Josiah Colt was all bravado on his way to Washington this week to protest what he saw as a stolen election.
“Ready for any battle,” the Boise, Idaho, man wrote on Facebook after waking up in Memphis, Tenn., to find that a “fellow patriot” had posted a photo of him clutching a handgun while sleeping. His friend wrote that Colt was “ready for the boogaloo,” a far-right term for a violent overthrow of government.
In a video he recorded Wednesday after storming the U.S. Capitol, Colt, 34, was breathless with excitement after sitting in what he believed was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chair — actually the Senate chamber seat reserved for the vice president.
But a short time later, in agitated tones outside the ransacked building, he voiced misgivings.
“I’m sitting here, and I don’t know what to do,” Colt told his social media followers on video. “I’m all over the news now, but like, I’m just like every single one of those people that was marching — a peaceful protest, came here to represent America. You know, I didn’t hurt anybody in there.”
Colt’s amalgam of swagger and regret reflects the dichotomy inside the insurrectionist movement that is newly emboldened after storming the Capitol on Wednesday but also fractured, in part, because of its loose grip on reality.
Late Thursday, they learned that a U.S. Capitol Police officer died after confronting the violent mob Wednesday.
Prior to that news, movement leaders on the far right took to social media, urging the like-minded to take the fight to state capitols nationwide and arm themselves for another assault on Washington on Jan. 19, the day before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
At the same time, insurrectionists posting on Parler and other social media seemed torn about whether to champion their sacking of the Capitol or blame it on antifa, one in a string of conspiracy theories the movement has embraced. Some adherents depicted Ashli Babbitt, the San Diego woman killed in the melee, as martyr for the cause. Others suggested she was an antifa plant — and claimed that no Trump supporters were involved in the ransacking.
“For the core participants and members of the far right, this has been a great success. This has been a milestone in their fight against these windmills, these alleged enemies of America,” said Arie Kruglanski, a psychology professor at University of Maryland and an expert in extremism. “On the other hand, it’s going to discourage those who aren’t quite as committed.”
As the country struggles to understand what a day of political violence and home-grown extremism means for its future, supporters of a lame duck president who once thought of themselves as united by patriotism suddenly find themselves divided by its meaning. Some view the day as the launch of a necessary revolt, with more to come — including the potential for more violence — while others, like Colt, show some signs of remorse.
In this diverse and increasingly radical political tribe, there is even a sense of betrayal that a movement that seized on an agenda of conservative righteousness and law and order would turn to rioting and brute force. This comes despite months of clashes, attacks and domestic terror plots — including a plan to kidnap the governor of Michigan — that provided ample warning of what lay ahead.
“Radicalization is now the mainstream of American politics, and we do our country a disservice to understand it any other way,” said Eric Ward, an extremism expert and senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s is no longer on the fringes of society.”
While many in this offensive still believe in election fraud, Wednesday’s events have left them disowning compatriots who ransacked, pillaged and injured dozens of law enforcement officers while still clinging to right-wing ideals.
“Were there Trump supporters up there? Absolutely. But they don’t understand what it means to be a patriot,” Kimberly Fletcher, founder and president of the national nonprofit Moms for America, said of those protesters who committed violent and potentially criminal acts Wednesday. More than a dozen have been charged by federal authorities.
“That wasn’t the majority of the people who were there. That was just a minority who were stupid,” she said.
She traveled from Omaha to join Wednesday’s rally with thousands of other members of her group bused in from across the country. They had mobilized get-out-the-vote efforts in eight swing states before the election, then fielded angry inquiries from members about recounts and alleged vote fraud.
Fletcher said Wednesday’s rally was largely peaceful, with flag waving, national anthem singing and praying, until the crowd swarmed the Capitol “like bees.”
One man asked her, “Where’s the breach?”, she said, looking for a way in. She told him people were not supposed to go inside. Fletcher discouraged others from climbing the scaffolding to break in, she said, but, “They were not listening to me.”
Faced with the ugliness of Wednesday’s mob, some Trump supporters are once again turning to conspiracy to forge a path that attempts to cleanse the movement of responsibility.
Jessica Teachout, a conservative activist from Houston, attended the rally but didn’t enter the Capitol. She blames antifa for the violence.
“That’s exactly what these professional rioters do,” she said. “We had people dressed up as MAGA supporters. They went in there.”
