When Lisa Plumley, 53, heard there was going to be a Trump rally on January 6, she knew she had to be there.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” said Plumley, a staunch Trump supporter who works for a lab that makes cosmetics. “As soon as I heard they were having this, I’m like, I’m taking off work.”
Plumley’s boyfriend, Rick Maynard, a manufacturing inspector, wasn’t going to let her go alone. So the pair, of Shohola, Pa., joined the group Bikers for Trump in a four-bus caravan that left a Pennsylvania park-and-ride for the trip to Washington, D.C. Each bus was about a third full, to allow for distancing.
Plumley was proud to be there, to show support for the president she considers the best of her lifetime. “He speaks to me like I am a person,” she said. “He doesn’t look down on me, he doesn’t treat me less. I feel like I could be sitting in a room with him having a conversation and not having to worry about what I say. I feel like I’m accepted by him, and that’s what drew me to him.”
They wandered to the Capitol, hoping to see Trump speak, but he was speaking elsewhere, and other scheduled speakers had been cancelled. “It wasn’t well-organized,” said Maynard. They saw no port-o-potties, which the couple found odd and, in hindsight, ominous.
“To put it bluntly, there was a lot of pissed people,” said Plumley. “Because they did shut down the town. There was not even a place to go to the bathroom, so they were making it like they were against having the whole thing, and having a peaceful protest to begin with. That is supposed to be a town to come and express, our house, our place of the American people. They made it so we weren’t wanted there, that’s what it felt like. We weren’t wanted at the people’s house.”
Walking around, the couple saw people singing “God Bless America” in groups, praying, chanting, carrying crosses, and waving flags on makeshift poles fashioned from bamboo or fishing poles. It felt like other Trump rallies they’d been to – only bigger.
“None of the other rallies ever said anything about any violence, so we didn’t expect any violence,” said Maynard, a grandfather. “But with that many people, it was a possibility.”
In the sea of everyday faces, they noticed “some sketchy looking people,” Plumley said. “They literally had helmets on and flack jackets. They just looked wrong. There were some strange-looking people that looked like they had too many military things on.”
‘People as far as the eye could see moving toward the Capitol’
No one knows how many people were there. What Scott Nemeth, of Lake Mohawk, N.J., knows is he had never seen so many people as he saw that day. Partway through Trump’s speech, the crowd he was in started to move toward the Capitol, merging with other crowds. “If you looked two avenues to the left and then to the right, it was literally just elbow-to-elbow, flags, red-white-and-blue going toward the Capitol. Every road, every direction, in front of us, behind us, just insane.”
Nemeth leans right, describing himself as a “constitutionalist,” though not a diehard Trump fan. He would really like for there to be a third party.
As someone who travels on a near-weekly basis for work, it was no big deal for him to hook up with a few friends and drive down to D.C., arriving the evening of January 5.
“It was just literally a city filled with people, a love-fest,” he said. Hotels and bars were packed with “moms, dads, grandmothers, kids, it was just awesome.”
Nemeth did not buy the conspiracy theory Trump had been pushing, that the election had been stolen from him. “Although everybody knows the election is what it is and Trump’s on his way out, it was just a time to be an American and be with all people that are there to support the president and the country,” he said. “We didn’t know what the next day was going to bring. We didn’t really have a plan, we just figured we would wing it.”
The next morning he ended up near the Washington Monument, where he could see huge screens projecting speakers – Donald Trump Jr.; then his girlfriend, Trump fundraiser Kimberly Guilfoyle; and finally Trump himself, in typical form. “Did he get people riled up? Yeah, absolutely,” said Nemeth.
But the crowd that began moving toward the Capitol as he spoke, including elderly people and kids, was “in a very chipper mood,” he said. “Chants of USA, nobody damaging anything on the streets, nobody tipping garbage cans, literally was completely civil. Nobody knew it was going to escalate to that in that kind of a hurry.”
Nemeth watched what happened next with incredulity. A peaceful rally transformed in front of his eyes into a violent mob.
“What’s the end game?” he wondered. As he approached the Capitol, he saw the plastic barriers down and people all over the place, on top of statues and fences. “I’m thinking everyone just wants to show they can get onto the Capitol, they can get up onto the steps. I didn’t think anybody would ever go up onto the concrete and get up there and then try to break into the building.”
