WASHINGTON — An armed man enters a pizza shop after spending days online consuming conspiracy theories of Democrats running a sex trafficking ring. A Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist drafts what prosecutors called a hit list of Democrats and media personalities. A drunk man invokes the president’s name as he hurls anti-Muslim obscenities at a family on a beach.
President Donald Trump came into office pledging “law and order,” and his Republican defenders often point to the confirmation of 200-plus federal judges as his signature achievement. But Trump’s presidency has also been defined by violent lawlessness. It has emboldened racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, misogynist, white supremacist, and white nationalist forces, and it has seen record spikes in hate crimes and a surge in violence fueled by mass delusions generated online.
The deadly riots at the US Capitol were the culmination of a procession of criminal activity over the past four years that repeatedly served as a warning of these growing threats. Some cases were directly linked to Trump’s rhetoric and the conspiracy theories and lies about Democratic politicians and the news media that he and his Republican allies have encouraged. A few defendants in these earlier cases asked for leniency on the grounds that they were radicalized by conspiracies and hate speech they consumed online — and, in the case of a man who pleaded guilty to sending pipe bombs to news outlets and prominent Democrats in 2018, by Trump himself.
The Jan. 6 insurrection was rooted in many of the same motivations, arrest records, and camera footage from the day show. Trump’s supporters spent the past two months absorbing, and regurgitating across social media, lies pushed by the president and his allies that the presidential election was rigged and tainted by widespread voter fraud. In the weeks after Election Day, Trump repeatedly used the word “fight” in tweets encouraging his supporters to join him in denying President-elect Joe Biden’s win and told them to “fight much harder” at a rally shortly before they attacked the Capitol building.
BuzzFeed News has spent the past four years chronicling incidents of violence rooted in racism, anti-immigrant fervor, and right-wing conspiracy theories. Images from last week’s riot at the Capitol underscored the empowerment of white supremacist and other racist ideologies under Trump. The president’s supporters brought Confederate flags and hung nooses; one man was photographed wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, and others were seen flashing the “OK” hand sign that’s become a white power symbol.
The insurrection at the Capitol was shocking, but it also felt familiar. That hundreds of people would launch an assault on the Capitol with the president’s approval might have been unthinkable four years ago, but a survey of high-profile cases since the 2016 election show that what happened last week fits the pattern of hate-inspired criminal activity that has become a hallmark of the Trump era.
December 4, 2016
The real-life danger posed by the unchecked spread of right-wing conspiracy theories online became clear almost immediately after Trump won the 2016 election. Edgar Maddison Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, armed with a loaded AR-15–style gun and a .38-caliber pistol. Before traveling to Washington, he had spent days watching YouTube videos and reading about “Pizzagate” — the false theory that the restaurant was a hub for a child sex trafficking ring tied to Hillary Clinton and other high-profile Democratic operatives, according to court records.
Pizzagate took root online in the final days of the 2016 election among Trump supporters. Welch was so convinced by what he’d seen online that he’d traveled from his home in Salisbury, North Carolina, to investigate for himself, he later told police; when he couldn’t open a locked door in the restaurant using a butter knife, he opened fire at it. (No one was injured.) He pleaded guilty to weapons charges and was sentenced to four years in prison. He finished his sentence in May 2020, according to records from the Federal Bureau of Prisons; court records show that he’s serving a three-year term of supervised release back in North Carolina.
February 22, 2017
Trump kicked off his 2016 campaign with racist rhetoric against Mexicans, made good on his pledge to try to ban Muslims from entering the US shortly after taking office, and offered tacit — and sometimes explicit — support for white supremacists and the alt-right. He inspired racist, bullying, and threatening behavior, and 2017 marked the beginning of a three-year trend of dramatic increases in hate crimes, according to FBI data (a report for 2020 hasn’t been released yet.). A Kansas man is spending life in prison after killing an Indian man and injuring two others at a bar in February 2017; he called one of the men a “terrorist” and shouted, “Get out of my country,” according to charging documents. A white supremacist convicted of killing two men in May 2017 who tried to stop him from harassing teenagers on a train in Portland, Oregon — including one who was wearing a hijab — is serving multiple life sentences.
