Wildwood, N.J., Jan. 28, 2020. "Trump rallies have a certain formula. He is a showman trying out new lines and new tricks to see how the audience responds. The successful lines become part of the act, and the rest are discarded. He always stokes anger at the 'fake news,' and thousands turn around to boo the media and give us the finger. Yet when we talk to Trump's supporters before and after his speech, they are generally kind and polite. After I had a violent encounter with a mob in Egypt in 2011, I know how quickly and easily groups of people can turn."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Photographs by Peter van Agtmael for TIME | Text by Karl Vick
January 19, 2021 6:00 AM EST

It would be too much to say that if you’ve seen one Trump rally you’ve seen them all. But “they all follow a predictable pattern,” says Peter van Agtmael, who has been attending them since 2016. As a news photographer, “You have a lot of nice conversations, and maybe one or two people aren’t very nice. Then they turn into a mob when Trump stokes them and provokes them.”

Usually the moment comes when, like clockwork, Trump points back toward where cameras and reporters are cordoned, and instructs the crowd to vent their spleen. “And they all turn on you as a mob and shout at you and give you the finger. He can turn a loose or friendly crowd — or at least a neutral crowd — into an angry crowd in a few seconds,” he say. “And I never got used to that. It’s hard to be in this vulnerable position when thousands of people are looking at you with hate in their eyes.” Over five years, the dynamic was the same; van Agtmael could predict when it was coming.

Montoursville, Pa., May 20, 2019. President Trump complains about at the media during a campaign rally, causing the crowd to jeer at the press.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

Jan. 6 felt different from the start. “I had a strong feeling something bad was going to happen,” he says. By the time a mob moved from Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally outside the White House to overrun the U.S. Capitol, the day had brought together the forces van Agtmael had been documenting over the previous year — Trumpism, race, politics, COVID-19 — in what may have been a crescendo, or merely a prelude. Van Agtmael isn’t sure.

“This year,” he says, “kind of embodies all these things I’ve been looking at for the last 15 years: How forms of nationalism and militarism found a bedfellow in Trump, and well beyond that, to identity politics and a kind of sordid version of patriotism. But then also this racial reckoning. And then beyond that, the pandemic and our response to it, which framed questions like: What is our notion of liberty and duty to our neighbors and duty to our country?”

From years covering conflict overseas, van Agtmael is more than comfortable with armed men. He recognized, among the National Guard summoned to protect the Inauguration, the faces of friends he’d made while embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. His work always toggles between front line and home front, and makes visible the dilemmas that haunt peoples’ lives and, in some circles, drive politics.

The photos here were made across America — in Wildwood, NJ., Minneapolis, Tulsa, Louisville, Portland, Erie, and, finally, our nation’s capital — during a year when just being out and about came with a certain element of risk.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of mob violence before in Egypt during the revolution,” the photographer says. In Washington, “I was wandering through that crowd for hours. Then it got pretty rough. I had to leave the scene for a while because I thought militia was going to beat the sh-t out of me. Instead, they likely gave me COVID-19. Mild symptoms kicked in five days later. It’s kind of right on the dot.”

