Mass Delusion in America

People in a pro-Trump mob near the U.S. Capitol
Jon Cherry / Getty

Insurrection Day, 12:40 p.m.: A group of about 80 lumpen Trumpists were gathered outside the Commerce Department, near the White House. They organized themselves in a large circle, and stared at a boombox rigged to a megaphone. Their leader and, for some, savior—a number of them would profess to me their belief that the 45th president is an agent of God and his son, Jesus Christ—was rehearsing his pitiful list of grievances, and also fomenting a rebellion against, among others, the klatch of treacherous Republicans who had aligned themselves with the Constitution and against him.

“A year from now we’re gonna start working on Congress,” Trump said through the boombox. “We gotta get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world. We gotta get rid of them.”

“Fuck Liz Cheney!” a man next to me yelled. He was bearded, and dressed in camouflage and Kevlar. His companion was dressed similarly, a Valhalla: Admit one patch sewn to his vest. Next to him was a woman wearing a full-body cat costume. “Fuck Liz Cheney!” she echoed. Catwoman, who would not tell me her name, carried a sign that read Take off your mask smell the bullshit. Affixed to a corner of the sign was the letter Q.

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“What’s your plan?” I asked her. People in the street, dozens at first, then hundreds, were moving past us, toward Pennsylvania Avenue, and then presumably on to the Capitol. “We’re going to stop the steal,” she answered. “If Pence isn’t going to stop it, we have to.” The treasonous behavior of Liz Cheney and many of her Republican colleagues was, to them, a fixed insurrectionary fact, but Pence was still in a plastic moment. Across the day, however, I could feel the Trump cult turning against him, as it turns against most everything.

I told the woman in the cat costume that I would walk with her group. “Only if you take off your mask,” she said. The media is the only real virus, she explained, knowing that I was a part of the media. I told her I would keep my mask on. Trumpists had asked me periodically to remove it. Some were polite about it, a few others not. It seemed to me that only 5 percent or so of the thousands of people gathered for the insurrection wore masks. At one point, when I was caught in the thickest part of the crowd, near the Ellipse, a man told me, “Your glasses are fogging up.”

“Yep, masks,” I said.

“You don’t have to wear it. It’s not a mandate.”

“No, I do.”

“Why?”

“There’s a pandemic.”

“Yeah, right.”

We will find out shortly if today’s insurrection was also a super-spreader event. What I do know, after spending hours sponging up Trumpist paranoia, conspiracism, and cultishness, is that this gathering was not merely an attempted coup but also a mass-delusion event, not something that can be explained adequately through the prism of politics. Its chaos was rooted in psychological and theological phenomena, intensified by eschatological anxiety. One man I interviewed this morning, a resident of Texas who said his name was Don Johnson (I did not trust this to be his name), told me that the country was coming apart, and that this dissolution presaged the End Times. “It’s all in the Bible,” he said. “Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible. Get yourself ready.”

The conflation of Trump and Jesus was a common theme at the rally. “Give it up if you believe in Jesus!” a man yelled near me. People cheered. “Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump!” Louder cheers.

I would not compromise on the matter of my mask, but the woman in the cat costume and her friends allowed me to come along anyway. We turned from 14th Street into the sea of people moving down Pennsylvania Avenue. It did not strike me, even then, that this mob would actually storm the Capitol. I assumed, in a non-insurrectionary failure of imagination, that they would gather on the Capitol’s sloping lawn, sing Lee Greenwood anthems, and curse Mitt Romney. There were Proud Boys—or at least Proud Boy–adjacent boys—in this group; they would not speak to me but were also not overtly hostile. (I noticed on two occasions groups of Proud Boy–looking men smoking marijuana, which, all things being equal, was a good thing.)

“Where are you all from?” I asked the woman in the cat costume. “Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Illinois, all kinds of states,” she said. “Are those guys Proud Boys?” I asked. “They’re American boys,” she answered. “Do you believe in the ideas of QAnon, that there’s a deep state that is a cult of pedophiles?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” she said, attitudinally. My mask continued to bother her. “It’s very rude,” she said.

The streets became more crowded the closer we got to the Capitol. I lost track of my group. I tried to interview a bunch of other Trump supporters, mostly unsuccessfully. Earlier in the day, just west of the Washington Monument, a group of insurrectionists turned on another reporter—I was not able to figure out the identity of my masked compatriot—chanting the word guillotine (“Make guillotines great again” was one rally-poster theme).

The crowd continued to grow. It was then that I sensed the mob, goaded by its master, would not be pacified. “Stop the steal!” someone near me said to his companions.

We were close to the Capitol. Large formations were now approaching the building. It stood there gleaming, not yet defiled.