William Holmes drove with his wife from Ohio to Washington so they could show their support on Wednesday for Donald Trump’s claim that last year’s US presidential election was rigged. After a day of violence on Capitol Hill, Mr Holmes said they might have to do it again.
“If we got to pick up arms again, we will. We will take our country back,” said the 56-year-old gunsmith. “We come peaceful. [But] if you don’t want to listen . . . we won’t be peaceful next time. We’re tired of it.”
Mr Holmes said he and his wife were not affiliated with any of the militias or extremist groups — such as the Proud Boys — that showed up in Washington for Wednesday’s pro-Trump uprising, which left four people dead and wreaked havoc in the Capitol building.
They left the fray after Mr Holmes’s wife suffered a head injury, and returned to their car to drive home overnight so she could return to work on Thursday.
They formed part of the broad collective of people — from hardline conspiracists to more moderate conservatives — whose actions in Washington DC marked a turning point for the pro-Trump movement. Experts say the spectacle could set a precedent for future violence ahead of president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“[Wednesday] for them was a success,” said Angelo Carusone, president and chief executive of the liberal-leaning non-profit Media Matters for America. “What they saw was they were able to do something significant in storming Capitol Hill . . . my sense is that there’ll be another demonstration on January 20.”
‘This has been building for months’
While Mr Holmes said he and his wife chose to travel to Washington DC after watching television coverage of Mr Trump’s allegations of election fraud, others had made more co-ordinated efforts to plan their assault on the capital.
“When you see the conversations that were taking place online, yesterday’s actions are not surprising,” said Aoife Gallagher, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “This has been building for months, if not years.”
Some were members of extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, a far-right, male-only group that Mr Trump once commanded to “stand back and stand by” during a September presidential debate that flagged the risk of violence from white nationalists.
“They were the muscle,” said Mr Carusone. “They were on this first, they were planning hotels four weeks ago.” Some members had made efforts to disguise themselves, he added, with many avoiding their distinctive Fred Perry polo shirts.
Many of those involved in the demonstrations were also adherents of the QAnon movement, which began on the imageboards 4chan and then 8kun but has since grown into the most pervasive online conspiracy theory, despite efforts by major platforms to crack down on it in 2020.
Among the most recognisable QAnon figures who took part in the disruption was Jake Angeli, the “Q Shaman”, widely pictured wearing a buffalo headdress, although Nick Backovic, contributing editor at counter-misinformation organisation Logically, said that he was not a major leader within the fractious movement.
The merging of many different groups at the Capitol makes it difficult to discern a single organising influence. However, according to Joe Ondrak, senior researcher at Logically, much of the incitement originated from Twitter messages by popular conspiracists such as Ron Watkins, whose father runs 8kun, and L Lin Wood, a pro-Trump lawyer who was suspended from Twitter early on Thursday.
“In the subtexts [of tweets about electoral fraud and traitors] they’re saying: this [violence] is what people need to do,” he said.
Mr Ondrak added that the assault on Washington was an indicator of how successfully QAnon beliefs have seeped into the mainstream, with a growing number of people believing in the movement’s overarching sentiments without engaging with its more specific claims.
“Everything to do with electoral fraud [from QAnon influencers] has spilled over and dissociated from its origins,” said Mr Backovic.
Beyond the Capitol
Experts fear that the Washington riots could represent the beginning of an escalation of violence, rather than a last-gasp attempt to save Mr Trump’s presidency.
“Although it’s hard to say where this movement will go from here,” said Ms Gallagher, “there’s no doubt that January 6’s actions will act as a galvanising moment for all of these groups in the weeks and months to come”.
Some officials at the Department of Homeland Security have flagged the threat from white nationalism in recent months, but acting secretary Chad Wolf appeared taken aback by the scale of the protesters’ ambitions.
“While I have consistently condemned political violence on both sides of the aisle, specifically violence directed at law enforcement, we now see some supporters of the president using violence as a means to achieve political ends. This is unacceptable,” he said on Thursday, adding the violence was “tragic and sickening”.
Posting on the “free speech” social media platform Parler on Thursday, however, the conspiracist Mr Wood appeared unbowed. Above an image of a scene from A Few Good Men, he declared that “many traitors [such as Republicans who did not back Mr Trump’s claims] will be arrested & jailed over the next several days”.
He added: “President Donald J Trump will serve 4 more years!!!” The post has nearly 80,000 upvotes, and has been viewed 3.5m times.
In the aftermath of the riots, online far-right communities remain divided over how to interpret the events. “In terms of the narrative, it’ll be quite interesting to see which side of the cognitive dissonance wins out,” said Mr Ondrak.
Most are divided between a faction who believe the riot was simply an outpouring of righteous anger from scorned voters, and those who claim that the event was an elaborate ruse carried out by the far-left movement antifa to discredit conservatives.
However, these contradictions were unlikely to damage the movement in the long term, warned Mr Carusone. “They’re really presenting a buffet which allows them to keep together what would be a loose coalition . . . the glue is Trump or Trumpism, everything else is choose your own.”