The Pennsylvania State Capitol, in Harrisburg, is a Beaux-Arts landmark that on its eastern side echoes the west terrace of the U.S. Capitol, and the scene there on Nov. 7, 2020, four days after Election Day, strikingly prefigured the one in Washington two months later. On the plaza below, more than a thousand strong, were the Donald Trump faithful, in MAGA hats and every possible variation of red, white and blue clothing, waving the banners of the campaign. “Stop the steal!” they chanted. “Stop the steal!”
That morning, as Joe Biden’s lead in the state grew to more than 30,000 votes, news organizations began calling the race for him. By noon, crowds were gathering on behalf of both candidates at the Capitol in Harrisburg. The larger, louder pro-Trump contingent included many of the same groups, and in some cases the same people, who would later be investigated for their role in the events of Jan. 6. There were men with assault-style rifles and forearm tattoos pledging allegiance to the Proud Boys and the Three Percenter antigovernment movement, and the Groypers, supporters of the young white nationalist Nick Fuentes’s America First group. There were also Republican congressmen, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Jim Jordan of Ohio, and members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, among them a state senator named Douglas V. Mastriano.
“This is a republic,” Mastriano declared from atop the Capitol’s terrace over a public-address system. “I know the Democrats want to play a game with our republic. They keep calling it a democracy. ‘And to the democracy for which it stands,’” he recited mockingly. “Come on, really? Come on, man!” Behind him, someone waved a large America First flag. Another rallygoer held up a sign with Mastriano’s own slogan: WALK AS FREE PEOPLE.
“It seems like it’s in their nature to lie,” he said. “Every time I turn around, there’s another lie, another excuse, another cheating.” He went on: “We’re appealing to God. We’re speaking life over the state; we’re speaking truth. Those who lied and cheated and stealed will be exposed and thrown in jail.” The crowd roared its approval.
In retrospect, the path from Harrisburg on Nov. 7 to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 is a direct one. Harrisburg was among the first protests in what would come to be known as Stop the Steal: a series of rallies in solidarity with Trump and his claims of a stolen election, snowballing until the last of them crashed through the doors of the Capitol in a blur of bear spray and body armor. Mastriano chartered buses to take demonstrators to Washington and is visible in video footage passing by police barricades along with the mob. (He has said he did not actually enter the Capitol, and no evidence has surfaced that he did; his campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
But it is also possible to see the path from Harrisburg to Washington as a small part of a much longer arc: one that began before Trump and will outlive his presidency, whether or not he tries to reclaim the office in 2024. This has become clear in the past year, as the particulars of his final perilous months in office have emerged amid the wash of reporting, documentary evidence and testimonies to the House committee investigating the events around Jan. 6. Clearer, too, is the view of what became of Stop the Steal after its climactic battle was lost.
Gone, for now, are the big rallies, with their open calls for violence and ostentatious displays of military-style kit, and many of those who organized them. Gone, too, are most of the election audits and other inquiries into the results convened by Republican-controlled state legislatures and local governments, investigations that failed to produce evidence of meaningful fraud. What is left in their place is an insistence — a belief, a lie or an act of motivated reasoning, depending on whom you’re talking to — that the election was stolen, which has fed a new wave of post-Trump activism on the right. [Continue reading…]