PHOENIX — There were moments when Paul Davis questioned his decision to join the crowd that marched on the U.S. Capitol last January. When he was publicly identified and fired from his job as a lawyer. When his fiancée walked out.
But then something shifted. Instead of lingering as an indelible stain, Jan. 6 became a galvanizing new beginning for Davis. He started his own law practice as a “lawyer for patriots” representing anti-vaccine workers. He began attending local conservative meetings around his hometown, Frisco, Texas. As the national horror over the Capitol attack calcified into another fault line of bitter division, Davis said his status as a Jan. 6 attendee had become “a badge of honor” with fellow conservatives.
“It definitely activated me more,” said Davis, who posted a video of himself in front of a line of police officers outside the Capitol but said he did not enter the building and was expressing his constitutional rights to protest. He has not been charged with any crime from that day. “It gave me street cred.”
The postmortems and prosecutions that followed that infamous day have focused largely on the violent core of the mob. But a larger group has received far less attention: the thousands who traveled to Washington at the behest of then-President Donald Trump to protest the results of a democratic election, the vast majority of whom did not set foot in the Capitol and have not been charged with any crime — who simply went home.
For these Trump supporters, the next chapter of Jan. 6 is not the ashes of a disgraced insurrection but an amorphous new movement fueled by grievances against vaccines and President Joe Biden, and a deepened devotion to his predecessor’s lies about a stolen election.
In the year since the attack, many have plunged into new fights and new conspiracy theories sown in the bloody chaos of that day. They have organized efforts to raise money for the people charged in the Capitol attack, casting them as political prisoners. Some are speaking at conservative rallies. Others are running for office.
Interviews with a dozen people who were in the large mass of marchers show that the worst attack on American democracy in generations has mutated into an emblem of resistance. Those interviewed are just a fraction of the thousands who attended the rally, but their reflections present a troubling omen should the country face another close presidential election.
Many Jan. 6 attendees have shifted their focus to what they see as a new, urgent threat: COVID-19 vaccine mandates and what they call efforts by Democratic politicians to control their bodies. They cite Biden’s vaccine mandates as justification for their efforts to block his presidency.Some bridled at Trump’s recent, full-throated endorsements of the vaccine and wondered whether he was still on their side.
“A lot of people in the MAGA patriot community are like, ‘What is up with Trump?’” said Davis, the Texas lawyer. “With most of us, the vaccines are anathema.”
In interviews, some who attended the Capitol protests gave credence to a new set of falsehoods promoted by Trump and conservative media figures and politicians who minimize the attack, or blame the violence falsely on left-wing infiltrators. And a few believe the insurrection did not go far enough.
“Most everybody thinks we ought to have went with guns, and I kind of agree with that myself,” said Oren Orr, 32, a landscaper from Robbinsville, North Carolina, who had rented a car with his wife to get to the Capitol last year. “I think we ought to have went armed and took it back. That is what I believe.”
Orr added that he was not planning to do anything, only pray. Last year, he said he brought a baton and Taser to Washington but did not get them out.
More than a year later, the day may not define their lives, but the sentiment that drove them there has given them new purpose. Despite multiple reviews showing the 2020 elections were run fairly, they are adamant that the voting process is rigged. They feel the news media and Democrats are trying to divide the country.
The ralliers were largely white, conservative men and women who have formed the bedrock of the Trump movement since 2016. Some describe themselves as self-styled patriots, some openly carrying rifles and handguns. Many invoke the name of Jesus and say they believe they are fighting a holy war to preserve a Christian nation.
The people who went to Washington for Jan. 6 are in some ways an isolated cohort. But they are also part of a larger segment of the public that may distance itself from the day’s violence but share some of its beliefs. A question now is the extent to which they represent a greater movement.
A national survey led by Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago, concluded that about 47 million American adults, or 1 in every 5, agreed with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, about 21 million, or 9% of American adults, shared the belief that animated many of those who went beyond marching and invaded the Capitol, Pape said: that the use of force was justified to restore Trump to the presidency.
“They are combustible material, like an amount of dry brushwood that could be set off during wildfire season by a lightning strike or by a spark,” he said.