From the grass about 25 yards away, he watched a group of rioters push their way up the stairs and climb the walls, battling outnumbered Capitol Police officers who were shooting them at point-blank range with pepper spray. He saw one rioter try to scale the outside of the stairs and get pushed off by police, falling perhaps 30 feet onto his back. “And then it was full-on,” he said. Then there was just people going through all of the scaffolding, pulling down the plastic. It was just mayhem.”
He saw kids being pulled out of the crowd by their parents, and people running away with red eyes or just scared. Others were pushing through the crowd to get to the Capitol. “I also saw a lot of people saying this is enough, we went far enough,” he said. “You’re not going to go up and break anything, you’re not going to go break windows. We’ve accomplished what we came here to do, and that’s to show that we support the president.”
He couldn’t see what was happening inside the Capitol, where lawmakers who’d been attempting to certify the election crawled on their bellies, afraid for their lives as the mob overran the building.
“I never wanted to see anyone get hurt,” said Nemeth. “I said to my friends when it all started to get bad, I’m like, Goddamn I hope nobody gets hurt here.”
’I don’t want to be part of this’
The brutal clash stunned Nemeth, given how courteously he’d seen Trump supporters thanking police officers and security guards who’d been manning the city since the night before. “On every street closed, ‘Hey thanks for doing this, thanks for being a first responder,’” said Nemeth, whose father was in the military. “Just what you would think would happen and be said by people that for most part support the police and support the military and support the flag.”
The violence killed one police officer and one rioter, and injured more than 50 officers, sending 15 to the hospital. Three Trump loyalists died from what appeared to be medical emergencies, although a 34-year-old Georgia woman might also have been trampled. Another police officer who was at the Capitol committed suicide three days later. Since that day, six members of Congress have tested positive for coronavirus, after some were forced to take shelter from the mob alongside colleagues who refused to wear masks.
“To me the vibe was great until that 15 minutes when it got ugly,” said Nemeth. “Then what happened from there, I’m like, I can’t stay here, I don’t want to be a part of this.”
What Maynard and Plumley experienced on January 6 was not, from their perspective, a riot. It felt like “a normal rally,” Maynard said. But, he said, “The world’s going to see, all Trump supporters, they rioted.”
Troubled though they are by the violence, they themselves didn’t witness anything more chaotic than smoke from flash bombs and people standing on SUVs and scaffolding. From what friends were calling and saying they were seeing on TV, Plumley said, “It was just a totally different picture.”
Everyone the couple talked to, walking back to the bus for the return trip home, was on the same page. “It was wrong,” Plumley said. “People did wrong. They should never have entered the Capitol building, it was totally wrong.”
Maynard said one of their bus-mates heard someone yell, “Don’t go in. Don’t go in. That’s not us, That’s not what we do.”
Lumped in with the bad guys
In the wake of the violence, Trump supporters who were as troubled by the violence as anyone found themselves lumped in with the bad guys, as if they too had been part of a coordinated attack or an attempted coup.
Nemeth felt he was being censored when he discovered that Facebook had taken down videos he’d live-streamed of the morning’s speakers and peaceful crowds, with a notice that they didn’t meet community standards.
Facebook’s blanket policy is to “remove content, disable accounts, and work with law enforcement when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.”
“It upset me because I was shut down and silenced,” Nemeth said. With friends and colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Nemeth had tended to sidestep politics publicly in the past, but now he made a new Facebook account and re-uploaded a video from January 6. Someone who saw it called his employer to complain, and the vice president of his company called Nemeth to warn him – people aren’t happy he went to D.C.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I didn’t hurt anybody. I went there to support the current president, to support the U.S. What the stupid people did, as in any of the other riots that have happened in all these cities, every person there is not a bad person.
“It’s sad that people on either side are being silenced. It’s not America anymore, it’s either you agree with me or you’re this or you’re that. We’re not in a good place. There’s no free speech. If you’re for the president, you’re screwed.”
Plumley, too, thinks that Big Tech, having cut Trump off from his social media bullhorns, is interfering with First Amendment rights, the freedom she went down to D.C. to exercise. “Democrats, Republicans, we all want the same thing in the long run: for us to have a voice. No matter what it is that we want, we all just want to be heard.”
On Wednesday, Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives for inciting the rioters, becoming the first U.S. president to be impeached twice. His loyal base continues to stick by him.
“President Trump has my full support,” said Plumley. “If they had a flag-waving ceremony or something in town like they have been, I would be there.”