The Coup at 30,000 Feet

Stuck on a plane flying back to Washington, I feared the version of the country I would land in.

A black-and-white photo of a row of airplane seats
Martin Chavez / Getty

The plane was silent. Chest tight and glasses foggy from my KN95 mask, I stood up to see if anyone else was watching cable news. Sitting toward the back of the cabin, I could see most of the light-gray television screens in front of me—cartoons two rows up, Wonder Woman across the aisle—but most of the monitors were turned off. It was just after 2:15 p.m. ET, and pro–Donald Trump rioters had breached the Capitol. The flight we were on was headed to Washington, D.C. Somewhere over Illinois, I realized that what looked like a coup was unfolding several blocks from my apartment.

The mood had already been tense that morning because of recent passenger spats over mask wearing and rowdy Trump supporters flying en masse to his D.C. rally. My biggest fear as the plane departed LAX hadn’t been the end of democracy but exposure to the coronavirus: being diverted to an airport or spending prolonged time around maskless travelers. I could feel the uneasiness of other passengers in the boarding area—L.A., like everywhere, was in the middle of a winter surge. On the way to the airport my parents had asked me to again explain what Ted Cruz was doing (he had announced that he’d join Josh Hawley and a handful of House Republicans in rejecting certification), and if it was possible to overturn an election. I was tired of answering that question. After all, Joe Biden’s election-victory certification seemed a given, despite some Republican theatrics.

Air travel already generates a uniquely fear-inspiring sensation on a normal day, when you’re tens of thousands of feet above Earth, suspended in time and space. You have no cell service. Your movement is limited; you obviously can’t leave the plane mid-flight. The only real proof you have that you’re going anywhere comes from looking out the window or from the moving map that shows your plane’s location. You leave one world behind when the cabin door shuts and trust that the crew will get you back to that same world upon landing. Watching the violence in my adopted hometown of D.C., I knew something was changing.

I tuned in to CNN, and several questions raced through my mind. How organized was this mob? Would police open fire on the crowd? Where was Nancy Pelosi? Where was Mike Pence? Would the fighting outside reach the lawmakers trapped inside? I recoiled as images of an armed standoff on the House floor hit the screen, and my eyes stung when Wolf Blitzer reported that protesters had taken the Senate chamber. My mind wandered to a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale, in which June Osborne and her husband watch the massacre of Congress on television before a coup. Now I was watching tear gas being deployed in the Capitol Rotunda.

Our plane kept flying on course toward Washington. By this point, we were less than an hour out from Reagan National Airport, and a new dread swelled. What happens when we land? Would insurrectionists try to cause mayhem at the airport? Would I be able to get home to my apartment that night? D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had imposed a 6 p.m. citywide curfew. Would the Metro and car services still be running? Could martial law be declared before we touched down? (Trump allies had discussed this in the days leading up to the attack, and it seemed like a real threat that night.)

As the plane’s wheels hit the runway, phones started pinging with notifications and emergency alerts. Couples pulled closer together to whisper. Eyes darted around the cabin. In the waiting area for Gates 16–21, people huddled around the small black TV screens hanging from the airport ceiling. “Insurrection in Washington Following Trump Encouragement,” the CNN chyron read. Travelers streamed toward the ride-share pickup area outside the terminal. I contemplated staying the night in the airport but then gathered my wits to take a cab. As the driver entered my neighborhood, QAnon-shirt-wearing protesters were strolling down my street.

Later that week, my colleague Elaine Godfrey summed up the stakes: It was supposed to be so much worse. Some in the crowd were out for blood. Four people died, and hundreds are still dealing with trauma. All these months later, the horror of that day has faded a bit for those of us who watched with some distance. But the feeling I can’t shake—and that people shouldn’t forget—is the anxiety that filled the air during those three hours when the American government seemingly stopped functioning. As rioters smashed windows, senators called for help, and guns were drawn on the House floor, anything seemed possible, and that vacuum of power opened up the possibility that the worst could actually unfold on live television.

Reading through my messages with friends in D.C. that day still makes me shiver. The confusion is still there (“holy shit, they’re taking the capitol building”), the fear is palpable (“guns drawn, everyone evacuated, gas …”), and the vulnerability lingers (“what do we do?” “we stay safe”).


Listen to an interview with William J. Walker, sergeant-at-arms of the U.S. House of Representatives, on The Experiment.

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