Last year, on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, I caught a ride down to the Mall with a friend who works in the mayor's office.
I've known this friend for about half-a-decade, a period of time during which I've found myself filing, with depressing regularity, dispatches from right-wing events across the country. The stakes were high — in just a few hours Congress was set to certify the election—and in the car together I asked him about how the day might go. Was there a worst-case scenario?
"Maybe he calls an impromptu rally at Freedom Plaza, maybe he motorcades there himself." The city's resources were already stretched thin. "How the hell would we enforce that?"
He dropped me at a roadblock off 13th Street, just north of the White House. The entrance to the rally had been cordoned to a narrow checkpoint. There were vendors everywhere, it seemed. One was selling pretzels and water from a metallic shopping cart, along with "official" Stop the Steal t-shirts. Another was hawking pink beanies with Trump's jagged signature across the brim.
People were carrying yellow cardboard signs with I HAVE GOOD NEWS on the front and JESUS SAVES on the back. The checkpoint itself was made up of two enormous snowplows, their beds blocking the street. We waited in line to pass through, two at a time, until the small gap gave way to reveal the view beyond: a sight I hadn't been expecting.
The attendees already numbered in the many thousands. Off in the distance, rising like a rudimentary amphitheater, the National Mall sloped toward the Washington Monument. Trump supporters crowded along it, filling the narrow stretch to the Ellipse. And more were on their way.
Just then I found myself standing alongside a man in baggy corduroy pants. He was shirtless, his torso completely bare except for a cheap red backpack. In his hand he was holding an American flag, which had been lashed to an actual spear. The horns on his head reared up out of a fox-colored fur hat. It was the now-famous Jacob Chansley, aka Jake Angeli, the 33-year-old "QAnon Shaman" from Arizona. I was familiar with the conspiracy he championed, a system in which a cabal of global elites supposedly sought eternal life by harvesting the adrenochrome secretions of captured, tortured children. Not that I recognized Chansley then.
"Dude," I said to him. His shoulders were so narrow, his stature as slight as a teenager's. I wanted to shout about the weather — For the love of God, put on a shirt! But he didn't really see me, and as he bounced by on the balls of his feet, I recognized the manic gait of a man who didn't feel the cold.
I continued on toward the Mall. But a moment later, I found myself standing alongside another incomprehensible figure. He was tall, stiff-limbed, decked from head to foot in flowing white robes. He wore on his face what appeared to be a plastic Guy Fawkes mask, the cheeks and forehead painted with the characteristics of the American flag (stars and vertical stripes). Atop his head: a golden cowboy hat. Together we were standing on either side of a small table-like object: a kiosk he'd set up in the very middle of the road. From its base he'd draped two enormous banners. The first read TRUMP 2020. The second displayed a yin/yang symbol, the emblem of the Republic of Korea. "UFOK TV," he'd pasted along the side of his stand. "U.S. Presidential Fraud Election Result, 100% accurate prophecy, Watch on YouTube Now!" I made my way around him. The entire time his gaze never wavered.
Across Constitution Avenue the winter grass quickly gave way to mud. There were more signs now. THE OBSOLETE MAN, one read. WATCH UNPLANNED, declared another. Later I'd look these up — the former referenced an old "Twilight Zone" episode, the latter a 2019 pro-life biopic — but in that moment none of it made any sense.
The crowd was growing denser. In the distance, toward the Ellipse, two enormous video screens had been set up, relaying a view of the stage. I decided to make my way in that general direction. I cut through what appeared to be a patch of open space — only to find myself at the center of a small, tight-knit ring.
In every direction, attendees displayed handheld signs. How had I ended up here, I wondered? They were holding messages I'd never before seen at a pro-Trump rally.
