Surrounded by men dressed for war, I saw Trump’s fascism at the heart of American democracy

Richard Hall was there as a violent mob stormed the US Capitol building 

Thursday 07 January 2021 01:56 GMT
Protesters storm the Capitol building in Washington D.C.
Protesters storm the Capitol building in Washington D.C. (Richard Hall / The Independent )

Donald Trump had made this speech many times before. He had told the same lies and spread the same conspiracy theories at rallies and campaign events across the country for nearly two months since the election. But this time felt different.

This time, he made the speech while standing in front of the White House, the symbol of the presidency, to a crowd of tens of thousands of angry supporters stretched out before him all the way to the Washington Monument. The theatre of it, the backdrop, the rage, the incitement – it reeked of fascism.

It was different this time too, because he gave his supporters an outlet for their rage. After telling them that the election had been stolen, that their country and their future was being stolen from them – and they hung on every word –  he told them where they could find satisfaction.

Just a mile down the road, Congress would soon be certifying the results of the presidential election which he lost by more than seven million votes. Finally, after trying every legal and illegal avenue to overturn the election results, he turned to his last and most dangerous weapon.

Follow the latest news live as four people killed in Capitol Hill riots

“Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down to the Capitol,” he said.

“We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” he went on.

The crowd started to move before he had finished talking. I walked behind a group of men in military fatigues who held a radio up to a megaphone so they could continue listening to Trump. There were many groups like them wandering around: militias, Proud Boys, men wearing knee-pads and stab vests. Men dressed as if they were going to war.

A man recovers after being hit with tear gas on the steps of the US Capitol 
A man recovers after being hit with tear gas on the steps of the US Capitol  (Richard Hall / The Independent )

On the road leading to the Capitol, a group holding Trump flags stood stationary in prayer, reciting Hail Marys as the crowd filed past them. A giant poster of an aborted fetus flew alongside a banner reading “1776”, a reference to the Revolutionary War. Trump’s face, his name was everywhere.  

I arrived at the foot of the Capitol building to find that several thousand protesters had already trampled over the small outer security fences and were stationed at the bottom of the steps. They took their place in front of a thin line of Capitol police who, it was clear from the beginning, were disastrously ill-prepared.

As the crowd swelled from the back, it became more violent at the front. Perhaps a few dozen of the mob were pushing and testing the police.

Inside the building, Congress had begun the process of certifying electoral college votes for Joe Biden. Pieces of news rippled through the crowd. At one point, someone shouted “Pence has backed down. He’s a traitor!”

There were more updates, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. As the crowd surged forward, police responded with pepper spray and the occasional round of tear gas. It wasn’t enough. They threw percussion grenades into densely packed groups and they failed to move anyone. Instead, more people came forward.

Men in camouflage gear acted as if they were generals in some foreign battlefield. “Soldiers forward! Soldiers forward,” shouted one man. As a handful of men retreated from the front with watering eyes, they were admonished for leaving by the crowd.

“Why are you leaving?”

“We got tear gassed”

“So what?”

“They’re shooting us with paintballs.”

“That’s what we’re here for. It’s gonna be bullets before too long, so hold the friggin’ line.”

Two metres away from the men playing war, families were taking selfies. For some, it was an exciting day out, democracy in action, a story to tell their friends. For others, it was the first shot of a long-brewing civil war. 

The crowd pushed and shoved for an hour before the knee-padded men at the front managed to break through police lines underneath the scaffolding set up for Mr Biden’s inauguration on the east side of the steps.

They surged through the gap and managed to forge a path for others to follow. A little while later, a few protesters appeared on the balcony overlooking the scene. The crowd cheered “USA USA USA”, “China does not own America!" and “Whose house? Our House!” 

There was more than one Confederate flag flying the Capitol steps. 

Protesters scale the walls of the US Capitol in Washington D.C. 
Protesters scale the walls of the US Capitol in Washington D.C.  (Richard Hall / The Independent )

There were darker chants, too. As more people climbed up to the entrance of the building where the Congress votes, the very heart of American democracy, there were calls for gallows. Several times, there were calls to hang House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It was the language of a fascist mob. It was Donald Trump’s language, unfiltered.

At this point, I had seen perhaps more than a dozen of the protesters wearing T-shirts calling for violence against journalists. It was then I decided I would no longer identify myself as such. From then on I followed as if I was a protester. 

I went with a group climbing up over the sidewall to reach the Capitol balcony, but came back down when there was no way through. As more people found their way to the balcony, the cheers grew louder. They were jubilant. There was no question that what they were doing was right.

“They stopped the certification! We did it,” someone bellowed.

I walked round to the east of the building to find another group crowded around an entrance. After scuffling with police, they managed to force their way into the lobby. I went in, looked up and saw the painted ceiling and grand chandeliers of the Senate for the first time. I could see a larger group was further inside the building.

I didn’t know it at the time, but a woman had been shot to death as she and a group tried to force their way through a door near the Senate chamber.

Moments later, tear gas forced everyone outside the lobby.

“This is history!” one man shouted. People took more selfies. The men wearing knee pads made stunted speeches on the steps of the Capitol as people started to leave.

Hours later, when the mob had been cleared, senators returned to the Capitol to finish what they started and certify the election results. Republicans issued statements condemning the attack on the Capitol building as a grave attack on democracy.  

But just down the road, people who had moments earlier carried out that attack boarded buses and trains to go home, smiling and laughing. They gathered in groups to retell the adventure as if they were leaving a sports game.  

The president’s incitement didn’t begin today. It was months, years in the making. The storming of the Capitol building was just the predictable consequence of what happens when an entire section of society is conditioned to live in an alternate reality – one in which Donald Trump is still president and the Democrats are trying to overrun the country with Communism.

It is hard to imagine they will snap out of it any time soon. And it’s hard to imagine that Donald Trump’s fascist turn will end today.

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