The Political Scene
The Week the Trump Supporters Disappeared
In Washington, D.C., our leaders sealed themselves off from a rebel force that didn’t arrive.
January 22, 2021
On Inauguration Day, Americans found themselves locked out of downtowns and public buildings. And after all that—perhaps because of all that—only a handful of protesters turned out for Trump.Photograph by Hector Emanuel for The New Yorker
s the new President took the oath of office on Wednesday, there were neither parties nor protests in the streets of Washington. Instead, there was mostly quiet, punctuated by the sirens of convoys careening around, the churn of helicopters overhead, and newscasters narrating the unseen news for viewers around the planet. Deep within the rings of checkpoints and soldiers, Joe Biden
became President. People outside the security watched on their phones or not at all; most of them were reporters, soldiers, or police. There were rumors that a pro-Trump gathering would be held on the plaza at Union Station, but no such spectacle appeared: a few preachers droned about Hell and feminists while passersby heckled them and pigeons swooped low over their heads. At Judiciary Square, a lone middle-aged man made his way along the sidewalk, wearing a plain winter hat rolled low over his forehead and a disposable blue medical mask. He was an unremarkable figure except for the sign he carried: “THIS LOOKS LIKE PYONGYANG / THERE ARE ONLY POLICE AND MILITARY / NO CIVILIANS.”
The man didn’t want to speak, he explained to reporters. His signs contained everything he wished to express. He pulled a second placard from behind the first and propped it against a nearby tree: “BIG TECH CENSORSHIP KILLED DEMOCRACY.”
The same eerie silence had stretched throughout the week, even as Washington and state capitals across the country braced for assaults resembling the insurrection on January 6th
. A national manhunt sought the people who had stormed the Capitol, in defiance of the transfer of power from Donald Trump
to Biden. Social-media companies purged the profiles of Trump supporters and militia members accused of inciting violence. Americans found themselves locked out of downtowns and public buildings. And after all that—perhaps because of all that—only a handful of protesters turned out for Trump.
A lone woman walked among the reporters near the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, wearing a maga sweatshirt and carrying a sign that read “Impeach 46”—but she, too, declined to speak. A Trump supporter wandered around in a spotless white suit and shiny white shoes, with an American-flag bandanna tied over his mouth, wondering aloud why more of his comrades weren’t there. Jesus groups preached into loudspeakers against homosexuality and Muslims; a few outlandish YouTubers trawled for someone to prank on camera. These were provocateurs, come to sop up the overflow attention of a rowdy crowd but instead finding themselves, awkwardly, at the center of the action.
On Monday, I drove to Richmond for a statewide gun-rights protest by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a more radical variant of the National Rifle Association. Last year, the same rally drew tens of thousands of people, and, this year, it was seen as a potential flash point. Virginia officials declared a state of emergency, locked the iconic gates to Thomas Jefferson’s legislative chambers, and warned people to stay away from downtown Richmond. All that fear came to nothing. The rally drew a thin crowd of gun activists, militia members, and Proud Boys, many of whom had been recently kicked off social media. They had plenty to say about Big Tech and guns, and very little about Trump.
Most of the V.C.D.L. members stayed in their cars and pickups; a few Trump flags and many “Don’t Tread on Me” banners flapped in the wind as they rolled past the statehouse in a honking caravan. But, on the walkways around the building, a more varied assortment of protesters staged a performative free-for-all. It was as if all the ideas and memes and personalities of the Trump era were mingling together. Someone toted a stuffed effigy of Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, labelled “Northam the Infringer.” Somebody else lugged a framed portrait of Rand Paul mounted onto bolt cutters. A few Proud Boys straggled through the crowd, trying to sell twenty-dollar T-shirts to raise money for what they called their local chapter.
You could hardly walk a foot without bumping into a reporter, or a person who described himself as a reporter or, vaguely, as press, but some of these people were perhaps better understood as activists working to document and dox the militias. (Indeed, a member of the Proud Boys was later identified on Twitter by a leftist who’d travelled from Charlottesville for the event.) Sometimes the press would gather in front of the armed men, seemingly unsure of what to do next, just taking pictures, and the young men with guns would pose in silence, so that the whole thing resembled some apocalyptic red carpet.
