Why the Rioters Thought They Could Get Away With It

Trump told supporters that loyalty to his cause is more important than fidelity to the law, and they took his message to heart.

Trump speaks to supporters.
Scott Olson / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Delivering accountability for all of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 will be challenging—but catching some of them will be very easy, because they made it so.

One of the things about last week’s attempted coup that continues to boggle the mind is the almost naive impunity many rioters showed. They stormed into the seat of the American government unashamed, unabashed, and many of them undisguised (though perhaps costumed). There may have been, at that moment, no place in America with a higher concentration of photojournalists and reporters who could and would record what happened. Despite their disdain for the press, that was a feature and not a bug for some of the rioters.

Many of them wore no masks, not only because they adhere to a political movement that derides the pandemic as a hoax, but also because they were not afraid to be known. They posted videos of themselves and selfies on social media, boasting about what they were doing. One posed for a photograph with his feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. Others gave interviews narrating their exploits. They patiently spelled out their names for reporters. They strode the halls with employee IDs dangling in plain sight. A man cheesed for the cameras while lugging a huge lectern out of the building. Another called the FBI to chat about it all. Having fomented their insurrection on the internet, the participants returned to its embrace as memes: Lectern Guy, Confederate Flag Guy, Horns Guy, Fur Pelt Guy.

There has been a great deal of commentary about the white impunity on display during the attempted coup. Not only is it difficult to imagine law enforcement taking such a relaxed posture about the demonstration ahead of time with a largely nonwhite crowd; it is also hard to imagine officers reacting so placidly to the actual assault. One need only look at how authorities handled Black Lives Matter protesters in Lafayette Square over the summer to see the difference. Beyond that, Donald Trump’s movement has been built on a foundation of racial grievance, bigotry, and white identity politics.

Race doesn’t explain everything about the riot, though. First, the underreaction by authorities has an ideological valence: Police might have simply seen the mob sympathetically because some were politically aligned with its agenda. Many rioters chanted pro-police slogans and brandished Blue Lives Matter paraphernalia, even as they overran police barriers. Some on-duty officers reportedly welcomed rioters in and took selfies with them, while some off-duty officers were part of the mob itself.

Second, the brazenness of the members of the mob remains distinctive. White protesters who joined BLM demonstrations over the summer may have been outraged by police crackdowns, but they were hardly surprised. Yet even in the act of storming the Capitol, the insurrectionists did not fear any adverse consequences. The now-infamous Elizabeth From Knoxville both was clear about what was happening—“We’re storming the Capitol! It’s a revolution!”—and also seemed genuinely affronted that the police sworn to protect the Capitol and government had the temerity to mace her.

Perhaps some of them truly thought that they would successfully topple the government and get away with it, an idea that is crazy, though not as crazy as one would like. (After all, the Capitol Police was unprepared, the National Guard was frozen, and the president and members of Congress had encouraged them.)

But the rioters were also imbued with the culture of impunity of the Trump era. This is a moment when bad behavior goes unpunished. The president has told his supporters that loyalty to his cause trumps fidelity to the law, and he has reinforced that message by handing out pardons to aides who get in trouble for putting him ahead of the law. The crowd he summoned to Capitol Hill on January 6 took that message to heart.

Trump did not invent this culture of impunity. Even before he broke onto the political scene, officeholders from David Vitter to Bob Menendez to Chris Christie were realizing that when caught in a scandal, they didn’t have to resign, and could just brazen it out. But Trump elevated this move from a tactic to a virtue. His 2016 campaign exalted getting away with it, whatever it was: fleecing lenders, buying off politicians, grabbing women by the crotch. He encouraged violence against protesters at rallies, and even spoke of paying legal fees when someone punched a demonstrator. (Given his miserliness, it’s doubtful he followed through. Keeping promises, like following the rules, is for suckers.)

Trump governed the way he campaigned. He systematically undermined the rule of law. He almost certainly obstructed justice in the midst of a probe into the 2016 election, but Special Counsel Robert Mueller shied away from saying so out of procedural concerns. When Trump tried to extort the Ukrainian government into assisting his reelection campaign, he was impeached by the House but—in the acme of his impunity—acquitted by the Senate.

This impunity extended to others. Members of his staff consistently violated the Hatch Act, but sanctions required the president to act, which he did not. More egregiously, he handed out pardons to criminals who not only broke the rules clearly but showed no penitence, such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Dinesh D’Souza. He also dangled and sometimes gave out pardons to people who broke the law on his behalf: Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort. Those who cooperated with prosecutors, such as Michael Cohen, were frozen out and even subjected to apparent Justice Department retaliation.

These favors were returned. Stone became a force behind the “Stop the Steal” movement that culminated on January 6; Flynn called for martial law after the election and spoke at the rally that day. No wonder that as the rioters swarmed toward the Capitol, they concluded that the rules didn’t apply to them. They might have even expected that Trump would pardon them if they got in trouble.

Perhaps he still will. But Trump’s encouragement of breaking the rules has always centered on cases where it can help him. The men and women who overran the Capitol on his behalf did their best, but they’re no longer of much use to him. Trump’s reputation and business may never recover, but he is unlikely to face formal repercussions for inciting the riot: Trump has vowed not to resign, Vice President Mike Pence is reportedly against invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove him, and though the House has the votes to impeach Trump (again), a Senate conviction is a long shot. So are criminal prosecutions after he leaves office. Many of the rioters, however, will have to face justice. Trump may operate with impunity, but it turns out that the rules still apply to them.