In another incident in May 2017, a man was captured on camera berating a family with anti-Muslim threats and obscenities on a beach in South Padre Island, Texas. The video shows him menacing the family and saying, “Donald Trump will stop you. Donald Trump will stop you! Donald Trump got you motherfuckers. Watch... watch”; he was arrested for public intoxication.
August 11–12, 2017
A white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding others. James Alex Fields Jr. was found guilty of first-degree murder, among other crimes, and is serving a life sentence in prison. Heyer had been part of counterprotests organized in response to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that day. The event was preceded the night before by a torchlit march across the University of Virginia campus, where participants chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans.
A few days later, Trump offered support to the white supremacists involved in the demonstrations; he also endorsed keeping the monuments of Confederate generals that they had gone to Virginia to defend.
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides," Trump said at the time. "You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
October 26, 2018
Cesar Altieri Sayoc was charged with sending more than a dozen pipe bombs addressed to prominent Democrats, including former president Barack Obama, President-elect Joe Biden, and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris. The Florida man drove a van covered in pro-Trump and right-wing conspiracy theory stickers, and his lawyers told the judge that he’d been radicalized by Trump’s tweets, conservative media, and reading conspiracy theories online. He is serving 20 years in prison.
October 27, 2018
A neo-Nazi allegedly killed 11 people and wounded five police officers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The suspected gunman, Robert Bowers, had posted white supremacist screeds against Jews and immigrants online, and was active on Gab, a social media platform popular among members of the alt-right. Bowers had indicated that he didn’t support Trump because he believed the president was controlled by Jews; he wrote that he had never “touched a maga hat.” The case is pending, and no trial date is set yet; the Justice Department has said it plans to seek the death penalty.
November 9, 2018
Federal prosecutors charged Jeffrey Clark Jr. with weapon possession crimes and linked him to racist, anti-Semitic, and white nationalist sentiments online. They noted that the Washington, DC, resident had described himself on Gab as “Aka DC Stormer (RIP), Meth-Smoking, Pipe Bomb making, mailman-murding, #Fed, #DemoKKKrat, Che Guevara of the altright.” His family members, concerned that he might be a danger to himself or others after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, had contacted the FBI and reported that he was “really riled up” and had talked about killing Jews and Black people, according to charging papers.
Prosecutors initially argued there might be links between Clark and the Tree of Life shooter — he had posted that the victims “deserved exactly what happened to them and so much worse,” according to court filings — but later walked that back. He pleaded guilty to possessing firearms while using a controlled substance, and was sentenced to the 10 months he’d already served while his case was pending; at his sentencing hearing, he tried to distance himself from “the darkest corners of social media,” according to the Washington Post.
February 14, 2019
A US Coast Guard lieutenant was charged with drug and weapon crimes, and the government alleged that he was plotting a white supremacist terror attack and intended “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” Prosecutors presented the court with statements that Christopher Paul Hasson had allegedly written that called for violence to protect white people, as well as an apparent hit list of prominent Democrats and media personalities. He wasn’t charged with crimes directly related to the alleged terror plot, but it was a key part of the government’s case in arguing for a steep sentence. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison.
August 3, 2019
Twenty-three people died and many more were wounded when a gunman opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The man charged in the attack, Patrick Crusius, had written a 2,300-word document filled with anti-immigrant language, referring to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and claiming he was defending against “cultural and ethnic replacement,” according to the indictment. His social media activity showed he was a Trump supporter, but he also wrote in the document that his beliefs predated the president. He added that any effort to link the attack to the president’s rhetoric was “fake news” — adopting Trump’s language in trying to undermine the press. Crusius pleaded not guilty to federal hate crimes charges; there is no trial date yet.
September 23, 2019
A US Army soldier was charged with sharing information about building explosives and strategizing about how to attack then–Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke and “a major American news network.” Jarrett William Smith entered a guilty plea, and his lawyers argued in a sentencing memo that he was a “target” of an online “extremist movement” that took advantage of his “years of dejection, isolation, and deep desire for acceptance by others, as well as being a young, single, white, male.” He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
March 25, 2020
A man in Texas was charged with making threats via Facebook to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. “Shoot to kill. This is a revolution,” the man wrote online, according to charging documents. “This is our world we just allow you to live it in. You will all remember that when we are done with you!” The case is pending.
