WASHINGTON - The problem with devotion to a prophet of falsehoods is that reality eventually intrudes.
By mid-December, President Donald Trump’s fraudulent claims of a rigged election were failing in humiliating fashion. Lawsuits were being laughed out of courts. State officials, including Republicans, were refusing to bend to his will and alter the vote. And in a seemingly decisive blow on Dec. 14 the electoral college certified the win for Joe Biden.
It was a disorienting sequence for legions of supporters who believed Trump’s lies that the election had been stolen from him but that he would prevail and reclaim it - especially those who had already descended into deeper, more disturbing conspiracies.
Some clung to the hope that Vice President Mike Pence would use his procedural role on Jan. 6 to write an alternate ending. But as it became clear that Pence would refuse with the backing of most Senate Republicans, Trump’s most ardent abettors began planning the siege of the Capitol.
“War it is,” read a post on TheDonald.win, a rabid pro-Trump forum that exploded in fury at post-election realities. “We kill now,” said another user identified only as “AngloMercia.”
Sam Andrews, a Missouri gun-range manager and former member of the Oath Keepers movement, appeared on a video that spread rapidly on right-wing sites urging followers to descend on Washington “armed, in large groups.” A Trump army, Andrews said, needed to arrive “en-masse in D.C., armed, demanding, not asking, that we get a peaceful resolution on these voter corruption issues.”
By Dec. 19, Trump was, as he so often does, feeding these flames with accelerant. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he tweeted. “Be there, will be wild!”
Come they did. And by day’s end, insurrectionist fantasies nursed online culminated in one of the most harrowing, horrifying events in the 244-year history of U.S. democracy.
The sacking of the Capitol was enabled by a host of factors including catastrophic security failures now being investigated. But the temporary seizure of a global seat of power was, at its core, an outgrowth of delusional and destructive forces cultivated online and unleashed by the president.
Among the dead were Brian Sicknick, a U.S. Capitol Police officer, and Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran whose social media postings trace a descent into deep-state conspiracies.
Some Americans have traveled a path to radicalization that reminds current and former U.S. national security officials of the indoctrination of Islamist militants.
Cindy Storer, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst, said that adherents in both cases were drawn to an ideology that emphasizes a loss in control or status. “We had this glorious past and it got screwed up and now we need to do something about it,” she said, summarizing the mind-set. What makes such movements turn violent, she said, is the additional belief that some other entity - usually based on race, religion, or nationality - is to blame for perceived humiliation.
“The world used to be a better place and it’s someone else’s fault that it isn’t any longer,” Storer said, noting that Trump’s entire approach to politics employs this pervasive sense of victimhood and demonization of enemies.
“Trump played on and amplified these messages” leading up to the attack on the Capitol, she said. The conspiracy theories that he put forward, echoed by allies and prominent Republican lawmakers, morphed for thousands of followers into a call for action.
In Greenville, N.C., Gena Shinn, a cardiac sonographer, hung on the president’s pronouncements and by early December had reached what seemed an inescapable conclusion: Her country, the world’s greatest democracy, was in peril.
“You have just witnessed a coup,” she wrote on Facebook on Dec. 9, “the end of our constitutional republic.” In the days that followed, even as Shinn shopped for Christmas presents for her 13-year-old son and decorated her home for the holidays, she spent hours online following Trump’s desperate maneuvers to reverse the election.
At times, she had faith that he would prevail. “EVERYONE...CALM DOWN. NO NEED TO PANIC,” she wrote when the Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit brought by Republican-led states alleging election fraud. Electoral college delegates might reject the vote tallies on Dec. 14, she prayed. She read a report on Parler, a right-wing alternative to Twitter, suggesting that Biden was a member of the KKK and another promising that Trump’s director of national intelligence would soon release a dossier documenting the full extent of foreign interference in the 2020 election.
But the DNI’s bombshell report never came, and Shinn’s attention shifted to the Jan. 6 protest in Washington that Trump depicted as a final stand against tyranny. “We all need to stand up and fight back. NOW is our time,” she wrote in response to posts from groups such as wildprotest.com touting the rally.
In California, 3,000 miles away, Babbitt, a former Air Force airman and co-owner of a struggling swimming pool supply company, was consumed by the same apocalyptic pronouncements. Her Twitter feed starts in November with retweets, but builds to a conspiratorial crescendo.
“Nothing will stop us...They can try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours,” she wrote the day before she was shot and killed while trying to breach a police barrier in the Capitol. “Dark to light!” her message ended.
By early January, raiding Congress had emerged as a clear objective in dozens of far-right forums.
“If Congress illegally certifies Biden,” a Jan. 4 post on TheDonald.win said, “Trump would have absolutely no choice but to demand us to storm Congress and kill/beat them up for it.” Some referred to Trump as GEOTUS: “God Emperor of the United States.”
Discussion boards filled with messages on implements to bring for violent confrontation, including riot shields and flagsticks that could also serve as bayonets or clubs for breaking windows. Some sought guidance on how to smuggle weapons into the District of Columbia with its strict gun possession restrictions.
“There is not enough cops in DC to stop what is coming,” wrote one user.
Trump continued to goad them. “JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!” he tweeted on Dec. 30. But his scheme to derail certification would have remained in the realm of fringe fantasy were it not legitimized by some Republican lawmakers.
When Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., declared his intent to object to accepting the Biden victory in Arizona, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and 11 other Republican senators fell in line behind him.
