By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Joseph R. Biden Jr. took the oath of office Jan. 20 as the 46th president of the United States, swearing to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The president spoke those words — as has every chief executive since George Washington in April 1789 — in performance of a ritual that certifies the nation’s hallmark peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another. 

Though this inauguration followed many of the prescribed aspects of those that have come before it, everything from the muted crowd to the presence of more than 25,000 heavily armed National Guard members to the face coverings worn by those in attendance on the Capitol balcony, underscored the unprecedented circumstances surrounding his assumption of the office.

Photo illustration by Ben Olson.

Two weeks prior to the day, on Jan. 6, the very spot where Biden stood swearing his oath on his family’s 128-year-old Bible — held by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts — was filled with rioters who breached the Capitol amid a destructive protest that resulted in the death of five people, the injury of dozens more and nearly 100 arrests and counting. 

The unrest — which, according to the article of impeachment against now-former President Donald Trump passed by both Democratic and Republican House members on Jan. 13, was an “insurrection” — took place amid a massive pro-Trump rally, where loyalists gathered to hear the president falsely claim that Biden’s election was fraudulent and “stolen.” After months of such claims and more than 60 failed lawsuits, no credible evidence has yet been presented that such fraud occurred, yet Trump’s claims to the contrary “provoked” many individuals to attack the Capitol, said outgoing Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Jan. 19, a day before Biden’s inauguration and amid Trump’s last full day in office.

“The mob was fed lies,” said the longtime Kentucky congressman on the floor of the Senate, which was also the scene of vandalism and terror on Jan. 6, as rioters entered the chamber and forced the evacuation of lawmakers who had gathered there to formally count the Electoral College votes that would certify Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

In the eerie calm of the inauguration Jan. 20 — locked down both for security reasons and to guard against the spread of COVID-19 — President Biden stressed in his remarks that, while, “on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago, violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible to carry out the peaceful transfer of power, as we have for more than two centuries.”

Stressing themes of unity, comity and — most important — truth, Biden emphasized that, “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”

The new president called for an end to “this uncivil war,” that has drawn its fuel from a flood of lies from the former president and his partisans, breaking over the nation from its seat of government to the kitchen tables of its families.  

That’s a message that even many of Trump’s most ardent partisans have echoed — both locally and nationwide — stressing that the nation must now enter a period of lessened tensions if it’s to hold together as a meaningful democratic republican system. First, however, is a necessary reckoning with what happened in Washington, D.C. in recent weeks.

Deconstructing Jan. 6

Though more than two weeks have passed since the events of Jan. 6, the shockwaves will continue well into the future, as the FBI proceeds with 330 open investigations into the perpetrators of the attack on the Capitol and will undoubtedly add many more in the coming months. 

Speaking to the Reader on Jan. 11, Portland, Ore.-based Guardian reporter Jason Wilson — who specializes in tracking right-wing extremism, including in the Northwest — said the upheaval in Washington, D.C., witnessed by the world earlier this month shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to those who had been listening to the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric coming from the extreme fringes of the right wing.

“It didn’t take a lot of prescience on my part,” said Wilson, who appeared on the radio program Democracy Now on the morning of Jan. 6, predicting that he expected a high likelihood of violence that day. “[F]olks were on social media on Parler, particularly, announcing their intention really to engage in forms of protest, up to and including violence. Before anyone got to D.C., people were effectively making threats of violence toward people in Congress and others on social media.

“I wasn’t looking into my crystal ball. I was just seeing what those folks were saying and taking it seriously,” he added.

The question of who, exactly, those folks were has been and will continue to be the subject of debate. While countless social media newsfeeds, television broadcasts and photographs showed rioters surging the Capitol under a collection of pro-Trump flags, Gadsden flags, conspiracy QAnon placards, Confederate battle flags and many others related to paramilitary and militia groups, conservative observers — from media personalities to lawmakers to everyday citizens — have pushed back against the notion that the mob assault was specifically comprised of “pro-Trump” activists.

“Lame-stream media continue to universally misrepresent the events of Jan. 5 and 6, 2020 [sic] and instead focus on the small group of lawbreakers and Antifa that broke windows and destroyed property at the Capitol, many of whom were let in by Capitol police who opened Capitol doors,” wrote Sandpoint attorney Colton Boyles in an email to the Reader. 

