WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol and ransacking congressional offices, I had the rare chance to learn what’s on their mind, face to face – away from the internet sites that united them in cause. What I learned helped to explain what happened in the District, while also opening up potentially frustrating mysteries.
As a television news reporter, I don’t make it a habit to eavesdrop on conversations while I’m on duty. I represent WUSA9, and whether it’s my face, my station-branded clothing, or the camera equipment often at my side, we tend to stick out. On major public events, our identifiable news crews often walk right up to people and ask them questions on camera about what motivates their actions. Even during the pandemic, we did that regularly to Black Lives Matter protesters wanting to get their views out about racial inequality. We did so even after a small number of agitators isolated my photographer and I, physically attacked us trying to steal our microphone and camera.
But despite our efforts, it is difficult if not nearly impossible to interview supporters of President Trump attending the events in the Capital this week. First, our network affiliation logos often spur shouts of “fake news” from people when approaching any group of more than three. Second, unlike Black Lives Matter protesters who can point to their anger over the deaths of people with verifiable names and lives, there is a substantial portion of allegations made by those attending the “Stop the Steal” rallies that have not been verified and border on unverifiable conspiracy theories. Third, just like the protests of last May and June, there are a number of agitators who seek out news crews for physical confrontation.
On the evening of Jan. 6, I found myself with the rare opportunity of being able to listen in on those Trump supporters, some talking about the storming of the Capitol with an apparent level of personal experience. I found them in hotel lobbies, around downtown D.C. They couldn’t leave.
Unlike in June when DC Metropolitan Police kettled Black Lives Matter protesters on residential streets for mass arrest, police this time had kettled them in their hotels after curfew. There was tension as Trump supporters shouted at MPD demanding to be able to walk the streets. They were answered with loudspeakers and standing officers.
Supporters of the president grumbled about not being able to find any dinner, until some began to realize that local restaurants would still answer calls for hotel lobby delivery once paper takeout menus were discovered. Bags of food began to arrive and lower the hungry tension inside the well-lit and warm lobbies.
I didn’t wear my WUSA9 logo jacket inside that lobby. I was alone, leaving our photojournalist outside to shoot video of the police barricade. I stood and waited with them, listening in on conversations.
First off, the entire lobby reminded me of a ballroom of a political victory party on election night facing defeat. Instead of huddling around devices and TV’s looking for esoteric clues of how voting precincts were reporting in, the president’s supporters huddled around their phones, trading theories about what was really behind the storming of the Capitol. They traded Twitter and Parler pictures and video clips claiming Antifa members actually stormed the Capitol.
I heard “false flag” multiple times, using the term meant to state the unproven belief that a “deep state” conspiracy framed Trump’s supporters for this crime against democracy. The most popular people of the moment were those who found a new social media clip, spreading it around the lobby within minutes.
Groups huddled in lobby couches, finding common cause in discussing election fraud theories in the same manner and earnest affirming question and answer sessions as a small Bible study group common at some churches. Waiting near the elevators were people wearing clothes bearing the letter “Q.” It was their self-recognition sign they believed they were tasked with spreading the word of a secret informant deep in the U.S. intelligence community claiming President Trump was on the verge of saving the country from a pedophile ring of opposing politicians. There were urgent, almost hushed, conversations about whether speakers they heard on the streets after the rally had a direct line to the “Q” themself.
These Trump supporters came from across the country, talking about concerns the D.C. mayor’s 6 a.m. curfew end would come too late for some to catch early morning flights to Florida, Ohio, and points west that could be heard in passing.
As for the crowd in the lobbies, while it was overwhelmingly White, there were Black women and men of apparent South Asian descent who freely walked and laughed with their fellow Trump supporters without any tension to be seen. Their red, white, and blue clothing bearing Trump’s name seemed the boldest. No, like many awkward hotel conventions, the only tension I picked up on was of the nervous kind. Younger men approached women trying to strike up an ice-breaking conversation, as if history-making events could be as common as the weather. Less than half were wearing masks, and often only when within 10-feet of any hotel staff.
I left the hotel lobby realizing that for all of the work of the local and national press corps, there is an alternate reality that cannot be pierced in their eyes. It is simply another language. Trump supporters would watch the hotel televisions showing cable news replays of the Capitol riots somewhat blankly for a few seconds at a time, before walking away and diving right back into a social media snippet that comforted them that their worldview was correct: the election of Joe Biden as President was fraudulent and they were the vanguard of a movement to save the American republic.
But the next night, I experienced a small ray of hope. While covering a story around the corner from Black Lives Matter Plaza, I went to a pizza restaurant to get a takeaway slice. Two Trump supporters identified by their jackets and hats approached me and asked whether I was reporting that all people who attended Wednesday’s Trump speech were “terrorists.” I said no, but replied that our coverage referred to all who stormed the Capitol building as “rioters” or “insurrectionists.”
One brought out their phone, cued up video of the shooting death of Ashli Babbitt at the hands of Capitol Police and asked various questions seemingly derived from conspiracies created by online commentators about who was responsible. The two men appeared receptive as I laid out the facts as our station had been covering them. The other man told me, “I’ve never talked to a news reporter before. I just don’t know who to trust. How do we know who is telling the truth?”
Those next minutes, as we held our pizza slices talking through masks, I tried to lay out the local and media landscape, closing with the advice that rather than only getting their news from commentators, put their trust in news outlets who put the most “boots on the ground,” reporters who take to the field and cover events as witnesses and with insightful interviewing. That man thanked me, shook my hand despite the pandemic, and we both walked out.
I had no evidence that those two men were involved in any criminal activity with the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Those two may still end up acting on their beliefs of a fraudulent presidential election without evidence. But I held hope that for a brief moment I was able to pierce that alternate reality, and talk to a fellow citizen on common ground about the common denominator of truth.