered at Freedom Plaza that sunny morning.
One extremism researcher called it the “debut of the pro-Trump insurgency”.
As Trump’s motorcade drove through the city, supporters screaming with delight rushed to catch a glimpse of the president, who beamed at them wearing a red MAGA hat.
While mainstream conservative figures were present, the event was dominated by far-right groups.
Dozens of members of the far-right, anti-immigrant, all-male group Proud Boys, who have repeatedly been involved in violent street protests and were among those who would later break into the US Capitol, joined the march. Militia groups, far-right media figures and promoters of conspiracy theories were also there.
- Capitol riots: Who broke into the building?
- US Election 2020: Who are the Proud Boys – and who are antifa?
As night fell, clashes between Trump supporters and counter-protesters broke out, including a brawl about five blocks from the White House.
The violence – although largely contained by police on this occasion – was a clear sign of things to come.
By now, President Trump and his legal team had invested their hopes in dozens of legal cases.
Although a number of courts had already dismissed fraud allegations, many in the pro-Trump online world became fascinated with two lawyers with close ties to the president – Sidney Powell and L Lin Wood.
Ms Powell and Mr Wood promised they were preparing cases of voter fraud so comprehensive that when released, they would destroy the case for Mr Biden having won the presidency.
- Watch Aleem Maqbool’s film America: Storming the Capitol, in which he examines the question – how safe is American democracy?
Ms Powell, 65, a conservative activist and former federal prosecutor, told Fox News that the effort would “release the Kraken” – a reference to a gigantic sea monster from Scandinavian folklore that rises up from the ocean to devour its enemies.
The “Kraken” quickly became an internet meme, representing sprawling, unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud.
Ms Powell and Mr Wood became heroes to followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory – who believe President Trump and a secret military intelligence team are battling a deep state made up of Satan-worshipping paedophiles in the Democratic Party, media, business and Hollywood.
The lawyers became a conduit between the president and his most conspiracy-minded supporters – a number of whom ended up inside the Capitol on 6 January.
Ms Powell and Mr Wood were successful in whipping up sound and fury online, but their legal efforts came to nothing.
When they released almost 200 pages of documents in late November, it became clear that their lawsuit consisted predominantly of conspiracy theories and debunked allegations that had already been rejected by dozens of courts.
The filings contained simple legal errors – and basic misspellings and typos.
Still, the meme lived on. The terms “Kraken” and “Release the Kraken” were used more than a million times on Twitter before the Capitol riot.
As courts rejected Mr Trump’s legal cases, far-right activists increasingly targeted election workers and officials.
Death threats were made against a Georgia election worker, and Republican officials in the state – including Governor Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and the official in charge of the state’s voting systems, Gabriel Sterling – were branded “traitors” online.
Mr Sterling issued an emotional and prescient warning to the president in a press conference on 1 December.https://emp.bbc.co.uk/emp/SMPj/2.36.7/iframe.htmlmedia caption”This has to stop… someone’s gonna get killed”: Mr Sterling calls on President Trump to condemn the threats
“Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed, and it’s not right,” he said.
In Michigan in early December, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, had just finished trimming her Christmas tree with her four-year-old son when she heard a commotion outside her Detroit home.
About 30 protesters with banners stood outside, shouting “Stop the steal!” through megaphones.
“Benson, you are a villain,” one person yelled.
“You’re a threat to democracy!” called another.
One of the demonstrators live-streamed the protest on Facebook, stating that her group was “not going away”.
It was just one of a rash of protests targeting people involved in the vote.
In Georgia, a constant stream of Trump supporters drove past Mr Raffensperger’s home, honking their horns. His wife received threats of sexual violence.
In Arizona, demonstrators gathered outside of the home of Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, at one point warning: “We are watching you.”
On 11 December, the Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the state of Texas to throw out election results.
As the president’s legal and political windows continued to close, the language in pro-Trump online circles became increasingly violent.
On 12 December, a second Stop the Steal rally was held in the capital. Once again, thousands attended, and once again prominent far-right activists, QAnon supporters, fringe MAGA groups and militia movements were among the demonstrators.
Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s former national security advisor, likened the protesters to the biblical soldiers and priests breaching the walls of Jericho. This echoed the rally organisers’ call for “Jericho Marches” to overturn the election result.
Nick Fuentes, the leader of Groypers, a far-right movement that targets Republican politicians and figures they deem too moderate, told the crowd: “We are going to destroy the GOP!”
The march once again turned violent.
Then two days later, the Electoral College certified Mr Biden’s victory, one of the final steps required for him to take office.
On online platforms, supporters were becoming resigned to the view that all legal avenues were dead ends, and only direct action could save the Trump presidency.
Since election day, alongside Mr Flynn, Ms Powell and Mr Wood, a new figure had rapidly gained prominence among pro-Trump circles online.
Ron Watkins is the son of Jim Watkins, the man behind 8chan and 8kun – message boards filled with extreme language and views, violence and extreme sexual content. They gave rise to the QAnon movement.
In a series of viral tweets on 17 December, Ron Watkins suggested President Trump should follow the example of Roman leader Julius Caesar, and capitalise on “fierce loyalty of the military” in order to “restore the Republic”.
