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The Republican Party Has Distanced Itself From The Capitol Riot. But Local GOP Officials Fueled Supporters’ Rage Ahead of Jan. 6

11 minute read

Ali Alexander, the organizer of the Stop the Steal movement promoting President Trump’s baseless conspiracy theory that widespread voter fraud cost him the 2020 election, tweeted on Dec. 7, that he was “willing to give [his] life for this fight.” The next day, the Arizona Republican Party’s official account retweeted Alexander, with the note: “he is. Are you?”

Less than a month later, on Jan. 6, pro-Trump rioters overtook the U.S. Capitol by force, smashing windows and forcing lawmakers into hiding in a violent insurrection that resulted in the death of five people, including a Capitol Hill police officer. In the aftermath of the violence, Republicans have scrambled to distance themselves from the mob. The Republican National Committee condemned the attack and on Jan. 13, 10 Congressional Republicans voted to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the riot.

But the vocal backlash belies a much more uncomfortable reality: the Republican Party —including local, state and federal lawmakers and elected officials, and dozens of local Republican Party chapters—actively supported the Jan. 6 rally, both logistically and by leveraging their institutional platforms to promote falsehoods and encourage Trump supporters’ grievances. More than two dozen Republican lawmakers and other elected officials personally attended the rally, and at least one was caught on video storming the Capitol building during the riot. Many of these Republican Party members remain fervent Trump supporters and continue to repeat and amplify his baseless claims.

Dozens of local Republican Party chapters used their social media platforms to promote bus trips to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, according to reviews conducted by TIME and social media posts collected by media watchdog group Media Matters for America. Numerous posts encouraged Trump supporters to go to their state and federal capitol buildings to “fight,” “take America back,” and even “occupy” the government.

Several official Republican Party accounts, for example, posted a promotional flyer that referred to the Jan. 6 rally as “Operation Occupy the Capitol” and included slogans like #WeAreTheStorm, which are used by QAnon conspiracy theorists. The same flyer was found in fringe rightwing internet circles where the term “Operation Occupy the Capitol” had become something of a rallying cry, says Julie Millican, the vice president of Media Matters for America.

A screenshot, captured Jan. 15, illustrating a post on one local Republican Party chapter's Facebook page

“This is a call to ALL patriots from Donald J Trump for a BIG protest in Washington DC! TAKE AMERICA BACK! BE THERE, WILL BE WILD!” read Dec. 28 posts on both the Facebook page of the New Hanover County GOP in North Carolina and the public group for the Horry County Republican Party in South Carolina, promoting a bus trip from Willmington, N.C. to Washington, DC.

“FIGHT BACK! Stop the Steal MAGA Bus Trip… Tell Congress – DO NOT CERTIFY THIS VOTE,” also read a Jan. 4 Facebook post from the Bergen County Republican Organization in N.J. The post encouraged supporters to contact the Lodi Republican County Committeewoman to join a group bus trip to the Capitol on Jan. 6. Tickets were $65.00.

Republican lawmakers and other elected officials, including state senators and representatives, state school board members, mayors, town councilors and sheriffs from at least 18 states, also traveled themselves to D.C. on Jan. 6, where they tweeted and posted on social media in front of the Capitol. Just before the protests turned violent, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona tweeted, “Biden should concede. I want his concession on my desk tomorrow morning. Don’t make me come over there,” with a photo of the thousands of Trump supporters on the national mall.

Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase of Virginia, who is also a gubernatorial candidate, gave a calm but conspiracy-laden speech to a crowd assembled outside the Capitol ahead of the rally. In previous days, she’d shared contact information for groups helping Virginians travel to D.C., according to a screenshot of her now-suspended Facebook page collected by Democratic super PAC American Bridge.

A few hours later, just as rioters were ransacking Congressional offices, Republican state lawmaker Daniel Cox of Maryland tweeted, “Pence is a traitor.” Cox also helped organize buses for his constituents to attend, according to local news site Maryland Matters.

