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Pulse Newsletter: Is This America?

The images of extremist supporters of President Donald Trump storming the U.S. Capitol Building resembled a political cataclysm on foreign soil.

Yet the sights and sounds were distinctly American.

“1776! 1776!” the crowd chanted at one point as it made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.

One man was asked by NPR reporter Hannah Allam what he wanted to see when he got there.

“The people in this House, who stole this election from us, hanging from a gallow out here on this lawn for the whole world to see, so it never happens again,” replied the man, who identified himself as Joe from Ohio. “That’s what needs to happen.”

As the mob reached the Capitol, a line of Proud Boys, the far-right extremist group that Trump told to “stand back and stand by” during the Oct. 2 presidential debate, stood face to face with Capitol Police and began forcing their way into the building.

Credit Evan Vucci / Associated Press
Associated Press
People listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

Police were quickly overwhelmed — too quickly for some who witnessed the aggressive tactics used on protesters over the summer during demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd.

Soon a mob carrying Trump flags, Confederate flags, American flags and others wearing QAnon and white supremacist paraphernalia burst inside — the first breach of the Capitol by a malicious group since the British destroyed it in 1814 during the War of 1812.

One woman, an Air Force veteran who reportedly embraced QAnon and other conspiracy theories, was shot and killed by Capitol Police.

Meanwhile, others posed and took selfies in the House and Senate chambers. Some ransacked the building. Richard Barnett of Gravette, Ark., was photographed in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pillaged office with his feet on a desk. According to the Washington Post, Barnett believed conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and his allies that the election was stolen.

Later, as members of Congress huddled in guarded locations after fleeing through the Capitol’s tunnel complex, the mob began to exit the building. Some departed via a door with “murder the media” scrawled across it.

Others took selfies with Capitol Police. In one video, an unidentified man appeared to say, “We’re from Maine.” The audio is difficult to hear. Nevertheless, a disturbing insurrection in our nation’s Capitol suddenly felt even closer to home.

As it should.

Maine residents’ participation in the storming and pillaging of the Capitol is a curiosity for which we may soon have an answer, but the disinformation and conspiracy theories that gave rise to Wednesday’s dark chapter in American history have been present here for years.

Many of the people who stormed the Capitol told reporters that they did so because they’ve been told, by Trump and others, that the election was stolen.

One claim involves the rigging of voting machines in a plot somehow orchestrated by the seven-years-deceased Venezulan President Hugo Chavez. Others are less exotic, but no less untrue.

“I tell you, this is clearly a stolen election. I think 70 million (Trump voters) all recognize that too many votes were illegitimate votes,” former Gov. Paul LePage told Portland radio station WGAN on Nov. 14. “People have voted more than once.”

LePage was among several Republicans who condemned Wednesday’s violence. He made no mention of Trump, who urged his supporters to march on the Capitol, or his own evidence-free claims that the election was stolen.

Others, like Maine Republican Party vice chairman Nick Isgro, have paired baseless stolen election claims with calls for bravado.

“I don’t think there’s any circumstance right now where he should step out of office,” Isgro said of Trump during a segment with a conservative radio host earlier this week.

Isgro also railed against Republicans like U.S. Sen. Susan Collins for not objecting to the results, describing her and others as “the enemies.”

Isgro’s comments were immediately noted when the Maine Republican Party tweeted a statement Wednesday condemning the violence.

A joint statement by Republican legislative leaders Sen. Jeff Timberlake and Rep. Kathleen Dillingham also condemned the violence while appearing to equate it with protests prompted by Floyd’s killing and others that preceded it.

“Two years of violence and destruction under the cover of peaceful protests have left our nation outraged by this type of behavior,” the statement read. “Clearly we must commit ourselves to following the rule of law and peacefully respecting those who disagree with us.”

The statement made no mention of Trump or the election fraud claims that prompted many to storm the Capitol. It was not signed by assistant Republican leader Rep. Joel Stetkis, of Canaan, who chastised one conservative on Facebook who had expressed disgust at Wednesday’s events.

“This has Antifa and anarchist written all over it,” Stetkis wrote in one post. “This is a well-known tactic used for decades, infiltrate peaceful groups as cover and then cause all the destruction you can as they get the blame.”

Stetkis did not respond to a request for comment, but his view that Antifa may have committed Wednesday’s violence was backed by several Republican legislators, including Rep. Chad Grignon, of Athens, who shared a doctored photo of the shirtless, horn-wearing man who was photographed during the occupation of the Capitol. The photos made it appear that the man is affiliated with Antifa, but he isn’t.

His name is Jake Angeli, or Q Shaman, a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory: a sprawling, fantastical plot in which Trump is the hero destroyer of a child sex ring perpetrated by Democrats. It also calls for the perpetrators to be executed.

Numerous news publications have reported how QAnon became interwoven in the stolen election conspiracy.

At a glance, the merging and acceptance of these wild conspiracies might seem improbable, but the claims are so sprawling that bits and pieces distributed via memes and social media forums are easily consumed and disseminated.

Some of the conspiracies and other baseless fraud claims are nurtured or exploited by people with political motives.

In times of deep societal and political divisions the conspiracies become dangerous, so much so that they can spur thousands of people to storm the U.S. Capitol in hopes of overturning a free and fair election.

Mills’ Budget Plan

Gov. Janet Mills will release her two-year budget proposal Friday.

We already know two key details from her budget chief Kirsten Figueroa: There are no new tax increases and no major cuts to state programs.

That might seem like a surprise given that the state is staring at a $650 million revenue shortfall through 2023, but Figueroa told Maine Public this week that federal funding, cost savings ordered the governor and better-than-expected tax revenue projections will help stave off massive programming cuts.

Figueroa also made it clear that Friday’s spending plan could undergo some significant changes if Congress can pass another stimulus bill. She said federal help in previous pandemic-relief packages have helped Maine avert a bigger shortfall. More federal funding approved by the next Congress will provide further relief, possibly enough that the governor can put money toward policy initiatives shelved last year because of the pandemic-induced constraints on economic activity.

And chances for additional federal relief improved Tuesday after Democrats swept two runoff elections to reclaim control of the U.S. Senate.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.