In Michigan, a Dress Rehearsal for the Chaos at the Capitol on Wednesday

LANSING, Mich. — First came the “Unlock Michigan” protest. More than 1,000 cars, many draped with flags supporting President Trump, drove around the Michigan State Capitol, blaring their horns and decrying Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus lockdown orders. Hundreds of others, many armed with military-style weapons, milled about on the lawn.

Two weeks later, on April 30, the dissent escalated. Gun-toting protesters rushed the State Capitol, not long after Mr. Trump tweeted “Liberate Michigan.” They demanded entry into the House of Representatives’ chamber, chanting “Let Us In.”

A handful of them, wearing camouflage fatigues with semiautomatic rifles slung over their shoulders, watched ominously from the gallery above the Senate chamber as the elected officials did their work. The lawmakers passed bills and resolutions and gave angry floor speeches about the extraordinary show of force looking down at them. At least two of the protesters were among 14 people later charged in a failed plot to kidnap Ms. Whitmer and bomb the state Capitol.

On Wednesday, as a mob of pro-Trump loyalists breached the U.S. Capitol in Washington after an angry rally focused on overturning the election President Trump had lost, Michigan State Senator Sylvia Santana watched in stunned — but not surprised — horror.

She had worn a bulletproof vest onto the state’s Senate floor back in April, and now was watching a similarly frightening episode unfold in Washington.

“Michigan was the precursor for what happened,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “The same feeling that I had Wednesday was the same feeling I had back in April, when I feared that I might not make it back home to my family. Those are the same feelings I felt on the Senate floor that day with those men up in the gallery with large weapons looming over us and knowing that they could get trigger happy at any time.”

She was not alone.

State Senator Erika Geiss, a Democrat from Taylor, Mich., who now keeps a bulletproof vest at her desk, watched the events in Washington with the same sense of recognition and dread.

“What I saw on Wednesday really made me feel like what happened here this past spring and summer was a dress rehearsal for what happened” in Washington, she said. “It was the same energy that was present at the Capitol in Michigan. It was just palpable coming through the television screen.”

Amy Cooter, an expert on domestic terror groups and a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said it was not difficult to draw a line straight from those early rallies in Michigan to Washington — and even earlier, to Charlottesville, Va., when white supremacists marched through the streets in 2017, chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans and clashing with counter protesters. And “given the general lack of consequences” in Michigan last spring, “this becomes normalized and legitimate and made it easier to scale up” to what unfolded in Washington.

But State Representative Beau LaFave, a Republican from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, said it’s a stretch to connect those dots. “There were a lot of angry people at both things, but nobody did any damage or hurt anyone in Michigan,” he said. “They were angry and yelling, but they didn’t punch any cops, and they didn’t do any damage inside the building.”

Indeed, while the protest in April was loud and tense, it did not get violent, although one person was arrested after an altercation between two men outside. But the rhetoric in the crowds at protests in April and May was heated. One protester carried a sign that read, “Tyrants Get the Rope,” and another carried an American flag that had a doll made to look like Ms. Whitmer hanging from it.

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Meshawn Maddock, head of the national organization, Women for Trump, and in line to become the vice-chair of the state’s Republican Party, helped organize that “Unlock Michigan” rally in April and recently organized busloads of Michiganders to travel to Washington. Photos and videos from the rally in the nation’s capital filled her social media pages and, while walking toward the U.S. Capitol, she praised the “most incredible crowd and sea of people I’ve ever worked with.”

While she attended the rally outside the Ellipse, she said she was not at the Capitol when the mob of Trump supporters stormed the building, and she later condemned the violence.

On Wednesday, while Ms. Maddock was in Washington, several hundred people gathered outside Michigan’s statehouse to protest the election certification happening nearly 600 miles away. The statehouse was closed, though, to comply with Covid rules that it be shuttered when the Legislature is not in session. The rally, which featured Trump flags and hats and a handful of men armed with weapons, remained peaceful — and pointed. One protester waved a Trump flag that had four bobblehead dolls hanging from it: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

Michigan is an open carry state, so it is not unusual to see armed individuals walking the halls of the state Capitol. The Capitol Commission, the body that sets rules and approves maintenance projects for the building, debated banning guns in the Capitol after that April protest, but no action has been taken.

John Truscott, a member of the commission, recalled an incident in the early 1990s, when some welfare rights advocates stormed the Capitol and burned flags in the building’s Rotunda to protest budget cuts during former Gov. John Engler’s State of the State speech.

“It seems so quaint now,” he said of the 1990s protest. “That group had spotlights and bullhorns and were throwing snowballs at the windows. I don’t think anyone was prepared for what we saw [in Washington.] We’ll be discussing these things going forward.”

The need for a discussion was heightened Thursday when a bomb threat was called into the Capitol shortly before 7 a.m. Though closed to the public, state employees who were in the building were evacuated while it was swept by Michigan State Police, who found no bomb but later charged a 48-year-old man with making the threat.

Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican from Clarklake, Mich., said he is amenable to banning open carry in the Capitol, but would not want to prohibit all guns there.

Michigan is not the only state where guns are welcome at the Statehouse.

In Texas, where the embrace of guns dates back to the state’s frontier culture, firearms are often visible in protests and other public gatherings. Texans with a state-issued permit can carry handguns either concealed or openly and no licenses are required to openly carry shotguns or rifles.

Several pistols and rifles, including at least one AR-15, were visible among more than 200 protesters, predominantly supporters of Mr. Trump, who converged in a largely peaceful demonstration near the State Capitol in Austin on Wednesday as the chaos unfolded in Washington.

State law enforcement officers ultimately banned the protesters from the State Capitol grounds out of concern that the Texas demonstrations would turn ugly. Anyone licensed to carry guns in Texas can tote them anywhere inside the Texas Capitol by showing their permit to a Department of Public Safety trooper at the Capitol entrance.

But the combination of the April incident and the invasion of the Capitol in Washington has left nerves particularly raw for many Michigan legislators.

State Senator Dayna Polehanki, a suburban Detroit Democrat, bought extra work supplies during the Christmas break — a police helmet, gas mask and can of mace that she said she will store along with her bulletproof vest at her desk in the Senate chamber. She posted pictures of the armed men in the Senate gallery in April that went viral and has been calling for more substantive gun bans and safety policies in the building ever since. Her resolve only grew after Wednesday’s riot in Washington.

She said that after seeing what happened in Washington, “I can’t say with certainty that it wouldn’t happen here too. Those insurrectionists won the day. The difference here is that guns are welcome in our Capitol.”

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.

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