LAWRENCE, Kan. – Clinton Lynn, a retired fire captain, firmly believes the widespread conspiracy theory that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump, and he says that those who share his views are finding an ever-narrowing path to express their outrage, losing at the ballot box, the jury box and now the soapbox. If you take away those things, he says, what is left?
“I’m so mad, I see red about the [expletive] steal,” said Lynn, 64, sitting in his Kansas farmhouse over the weekend. “I believe with all my heart that the Democratic Party stole the election, and I will never believe otherwise as long as I draw breath. Liberals, you’re driving us to civil war.”
As authorities raise alarms about the potential for more extremist violence in the wake of the storming of the U.S. Capitol, Americans across the political spectrum are also bracing for more and grappling with the realization that Jan. 20 – Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day – may not be the end of the Trump era, but the beginning of a new dark chapter in American history.
In a HuffPost poll Friday, about a third of Trump voters said they sympathized with the Capitol mob, and a majority of respondents said they did not believe Wednesday’s riot was an isolated incident. Lynn, for example, said he is seeing calls for violent retribution continue to spread on conservative websites like Newsmax and on extremist social media apps like Gab and Parler. The latter was suspended by Amazon’s web-hosting service over the weekend after its users glorified the Capitol riot that resulted in five deaths, including one police officer, and left the country’s cathedral of democracy in tatters.
“I don’t know how this will manifest itself in our country because they are pushing us to the edge,” Lynn said. “I’m not advocating we pick up arms – right now.”
In the Philadelphia suburbs, Nora Schreiber McDonough, who is in her 60s, was so upset by watching the violence at the Capitol she had to take Thursday off from her job as an administrative assistant at a Catholic church.
The second day was just as emotionally distressing as the first, as more footage emerged, and she began to hear the heartbreaking stories of lawmakers who feared for their lives and terrifying details of security breakdowns. The mob showed her that an alarming number of people have been radicalized, a phenomenon that she has watched play out in her own Facebook feed over the past four years.
“This is a history that I never wanted to live through,” she said. “This is a history that blows my mind. It blows my mind that this great country could have reached this point because of one man’s idolatry, ideology, sense of self.”
McDonough was long a Republican but couldn’t bring herself to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. She wrote in the name of Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich and soon regretted not voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton. In 2020, she campaigned for Biden and voted for him.
Over the past four years, she has made it her mission to flood her Facebook feed with reputable, accurate information and confront those she knows who post inaccurate information. She tries to be kind, usually starting by asking them to share their source for the information, and looks for opportunities to have conversations with people about why they believe these things. But since the Capitol riots, she said “it’s been kind of hard to not go on the attack” because some of the claims are so outlandish, and the violence in Washington was so disgusting.
McDonough worries that the coming days will bring more violence, especially on Jan. 17 and 20. She worries that someone will try to assassinate Biden or Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. She doesn’t understand why some Republican lawmakers continue to repeat baseless claims that the election was fraudulent, further angering the masses.
Biden and Harris were already inheriting a mess from Trump, she said, but their challenge is even greater as they take command of a country that is so divided and where perhaps millions do not believe Biden was legitimately elected.
“They’re stepping into this hornet’s nest, and now it’s a hornet’s nest on fire,” she said. “If he had 10 plates spinning on sticks before, now he’s got 20. That poor guy hasn’t even begun yet . . . I’m sure they’re in a panic. Or maybe not. Maybe his faith is stronger than mine, but I’m very worried for the inauguration.”
Minneapolis residents Molly Gray, 24, and her boyfriend, Patrick Bowden, 25, had seized on 2021 as a way to escape the horror show that was 2020. After a year marked by a global pandemic, racial turmoil, fiery protests and a contentious presidential election, the new year was supposed to be at least a little better.
But the attempted insurrection at the Capitol changed that, ushering in fresh uncertainty about how the nation moves beyond Trump. They now wonder if 2021 will be as bad as or even worse than 2020.
“It’s just like, oh God, here we go again,” Gray said. “It just feels never-ending.”
Over the past eight months, the couple has marched across the Twin Cities, joining hundreds of others in what have been near-weekly demonstrations for racial justice and police reform in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
And on Saturday, they were back out again, marching across downtown Minneapolis on a frigid 18-degree day – the anger and frustration they’ve felt in recent days compelling the couple to bundle up and go back into the streets. They and about a hundred protesters who carried signs demanding justice for Jacob Blake, the Black man who was shot and paralyzed by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., and for Dolal Idd, a Somali man who was shot and killed by Minneapolis police Dec. 30 during a weapons sting.
“Justice doesn’t slow down in the winter, and it shouldn’t, even in freezing Minnesota,” Bowden said. The storming of the Capitol “was kind of a spark in these cold months to rejuvenate this movement and keep it going.”
