When Mike Ortiz arrived at the Texas Capitol shortly after noon on Wednesday, a cardboard mask resting atop his head like a flat-brim baseball cap, the attention of the protesters at the “Occupy the Capitol for Trump” rally was torn. About three hundred demonstrators were there, a much smaller crowd than the one simultaneously gathering in Washington, D.C., outside the U.S. Capitol. Just outside the south gate of the Texas Capitol, a man with a megaphone repeated a sort of daily affirmation for those intent on overturning the results of the presidential election: “Remember, whatever happens today, Donald Trump is still our president.” Nearby, a goateed man in a khaki jacket banged on an empty WindFresh detergent tub and accosted those few wearing face coverings with a “maskism is Naziism” chant. Right behind him, an elderly man in an N95 mask distributed pamphlets alleging that Joe Biden was conspiring with “the British financial oligarchy” to take over the United States.
A handful in the scattered crowd moved toward Ortiz as soon as he put on his mask, adorned with a blown-up photo of Donald Trump with a lopsided smile. Everyone was eager to snap selfies with Ortiz. He worked through a procession of photo ops with protesters, assuring one man that he was smiling beneath the mask.
Half an hour later I caught up with Ortiz and his wife, Amber Moses. The couple had traveled nearly a hundred miles to Austin from their home in Robinson, a Waco suburb, to participate in what she described as a “great awakening.” The crowd around them had gathered to protest in favor of Donald Trump as the U.S. Congress was set to convene to certify Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. Amber explained she was there to “fight for the Constitution,” which she alleged various swing states had violated in changing their election laws to allow expanded mail-in voting without the approval of their legislatures. (Notably, Texas, too, had expanded voting by executive order, a fact that Ortiz said should be evaluated by “constitutional lawyers.”) She said she would not stop fighting until the Constitution was upheld and Trump was sworn in, even if that took until April. “Bohemian Rhapsody” started playing on a nearby boombox: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
“I hope that we are able to fight this war with the Constitution and with love bombs, instead of real bombs,” Amber told me. “You’re seeing a love bomb go off right here.”
A group of armed men milled around nearby, inside the Capitol gate, holding signs reading “Kill a commie for mommy,” “Hang traitors,” and “Exterminate communists.” A car honked repeatedly as it sped down Eleventh Street, eliciting cheers; it was festooned with a “We Are All Kyle Rittenhouse” sign, a reference to the eighteen-year-old who shot three men at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this summer. (Rittenhouse says the shootings were in self-defense.)
Around 1:30 p.m., news from Washington spread through the rally. Pro-Trump protesters there had just breached the Capitol building. The House floor had been evacuated and members of Congress were escorted to safe rooms; one woman had been shot and killed. As Texas Department of Public Safety troopers closed off the Texas Capitol grounds, a man with a “Trump 2020” flag told those around him that “the fighting has begun.” Another protester assured those nearby that “we have boots on the ground in D.C.”
Others seemed to pay their counterparts in Washington no mind, focusing their attention squarely on Joe Biden. “The Democratic party will do anything to get their power back,” Carl Ming, a protester from Rockdale, about an hour northeast of Austin, who brought a vintage Soviet semiautomatic rifle to the rally, told me. “This is the most extreme I’ve ever seen them go.”
Although allegations of voter fraud have repeatedly been disproven, those at the Capitol cited unsubstantiated rumors of dead Americans casting ballots, rigged voting machines, and election night tampering as incontrovertible evidence that Biden had stolen the race. One woman from Bastrop told me she’d accept the conclusions of a nonpartisan audit if it found that Biden still won after fraudulent ballots were tossed. No one else I spoke to would entertain the possibility that Biden had been victorious, repeatedly citing the crowd size at the rally as evidence of Trump’s widespread support. Ming said results needed to be audited, but when asked what he would do if an audit revealed Biden still won, he told me, “Then they would just prove they were cheating again.”
The storming of the U.S. Capitol had delayed the vote to certify the electoral college, so the protests ambled without real purpose, like the waning minutes of a high school pep rally. Steve Jackson, a Wichita Falls city councilman, had already cut out Mike Pence’s name from his “Trump, Pence” yard sign, because the vice president had said he did not have the constitutional authority to fulfill Trump’s request to discard the electoral college results. Jackson now placed his faith in divine intervention. “I just hope God will intervene and keep Donald J. Trump in there,” he said, adding, “I wish I had the answers.”
Others were keeping more extreme options on the table. Amber Moses Ortiz suggested that maybe Texas could secede. “That might come into play,” she said. “None of us are fortune tellers. But we have to fight for the Constitution.”
Jackson told me he’d “fight for Trump until the end,” adding, “I’m doing this for my kids and grandkids.”
Across the street, an elementary-school-aged boy whose parents had lent him their megaphone began a “four more years” chant. “Four hundred more years,” the man banging on the WindFresh tub shouted back.