ELIMINATE THE EVIL CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY. And CCP INFILTRATION IS EVERYWHERE. And NO CCP FOR ME! And finally: CHINA KILL THEIR OWN ER DAY…
These attendees, I'd learn, were members of Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual movement that's become increasingly political — and, with the help of its multimedia enterprise, the Epoch Times, conspiratorial. It all felt uncanny: the circle, their silence, the absence of even the most negligible eye contact. An instant later, a gap opened again in their ranks, and I bolted through it, nearly slipping in the mud.
Rudy Giuliani went onstage at 10:47 a.m. Recently I had watched his face melt on live television, and now, for nearly a minute, he gesticulated before all of us in silence.
It was a technical issue. When the audio feed finally returned to life, the crowd around me cheered: "Ruu-DY! Ruu-DY!"
He had details to share with us, he explained, regarding "the worst election in American history." He mentioned "crooked voting machines." He warned about "unvoted voters." He shook his head and lamented, as if for the very first time, "just how they stole it."
Alongside him, standing in a long camel coat, was John Eastman, the conspiracy-peddling lawyer who, a few days earlier, had secretly authored a memo on how to decertify the election results — diagramming what amounted to a government coup in the way an assistant football coach might scrawl out his plans for a fake punt.
"If we're wrong," Giuliani shouted, "we'll be made fools of. But if we're right, a lot of them will go to jail. So let's have trial by combat!"
From the crowd around me someone shouted, "War! War! Fucking war!" Others joined in, their words ringing.
"You got to say to yourselves," Giuliani added, "'I'm doing the right thing!'"
A woman to my right, the hood of her yellow ski jacket pulled low across her eyes, screamed, "We want action!"
From somewhere behind me a man shouted, "Let's drive them out of the Capitol. Now!"
It all reminded me of the 2016 Republican National Convention, with its Nixonian dog whistles and lines about "barbarians at the gates"; also the 2017 inauguration, during that infamous "American Carnage" speech; and all those CPAC appearances, each somehow more outlandish than the last. Not to mention the two most recent protests in D.C., on Nov. 14 and Dec. 12, both of which Trump hadn't even bothered to attend, leaving it to groups like the Proud Boys to march through the city instead.
Giuliani and Eastman spoke for about 10 minutes. Afterward the crowd seemed to lose steam. Trump was next, yes. It could be anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, which I knew by now to be par for the course. In the meantime, along with thousands of others, there was nothing to do but wait.
I tried to pass the time by taking notes:
president's supporters = predominantly white / out of town, ages maybe 25 and 60. Huddling together. Hunting jackets + MAGA leggings + elaborately knitted caps. Contrast to the crowd at 2017 Inauguration. Back then: Christian Conservatives + sleek businessmen + small town apparatchiks. Communists. Plandemic. General Flynn.
Finally, just before noon, Trump made his way on stage. To my surprise, he jumped right in. It was a spectacle I recognized: His remarks had been prepared and fine-tuned, and every so often he'd return to them, reciting halfheartedly from the teleprompter, though after a sentence or two the substance of what he was saying would suddenly hit him, and he'd react with astonishment, so that I always had the sense that he was reading the language of the teleprompter now, to us, for the very first time.
As his speech went on, it all began to feel increasingly unnerving. What was new, I came to realize, kept coming out during his call-and-response dialogue with the crowd.
Across the deep swath of the Mall a great number of people were chanting. "Stop the steal!" they proclaimed. "Send it back!" And: "Fight for Trump!"
At that moment I thought about a passage I'd read only a few days before, from the ending to Don DeLillo's "Libra," a novel about the JFK assassination:
If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It's the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut stories of men who find coherence in some criminal act.
By now the crowd had noticeably thinned. I figured I'd continue to the Capitol with everyone else, about a mile or so west. But for most of the morning, I realized now, I'd actually been walking in the opposite direction, doubling the distance I needed to cross.