Ron Watkins encouraged his more than 500,000 followers to make #CrossTheRubicon a Twitter trend, referring to the moment when Caesar launched a civil war by crossing the Rubicon river in 49BC. The hashtag was also used by more mainstream figures – including the chairwoman of Arizona Republican Party, Kelli Ward.
In a separate tweet, Ron Watkins said Mr Trump must invoke the Insurrection Act, which empowers the president to deploy the military and federal forces.
Mr Trump met Ms Powell, Mr Flynn and others at a strategy meeting at the White House the following day, 18 December.
During the meeting, according to the New York Times, Mr Flynn called on Mr Trump to impose martial law and deploy the military to “rerun” the election.
The meeting further stoked online chatter about “war” and “revolution” in far-right circles. Many came to see the joint session of Congress on 6 January, normally a formality, as a last roll of the dice.
A wishful story began to take hold among QAnon and some MAGA supporters. They hoped that Vice-President Mike Pence, who was set to preside over the 6 January ceremony, would ignore the electoral college votes.
The president, they said, would then deploy the military to quell any unrest, order the mass arrest of the “deep state cabal” who had rigged the election and send them to Guantanamo Bay military prison.
Back in the land of reality, none of this was remotely feasible. But it launched a movement for “patriot caravans” to organise ride shares to help transport thousands from around the country to Washington DC on 6 January.
Long processions of vehicles flying Trump flags and sometimes towing elaborately decorated trailers gathered in car parks in cities including Louisville, Kentucky, Atlanta, Georgia, and Scranton, Pennsylvania.
“We are on our way,” one caravaner posted on Twitter with a picture of about two dozen supporters.
At an Ikea parking lot in North Carolina, another man showed off his truck. “The flags are a little tattered – we’ll call them battle flags now,” he said.
As it became clear that Mr Pence and other key Republicans would follow the law and allow Congress to certify Mr Biden’s win, the language towards them became vicious.
“Pence will be in jail awaiting trial for treason,” Mr Wood tweeted. “He will face execution by firing squad.”
Online discussion reached boiling point. References to firearms, war and violence were rife on self-styled “free speech” social platforms such as Gab and Parler, which are popular with Trump supporters, as well as on other sites.
In Proud Boys groups, where members had once supported police, some turned against authorities, whom they deemed to no longer be on their side.
Hundreds of posts on a popular pro-Trump site, TheDonald, openly discussed plans to cross barricades, carry firearms and other weapons to the march in defiance of Washington’s strict gun laws. There was open chatter about storming the Capitol and arresting “treasonous” members of Congress.
On Wednesday 6 January, Mr Trump addressed a crowd of thousands at the Ellipse, a park just south of the White House, for more than an hour.
Early on he encouraged supporters to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard”, but he ended with a warning. “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.
“So we’re going to, we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue… and we’re going to the Capitol.”
To some observers, the potential for violence that day was clear from the outset.
Michael Chertoff, former secretary of homeland security under President George W Bush, blamed the Capitol Police, who reportedly turned down offers of assistance from the much larger National Guard ahead of time. He characterised it as “the worst failure of a police force I can think of”.
“I think it was a very foreseeable potential negative turn of events,” Mr Chertoff said.https://emp.bbc.co.uk/emp/SMPj/2.36.7/iframe.htmlmedia captionPhone footage reveals chaotic scenes inside US Capitol
“To be blunt, it was obvious. If you read the newspaper and were awake, you understood that you’ve got a lot of people who have been convinced there was a fraudulent election. Some of them are extremists, and violent. Some of the groups openly said, ‘Bring your guns’.”
Still, many Americans were astonished by Wednesday’s scenes, like James Clark, a 68-year-old Republican from Virginia.
“I find it absolutely shocking. I didn’t think it would come to this,” he told the BBC.
But the signs were there for weeks. A hodgepodge of extreme and conspiratorial groups were convinced that the election was stolen. Online, they repeatedly talked about arming themselves, and violence.
Perhaps the authorities didn’t think their posts were serious, or specific enough to investigate. They now face pointed questions.
For Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January, Mr Chertoff is expecting a “much stronger showing” by security services than last Wednesday night.
But that hasn’t stopped many on extreme platforms calling for further violence and disruption on the day.
There are questions, too, for the major social media platforms, which enabled conspiracy theories to reach millions of people.
Late on Friday, Twitter deleted the accounts of Mr Flynn, the former Trump advisor, the “Kraken” lawyers Ms Powell and Mr Wood, and Mr Watkins. Then Mr Trump himself.
Arrests of those who stormed the Capitol continue. But most of the rioters still live in a parallel online universe – a subterranean world filled with alternative facts.
They have already come up with fanciful explanations to dismiss Mr Trump’s video statement, posted on Twitter the day after the riots, in which he acknowledged for the first time that “a new administration will be inaugurated on 20 January”.
He can’t possibly be giving up, they contend. Among their new theories – it’s not really him in the video but a computer-generated “deep fake”. Or perhaps the president is being held hostage.
Many still believe Mr Trump will prevail.
There’s no evidence behind any of this, but it does prove one thing.
No matter what happens to Donald Trump, the rioters who stormed the US Capitol are not backing down anytime soon.
Additional reporting: Olga Robinson and Jake Horton