After Capitol riots, Trump’s Florida supporters huddle online, plan and wait

They were told their leader would remain in office despite losing the election. He won’t. What now?
The scene outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, the day a violent pro-Trump mob attacked and breached the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, leaving five dead.
The scene outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, the day a violent pro-Trump mob attacked and breached the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, leaving five dead. [ STARMAX | ]
Published Jan. 16, 2021|Updated Jan. 16, 2021

They descended on the nation’s capital hoping to disrupt a democratic election, then returned to Tampa Bay: a real estate broker, a tech adviser, a singing coach, a coffee shop owner and many more.

Some were former tea party members. Others came to politics more recently. They organized in groups, calling themselves “Tampa Bay Trump Club,” “Community Patriots of Pinellas” and “deplorables.” For years, they had listened to one man’s word above all else: President Donald Trump’s.

In the days after the siege, they were frozen out of Facebook and kicked off Twitter for posting dangerous conspiracies. They moved onto Parler, a social media site favored by conservatives, until Parler was taken offline. Then, they took their messages to podcasts and the web’s far corners, where conspiracy theories ran wild: Gab, Telegram and MeWe.

Across Tampa Bay, many haven’t given up hope that Trump will prevail in subverting the election, even if it comes to declaring martial law, and they’re waiting for a signal for what to do next.

“I don’t know how I’m going to win,” said a meme posted to Facebook Thursday by Jim Waurishuk, the chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party. “I just know I’m not going to lose.”

The words were accompanied by the picture of a gladiator. Underneath, George Colella, a member of Bikers for Trump who once stood next to the president as he signed an executive order, responded. “Amen to that,” he said. “Stand by and stand ready” — words similar to those Trump once used to address an extremist group.

With Inauguration Day just ahead, and right-wing calls-to-arms swirling online, Americans are bracing for another rocky and portentous week in U.S. democracy. Florida lawmakers were told to avoid the statehouse in Tallahassee. The U.S. Capitol has been fortified by fences, razor wire and soldiers, including members from Florida’s National Guard, in anticipation of more threats. Trump, his approval ratings at a low point, urged for calm in a video message to his supporters.

Many fear a reprisal of violence. They wonder how a nation can root out extremism that is becoming ever more mainstream, while Trump’s mercurial brand of politics appears pervasive.

“I think what you’re seeing in the U.S. is civic fragility and polarization and the breakdown in institutions and in trust — and that’s a very difficult situation to be in,” said University of South Florida professor Zacharias Pieri.

Pieri’s work in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies centers on religion, politics and conflict, mostly in international settings. He has spent years analyzing Boko Haram and jihadist groups. Recently, his scope expanded to extremism in the U.S., particularly white supremacy.

Traditionally, extremists make up a small group at the fringe of society, he said. Now, America finds itself massively polarized, manipulated by disinformation, with its media, educational system and electoral process under fire.

“I used to say it’s going to get really bad like this. I saw this as the natural conclusion,” said Claire Wardle, the U.S. director of First Draft News, an organization that seeks to protect people from misinformation. “But I thought we had another five years to prevent this.”

Inside Trump’s loyal following, many baseless theories abound about why the prophecy did not come to pass as promised. His supporters were told if they showed up Jan. 6, if they were loud enough, if they were “strong” like Trump asked, then they could prevail, no matter what the electoral count said.

Yet, Joe Biden will be sworn in Wednesday as the country’s 46th president. Trump will leave Washington twice impeached and with a line of Republican leaders suddenly eager to watch him go.

The question has crept into local pro-Trump forums: if their leader didn’t succeed with the insurrection they wished for, what comes next?

Should they create a radio station? A new party?

“It doesn’t seem as if Trump has an ace up his sleeve. Although I keep wishing he did,” wrote a Trump supporter from Sarasota in a “Rules for Deplorables” chatroom run by a right-wing blogger from Pinellas County. “Why can’t there be a new political party with Trump’s ideology? Yes it would split the ticket, but I’d rather lose fighting than keep voting in the same crooks.”

Some are starting to question the people in Trump’s orbit and the anonymous online conspirators who have failed to produce results. When Carl Prewitt, who organizes local pro-Trump events, posted to his Facebook page a new theory for how the president would remain in the Oval Office, there was doubt that didn’t exist before Jan. 6.

“Hard to keep hope when nothing happened like they said,” one responder said. “Getting really depressed.”

Added one Seminole woman: “I pray this is true. I don’t know what to think anymore.”

The breach of the Capitol, which left five dead, including a police officer, is the kind of violent event that can serve as an inflection point, said Dimitrios Kalantzis, a spokesperson for Life After Hate, an organization that helps people leave far-right groups. He compared it to the Oklahoma City bombing, which sparked many white supremacists to walk away, because “at that moment, it became real.”

At least seven Floridians are among those arrested in connection to the mayhem.

“We’ve learned, and research bears out, that moments like this where there is actual violence at the end of the radicalization process, that sometimes is a wakeup call to people,” Kalantzis said.

It’s unclear if the Jan. 6 violence will spark a reckoning, but some Republicans in Congress are beginning to distance themselves from the president. Ten members of the GOP voted to impeach Trump last week. During debate, with Trump undoubtedly watching, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” He then sought to squash conspiracy theories about who led the insurrection, including one that was amplified in the House chamber by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.

“Some say the riots were caused by antifa. There is absolutely no evidence of that,” McCarthy said. “Conservatives should be the first to say so.”

In Florida, where Trump secured 5.6 million votes in a convincing win, serious cracks are not yet visible. None of the state’s 16 Republican lawmakers voted for impeachment. And Waurishuk, the leader of the Hillsborough GOP, continues to share posts that falsely link House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and anti-fascist activists to the violence.

Many Trump voters in Florida have turned their ire on Republican leaders who declined to stand by Trump in his final hours. On his nightly Fox News program, Tucker Carlson said impeachment would “enhance Donald Trump among Republican voters.” Tom Rooney, a Republican and former Florida congressman, said he fears Carlson might be right.

Republican candidates today face a litmus test of loyalty, not of conservative ideology, said Rooney, who represented south-central Florida in Congress for a decade. He left midway through Trump’s term.

“I can tell you why I believe in the Second Amendment or the right to life, but why our party has gotten to a point that they’re storming the U.S. Capitol, I can’t answer that,” Rooney said. “And it’s extremely frustrating.

“I would love to be able to understand why these people hate this country so much that they would be driven to do something like that.”

Most of those who broke into the Capitol don’t see themselves as extreme. Instead, Pieri, the USF professor, said many see themselves as patriots living out America’s revolutionary tradition, crusading for democracy, law and legitimate order.

“If you want to understand what drives extremism, militancy, what drives someone to join a movement and act on behalf of that movement, we’ve found that you really have to understand the grievances that people have,” he said.

In the internet forums and on Facebook pages where this disinformation has spread, Trump’s supporters continue to organize. One local group has promised monthly sign waving on corners and “Trump Trains,” a caravan of trucks and cars pulling flags branded with the president’s name and campaign slogans.

Virginia LaSalle, 66, joined one of these recent caravans at Gandy Boulevard. She expects the election will be overturned but said it will take time.

No matter his status, she said: “Trump is going to lead.”

Times reporter Natalie Weber contributed to this report.