I don’t know what happened. But here’s my current theory of what the White House thought was going to happen. I don’t have any more information than you do, and here I’m not concerned with the broader question of how the country came to this end. I am just trying to make sense of what happened on Wednesday.
From the moment he knew he’d lost the presidential election, Trump absolutely wanted to get the result overturned. Some large proportion of his own staff and Congressional Republicans thought there was no harm in humoring him. Many surely knew him well enough to realize he was quite serious about it. But most, falling into a way of thinking that Trump has repeatedly benefited from over his entire career, and especially during his Presidency, figured that he could not possibly overcome the weight of institutional and conventional pressure behind the transition of power. Still, by the first week of January he had not relented in his efforts to find some way to do it, whether through bullying local election officials, chasing wild geese through the courts, or directly intimidating state officials. That all failed, or looked like failing. The next thing on the horizon was Electoral College certification.
So, Team Trump organized a big day of protest to coincide with the certification. The MAGA hats and Q people got all excited. Initially, Pence was going to be the guy who’d sort things out by using his made-up authority to reject the votes. But then he said he wouldn’t do this, which complicated things considerably. By this stage they were running out of rope, but Trump’s whole m.o. is just to keep pushing and pushing until those charged with stopping him just get tired, give in, or give up.
The plan for Wednesday was to have Trump go down and rile up the MAGA crowd, have them march up to the Capitol steps, and look like a big mass of people demanding something be done. Thanks to some preparatory cleansing of the DoD leadership last month (again, in outline pretty clear evidence that they intended to subvert the election), the White House had made sure there wouldn’t be much to stop the crowd from getting real close and making a lot of noise. The optics would be good. And the cops on duty wouldn’t go too hard on their MAGA buddies in any case.
Once the ructions were underway, and the objections from Hawley and Cruz and others were being debated, Trump would call some Senators to push them to object or generally delay or whatever. At a minimum, anything to derail the process. And as a best outcome—well, this bit is one of those ?????? Underpants Gnomes stages that features in all half-thought-out Trumpy plans—between the direct pressure from Trump and the noise from the masses gathered outside (just look at those TV pictures!), there would be some big shift as Senators realized their base was against them and they’d vote to reject the Electoral votes and send everything back to the States. Or there would be chaos on the Senate floor and someone like Cruz would hope to capitalize on it to reach some quasi-legitimate “Compromise of 2021”. Or something. I’m not saying this makes much sense in terms of things that definitely had to happen. It’s more that they saw potential to seize the initiative in some real-time moment of uncertainty with the house divided and the crowd outside.
The crowd outside. People in the White House or the Trump family entourage undoubtedly spend enough time hanging around the MAGA scene to be in touch with some of the key figures in it. There’s plenty of communication. The movement is disaggregated and full of weird shit and features more than a few complete lunatics. Still, there’s coordination with the rank and file when it comes to getting the crowds to show up. Now, because this was an event that Trump was going to be at himself, the idea was probably that from the crowd’s point of view it’d go more like a regular rally, as opposed to something like Charlottesville or the Michigan Statehouse. That is, from the White House’s point of view, the crowd was not actually supposed to get inside the Capitol. The MAGA/Q contingent are the useful marks in all this. They believe all the crap they’re fed. But obviously they’re not going to get into the building. It’s the US Capitol for God’s sake! The very idea that the rush of events would propel them right into the chambers was not something the White House wanted to happen, or thought was going to happen.
Of course, before the rally some of the actually dangerous Q-marinated nutters absolutely did want to get inside the building, find Pence, and Pelosi, and the rest, and literally take them hostage and string them up. They talked about this a lot on their message boards. The White House was probably well aware of these ideas. Normally, the presence of that part of the base provides a pleasant frisson of Lib-Owning danger. It pleases the White House to see that sort of person hanging around looking vaguely menacing. But people like that always talk a big game. And while some hard core would come prepared to actually do this stuff, at least inasmuch as they had the gear to do it, I don’t think the White House thought they’d ever come anywhere close to actually being able to pull off something like that. Similarly, while a much wider penumbra of goons, weekend warriors, failsons, radicalized realtors, and other assorted jokers really liked the idea of storming the Capitol, so that they could stream it in the name of MAGA and Q, the White House most likely did not consider that they’d ever get inside the building.
