WASHINGTON — When rioters descended on the Capitol on Wednesday, they were following directions from President Donald Trump.
"We're going to have to fight much harder," Trump told supporters at a rally near the White House before the assault, adding: "We are going to walk down to the Capitol, and we're going to cheer on our brave senators, congressmen and women, and we are probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you will never take back our country with weakness."
Many in the massive crowd, soaked in the falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the election that Trump has been spewing for months, didn't even wait for the president to finish speaking. They began a march on the Capitol, where they would break through police barricades, rip through the chambers of Congress and vandalize the core symbol of the federal government.
The rioters' efforts to stop Congress' confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden's victory were unsuccessful. But, like the president, they kept hitting the same note.
"It's not over!"
Spending hours in the perimeter of the Capitol on Wednesday, I heard the same message over and over again, in one form or another.
A woman with a bullhorn who, as police released canister after canister of tear gas on protesters huddled around a Capitol entrance and used riot shields to beat back the mob, summed up this mindset.
"Even if you don't see it working," she said, "it's not over."
There was the man who, after the Capitol had been breached and police began pushing back, said, "Wait till we come back with guns."
Another man said, "It's time to get our guns and take our women home."
Wednesday marked the most significant breach of Congress in more than 200 years, but as the pro-Trump rioters told it, it won't be the last. They described their efforts to defend an election they have come to believe was rife with fraud and wrongly decided by "traitors."
In fighting the November results, they faced minimal resistance. When the protesters arrived at the Capitol, they weren't met by phalanxes of armed police. Once they did break into the building, it wasn't difficult to rejoin the rest of the crowd outside.
A man who was photographed sitting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office was seen afterward speaking to onlookers with a bullhorn on the Capitol steps, waving around a memento he said he had taken from the room.
When police began to exert force against the mob outside the Capitol — after what seemed like hours since the building was first breached — they were hit with shouts of "traitor!" Later, protesters let out cries of "defund the police" and "ACAB" — "all cops are bastards" — when police sought to clear the exterior of the building.
"Let us in!" they shouted repeatedly. "Our house!"
There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the two months since Trump lost to Biden, despite more than 50 election-related lawsuits filed by the president and his allies. But to many of those present Wednesday, Trump's failure to overturn the election is simply the product of an international conspiracy that involves the U.S. judicial system, Congress and, as of late, Vice President Mike Pence.
"We don't need Alex Jones," a woman said of the notorious conspiracy theorist. "We are Alex Jones now."
The scene was particularly threatening for members of the news media who had to carry camera equipment. A man with a camera was chased down by a group of men, with one assailant threatening to "crack" his skull, thinking he was working with CNN. Meanwhile, a group of Associated Press journalists was attacked and had its equipment vandalized.
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The area was teeming with armed men and other extremist elements. But not everyone was out for blood; some just saw the commotion as good fodder for social media posts, livestreaming the action or asking to have their photos taken.
Rioters were angry about both the election and what their president was saying. But many were also looking to have a good time.
As one man put it on the walk between Trump's rally and Congress: "Do we storm the Capitol or stop at the food trucks?"