Richmond, Va., Jan. 20, 2020. "There was a huge gun-rights rally in Richmond. It was peaceful, despite many suggestions that it would turn violent if protesters showed up. Still, it's extremely disconcerting to see so many armed men and women. The USA feels like a tinderbox."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Richmond, Va., Jan. 20, 2020. Sheriff Scott Jenkins attends a Second Amendment rally.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Wildwood, N.J., Jan. 28, 2020. A vendor sells Trump merchandise outside a rally.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Wildwood, N.J., Jan. 28, 2020. After Trump's campaign events, "there is always a mountain of discarded chairs and coolers that aren't allowed into the rally. People wait in line for hours, even days, in order to get a prime place to watch the President speak."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Easton, Md., March 28, 2020. A nearly empty toilet paper and paper towel aisle during the coronavirus lockdown.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Salisbury, Md., April 11, 2020. A man walks through the parking lot of the Wicomico County Stadium. "Before the pandemic, there was no reason to notice an empty parking lot. Now, besides the supermarket and Wal-Mart, every parking lot is empty."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Annapolis, Md., April 8, 2020. "I went to an anti-lockdown protest at the state capitol. It's the first time I've been around so many people since this pandemic started. It was very theatrical. Lots of flags, kids with homemade signs begging to go back to school, a lady in a monkey mask, and a lot of unmasked protesters. I guess this is becoming a culture war, too."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Queens, N.Y., May 13, 2020. The family of Salvador Calderon mourns his death from COVID-19 at Maple Grove Cemetery.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Minneapolis, May 31, 2020. Police “kettle” and arrest a group of several hundred people protesting the killing of George Floyd after curfew.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Minneapolis, May 30, 2020. "I ran back to my car to get a gas mask, and as I put on my gear, I could hear shooting and the boom of tear gas canisters. I sprinted back towards the police lines and entered a massive cloud of tear gas, too concerned about missing the action to be afraid. I found journalist Ed Ou stumbling around, calling for help, his face covered in blood. I hustled him out of the tear gas and performed first aid. He had received a nasty scalp wound after police began indiscriminately firing at protesters and journalists. Scattered confrontations with the police continued all night."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Minneapolis, May 30, 2020. People visit and take selfies on the collapsed roof of a Wells Fargo, destroyed in the riots and arson that followed the killing of George Floyd.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Minneapolis, May 31, 2020. A closed highway during protests following Floyd's killing by police.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
St. Paul, Minn., June 2, 2020. "It's an extraordinary sight to see a cross-section of class and race packing the streets to protest. I never could have imagined this a year ago. The Black Lives Matter protests I'd attended before were largely scattered and sparse. It feels like a moment of historical transition. Will that come to pass? Already there seems to be a lot of infighting, and I wonder about the commitment from a white middle class largely immune from the issues of police violence and inequality that sparked these protests."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Tulsa, June 20, 2020. A Boogaloo Boi carries a rifle outside the BOK Center before Trump's rally.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Tulsa, June 20, 2020. "I feel like this country is increasingly living in parallel worlds. The Trump rally today was bizarre. Indoors, everyone bunched together, barely anybody wearing a mask. I looked like an alien in my respirator and goggles. I was mocked a bit, and responded with my story of seeing trucks filled with bodies in New York at the height of the pandemic's first wave in America. I suppose this will be a super-spreader event. George Floyd was not mentioned even once. As people started to stream out during the 90-minute speech, I left to see if there would be confrontations with protesters. There were some scattered shouting matches and a bit of scuffling, but mostly the two groups left one another alone. One attendee of the rally carried a handmade cross, and a protester tried to snatch it out of his hand. He yanked it back, held it in the air and started chanting, 'Peace, peace, peace.' The crowd of protesters and Trump supporters around him took up the chant, filling the air. That night, my colleague Ruddy Roye and I sat down with some Trump supporters at our hotel and had drinks. It was a surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced conversation."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Richmond, Va., July 10, 2020. "I came down to Richmond to photograph Monument Avenue, a wide boulevard formerly filled with the statues of Confederate leaders that were pulled down by protesters in the previous weeks. It was shocking to see the places of honor bestowed upon the losing side of a war they had fought to maintain slavery," says van Agtmael. (In this photograph: the plinth beneath the statue of Robert E. Lee.) "The American narrative always seems to frame the horrors and injustices of our past as triumphantly overcome, but one glance at Monument Avenue and the recent memory of the George Floyd protests underlined the hypocrisy of that belief. I feel like my whole adult life has been a process of unraveling the potent propaganda we are taught as children."