But they did get inside. The cops seemed to divide into segments that were genuinely overwhelmed and unable to hold the line, and segments that just let the invaders in—either because they were fellow-travelers, or because they were more like Mall Cops unused to mass action literally at the doors of the building, and who just couldn’t quite believe what was happening. (In the footage these ones often look genuinely confused.) While it matters a great deal for their culpability in the long run, in terms of immediate events their motives are irrelevant. Once the doors were opened to the insurrectionists, things moved quickly. One group of goobers found themselves wandering in to the atrium and, much like the cops, seemed almost unable to believe they were inside. Initially they even stayed in between the velvet guide-ropes. Another group, or category, of entrants—like the Shaman guy and his ilk—were off and streaming and lulzing as fast as they could. And a third group—like the Ziptie guys and the woman who was eventually shot—were really and truly prepped and making a beeline for where they thought people they wanted to capture and harm would be. The violence that happened seems to have been mixed between this third group and the goobers. The latter ended up in a sort of Forward Panic, barreling along reactively, chasing anyone who ran away, descending on journalists to harass, and so on.
As the chambers were being evacuated, Trump was on the phone with Tuberville. Most likely, the President wasn’t grasping the enormity of what was actually happening. There seems to have been a period of general confusion and near panic as resistance to activating the National Guard continued. I assume we’ll learn more about that in detail soon, both how those conditions were created and who ended up authorizing their deployment. Again, while extremely important in itself, this is less relevant here. Given that the Senators and Representatives ended up being successfully secured, very quickly there wasn’t really anyone official for the Ziptie contingent to harm. Meanwhile, the regular MAGAs also had little to do. And so they degenerated into small clumps of invaders, wandered about vandalizing stuff, shitting on the floor, and accidentally tasering themselves to death while trying to steal things. It’s around this time that CNN’s Jim Acosta tweeted that “A source close to the White House who is in touch with some of the rioters at the Capitol said it’s the goal of those involved to stay inside the Capitol through the night.”
In summary, the theory is that these are not the brightest guys, and things got out of hand. Trump and the White House et al knew there were genuinely dangerous people in their MAGA/Q mob. The MAGA people they were in communication with (as per Acosta’s tweet) were likely more on the leading edge of the rank and file, rather than the true loons. They thought things would go as protests outside the Capitol usually go, and as their rallies usually go. The crowd would serve as a loud prop. The really dangerous people would be diluted by the rank and file and kept out by the Capitol Police in any case. There would be a great deal of immediate drama and a great deal immediately at stake. Trump loves his crowd, but he has no tolerance at all for the individuals who make it up. As soon as they got inside the building and resolved once more into identifiable individuals, Trump was reportedly and unsurprisingly grossed out by all the “low class” stuff he was seeing. What he envisioned, I think, was a mass of adoring supporters at the very gates of the Capitol, expressing their love and loyalty for him, and together, they would make Congress capitulate to their will.
This is all just speculation on my part. There are many other plausible scenarios. People who know much more about American history than me have argued that some subset of people in the Administration and the GOP really did want protestors to get inside the Senate chamber and gum up the works such that an 1877-style “compromise” would be the wise way for cooler heads to prevail. There’s a lot to be said for this view. On this interpretation, Trump did imagine something like a direct replay of the Michigan Statehouse events, where armed militia end up in a public gallery and intimidate the legislators below. Personally, I have difficulty seeing how those involved could feel at all confident that they could foresee anything manageable or controllable flowing from a large group of armed MAGA protesters actually getting inside the building. It just seems far beyond the space of fluid but playable uncertainty. Instead it is right out in the far orbit of utter chaos—which is indeed what happened once people got inside.
For that reason I think it’s more likely that the White House, meaning most people who were behind the rally and incitement, really did not envisage a breach of the Capitol, even as they absolutely did seek to orchestrate the crowd outside and the legislators inside to the point where the election could be subverted. That said, there’s still plenty of circumstantial evidence for the view that there was a plan to get inside the building. Even the interpretation I have presented here depends—as I think any explanation of these events must, including the true one, whatever it is—upon key players having what seem like fundamentally unrealistic or crazy ideas about how things were going to play out, given that they didn’t happen. Events like this always have people who are absolutely willing to take things far beyond what even most people in their own movement would be comfortable with. The contingencies of how things actually play out shape whether we retrospectively assess them as fringe or vanguard.
After the fact, the White House very quickly found itself in a supercharged version of the situation that Cruz and Hawley are also in. They presumed they could cynically ride this movement for their own ends. They gleefully lit match after match, and eventually to their horror they managed to set themselves on fire along with everyone else. They clearly incited these events. They saw them spin rapidly out of control. They ended Wednesday afternoon with five people dead, the Capitol defiled, and the country stunned. They definitely wanted to overturn the election, which by itself is a subversion of representative government. Their efforts produced a messy putsch into the bargain, and got people killed. They should be punished for it as severely as the law permits, and they should never be allowed to live down their responsibility for what happened.