Instead, I decided to find a hotel lobby and warm up for a bit. The Mayflower was nearby. I was tapping at my phone when, on the edge of the crowd, I nearly ran into one of the few people still gazing toward the stage: a man in a white plastic hazmat suit, a single zipper down the front. His face was hidden behind the bulk of a gas mask. Goggles across his eyes. A used blue surgical glove on each hand. He was holding what appeared to be an old JVC camcorder, the viewscreen along its side flipped open. He pointed it down at me. Across the hazmat suit, I realized, he'd written a series of short messages and logos. Count only the real votes, a passage at his shin proclaimed. John 3:16, he'd stenciled down his leg. The names of Biden and Harris had been circled and crossed out at his chest. Over his heart: Jesus Is Forever. Around his neck: an anti-vax slogan I could only partially make out. To top it all off, adorning the high white hood of his suit, he'd written a single number in red: 45.
Let's be clear: If, with this essay, I'm attempting to express what it might have felt like, as someone who was there on Jan. 6 (for parts of it, at least), witnessing up close an event that hundreds of millions of people were simultaneously experiencing from afar, then, for me at the very least, this moment with the behemoth and his plastic suit is as good a jumping-off point as any.
Hours earlier, I'd started at a checkpoint with recognizable markers in time and space. But here I was, trapped in the phantasmagoric clash between expectation and reality, standing next to a man in a handmade hazmat suit who held in his gloved hand a '90s camcorder. Politics and religion and fandom and pandemic paranoia had literally been scrawled across his margins. The dirty blue surgical gloves. The terrible posture. And while these details, taken together, might indeed make perfect sense to someone else, including a decent segment of the crowd I'd just left, they didn't make any sense to me. It was as if I'd arrived outside of history. And no amount of research into QAnon or Cowboy Guy Fawkes or the politicization of Falun Gong would help me back from that.
Still. Stop reading into things, I told myself, and find a place to write.
I left the rally. The sidewalks were packed with Trump supporters. At a corner up ahead, a man was holding a large, blocky sign. What did he have to say that I hadn't already heard? I looked closer.
DEFUND YOUR BUTTHOLE BY 75 PERCENT, it read.
I passed him quickly. I did not make eye contact.
* * *
A half-hour later, I was sitting in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, talking with Brad, a former Army sergeant who'd flown in from Arizona for the rally, when the first news reports started coming in. My partner Dani sent her own updates. They had evacuated the Senate. The old friend who'd dropped me off that morning had gone into lockdown with Mayor Bowser. He had no idea when he'd be heading back. Get out of city now, he texted me. Walk if you have to.
The lobby of the Mayflower was about seven miles away, a straight shot up 16th Street, from where I lived, just over the Maryland line. I decided to start walking.
It was just after 3 p.m. In every direction the city was ringing. A sound as ubiquitous as the afternoon itself, vibrating and dense, the air settling beneath it. There were sirens of all different kinds. They came from first responders, law enforcement, even the Secret Service. Where else? For a moment I thought I could pick out the deep, plaintive wail of a military alarm. An air-raid horn? Overhead, helicopters encircled the Mall. I'd heard something like it only once before, as a small child, during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, its epicenter located a few miles from my Bay Area hometown: The car alarms had started just as the shaking stopped, pitching together like waves.
I walked north. Along empty streets I passed the White House, Black Lives Matter Plaza and Lafayette Square. Eventually I came to the William Howard Taft Bridge, a thousand-foot arch that spans the gorge of the creek below, connecting one part of D.C. with the next. Dani picked me up here. Together on her car radio we listened as President-elect Joe Biden consoled the nation. "The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are," he said. It was nice to feel on the same side as his "we."
A year later, I'm not so sure. In his Inaugural Address, Biden recalled Saint Augustine. A people, Augustine said, was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.
What are the common objects of ours? But maybe this is the wrong question. Who we are seems more bound up in common wounds than common love. It's clear how some of us will remember Jan. 6: prayers on the House floor, testimony from members of Congress, a three-part series from the New York Times — all of it culminating in Biden's speech to mark the one-year anniversary.
How, I wonder, will they?