In the days after they returned from the Capitol last week, a North Shore couple mulled secession. Nearby, an Essex County beauty marketing consultant who had been in D.C. resolved to march in every rally and protest she could find. And on right wing social media nationally, the organizing had already begun: more insurrection, more firepower, more stormed capitols.
“WHEN DEMOCRACY IS DESTROYED REFUSE TO BE SILENCED” blared one virtual poster calling for armed marches on Capitol Hill and all state capitols on January 17.
The Trump presidency is ending, but the enraged and aggrieved base of supporters he spent four years feeding conspiracy theories isn’t going anywhere. Some decry violence but claim Trump as the rightful president, dethroned by a stolen election; others, their political faith shattered, are turning to militias and direct action. Experts say the violence isn’t over.
Among the New England residents who traveled to the Capitol to join were business owners, carpenters, retirees, veterans, local political activists, a Natick town meeting member and a New Hampshire police chief. In the wake of the siege, many disavowed the violence and said they didn’t participate but doubled down on their support of the president and the sentiments motivating the mob.
In the chat rooms where the far right gathers, calls to join the fight come cloaked in the same gauzy language of patriotism and historical greatness that long energized Trump’s campaign. Now, the movement the president helped create is likely to live on after he has left the White House.
“They don’t need him. I don’t know that they ever did, really,” said Christian Exoo, an antifascist researcher who investigates and infiltrates far right groups in the Northeast. “What they need is some sort of figurehead to rally around. If that figurehead is America, then that’s fine, too.”
The Jan. 6 attack on the capitol was initially billed as the “Save America” rally, and it began with President Trump falsely claiming he won the election and exhorting his followers to “fight like hell.”
When Trump called on them to march to the Capitol to help Republicans “take back our country,” they did — smashing their way inside in a violent effort to block the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
The siege left five people dead, including a Capitol police officer, and has sparked a new effort in the House to impeach Trump before his term ends. Another Capitol police officer who was on duty died by suicide a few days later.
The mob of thousands was made up of a wide cross-section of the right wing — leaders of organized far-right or neoNazi groups including the Proud Boys, Super Happy Fun America, and the National Socialist Club; believers in the online conspiracy theory QAnon; and a great many unaffiliated run-of-the-mill Trump supporters who believed the lie that the election was stolen from him.
The factions in the crowd represent a populist coalition that has been coalescing for years, said Virginia Sapiro, a political science professor at Boston University, and has grown powerful because of connections made on social media and validation from the very top of American leadership, including President Trump.
The more militant and organized factions are most dangerous, Sapiro said, but they are small in number. They draw their might from the mass of those she called “go-alongs:” the many average citizens who may not commit violence themselves but who stand by while it foments and support its ideological underpinnings.
“Those people,” she said, “help it to be a social movement.”
George and Patti Queenan, who drove seven and a half hours from the North Shore to the Capitol to hear the president speak Wednesday, said they left the area of the Capitol before the mob broke in. They were “disappointed” by the actions of the mob, they said, but they understood.
“I think people are very upset with the Democratic Party and are willing to possibly look into alternatives, rather than just letting them ruin our country during the next four years,” said Patti Queenan, 56, who is a carpenter along with her husband.
Seceding from the union and starting a new country was a possibility, Queenan said, although she didn’t know how to launch such an effort herself. For now, the couple planned simply to wait — let the Democrats take office and regroup when things calmed down. In the meantime, they planned to write to their legislators, demanding to be heard.
On the North Shore, 67-year-old Laura Tamagno, an independent marketer who works in the beauty industry and drove to the nation’s capital with a friend, said she was infuriated and disgusted by the violence. But, she said, she would not abandon the cause. She is committed, she said, to peacefully participating in every rally or protest there is, to keep the populist Trump movement alive.
“We’re not going away,” she said.
For experts who study the far right, this wide swath of disaffected citizens embracing conspiracy theories peddled by the president or right wing media or social media portends trouble.
“I think this is creating a very toxic cauldron, where some of the most extreme white nationalists are sounding very similar to what we think of as some of the more regular Trump supporters,” said Ben Lorber, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank that studies the right wing.
Many will never take up arms or commit violence, said Lorber, but as these ideas are legitimized and spread, some will.
“When folks get disillusioned with the ballot, they turn to the bullet,” said Lorber. “We’re very concerned of the dangers of long-term radicalization.”
Following last week’s siege, Exoo, the antifascist researcher, has watched as the most radical plan new attacks. At least one group he’s in is seeing membership soar.
“I think we need to initiate a ‘Week of Siege,’ a ‘peaceful’ demonstration of fully locked and loaded individuals, with select targets nationwide,” wrote one right-wing group member the day after the siege on a private chat Exoo infiltrated. “Send a message of who’s truly in charge and let that lead where it may. The first shot was fired yesterday.”
Americans would do well to take the threat seriously, Exoo said. The far right has been galvanized.
“They’ve seen how easy it is to swarm a capitol building,” he said. “They saw what was possible.”