For weeks, President Trump and his supporters have been proclaiming January 6, 2021 as a reckoning day. A day to gather in Washington to “save America” and “stop the theft” of the elections which he had decisively lost but which he still claimed – often through a venomous brew of conspiracy theories – that he won by a landslide.
And when that day came, the President gathered thousands of his supporters with an incendiary speech. Then a large crowd of these supporters, many of them waving Trump flags and wearing Trump regalia, forcibly stormed the Capitol to take over the government chambers and sent elected officials into hiding out of fear for their safety.
But if the chaos at the Capitol shocked the country, one of the most troubling aspects of that most troubling day was that it was to be seen coming. The President himself had almost circled it on the nation’s calendar.
“Big protest in DC on January 6th,” Trump tweeted on December 19th, just one of several of his tweets promoting the day. “Be there, be wild!”
And his supporters took the president at his word.
“If you are not ready to use force to defend civilization, then be ready to accept barbarism,” a member of the Red State Secession group posted on Facebook on Tuesday, the eve of the designated day, June 6th. January.
Underneath, dozens of people posted comments that included photos of the weapons – including assault rifles – they wanted to bring to the rally. There were also comments related to “occupying” the Capitol and forcing Congress to overthrow the November election that Joseph R. Biden Jr. won – and Mr. Trump lost.
Renée DiResta, a researcher studying online movement at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said the violent disruption at the Capitol on Wednesday was the result of online movements on closed social media networks where allegations of election fraud and stolen elections were oxygenated found.
“This is a demonstration of the very real effects of echo chambers,” said Ms. DiResta.
The roots of one of the darkest moments in American democracy stretched back at least to November 4th, the day after the presidential election that Mr Trump would decisively lose to Mr Biden. On that day, the first Stop the Steal group was formed on Facebook – and it started quickly, realizing 100 new members every 10 seconds at one point. The group grew to 320,000 followers before Facebook closed it.
As hundreds of new Stop the Steal groups emerged, Facebook became more aggressive as they closed, causing some far-right supporters of Mr. Trump – including some who were involved in militias and conspiracy groups – to move on to new, less restrictive groups on Social -Media sites including Parler and Gab. And it was in these places that a movement to organize a pro-Trump protest rally in Washington gained momentum.
Several right-wing activists, including Ali Alexander, a Republican agent previously known as Ali Akbar, emerged as the leader of Stop the Steal. Their conspiracy theories and factual allegations of election fraud exactly mirrored the baseless allegations that Mr. Trump had made.
By mid-December, dozens of lawsuits by Trump supporters had failed, often pathetically. Then, on December 14, Mr. Biden secured enough votes in the electoral college to confirm his victory. The final formality before his inauguration on January 20 was the official vote count by Congress, a pro forma paperwork ceremony overseen by Vice President Mike Pence.
On Jan. 6.
Mr Alexander and others seized the date, urging Trump supporters everywhere to move closer to the Capitol while Congress handled a historically glorified shuffling of papers – albeit sometimes with grace, when Vice President Al Gore announced the names of winner George W. Bush and the Loser: Al Gore.
The moment has traditionally been viewed as further confirmation of the transfer of power in the republic. But Mr Trump and his supporters have publicly labeled this year’s formality as criminal, fraudulent – even treasonous.
As his aides and supporters did what they could to forestall the inevitable – a lawsuit from Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, a 36-page report on election fraud by Trump adviser Peter Navarro – Mr Trump tweeted on.
December 27th: “See you on January 6th in Washington, DC. Dont miss it. Follow information. “
December 30th: “January 6th, see you in DC!”
January 1st: “The BIG Protest Rally in Washington, DC will be on January 6th at 11:00 AM. Location details follow. StopTheSteal! “
On the same day, a supporter misspelled the word “cavalry” when he tweeted, “Calvary is coming, Mr. President!”
Mr. Trump replied: “A great honor!”
The next day, January 2, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and eleven other Republican Senators joined another Republican, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and more than 100 Republican members of the House of Representatives to object to the certification of Mr. Biden’s election .
Meanwhile, the extreme fringes of Trump supporters – including the Proud Boys and other groups known to instigate violence, as well as conspiracy groups like QAnon – were investigating what they could do in Washington on Jan. 6. In special chats in Gab, they discussed the logistics, where they should meet and which streets would bring them to the Capitol. The Red-State Secession Facebook page even encouraged its 8,000 followers to share the addresses of “enemies,” including those for federal judges, members of Congress, and prominent progressives.
A sense of the seeping problems came with a widespread video of a Trump supporter facing Senator Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican and frequent Trump critic, at Salt Lake International Airport while waiting for a flight to Washington on Tuesday . When the supporter asked why he did not support the president’s allegations of electoral fraud, Mr Romney said he would obey the constitution.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t even legally elected,” said the person as they followed the senator to the gate. “You’re a joke, an absolute joke, it’s a disgusting shame.”
Meanwhile, members of the Red-State Secession’s Facebook page were talking in the language of the uprising.
Then came January 6th, the day of reckoning. Thousands gathered in downtown Washington to form rivers of Trump red that mixed the Trump and American flags. According to Enrique Tarrio, the group’s chairman, there were between 2,000 and 2,500 members of the Proud Boys in the crowd.
Any hope that Mr Pence would block Congressional confirmation of Mr Biden’s election – and thereby yield to immense pressure from Mr Trump – was dashed before noon. Mr Pence said in a letter that the Vice President has no such power.
“The presidency belongs to the American people and only them,” he wrote.
Then, at noon, Mr. Trump began giving a speech to his excited followers.
In the coming afternoon hours, Mr. Trump would condemn his Vice President for not having “the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our constitution.” In the hours to come, his followers, wearing flags and clothes bearing his name, would rush the Capitol in a terrible vortex that would force a lockdown and shoot a woman.
Those who flocked to the Capitol included well-known QAnon characters and white supremacists. Jake Angeli, a QAnon supporter known for his painted face and horned hat, roamed the Senate. Tim Gionet, a neo-Nazi conspiracy theorist named “Baked Alaska”, would take over a Senate office.
But first came the President’s remarks made on the ellipse south of the White House.
“We will never give up,” he said. “We will never admit. It will never happen. They don’t admit when it comes to death. Our country has enough. We won’t take it anymore. “
Mr Trump ended his 70-minute admonition by encouraging everyone to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to give the Capitol Republicans “the kind of pride and boldness they need to take our country back”. Then the President of the United States returned to the White House a safe distance from the chaos to flourish.
Alan Feuer contributed to the coverage. Kitty Bennett and Jack Begg did research.