The Last Sons of Liberty, a local chapter of the Boogaloo Bois, came marching along, led by a twenty-year-old former marine named Mike Dunn. They arranged themselves on the sidewalk across from the statehouse lawn. Dunn seemed antsy for a confrontation—he antagonized the police who stood on the perimeter of the lawn. The cops, however, would not be drawn in; they watched impassively as the heavily armed crowd made a mockery of a posted firearms ban.
“What are they gonna do? Kill me and take me away from a country that treads on my rights?” Dunn said to the reporters. “So be it. Go ahead and martyr me.”
Dunn paced the pavement with the energy of a guy who walks into the bar after midnight ready for a fight. Among the various right-wing factions and militias, the Boogaloo Bois are a relatively new group, united by a desire to wage war against the government. Some are avowed white supremacists, and others claim that they are allies of Black activists. One of Dunn’s men sported a Black Lives Matter patch on his camo clothing; the group invited a demonstrator waving a trans flag to join them on the street. “We actually train minorities here in Virginia; we have several training groups,” Dunn said. “We stand with the fact that Black lives matter.” He paused to repeat loudly, “Because Black lives do matter,” then dropped back to a normal tone and explained: “Sorry, I was trying to get the Proud Boys to hear me.”
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A stocky young man with a wild thatch of long, frizzy hair patted his AR-15 and told me to call him Sasquatch. He didn’t doubt that Trump had lost the election, he told me, and he wished Biden the best of luck. Sasquatch said that he is a locksmith by trade and spends his spare time researching genealogy, cleaning up old cemeteries, and volunteering with the Seven Cities Alliance, a prepper militia. He joined the militia last year, when Virginia lawmakers considered an assault-weapons ban; if the proposed law had been enacted, Sasquatch said, it would have rendered him a criminal.
“A felon,” he said, incredulously. “You know, living in a bad neighborhood, my whole life I’ve tried not to be a felon, tried not to be a bad guy.”
His tone was plaintive. This was a person who wanted badly, I thought, to be seen as morally righteous. He wanted to honor the dead; he brought tourniquets to this event in case somebody got shot. But then his tone darkened into a warning. And then the warning turned into a threat.
“I don’t want to be that guy. None of us wants to be that guy, you know?” he said. “Don’t tread on us. ’Cause there’s more of us than there are of you. And, when it comes down to it, yeah, I’d be willing to fight and anything you can imagine for my rights.”
As Wednesday afternoon wore on in Washington, you could feel the energy melt, like the long silences that creep into a bad party or a boring conversation. The day was cold and there was nowhere to be. On the fountain in front of Union Station, Christopher Columbus looked with melancholy marble eyes toward the dome of the Capitol and the Supreme Court beyond. A few people sat on the ground, barricaded by overstuffed bags and talking to air. “It’s too late now,” a man called out, peeking out at me from his tent.
He was right—it was too late. Whatever this day was meant to be, whatever it had been, it was already over.
This week, a friend reminded me of a phrase that we heard a lot reporting in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion: “They’ve taken off their turbans.” I laughed, at first, when she compared Trump’s diehard loyalists to the Taliban who eluded capture by dropping their political identities and melting back into the general population. But then I stopped laughing. The Taliban had gone underground, organized themselves, and killed countless people to win back the power that they believed was rightfully theirs.
The United States, of course, is not Afghanistan. maga is not Taliban. But as I wandered the frigid streets of Washington on Wednesday, walking on sidewalks where the maga throngs were not, the phrase kept floating through my mind. Donald Trump was always an insurgent leader—he started a political uprising with a veneer of democratic populism that swept him into the White House and culminated in a burst of violence. And now Washington, D.C., was sliced to urban pieces by metal walls and soldiers and hulking military vehicles angled to prevent anyone from drawing near to the central halls of government. You could say that the government was hiding, or it was prudently protecting itself. Certainly, our leaders sealed themselves off this week from a rebel force that didn’t show up.
Maybe they will come tomorrow, or next month, or next year. Maybe the current silence is every bit as coördinated as the attack on the Capitol. Or maybe not. Maybe in the long run it doesn’t matter very much, because all the components of the Trump era remain: racism and economic hardship, guns and conspiracists, propaganda and manipulation, and our ceaseless, exhausting battles for space itself—space online, space in the streets, space to speak and hear.
Inside the perimeter on Wednesday, there was joy and reverence, but beyond the barricades the city was a portrait of fear. I covered our terror wars for years and, as a result, I regard American fear with trepidation. When I hear people talk about a crackdown on domestic terror, I have the sensation of peering down a very dark corridor, wondering where it ends.
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