October 8, 2020
The US response to the coronavirus pandemic swiftly became a political battleground, with Trump tweeting at his supporters to “liberate” the Democrat-led states that had taken a more aggressive approach to limiting the spread of the deadly virus. Less than a month before the November election, the FBI announced that six members of a right-wing militant group had been arrested and charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Prosecutors alleged that the men were motivated in part by anger at the governor’s pandemic restrictions; Trump had repeatedly attacked Whitmer and explicitly tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” that spring. In a livestreamed video in June, one of the defendants had complained about gyms being closed and called Whitmer “this tyrant bitch,” according to charging papers. The men charged in the conspiracy allegedly participated in firearms and other combat training exercises, attempted to build their own explosive devices, and bought an 800,000-volt Taser. The defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the case is pending.
October 21, 2020
Federal prosecutors in Maryland charged a man with leaving a letter on a neighbor’s doorstep that threatened Biden, Harris, and supporters of their presidential campaign; the neighbor had Biden–Harris signs in their yard. The handwritten letter, which included graphic descriptions of violence against Biden and Harris, stated, “This is a warning to anyone reading this letter if you are a Biden/Harris supporter you will be targeted.” According to the criminal complaint, the man admitted to writing and leaving the letter; the case is pending.
November 10, 2020
A man in New York was charged with posting messages online threatening violence against Democrats after the election. His messages on social media and on a militant group’s website included references to claims of a stolen election, according to charging papers. One post read, “All right thinking people need to hit the streets while these scumbags are celebrating and start blowing them away.” The man pleaded not guilty, and the case is pending.
December 9, 2020
A man was arrested after allegedly bringing what he described as a “bomb” to the office of the Spokane County Democrats in Washington state and setting a fire; investigators later determined it wasn’t actually an explosive device but a collection of gasoline, oil, toilet paper, and a camping lighter. The man told police he didn’t align himself with either political party but was angry with the entire government. He was charged with arson, and the case is pending.
January 6, 2021
Dozens of people have been charged to date in connection with the attack on the US Capitol. The allegations range from lower-level crimes, like disorderly conduct and entering restricted areas, to more serious weapons charges. One man who was arrested on the Capitol grounds as police were clearing out the scene later in the day was allegedly carrying a loaded handgun, ammunition, a pocketknife, and a gas mask, according to charging papers. A Trump supporter who was seen with a holster on his hip, carrying plastic zip-tie restraints in the Capitol, was arrested after photographs of him went viral and raised concerns that rioters had hoped to kidnap or detain people inside the building. Another man was charged with bringing 11 mason jars filled with explosive materials to the area — the jars contained a combination of melted Styrofoam and gasoline that would have the effect of napalm, according to the government; police found a handgun and assault rifle in his truck.
Trump defended the rioters on Twitter and continued to push the lie of a stolen election, and he was finally banned from the platform on Jan. 8. Over the weekend, the FBI issued a bulletin warning of more armed protests by Trump supporters at state capitols across the country and in Washington leading up to Biden’s swearing-in on Jan. 20, according to ABC. On Tuesday, Trump told reporters at the White House, “We want absolutely no violence,” while simultaneously accusing Democrats of causing “tremendous anger” and posing “tremendous danger to our country” if they went ahead with a second presidential impeachment.
Mary McCord, a former top national security official at the Justice Department until she left in mid-2017, said that Trump’s hateful rhetoric and encouragement of the most dangerous right-wing corners of the internet over the past four years “all leads to this moment of more false claims, more conspiracy theories, claims of the election being stolen, claims it's a responsibility to fight, fight, fight and never concede.”
“The followers who have been listening to him and getting his praise and love for four years … they marched down the street and violently overran the Capitol,” said McCord, who tracks domestic extremism as legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center. “They thought that’s what he wanted them to do.” ●