Their decisions to back Trump’s baseless charges further convinced fanatics of their cause’s righteousness, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and senior fellow for homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Hoffman described radicalized Trump loyalists as a floating force of intimidation that Trump has been able to mobilize against shifting adversaries and targets. " ‘End the lockdown’ translates very smoothly into ‘stop the steal,’ " Hoffman said, referring to rallies last year by Trump supporters against state measures to contain the coronavirus.
The 2017 protests in Charlottesville, Va., showed the potential of such a mob to overwhelm law enforcement, Hoffman said. The occupation of the Michigan Capitol last spring, and the exposed plot to take the governor hostage, provided templates for this month’s assault in Washington.
“When you have a president pushing them to descend on state capitols and take them over with few consequences,” Hoffman said, “the next logical step is to move from states’ to the nation’s capital.”
One after another, far-right groups declared their violent intentions.
The “Three Percenters” - a name based on the erroneous belief that only 3 percent of U.S. colonists fought the British - posted a short manifesto expressing their preparedness “to take back our country from the pure evil that is conspiring to steal our country away from the American people.”
The statement mentioned Cruz, and praised Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and Lin Wood as inspirational figures in this looming battle. But it voiced particular reverence for former U.S. Army Gen. Michael Flynn, who after being pardoned by Trump appeared at rallies, spread falsehoods about the election and urged using the U.S. military to reverse the election outcome.
“We are ready to enter into battle with General Flynn leading the charge,” the Three Percenters’ statement said.
On the eve of the assault on the Capitol, Flynn delivered an incendiary speech riddled with falsehoods, claiming that more dead voters had cast ballots for Biden than filled the cemeteries of Gettysburg and Normandy.
He then issued a veiled threat to members of Congress. “Those of you who are feeling weak tonight, those of you who don’t have the moral fiber in your body - get some tonight because tomorrow we the people are going to be here,” Flynn said.
The next morning, Giuliani appeared before the same crowd and called for a “trial by combat.” Then, as Pence made his way to the Senate chamber, Trump took the stage - behind sheets of bulletproof glass - and instructed the sea of red-clad supporters to follow the vice president and refuse to accept anything short of victory.
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Trump said. “You have to show strength, you have to be strong.”
Clint Watts, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, compared the rhetoric of Flynn, Giuliani and Trump with the radicalizing messages from leaders of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State that so worried U.S. security officials in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“A decade ago, we worried [about] al-Qaeda ideologues inciting violence with speech, sending terrorists into places like [the] Capitol,” Watts said in a Jan. 7 post on Twitter. “What did we observe over the past week by our elected leaders, their surrogates and their supporters?”
Like many who gathered in Washington on Wednesday, Shinn and Babbitt weren’t especially interested in the speeches from Trump and his allies, which were just restatements of the screeds they had already absorbed on social media.
In an interview, Shinn said she came to Washington for one purpose: to confront lawmakers who Trump insisted had stolen the election. “We went in to storm the Capitol so our voices would be heard,” she said.
Before Trump had even finished speaking, Shinn began marching down the National Mall toward the Capitol dome. She was joined by Babbitt and Thomas Baranyi, a 28-year-old from New Jersey, who wore a Trump baseball cap and a New York Giants sweatshirt.
As he marched Baranyi, in an interview posted online, recalled gazing up at the U.S. Justice Department building. Through the windows he said he could see federal workers “filming us and laughing at us.”
Babbitt, meanwhile, was filming herself for her social media followers: “We’re walking to the Capitol in a mob. There’s an estimated 3 million people here today,” she said, using an utterly fictitious number.
Shinn, who entered the Capitol hoping to confront House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was standing only 20 feet from Baryani and Babbitt as the two tried to push their way through a hallway window inside the Capitol. She could hear armed officers rushing up the stairs behind her.
Just in front of her, a police officer fired and struck Babbitt, who fell back into Baryani. Her body started to spasm. Blood spurted from her neck, nose and mouth. Minutes later Baryani, who had come to Washington animated by Trump’s fantasies, described in a trembling voice the gory reality he had just encountered.
“It was a joke to them until we got inside and then all of a sudden guns came out. We have to do something. People have to do something, because this could be you or your kids,” he said, holding up his hand, still coated in Babbitt’s blood.
For all its horror, experts said the event could have been - and perhaps was intended to be - scarier and deadlier.
Law enforcement officials have recovered suspected pipe bombs. Images showed armored people inside the Capitol brandishing plastic bands used to cuff prisoners - an indication, Hoffman said, that some intended to take lawmakers hostage.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a constant target of Trump’s ire for his role in the president’s impeachment, said that during lawmakers’ frantic evacuation he was urged to stay out of sight of the mob by a worried Republican colleague.
“I know these people and can talk to them,” the Republican said, according to a statement from Schiff, who did not identify his GOP counterpart. “You are in a whole different situation.”
Shinn, who said a police officer pushed her down the Capitol’s steps as she was leaving the building, still clung to the belief that she had been engaged in a righteous, peaceful protest sanctioned by the president.
In its aftermath, she embraced a new delusion advanced by some Republican lawmakers that the violence was the work of leftists who had infiltrated an otherwise peaceful gathering.
“We were unarmed, American citizens who came to Washington to have our voices heard, and now we’re being called rioters and domestic terrorists,” she said in an interview.
She spent the day after the riot driving around Washington with a friend flying a Trump and QAnon flag from the back of their convertible. She was bruised in her tumble down the steps, but clung as tightly as ever to the president’s evidence-free conspiracies.
“We were not only robbed of our vote, we have had our voices silenced,” she wrote on her Facebook page as she prepared to return home. “The fight is NOT over...”
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The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, Dalton Bennett and Julie Tate contributed to this report.