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There’s A Straight Line From Charlottesville To The Capitol

Wednesday’s attempted coup is just the natural extension of a presidency spent giving insurgents permission to come inside, kick their feet up, and tear down democracy.

Posted on January 7, 2021, at 5:53 p.m. ET

Left: White supremacists carry tiki torches by a statue of Robert E Lee in Charlottesville in 2017; right: Trump supporters outside the Capitol
BuzzFeed News; Getty Images (2)

In a 10-second TikTok posted yesterday from the Capitol by a now-deleted account, police move aside barriers set up around the Capitol grounds, effectively letting hundreds of pro–Donald Trump rioters onto federal property. Before a Trump supporter was fatally shot and three others would be confirmed dead, the rioters were given shockingly easy access to an otherwise secure building — come on in, just don’t make too much of a mess.

That sense of open invitation was the mood for most of the day, even hours later, when the National Guard arrived in the evening to disperse what was left of the crowd. The rioters’ entrance into the Capitol building and Senate offices was casual, easy, with surprisingly little conflict for a group of people who were attempting a deadly coup in one of the largest democracies in the world. Even before Congress reconvened to finish the certification vote, there was plenty of hand-wringing about how this armed insurrection wasn’t reflective of the country. “This is wrong,” tweeted Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina. “This is not who we are.” But, really, if something simultaneously shocking and woefully unsurprising happens — with a near-immediate justification and approval from the president — maybe it’s time to accept that this is exactly what America has always been.

And it’s not like we haven’t seen a near-identical version of this mayhem before. The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, showed a similarly neutered police response to white supremacists, neofascists, and neo-Nazis. Media outlets called it an “alt-right” rally at first, too squeamish to just call neo-Nazis what they are. Tucker Carlson went on television Wednesday night to talk about how important it is to “pause and learn a single thing” from the day’s events, as if hasn’t spent the last four years defending the indefensible — including Trump’s comments after Charlottesville.

The violence at the “Unite the Right” rally, which left multiple people dead (Heather Heyer, a demonstrator, and two state troopers) and dozens injured, prompted Google to no longer host the domain for the Daily Stormer — a neo-Nazi site that has been up and running since 2013. The May 2020 “American Patriot Rally” at the Michigan State Capitol also gave us images of angry white men, many with guns, standing on government property while the police passively watched. It all looks the same and sounds the same because it is the same.

A crowd of white men carry tiki torches and shout at night
Nurphoto / Getty Images

White supremacists march with tiki torches through the University of Virginia campus the night before the "Unite the Right" rally in 2017.

The events at the Capitol have once again left Americans and people around the world feeling both stunned and stoned. The predictability of this attempted coup is so humiliating and yet law enforcement did almost nothing to prevent it from starting in the first place. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Trump said to a massive crowd in front of the White House a few hours before the insurrection. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” And, indeed, he’s spent his entire administration stoking this fire and encouraging his supporters to accept nothing short of his continued reign, despite that not being how the US has functioned since its inception. The coup wasn’t really an errant act or a surprise twist; it was the final act in a movie that has spent years foreshadowing this inevitable conclusion.

On its surface, it seems wild that it was so effortless for insurrectionists to get into the Capitol. But the rioters had been planning it for weeks, with militant groups saying they were “ready for blood” and arming themselves with rifles, handguns, and explosive devices. They made TikToks about what “Jan. 6” would mean in history books; they printed sweatshirts to commemorate the occasion in advance. They weren’t thwarted in their planning, and they weren’t thwarted in their execution. Video taken at the Capitol shows not only that police were unequipped to deal with the crowd, but that officers seemed to just eventually give up and let the mob take over.

The National Guard was deployed, but only after Vice President Mike Pence approved the order, which Trump reportedly resisted. Insurgents — who, again, were storming the Capitol because they didn’t like the results of a fair and fraud-free election — took selfies with the police once inside, who were supposed to remove them from the building. And even after they’d entered the Capitol armed, they were largely free to go home without any repercussions. By Thursday morning, DC police officers had only arrested 70 people, mostly for curfew violations. (Comparatively, more than 400 people were arrested in DC during four days of the George Floyd protests.) Jake Angeli, a Trump supporter and follower of the QAnon mass delusion who got inside the Capitol, told the Globe and Mail that the police eventually stopped trying to prevent him and other rioters from entering. Later, Angeli said, police simply asked him to leave without arrest.

Trump stands behind a lectern with a presidential seal, in front of US flags waving in the wind; in the foreground, out-of-focus supporters wave signs and flags
Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

Donald Trump speaks to supporters from the Ellipse park near the White House, Jan. 6, 2021.

Joy Reid, speaking on MSNBC on Wednesday, stated it plainly: “The reason they could easily and casually, with their cameras on, film themselves throwing things through the walls of our Capitol, our property, going inside the Capitol, sitting in Speaker Pelosi’s office casually, taking pictures of themselves, have that played on Fox News — they know that they are not in jeopardy. ... White Americans are not afraid of the cops. White Americans are never afraid of the cops, even when they’re committing insurrection.”