But Gray and Bowden had no answers for the more difficult questions, like how to fix a deeply divided America or what they think comes next. President-elect Biden has spoken of trying to heal the nation, but there are signs on both sides of deepening distrust in government institutions and their ability to fix the complex problems of a polarized nation.
The scene in Washington could have easily played out here, the couple said, as Trump supporters and other groups like the Proud Boys have become an increasingly visible presence across the Twin Cities in recent months. The group, often armed with guns and other weapons such as hammers and baseball bats, regularly rallies on the grounds of the Minnesota Capitol. For several months they have shown up every Saturday outside the governor’s mansion, where they have often clashed with Black Lives Matter demonstrators and, more recently, police – who have added more officers to guard the governor’s residence against the hostile crowd.
Florida Republican Andreina Kissane, a 45-year-old gallerist from Miami, is someone who has a deepening distrust of public institutions, and the widening violence in the United States reminds her of her home country of Venezuela.
“I am not surprised,” said Kissane, who moved to the United States for college and later became a citizen, “but I’m surprised to see it happening here in a way that is so, so Latin America style . . . I never expected this country to go through this. It is very troublesome.”
Kissane, who runs the Venezuelan American Republican Alliance, has been a Trump supporter since 2015. Four years after his election, she has little remaining faith in the federal government, the media or most politicians – other than Trump.
She said it doesn’t make sense to her that Biden could never attract large crowds to his rallies, yet overwhelmingly won the election. It doesn’t make sense to her that courts are throwing out lawsuits challenging the election, without, she says, fully reviewing the evidence. It doesn’t make sense that most states have shut down businesses, discouraged political gatherings and implemented other restrictions out of fear of a virus that has high recovery rate.
In reality, the United States is in the midst of an explosion of new coronavirus cases and a spike in deaths. More than 375,000 people in the United States have been killed by the virus, and health experts fear the Capitol riots could spark outbreaks around the country.
“I’ve been to many rallies. I’ve never been sick,” Kissane said. “I’ve never heard of anybody being sick [after attending a rally]. And we were close to each other, and we were not wearing masks.”
All of this further deepened her support for the president and pushed her to travel to Washington last week to rally with him. She said that the rally – including Trump’s speech – was peaceful. She and companions went out to lunch afterward and were shocked by the subsequent reports of violence.
“I never, never, never – I am emphasizing never – felt or heard anything that the president was instigating violence or encouraging people to go into the Capitol, to go inside and break the law,” she said. “I don’t know who did it. I don’t think it was Trump supporters, to be honest with you. When there’s a group where everybody’s mad and everybody’s in a rage and they want to burn everything, you can see it, you can sense it. But this was so peaceful. So peaceful.”
Although many of those arrested so far have long documented histories of publicly supporting Trump, she points to shreds of information gathered online that she says indicate they are actually liberals posing as Trump supporters.
Kissane doesn’t think there’s anything left for anyone to do to stop the inauguration of Biden on Jan. 20, and she worries that upholding the election results has only further deteriorated the trust many conservatives have in their government – perhaps in a way that’s impossible to repair. She’s angry that lawmakers don’t want to dwell on the election process and that Twitter permanently suspended Trump.
“The biggest problem that we have right now is that everybody is being silenced,” she said. “The president of the United States – I don’t care what they say – should never say never be silenced. Never.”
Twitter used concerns about potential violence at the Capitol and other government buildings Jan. 17 to justify banning Trump from the platform Friday. Authorities remain concerned about the potential for violence during a nationwide march on state capitals planned for Sunday, and during a Million Militia March in Washington on Jan. 20 for Biden’s inauguration.
Edward Muldrow, chairman of the Gwinnett County GOP in the Atlanta suburbs, asked why the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer didn’t spark the same outrage and condemnation as the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“You had Republican leadership running to trip over themselves, to run to the microphone to condemn everything that was happening. And I get it, right. I understand it,” said Muldrow, an Air Force veteran who is Black. “But where was that same condemnation when here in Atlanta, just down the street from the capitol, they had their autonomous zone set up over there and no one said anything. They burned out people’s businesses and no one said anything.”
Muldrow said he doesn’t agree with the taking of life or the extreme violence seen in Washington on Wednesday, but he said the pro-Trump mob was judged by a different standard.
“I just don’t get the hypocrisy. I just don’t,” he said. “There was violence all over the country [this summer] – and silence, virtual silence. . . . The cause was just then, the cause was just during the Civil War, the cause was just during the civil rights movement. Why can’t this cause be just as well when people feel like their election has been stolen from them and no one cares?”
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Gowen reported from Lawrence, Kan.; Bailey reported from Minneapolis, and Johnson reported from Washington.