Boyles traveled to Washington, D.C. and was present during the events that unfolded there Jan. 6. Most recently, Boyles helped craft the amicus brief for the state of Idaho to join Texas in its lawsuit alleging election irregularities and challenging the Electoral College vote count that ultimately led to Biden’s victory over Trump. Blanchard Republican Rep. Heather Scott was also a key member of that effort, which was signed onto by Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, though it was dismissed soon after in court. Boyles was also the initial lead attorney for Davillier Law — though has since left the firm to start his own practice, Boyles Law, in Sandpoint — representing Bonner County in its lawsuit against the city of Sandpoint over The Festival at Sandpoint’s weapons prohibition at publicly owned War Memorial Field. That suit was also dismissed, though is on appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Continued Boyles: “No coverage, credit or praise is given to the 99.999% of restrained, loving Patriots who denounced violence and peacefully attended the rally. Instead, traitorous politicians and pundits label the diverse crowd ‘white supremacists.’ That is insipid and ironic ad hominem considering how many beautiful and peaceful black, brown, red, yellow and white attendees peacefully assembled that week. 

“Witnessing the spin reminds me of how much I love Bonner County because of our strong county leadership, love, tolerance and peace,” he added. “We need to unite locally if we are to successfully combat the scourge of communism plainly visible in our Capitol today.”

Despite such claims, no firm evidence has been presented to corroborate that any group such as Antifa spurred or participated in the Capitol breach of Jan. 6, and none of those so far arrested have been linked in any way to the organization. 

“No, this was not an Antifa action,” said Wilson, with the U.K.-based Guardian. “The most I’ve seen, which has yet to be confirmed, is that maybe there was a stray Antifa guy or two kind of with the mob. But look at the people who have been arrested. We’ve had conspiracy theories about Antifa all year. I saw this in Oregon as well. People claiming in summer Antifa were going around lighting fires up in the Cascade Mountains to burn out people’s homes — there was never any evidence for that, but it’s hard to prove a negative.”

FBI Assistant Director Steven D’Antuono said on a call with national reporters Jan. 8 that the agency had uncovered “no indication … at this time” of Antifa infiltration among the apparent pro-Trump rioters, contradicting earlier claims by Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, all Republicans. Since then, no such indication has been confirmed.

Chairman of the Bonner County Board of Commissioners Dan McDonald denounced the breach of the Capitol and its attendant violence, though in a lengthy conversation with the Reader on Jan. 11 was quick to draw a line of comparison between what happened in D.C. and the civil unrest witnessed throughout the country in summer 2020 centered on racial injustice and police brutality.

“Not unlike what went on all summer with Antifa and BLM, when you start breaking into buildings and doing damage, that’s just wrong. I thought it [the Capitol attack] was a bad move. I have no problem with peaceful protest; I think that’s totally appropriate, but when you start taking it too far, that’s a problem. I think it created more problems than it was worth,” he said. 

“I think it was a big mistake. Just from a political standpoint — left vs. right — I think it’s wrong because it gives the left a hammer to use against the folks that are good folks,” McDonald added. “I think it was wrongheaded at the very least and not well thought out.”

High-tension protests are not unfamiliar with Idahoans. Last year, ahead of a planned BLM demonstration by local young people, McDonald posted a message to Facebook warning of potential protest-related danger and wrote, “It would be great to have some of the Bonner County folks come out to help counter anything that might get out of hand.” 

Many observers — including the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection in a June 19 letter to McDonald and Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad — saw that as a call to action for “militia members” to patrol local streets. A number of armed individuals did turn out to ostensibly escort and protect BLM marchers across the Long Bridge on June 2, and that number grew throughout the evening, with more than one telling the Reader that they had it on good authority that Antifa elements were being bussed into the area to start trouble — an unsubstantiated rumor that activated a much larger show of armed force in Coeur d’Alene the day before. As with the Capitol riot, no credible evidence was presented to support that claim. 

In subsequent BLM demonstrations, organizers specifically stated that, “We reject the notion that armed militia members are here for protester protection. It serves only to intimidate the free and lawful expression of speech.”

Reflecting on that incident — which he called “such a B.S. story” — McDonald recognized that there are certain similarities between the narrative laying the blame for the Jan. 6 riots on Trump and those who argued he empowered or even activated the armed patrols in downtown Sandpoint last June. “People have called me the Trump of Bonner County,” he joked.

However, McDonald added in seriousness, “I’m not ruling it out [that Antifa was in some way involved in what transpired in D.C.]; we’ve seen things like this happen before, even with the summer riots … [but] everybody cool your jets, let’s get some facts first, let’s stop with the conspiracy theories. I’ve never been a big conspiracy theory guy.” 

A&P’s owner Travis Thompson was present in D.C. on Jan. 6 and posted several videos and statements to his Facebook news feed amid the mounting chaos. He said he traveled to the capital to witness history.

“I wanted to see it,” he told the Reader. “That [the riot] was the last thing that I ever expected to happen.”

For Thompson, he intended to be present as part of his duty as a citizen.