Some downplay Jan. 6 as a largely peaceful expression of their right to protest, comparing the Capitol attack with the 2020 racial justice protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder. They complain about a double standard, saying that the news media glossed over arson and looting after those protests but fixated on the violence Jan. 6.
They have rallied around the 700 people facing criminal charges in connection to the attack, calling them political prisoners.
Earlier this month in Phoenix, a few dozen conservatives met to commemorate the anniversary of Jan. 6 as counterprogramming to the solemn ceremonies taking place in Washington. They prayed, sang “Amazing Grace” and broadcast a phone call from the mother of Jacob Chansley, an Arizona man whose painted face and Viking helmet transformed him into an emblem of the riots. Chansley was sentenced to 41 months in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges.
Then it was Jeff Zink’s turn at the microphone. Zink is one of several people who attended the Capitol protests and who are running for public office. Some won state legislature seats or local council positions in last November’s elections. Now, others have their eyes on the midterms.
Zink is making an uphill run for Congress as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic swath of Phoenix and said he will fight for Jan. 6 defendants — a group that includes his 32-year-old son, Ryan.
Father and son marched up the Capitol steps together and were steps away as police subdued a man who smashed a window. Zink said he and his son were peacefully documenting the event and never actually entered the building. A federal criminal complaint accuses Ryan Zink of unlawfully entering a restricted area of the Capitol and obstructing an official proceeding.
The complaint against Ryan Zink quotes a Facebook message from Jan. 6: “Broke down the doors pushed Congress out of session I took two flash bangs I’m OK I’ll be posting pictures in a little bit when we get back I’m hurt but we accomplished the job.”
Jeff Zink, a onetime church deacon, referenced the biblical book of Proverbs as he outlined why he believed COVID-19 was a bioweapon meant to convert the United States to socialism and lamented that the United States “was no longer a Christian nation.” And despite the fallout from their decision to join the Jan. 6 rally, he said he would “absolutely” do it again.
“Godly men and godly women need to stand up,” he said.
Julie McKechnie Fisher, who went to Washington to hear Trump speak Jan. 6, helped organize more than 30 candlelight vigils nationwide like the one where Jeff Zink spoke, to honor the defendants. She is working with a right-wing group called Look Ahead America, which aims to register new voters in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, and train them to lobby for what the group’s website calls “America First initiatives,” like changing election laws and “helping to clean up voter rolls.”
“We just can’t become complacent,” she said. “I can’t see anything good that this administration has done for us, and it doesn’t feel like he loves our country.”
Several people who marched on the Capitol described the day as a kind of Trumpian Fort Sumter — part of a life-or-death fight against socialism, anti-Christian secularism and the tyranny of Biden’s masking and vaccine mandates.
Their views began to take shape in the hours just after Jan. 6 and have been buttressed by a flood of misinformation on social media, talk radio and from revisionist documentaries. Some said they had watched a program by Fox News host Tucker Carlson that floated conspiracy theories suggesting Jan. 6 was a “false flag” operation.
Several people charged in the breach of the Capitol have expressed remorse as they pleaded guilty and made requests for sentencing leniency, telling federal judges that they now feel duped or wish they could do it over. A Colorado man wrote that he was “guilty of being an idiot.” A Kansas City, Missouri, man said he was “ashamed.”
Still, those who have been charged have supporters whose movement is wrapped not only in feelings of anger but also of belonging. It is a reason the spirit of that day carries on.
That sense of community resonates for people like Greg Stuchell, a city councilman from Hillsdale, Michigan, who took an overnight bus to Washington last year with his teenage daughter to protest the election results. He said he did not enter the Capitol. For him, Jan. 6 is like the annual March for Life in Washington, he said, where people simply show up to protest laws and values they believe should fall. For every one person who attends, there are an additional 100 who wish they could have, too, he said.
Since the election Stuchell, a Catholic convert who opposes abortion, has channeled his anger by marching with other men around the Hillsdale courthouse on the first Sunday of every month. He found solidarity, he said, in similar men’s groups growing in Hungary and Poland. “Men got to step up. We don’t have that many men anymore,” he said. At the machine shop he manages, some male co-workers have been tossing around ideas to protest what they see as a rigged government and election system, like not filling out W2s or not paying taxes, he said.
“If they don’t fix it, I don’t know what happens,” he said. “People need to stand up and say, ‘Enough.’”