In perhaps the most extreme example, newly-elected Republican State Del. Derrick Evans of West Virginia live streamed himself on Jan. 6 gleefully pushing into the Capitol building, surrounded by a group of other cheering Trump supporters. And while Evans resigned on Jan. 9 after he was arrested for his part in the riot, plenty of other Republican officials have defended their attendance on Jan. 6 and fought back against attempts by colleagues to censure them this week, signaling that they will continue to be an important part of the Republican Party even after Trump leaves office on Jan. 20.

‘It wasn’t something that was supposed to be acidic’

Like some prominent national Republican lawmakers, many of the state and local Republican party officials who promoted the Jan. 6 event later denounced the violence. In interviews with TIME, they claimed they did not know about, or approve of, plans to breach the Capitol building.

Vincent Sammons, the county chairman of the Republican Central Committee of Cecil County in Maryland, who promoted what became a 15 bus trip to attend the Jan. 6 rally through a post on Cecil County Republican Club’s Facebook page, says he did not intend to fuel a riot. “It wasn’t something that was supposed to be acidic,” he told TIME. “It was something that was supposed to be a rally to motivate people to get their voices heard… you know, trying to express your freedom of speech.”

Washington DC - January 6, 2021: Supporters of President Donald Trump are seen during a protest rally calling for the decertification of Electoral College votes claiming a conspiracy theory, that has been debunked, that the general presidential election was stolen in Washington DC on January 6, 2021. Photo: Christopher Lee for TIME
A view of Pro-Trump rioters in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.Christopher Lee for TIME

Other local Republican leaders also emphasized that their Republican Party social media platforms were only used to help grassroots organizers’ efforts to support the President. Several Republican officials denied offering financial support to the protesters and described their role as simply helping to fill buses.

In Greenville, S.C., Kaaren Mann asked a friend with the Greenville County Republican Party to promote her bus trip on the party’s Facebook page and email list. In Ohio, Cathy Lukasko, auxiliary chair of the Trumbull County GOP, posted a flyer seeking attendees for a private bus trip that was shared on the Facebook pages for at least three counties’ GOP chapters before she combined forces with another Ohio Republican activist to fill a bus. The Northern Kentucky Tea Party, which advertised a bus trip that left from a local church, according to a since-deleted web page saved by American Bridge, filled two buses in a similar manner. Jane Brady, the Chairwoman of the Delaware Republican Party, posted about what became a three bus trip on the party’s official Facebook page. In more than half a dozen interviews, local Republican party members and Republican organizers maintained that they were not aware of anyone in their groups committing violence.

But many other Republican officials have either stopped short of condemning the rioters’ actions, or attempted to walk a fine rhetorical line—condemning the violence, while continuing to promote the same false grievances that incited it in the first place. Many have doubled down on their support for Trump himself.

Virginia Sen. Chase, for instance, publicly denied participating in the riots, but refused to criticize the Trump supporters who did until pressed in an interview with TIME on Jan. 14. “I’ve always condemned any type of violence, no matter what rally you’re at,” Chase told TIME. She then added that she “understand[s] the frustration of the people” and that “they believe the insurrection honestly occurred back on Election Day.” Chase also repeated the baseless claim, circulated by far-right extremists and conservative media, that at least some of those who stormed the Capitol were members of antifa, the loosely organized movement of anti-fascist activists.

The Arizona Republican Party has amplified the same baseless claim. “Several dozen, including members of Antifa, made the reprehensible decision to riot,” the Arizona Republican Party tweeted Jan. 11. “Punish the perps, stop gaslighting the innocents.” The tweet is now pinned to the top of the party’s timeline.

Maryland delegate Cox also denied participating in the riots and denounced the “mob violence” in a statement to TIME. But in a letter to Maryland General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics that was published by the Washington Post, Cox maintained that Pence’s decision to confirm Biden’s victory was a “betrayal of us his voters.”