“You can go and have your voice be heard — and this isn’t a conservative or liberal bent on anything — this is us,” he said. “We should be able to freely access our system so that we can have our voices heard. But if in the process of doing that, if something gets broken, that’s not OK. We’re done. That’s not what we stand for and that should be for both sides.” 

Based on what he saw and heard, Thompson said he is sure that groups outside the pro-Trump constituency took part in the upheaval. Though he emphasized that he crossed no barriers and did not enter the Capitol, he criticized those he saw directing others via bullhorn to commit the acts of violence — smashing windows and breaking police lines — that resulted in the breach of the Capitol.

“I was right there. I watched it,” he said, going on to describe individuals “telling everybody else to do things you’re apparently unwilling to do yourself.” 

“With a MAGA hat on, that doesn’t automatically make them a Trump supporter,” Thompson said, yet added, “I’m not going to say there weren’t Trump supporters there, because there were. … It was just pure chaos.”

Summing up the experience, Thompson said, “It doesn’t make sense. … It’s totally against everything that we believe. 

“If you’re breaking something; if you’re entering some place that you don’t have lawful entry to or you’re disrupting a proceeding, I disavow all that,” he added.

Asked if that wasn’t the point of the gathering in the first place, Thompson responded: “Not really.”

“Almost everybody was a spectator … [I]n negotiations in business, if you’re physically present, that’s the thing,” he said. 

Still, Thompson said he never believed that former-Vice President Mike Pence had the constitutional authority to overturn or throw out Electoral College votes — what Trump pressured his second-in-command to do and the reason the rioters invaded the Senate floor, where Pence was to perform his constitutional duty to preside over the vote count.

“I don’t believe Pence had the authority in the proceedings, and some of the people who hear that are going to get pissed, but we don’t ever have in our government any one person who has unilateral authority over anything; there’s all these checks and balances,” Thompson said. “I didn’t believe it before anything [happened]. He’s just presiding over the proceedings.”

Regarding the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency, Thompson said, “I think we’re past that.”

McDonald, too, saw the arguments being fronted regarding Pence’s power to overturn the Electoral College votes as unconstitutional.

“This didn’t help. If anything it hurt. The legitimacy that we may have had has been tarnished,” he said.

“I’m a big fan of the Constitution; we have legal remedies through the Constitution … I think this just went too far; it got out of hand,” McDonald added. “You get so many people on my side of the aisle that say, ‘I stand behind the Constitution.’ Well I say, ‘Listen, why don’t you start reading it instead of standing behind it?’” 

Calls for calm but, ‘we’ll see’

According to longtime watchers of extremist politics like Jason Wilson, with The Guardian, it seems likely the violence seen by the world on Jan. 6 isn’t going away anytime soon.

“It’s really hard to say, but what we do know is that a large number of people have been involved in and energized in the context of an anti-democratic movement and they’ve shown that they’re not in the mood to respect norms and niceties and they’ve shown they’re prepared to use violence and destroy things,” he said. “So, I don’t know. I hope that people are chastened by what happened last time, but I can’t say that for sure. I think there’s a good chance that we’ll see more of this stuff.”

At the same time, Bonner County officials — as well as their national counterparts — are stressing calm in the coming weeks of transition from the Trump to Biden administrations. 

It seems a far cry from Washington, D.C., and the heady politics of the national mood to the comfortable confines of Bonner County, but the “movement” to which Trump referred in his farewell speech Jan. 19 has deep roots and authority in the Northwest and North Idaho, in particular. 

Sights of a mob at “siege” in a Capitol Building are not new to Gem State residents. Famous anti-government activist Ammon Bundy helped lead a similar, albeit far less damaging, incursion at the Idaho Statehouse last year, which resulted in property damage and disruption of the functioning of government as lawmakers met in Boise during an extraordinary session in August to address COVID-19 protocols — specifically targeting the emergency powers of Gov. Brad Little as he and his administrators have instituted a phased reopening of Idaho’s economy, which has included mandated business closures and historic state intervention in a number of areas of public life, including health care and long-since-lapsed stay-at-home orders.

Shortly after, agitation around The Festival at Sandpoint’s weapons prohibition, as well as the armed presence surrounding the summer’s peaceful BLM demonstration have landed North Idaho in more than a few national and international news stories. 

McDonald has been a fairly regular figure in pieces in The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News and other news outlets over the past year, owing in large part to the discontent of summer of 2020 — a level of national notoriety that he said keeps his wife up at night — and it’s no secret that Idaho has long been widely regarded by members of the far right as a haven for their politics.

While McDonald bristled at the idea that so-called “outsiders’’ have brought a level of political virulence to the area that hadn’t hitherto existed, said, “I’m always committed to being the voice of calm. You gotta start thinking for yourselves.”