Leigh Dundas, a California human rights lawyer who has been a leader in organizing protests at the state Capitol against coronavirus shutdowns, was also in front of the national Capitol Wednesday. She saw flash-bang grenades launched at the crowd by law enforcement and people running across the lawn toward the Capitol building, she said. But she also does not believe it was those in her political camp that entered.
“It was very much like a staged production,” she said Thursday, waiting for a flight home at the Ronald Reagan National Airport. “I do believe it was people masquerading as Trump supporters.”
There is little or no evidence to back such claims, but Trump supporters have circulated photos on social media purporting to show known antifa activists inside the Capitol.
One image shows Colt, the Idaho man who got into the Senate chamber, raising his fist — which some Trump supporters describe as a leftist gesture.
Colt, who describes himself online as a digital-marketing director at Funnel Craft, a Boise internet advertising company, who likes skydiving, guns, food and family, did not respond to emails or calls.
Brian Brooks, who described himself as having attended high school with Colt in a social media post, wrote that Colt was “not some double-agent antifa person, like many are suggesting. He’s just a guy radicalized slowly by four years of lies, propaganda, dog whistles, gaslighting and conspiracy theories.”
Despite competing realities, there is little argument about what happens next: more of the same. Both those on the radical right fringe espousing violence and those more mainstream plan on continuing the protests that have marked a year of upheaval in 2020.
But Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State San Bernardino, said the difference between radicalism under a Trump presidency and with Biden in the White House may be in the loss of Trump’s ability to project his views.
That will leave regional leaders to fill the gap — many of whom have moved their messaging to alternative social media platforms outside the mainstream. Levin said that both allow them an audience distilled down to true believers, but also limits recruiting.
“They already have their own ecosystem,” he said. “They aren’t going to be able to grow it more the way they did when they had unfettered access to Facebook and Twitter.”
For months, as the pandemic boiled over with its inequities and economic devastation, conservative groups have increasingly found common ground and allies by preaching about the need to protect democracy and stop what they see as government overreach.
Whether it was the closure of schools and businesses, resistance to vaccines, anger over racial justice protests or reelecting Trump, they coalesced around protecting a United States they viewed as under attack.
Online forums grew by millions of members, and turnout at rallies drew crowds from across the causes willing to join together for a perceived greater good.
As Trump leaves the White House this month, and potentially loses some ability to commandeer media attention, those core causes, and their leaders, may absorb the energy of conservative protesters who feel even more disenfranchised but without direction.
In California, those causes have revolved around the anti-vaccination movement, which has grown its message in recent months to advocate for small businesses, ending public health restrictions and leading firearms training for women in a “moms militia” movement.
California’s leading anti-vaccine group, the Freedom Angels, spoke at Wednesday’s rally in Washington, echoing the language of the far-right.
“We are here to recruit you,” said one of the group’s leaders, Denise Aguilar, in a video posted on social media while she spoke in front of the Supreme Court. “We are done with bills. We are done with newsletters. We’re done with emails. We are boots on the ground, and it’s our responsibility to take our government back.”
Dundas, the California lawyer who has worked closely with Freedom Angels, is clear she is not advocating for a revolution. But she is also adamant that, as the president said Thursday, his loss is not an end to the movement he has wrought. She believes activists energized by Trump will remain committed.
“I don’t think this is going away, and nobody I am sitting with in the Delta Sky Lounge right now does either. One way or another, whoever is leading the country is going to have to deal with the fact that people have lost faith.”
Dundas, who has focused much of her energy on a recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, said she expected that effort to continue to gain steam as more Californians suffer economically due to coronavirus restrictions. She said she would not be surprised if the anger that spilled out at the Capitol continued as long as pandemic restrictions do.
“I think there is a correlation between how energetic the resistance is and how quickly the heat under the boiling frog is turned up,” Dundas said. “When you start affecting people’s kids and people’s livelihoods, they react fast.”
On Thursday, Teachout, the Houston activist, extended her stay in Washington and returned to the National Mall, undeterred by the previous day’s events.
“A lot of people were criticizing the patriots and condemning them,” she said in a Facebook video.
“We’re working with the deep state. These are treasonous, anti-American, communist dictators,” she said as she walked. “Did any American out there really think it was going to be this easy to take our country back?”