The point isn’t that the police should teargas, shoot rubber bullets at, and otherwise threaten all citizens equally, but do they really need to gingerly help white Trump supporters down the steps of the Capitol after allowing them to storm it? It’s a stark difference from how Capitol Police has treated any number of Americans who have previously protested there, including the 43 Americans with disabilities who were dragged away and arrested in 2017. Black Lives Matter activists also saw a stark difference in how the police treated them last summer versus how cops treated militant groups storming the government building filled with senators and members of Congress in the middle of the day. The largely white mob even chased after a Black police officer — all largely without consequence.

But all the shock and surprise that it could somehow come to this feels deeply disingenuous. Trump has been giving his followers permission to do whatever they want in support of him for years. In December, Trump and his lawyers warned the Supreme Court that something like this would happen, saying that if the court didn’t take his side in challenging Joe Biden’s win, “the intense national and worldwide attention on the 2020 Presidential election only foreshadows the disruption that may well follow.”

For four years — longer, if you include all his campaign rallies, which were just one long dog whistle — Trump has given white supremacists nothing but permission to lie, to demand victory without earning it, and to attempt to overrule the most basic tenets of democracy. Just like during Charlottesville, these insurrectionists weren’t even afraid to show their faces. They weren’t afraid to come to a violent riot that left four people dead wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie or even their work ID, because they knew they had the license to do whatever they wanted. For most of his time as president, Trump has had support from most of his party; even after the attempted coup, more than 100 Republicans still voted to contest Biden’s election. Elected officials like Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz used their time during the proceedings to perpetuate the lie that the election was stolen and elevate new lies that the people storming the Capitol were actually antifa.

Following the Unite the Right rally, Trump tried to defend white supremacists by saying, “You had some very fine people on both sides.” He added that the white supremacists who were wielding tiki torches and chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” in Charlottesville were merely protesting “very quietly.” (This time, his supporters were chanting “stop the steal” and “victory or death.”) During the first presidential debate back in September, he told the far-right Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” when asked to condemn white supremacy. On Wednesday, in the midst of calls from nearly everyone to rebuke his supporters’ actions, Trump instead posted a video statement perpetuating the lie that the election was stolen from him, telling the rioters, “We love you, you’re very special,” and then mildly directing them to “go home.”

Even the response from social media platforms is pitiful. Twitter decided, many years too late, to start removing tweets from Trump that were either lies or calls to incite violence, although he has been spreading and promoting misinformation to nearly 89 million followers for years. The platform also suspended his account for 12 hours — but he was back online before most people woke up Thursday. Facebook’s decision today to ban his account indefinitely — well, at least for two weeks — does nothing to counteract the years of misinformation and outright lies it has allowed to flourish on its platform, from the QAnon mass delusion to conspiracy theories about the election being stolen. If, for the last four years, social media platforms weren’t actively refusing to host Trump and his supporters’ paranoid, inaccurate, dangerous, and often racist rhetoric, then perhaps it wouldn’t have grown so out of control.

A crowd of people carry flags that say "Trump 2020," "Don't Tread on Me," and "Keep America Great," among other signs outside the steps of the US Capitol building
Samuel Corum / Getty Images

Trump supporters outside the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021.

So many things Trump has said led to what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6: his refusal to accept that Barack Obama was born in the US and his active promotion of a racist birther conspiracy theory, the way he encouraged his followers to believe Hillary Clinton deserved to be imprisoned for her emails, his continued insistence that the 2020 election was rigged against him, even the act of retweeting a video of a man yelling “white power.” For years, he’s used this rhetoric to embolden domestic terrorists to storm a government building and attempt to overturn an election certification in order to hold on to power. His presidency was built on chaos, and it was designed to create fear. And for years it was supported by GOP leaders who are now panicking about their reelection potential and jumping ship in the 11th hour. Sen. Lindsey Graham can give a flimsy repudiation of Trump with 14 days left before Biden’s inauguration, but after four years of perpetuating the president’s lies, it means less than nothing.

The last 24 hours have given only minor glimmers that someone might hold Trump responsible for yesterday’s events, at the very least. Pelosi has called for the resignation of the Capitol Police chief while also preparing for Congress to impeach Trump if Pence doesn’t get rid of him first. Former attorney general Bill Barr, one of Trump’s most ardent supporters, called the violence at the Capitol building “outrageous and despicable.” John Kelly, Trump’s ex–White House chief of staff, is doing his own soul-searching. Dozens of high-ranking Republicans have also denounced Trump supporters’ behavior, this time going so far as actually saying that the president himself was inciting the violence we all saw. A few Cabinet members, including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, have resigned. But none of this matters without concrete consequences for Trump and his acolytes, and it’s especially important for the Biden administration to ensure that Trumpism — which will not go away on Jan. 20 — doesn’t continue to flourish.

Trump always promised he wouldn’t leave without a fight, and his base has always been listening and taking cues from him. It makes sense that the last pathetic gasp of 45 would be a grand encapsulation of a brief career in politics dedicated to sowing conspiracy theories, racism, sexism, distrust of the media, and a complete disregard for the safety of others. Biden taking his place in the White House won’t tamp down Trump supporters willing to storm the Capitol in his name; it’ll merely give them more ammunition for why it’s essential that they continue showing up in droves, with guns, demanding ownership over a country that never belonged to them — or him — in the first place. ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.