Rather than blinkered partisanship, the alternative — as McDonald put it, to “use your brain” — is being echoed by such officials as Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, himself no stranger to political controversy, being a key party with the county in The Festival gun suit, a vocal opponent of the state’s COVID-19 lockdown orders and, previously, participating in such activities as the Priest River demonstration in 2015 related to the Veterans Administration’s attempt to seize the firearms of a military vet deemed incapable of owning firearms. That action — orchestrated in part by disgraced Spokane Valley Republican Rep. Matt Shea and Blanchard Republican Rep. Heather Scott — featured in a December 2019 report on domestic terrorism and right-wing extremism commissioned by the Washington House of Representatives.

In a “letter to Bonner County citizens” posted Jan. 16 on Facebook, Wheeler wrote of “a myriad of unsound political advice peddled to people who have legitimate concerns for their future.” 

The self-proclaimed “constitutional sheriff,” meaning he conceives of his duties as only being beholden to a strict, originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, wrote of “well intentioned persons herded across the country in hopes that their presence would change the results of the Presidential Election. 

“The fallout from all of this played out in a very predictable fashion,” he wrote.

Wheeler also wrote in his letter to warn of “various nefarious events” and “more saber-rattling/virtue signaling events” that may occur during the week of the inauguration of President Biden. 

Reassuring county residents that their Second Amendment rights are in no danger, and cautioning them to avoid “hyper-partisan bickering” and “take[ing] the bait by rushing into the streets to make a show of force,” he asked that those with grievances seek the legislative process for redress.

In a Jan. 19 email to the Reader, Wheeler, wrote, “It has been my long-held belief that it is more important to find common ground with our neighbors than to emphasize our differences. And when it comes to our differences, being respectful is more important than forcing agreement.”

He added that during several times in his term as sheriff he has “delivered a strong message related to law enforcement. I endeavor to do these things when there are no other options. My letter on Jan. 16 is such an example. 

“While many do not totally understand the beauty of our republic or the specifics that led me to say what I said, I think most people agree with my logic. An explanation of every comment would further the divisions that exist,” he added.

Wheeler wrote that, “Both sides of the aisle have been intentionally adding fuel to the fire. While one side mostly offends by virtue signaling, the other side responds with saber-rattling. Although I recognize that everyone has a right to do these things, I do not encourage the back and forth when the vitriol rises to a level where violence can easily be anticipated.  We are at that place right now.”

According to the sheriff, his office is monitoring future events by gathering information from a variety of sources, but is “asking the community to not light any sparks right now.”

In a follow-up email to the Reader on Jan. 20, McDonald wrote that he saw the impeachment of Trump as “more political theater than anything,” and “a childish move at best on the part of the Speaker of the House and House Democrats who are driving the narrative.” 

He reiterated his support for peaceful protest, adding that he has no knowledge of any armed groups locally or elsewhere planning any kind of action either for or against the inauguration of President Biden.

“In  fact, everyone I’ve approached over the last week are wondering who is promoting this and these groups are recommending just the opposite,” he wrote, adding in reference to Wheeler’s letter of Jan. 16, “As far as nefarious deeds, again, I have heard of none nor have I seen any plans for anything nefarious out of Second Amendment or Patriot Groups … I know and have been in contact with local groups as well as groups across the country. Nothing is being planned by any of these groups and no one seems to know the origin of the propaganda.”

McDonald doubled down on his call for calm, telling the Reader that “If we start caring about each other more — and this sounds a little corny — but if we start caring about each other more and stop fighting with each other more, a lot of these problems will resolve themselves. …

“Stop making it about personality. Step back, take a look at the bigger picture. Understand that even with the people who you might think are our enemies right now, we agree on some things. Let’s talk about those and see if we can influence people to agree with us on other things. Resorting to violence, that’s not going to get it done.”

For Thompson, the owner of A&P’s and a lifetime Sandpoint resident, it’s even simpler: “The biggest problem that I see going forward is maintaining that civility in our community so that we can continue to exist with one another without it just being us getting into these shouting matches … That’s not productive. And that’s the main goal.”

It remains to be seen whether the divisions that have defined American life in the Trump era are so easily healed. Much of it will hinge on the consequences faced by those who have participated or enabled the fracturing of the national dialogue — or both — in recent years. Guardian reporter Wilson told the Reader that there remains a group, whether it’s a minority or not is unclear, that remains committed to doubling down on Trump’s various spurious claims.

“But there is a group, you can see that among Republicans, there is a group that has either finally had it with Trump, or this particular incident is just, you know, vandalizing the Capitol is just too much. Violence at the Capitol is just too much for them. For now. We’ll see. I think it’s useful that so many people are backing away from Trump, but we’ll see.”

Additional reporting 

by Ben Olson.

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