These elected officials’ political two-step is likely a reflection of their Republican constituents’ beliefs. A Vox/Data for Progress poll conducted Jan. 8-11, just days after the riots, found that 72% of likely Republican voters said they still do not trust the 2020 election results. And an Ipsos-Axios poll conducted Jan. 11-13 and focused on the Capitol riots found 63% of Republicans said they support Trump’s “recent behavior.”

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that MAGA has kind of taken over Republican held seats in legislatures or in certain governorships, in large part because they’re reflecting what the base is,” says Elizabeth Neumann, who resigned from leading the Department of Homeland Security’s office overseeing responses to violent extremism last April. She explains that local officials often play an especially crucial role in shaping their constituents’s beliefs, since people tend to trust local representatives more than national ones.

“Somebody who’s already on that radicalization pathway,” Neumann says, “and you have a trusted voice, like your local legislator, or councilman or governor kind of endorse this path that they’re on, they’re more likely to continue on that path.”

Washington DC - January 6, 2021: Supporters of President Donald Trump are seen during a protest rally calling for the decertification of Electoral College votes claiming a conspiracy theory, that has been debunked, that the general presidential election was stolen in Washington DC on January 6, 2021. Photo: Christopher Lee for TIME
Pro-Trump rioters attempt to push through a barrier outside of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.Christopher Lee for TIME

An American tinderbox

The Jan. 6 riot was not a standalone event. It marked the culmination of more than a year of growing frustration and increasingly virulent ideas.

The rally brought together people from across the country who believe in a host of typically separate conspiracy theories, noted Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. As Trump encouraged supporters to oppose coronavirus-related lockdowns last year, the “liberate” movement and protests at state capitols throughout 2020, “provided an elastic reservoir to meet others with grievance against the government,” Levin says. That helped bring more establishment Republican activists on the ground into contact with QAnon supporters, Proud Boys and white supremacists.

Far-right extremists talking about violence, and even civil war, is not a new phenomenon, says Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, but it didn’t have a significant impact at the national level until Trump. In the past, “there’s always a sense of a spark” that would start the violence, he adds. “What’s different today is that the spark is the leadership of the President of the United States.”

Several right wing groups, including Women for American First, Turning Point USA and Phyllis Schlafly Eagles also helped promote the rally. Women for American First was granted a permit for the event on Jan. 4, per ABC News. It also hosted a multi-state bus tour across the U.S. encouraging people to attend the rally.

Washington DC - January 6, 2021: Supporters of President Donald Trump are seen during a protest rally calling for the decertification of Electoral College votes claiming a conspiracy theory, that has been debunked, that the general presidential election was stolen in Washington DC on January 6, 2021. Photo: Christopher Lee for TIME
Pro-Trump rioter uses a Capitol Police shield to break a window of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.Christopher Lee for TIME

Phyllis Schlafly Eagles—a group launched by the former president of Schlafly’s longtime group Eagle Forum amid infighting in 2016—promoted the event on its website and social media, likening the rally to D-Day in one post, according to research provided by American Bridge. And Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA and Students for Trump, claimed, in a since deleted tweet, that he sent more than 80 buses to the event, according to Kristen Doerer, the managing editor of Right Wing Watch. (A Turning Point spokesman later told the New York Times that the organization sent just seven buses to DC.)

The leaders of those organizations belong to the highly influential conservative political organization the Council for National Policy, which has close ties to the Trump administration and whose past members include former Trump White House staffers Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon.

The Trump Administration will come to an end next week, but security officials say the threat presented by the President’s fanning of conspiracy theories and anti-democratic fury will remain. The extremism that leaders in Washington now say threaten American democracy have permeated all levels of the Republican Party. “The concern that we have from a security perspective is that this problem doesn’t go away with Trump,” says Neumann.

State and federal law enforcement officers are preparing for potential violence from rightwing extremists and militant Trump supporters before and during Joe Biden’s inauguration.

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Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com and Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com