Reporter’s notebook: A search for answers in D.C. brings confusion -- and confirmation

A mob storms the U.S. Capitol.
A Capitol Police officer stands with members of the National Guard behind a crowd-control fence surrounding Capitol Hill on Thursday, a day after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images

As the violent scene at the Capitol unfolded on live TV Wednesday afternoon, I, like every other journalist, scrambled to find details — from my home office in the woods of northern Minnesota, three days’ drive from the action. 

Then I remembered: I had friends at the rally. 

Michelle Thooft and her husband, Phil, live just down the road from me in Bemidji. They’d left for Washington earlier this week. 

By the time I got Michelle on the phone for an interview late Wednesday night, she was back in their Airbnb in Virginia, exhausted and confused. Things had gotten so bad, so quickly

“We’re fried,” she said. “I haven’t been able to process yet.”

Michelle had gone to the rally, she said, to resolve the cognitive dissonance she’s carried in her mind for the last four years: Half of Michelle’s friends lean left. The other half are staunch Trump supporters. Her friends on the right think her friends on the left are morally bankrupt — and her friends on the left think her friends on the right are fascists, and probably bigots. 

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All of them seem to speak their minds on Michelle’s Facebook feed. 

“It’s been a tightrope walk,” she said. “I love them all. I don’t want them to disown me, you know?”

Michelle herself leans right. She’s convinced that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, and that it was stolen from him through pervasive voter fraud — despite the fact that none of that has proven to be true

That’s what led her to the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. She said she felt as though she had to go — to prove to herself that her own political compatriots aren’t deluded, as her left-leaning friends keep telling her they are.

And for the first part of the day, she felt vindicated. She pulled out her phone and streamed live to Facebook. 

“It has been completely peaceful,” she said, panning past vast crowds. “Just people who want election integrity.”

Then, suddenly, it wasn’t so peaceful. People started streaming away from the Capitol building, and filled Michelle in as they passed. A mob had rushed toward the building, they told her, and were fighting with Capitol police. She wanted to see what was happening with her own eyes. 

She and her husband walked against the flow of people, all the way to the steps of the U.S. Capitol. 

“The whole place was open,” she said. There were people on the Capitol steps, and on the first balcony, past the police barricades. 

“I started to think, ‘I don’t want to be here,’” she said. “This is not a good idea.”

If security had been breached, she knew the National Guard would be on its way. She didn’t want to get tear gassed, arrested, or worse. 

It was a wrenching moment, she said, to find herself thrown in with an insurrection. Violence, of any kind, is against her beliefs — yet, she acknowledged, she was at the same rally as the people rushing the U.S. Capitol.  

“I would never have broken into a building,” she said. “I was there to try to understand, and I don’t get it. I think I’ve said it 50 times. I don’t get it.” She convinced her husband it was time to leave.

She had gone to Washington to find some answers. All she found was confusion. 

But there is one thing she’s still convinced of: Election fraud. 

“I know there’s some fraud somewhere,” she said. “On either side or maybe both.”

This is the other reason my friend drove halfway across the country, during a pandemic, to attend a political rally.

The claims of widespread fraud have been roundly refuted. In the courts, in the government, by investigators, by journalists. But somewhere along the line, all of that stopped holding water for Michelle — and for a lot of other people.

Her suspicion has its roots in her developing distrust of traditional media, like CNN, The New York Times and others. It seems condescending, she said — designed to make the country think in a certain way. A few years ago, what she was hearing and reading on TV and in the paper just stopped sounding true to her.  

So she abandoned traditional news sources in favor of far-right media outlets and religious influencers. 

It’s not uncommon. People who study radicalization and security have long warned of a blurring between mainstream information and fringe theories — and the widespread radicalization that blurring can bring. 

Michelle told me that, as she drove away from the D.C. rally, she’d tried to make sense of what she’d seen. The violence and death was sickening. She said the last four years of political strife have been a torturous mess for her. Her default stance is to want everyone to love each other, and to agree on things. She doesn’t believe in violence. 

But in that dark car, she wondered how it could be that the same fears and convictions that led her to that rally in D.C. could have inspired others to break into the halls of Congress, to steal and smash and destroy. 

And she wondered: Were they wrong?

Then she opened her phone and returned to her go-to news source — the television wing of the far-right Epoch Times. It confirmed what she hoped it would: The rioters weren’t monsters, it said. She decided to believe they had good intentions.