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Washington, D.C., Aug., 27, 2020. Protesters gather at Black Lives Matter Plaza on the last night of the Republican National Convention.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, Aug., 27, 2020. "A modest number of protesters gathered outside the fence sealing off the White House from Black Lives Matter Plaza. As Trump's speech accepting the Presidential nomination ended, a massive display of fireworks filled the air. Some protesters pressed against the fence to shout obscenities and wave their middle finger towards the White House. It feels as if the tension is only going to ramp up as the election quickly approaches."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 2020. Tens of thousands of peaceful protesters gathered on the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington to call for social and racial justice. Held on a sweltering day, some attendees cooled in the waters of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Louisville, Ky., Sept. 5, 2020. A gathering of a right-wing militia at Carrie Gaulbert Cox Park.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Louisville, Ky., Sept. 5, 2020. Protesters taunt militia members who had marched on Breonna Taylor Square.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Louisville, Ky., Sept. 5, 2020. "I left the Kentucky Derby to go to reports of an armed confrontation at the Breonna Taylor memorial in downtown Louisville. I'd heard a white militia had marched there to confront Black Lives Matter protesters. A standoff ensued, with the largely unarmed protesters trying to shout and taunt the armed gunmen into retreating. Some of the gunmen looked scared, and I worried that a round would be fired out of fear or nerves. How many horrific events in history have been sparked by a misfire or a scared and foolish young man? After a half-hour or so, the militia retreated, popping smoke canisters as they fled. The cops finally showed up when the tension had long since passed. I went back to the Derby for the final race. The winning horse trampled the trainer as a garland of roses was placed around his neck."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Portland, Ore., Sept. 26, 2020. "Today, there was a rally by the Proud Boys, a far-right, exclusively male group with a history of street violence and a misogynistic and Western chauvinist ideology, and supporters. The previous rally had turned into a running street battle, and ultimately a militia member was shot and killed. Today, the police kept the Proud Boys and counter-protesters separate. The Proud Boys strutted around for a few hours, periodically accusing journalists (including myself) of being Antifa infiltrators and trying to throw us out of the public park, though other Proud Boys usually intervened to stop them. Still, a young student journalist was beaten up for no reason."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Portland, Ore., Sept. 26, 2020. "Militia members pose for the media at a Black Lives Matter protest. On the same day, in a nearby park, a Black Lives Matter rally dissolved into infighting. The situation was deescalated by this Black militia, which posed for photos."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Erie, Pa., Oct. 20, 2020. Trump departs a campaign rally.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Kenosha, Wis., Oct. 27, 2020. Skeletons of vehicles that were burned in the unrest that followed the August shooting of Jacob Blake by police. "These days I often think about the sharp divergence of our shared experiences as Americans. Coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I was deeply angry about the inability of the public to respond with meaningful action to the reporting and photography from the wars. The experience was profoundly transformative for me, yet my work could only convey a sliver of that experience. If they didn’t live it, they could barely feel it, much less want to change things. I’ve never experienced what it means to be dehumanized and haunted by a society because of my race. The injustice of it is clear, but the experience itself is not."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos
Grand Rapids, Mich., Nov. 2, 2020. "I went to the last Trump rally before voting opens in a few hours. It's freezing cold, and people were huddled together for warmth. Trump rallies often seem to attract a certain kind of die-hard Trump voter, often seemingly down on their luck and ecstatic to hear the wild promises he makes. Tonight is different, with a cross-section of well-dressed and well-heeled white people voicing their full-throated support for the presidency."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Grand Rapids, Mich., Nov. 3, 2020. A hat is tossed between Trump and his supporters at the President's final rally before the election.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, D.C., Nov. 3, 2020. "I flew to D.C. early in the morning and spent the day at the White House as voting took place."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, D.C., Nov. 4, 2020. "Around three in the morning, the press pool was finally called to the East Room for a statement. A crowd of 100 or so loyalists eagerly awaited the President's speech. The feeling of the crowd was muted. Though Trump was ahead in the vote, journalists were beginning to predict that Biden would be victorious once the absentee and mail-in ballots were counted. Trump eventually came out to cheers and delivered a speech alleging shadowy voter fraud and claiming victory. The normally controlled façade of his boilerplate expressions dropped for a moment, revealing a very worried man. As I headed to the hotel after filing my pictures, someone dressed in a clown suit was performing an interpretive dance and taping anti-Trump signs to the asphalt outside the White House."