The Ellipse was a deep sea of delusion. Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters drove or bused or flew from all corners of the United States to meet here, in the treeless space beside the White House, in their quest to overturn the results of the 2020 election with the help of congressional Republicans. “As I live and die, we will never give up until we have a fair-and-square election!” a small child in a rainbow hat yelled into a megaphone.
But the morning’s fevered theorizing about election fraud and “Stop the steal!” chants, which at first felt more pitiful than threatening, gave way to violence by the afternoon. The mob stormed the Capitol, chased police officers up the marble steps, and forced the evacuation of the vice president as hundreds of lawmakers and congressional staff huddled under desks and reached for gas masks. It was a grave moment for American democracy, and a clarifying one as well: Today was one of the few times that Trump’s most extreme supporters actually encountered the Republican lawmakers who have stoked their anger and encouraged their delusions for years.
The politicians who enabled Trump did not expect the president’s followers to ever break through the glass windows of the Capitol and ascend the Senate dais. They did not anticipate that a man wearing a Camp Auschwitz shirt or others, with Confederate flags or dressed as fur-clad Vikings, would breach the building; that a woman would lie dying by one of the building’s entrances, shot by Capitol Police. Trump, for them, has been a blunt instrument they can use to retain power, appoint conservative judges, and pass tax cuts. Today, these Republicans finally confronted the monster they’ve created.
The insurrectionists started their march to the Capitol before Trump had even finished his midday address at the Ellipse. Members of Congress had just begun to debate the certification of Arizona’s electors. “Move in—let them hear your voice!” a man shouted from the West Lawn, urging people across the barricades that other members of the mob had crushed earlier. As the area around the Capitol filled up, insurrectionists began climbing the scaffolding set up for Joe Biden’s imminent inauguration. Capitol Police fired pepper balls. Some Trump supporters, recognizing that their rally had turned into something more sinister, left the area. (“I was just trying to demonstrate peacefully,” I heard a man tell his female companion as the two quickly fled the scene.) But many others moved in closer, pulling gas masks out of their backpacks, apparently well prepared for this moment.
Steve and Wendy Meek, who’d driven to the nation’s capital from northeast Ohio, were watching the chaos from a few yards away, covering their faces to avoid choking on the swirling clouds of pepper spray. “There will never be another fair election in this country” if Biden is inaugurated, Steve told me, as the crowd around him chanted, “Whose house? Our house!” He and Wendy could see plainly the mob attempting to storm the Capitol building. “I get what those people are feeling,” Steve said. “These congresspeople, they just lock themselves in behind their doors and they don’t care what we think out here, just as long as they get what they feel this country needs. It’s not about the people anymore. It’s just about the people in that building.”
Behind the Meeks, three grimacing, middle-aged men passed a bottle of water between them, pouring it directly into their eyes. A few minutes earlier, after they had pushed through a set of gates and climbed the Capitol’s western steps, police had sprayed them twice with tear gas. “We’re trying to occupy the Capitol to show them what we’re about as Americans,” a man named Tom told me, his eyes shut tight. “We’re trying to occupy the Capitol building with a million people or however many will fit in there.”
Just before we spoke, the House and the Senate had abruptly adjourned their session as the mob infiltrated the building. Vice President Mike Pence, who’d been presiding over the chamber, was rushed to a secure location. By early afternoon, the entire Capitol complex was locked down. Insurrectionists took photos of themselves posing in the House speaker’s office. Reporters inside the House chamber said shots had been fired inside. The woman who was shot in the building was pronounced dead. The mayor of Washington, D.C., declared a 6 p.m. curfew, and the National Guard began arriving to clear the seat of the country’s legislative power. The president had all but encouraged this revolt in his rally speech just hours before, and in a video released on Twitter this evening, Trump appeared to justify the insurrection. (Twitter subsequently removed the video.)
At sundown, metal bike racks that had been used as barricades lay in heaps on the east plaza. A line of police stood sentry halfway up the Senate steps as demonstrators walked back and forth below, wearing gas masks and resting Trump flags on their shoulders like rifles. “Traitors! Socialists!” one of them shouted at the police.
A man near the steps called for people to gather around. “I’m going to get my weapons, and I’m coming back,” he told them.
Peter Nicholas and Russell Berman contributed reporting.