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, D.C., Nov. 7, 2020. "I was sitting on a curb outside my hotel when I heard cheers. I assumed it was in reaction to a speech at a small protest, and went back to my room. My phone immediately started buzzing with alerts and text messages. Biden had been declared the winner by all the major news networks. I raced down to the White House, where the streets were filling with people. All day and night, the broad avenues were filled with ecstatic crowds — cheering, popping champagne, embracing and weeping."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, D.C., Nov. 7, 2020. People watch Biden’s first speech as President-elect at Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, D.C., Nov. 14, 2020. "A week after the election results, at a massive MAGA rally, there are tens of thousands of people, if not more. People largely leave me alone, though an angry-looking man follows me for a time, glowering every time I stop to take a picture. Left-leaning media seems to barely acknowledge the event. This year feels defined in part by the stark divide in the kind of information people receive depending on their political leanings. It has always been a fragmented country, but it's troubling how little intersection there is between the narratives."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Canton, Ga., Jan. 3, 2021. Young Republicans pray at a rally for Senate candidate Kelly Loeffler.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Canton, Ga., Jan. 3, 2021. Loeffler greets supporters at a rally two days before the special election.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Dalton, Ga., Jan. 4. 2021. "This was perhaps the most theatrical Trump rally I've attended. After circling the crowd several times, he arrived with a flourish by helicopter, preceded by two tilt-rotor Ospreys. I am slightly perplexed by the repeated playing of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song 'Fortunate Son,' with damning lyrics about the children of the privileged who leveraged their connections to avoid the Vietnam War. It's a rousing song, but Trump did just that. David Perdue is in quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure, so only Loeffler is present. Though the rally was promoted to support her and Perdue in the next day's election, she is afforded just a few brief moments and words on stage. Trump follows her with Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Congresswoman who is a proponent of QAnon. The aggression towards the media is particularly pronounced, with loud boos and lewd gestures and several angry people milling around the press area, cursing any journalist within earshot."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Dalton, Ga., Jan. 4. 2021. Attendees leave a Trump rally held in support of Loeffler and Perdue. Both lost their races.
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021. "I had an ominous feeling during the inflammatory speeches of Trump surrogates Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Jr. and Rudy Giuliani. Men wandered through the crowd with megaphones, declaring a march on the Capitol as soon as Trump's speech ended. From my place in the crowd, I overheard talk about storming the Capitol and the need for revolution or civil war. It was clear that there would be a confrontation, so before the end of Trump's speech, I began walking with the crowd that had begun trickling towards the Capitol."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021. "When I arrived, clashes with the police had already begun. The number of police was very limited, but they seemed to be holding the rioters back. As I looked back on the Mall, I could see tens of thousands of people approaching. Nonetheless, a few additional police arrived. From my vantage point on a wall, I observed a well-organized group of men on megaphones exhorting 'good, strong men' forward to 'take back our house.' The crowd obliged, clambering over makeshift ladders to pressure the police back. A large crowd moved towards the East side of the Capitol, and I followed them. They pushed through police lines and surrounded the Capitol Police below, who retreated under a cloud of tear gas. The triumphant crowd began battering at the doors and windows. A man stopped by a broken flagstone and made a big show of proclaiming how 'dangerous' it would be if someone tripped and twisted their ankle. 'Typical Washington swamp,' he sniffed."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME
Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021. "I waited with the crowd as the East doors were battered, but some militia members began to threaten another photographer and me, and we left the scene. By the time I returned to the East side, the crowd had been expelled and began taking out their anger on the media. A TV news enclosure was smashed to pieces, the crew chased off. Police reinforcements had arrived, and they slowly pushed the rioters away from the Capitol, firing tear gas, shooting pepper balls and throwing flashbangs. An angry member of the crowd yelled, 'No more back the blue! Now no one likes you,' to scattered cheers."
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

Peter van Agtmeal is a photographer based in New York and a regular contributor to TIME. You can see more of his work here and in his most recent books Sorry for the War and 2020.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME

EDIT POST