Trump's fans condemn violence, but they aren't about to blame him

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By Brad Brooks and Nathan Layne

LAMESA, Texas/HOMER, Ga (Reuters) - Eddie Emerson worked his fly fishing pole back and forth, tossing his line into a pond in West Texas, searching for stocked trout and an answer to questions on how he felt about the storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

A backer of President Donald Trump, Emerson said he disliked the violence he saw on TV on Wednesday: people overturning barricades, clashing with police and swarming the building in Washington that houses the Senate and House of Representatives. But echoing a sentiment held by many Trump supporters, Emerson expressed frustration with what he called the hypocrisy of those who condemned the riots but turned a blind eye to violence at Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

"What about Portland?" he asked, pointing to the months of protest and mayhem in Oregon's largest city. "When it's the left behind the violence, then it's just them expressing their voice, their creativity."

In two dozen interviews with Trump backers across deeply conservative slices of Texas and Georgia, they condemned Wednesday's violence, but at the same time did not hold the president responsible.

Rather, they said they understood the anger behind it, expressing their own anger with what they believe was a fraudulent election won by Democrat Joe Biden.

They blamed the violence on left wing protesters - without any evidence - and expressed little hope that the deeply divided country would unify anytime soon.

And none were prepared to abandon Trump, who has insisted he prevailed in the Nov. 3 election, making unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud that were rejected by the courts.

'THE SWAMP'

While Emerson and others said they accepted that Biden would take power on Jan. 20, they also said they would continue to support Trump.

"Trump isn't a politician," said Emerson, 67, who was fishing in Lamesa, a town of 9,500 in the middle of West Texas cotton country. "We sent him to Washington to get rid of the swamp, but the swamp got rid of him. And as far as I'm concerned, the swamp now includes the Republican Party, along with the Democrats."

Some Republican lawmakers have distanced themselves from the president in the aftermath of the Capitol breach, which followed a fiery speech by Trump in which he demanded his election loss be overturned and urged those in attendance to march on Congress as it was certifying Biden's victory.

On Thursday, as the threat of a second impeachment loomed, Trump denounced the violence and committed to a transition of power.

Several administration officials have resigned but Trump's fans appeared to care little about what politicians - even Republicans - had to say in Washington.

"You can't take what happened yesterday and blame it on one person," said Anslee Payne, a 34-year-old mother of two at her job in Homer, a rural town in northern Georgia.

"None of us believe in the violent aspect of what happened yesterday. Are we all gun owners? Absolutely. Do we all support the N.R.A.? Absolutely. But will we go storm the Capitol with our guns blazing? No."

FRAYING SOCIETY

Payne spoke passionately for the group of employees gathered around the front counter at Owens Farm Equipment, which supplies planters, hay mowers and rototillers to the farms that serve as an economic backbone in Homer and surrounding towns.

"People are getting to a point where they feel like - left, right or in between - they are not being listened to," she said, describing Wednesday's violence as a prelude to a further fraying of society. She said Trump supporters were tired of being wrongly labeled as ignorant, violent or racist.

"I'm sad for our country and for what it is going to come to, but this is just the doorway into what is going to happen because people don't understand what is going on and they don't know what to believe in anymore," she said.

Despite top election officials in Georgia, fellow Republicans of Trump, debunking allegations of widespread voter fraud, the interviews in Homer showed an enduring belief among his supporters that their leader was robbed.

Sherri McQueen and Linda Mashburn, waitresses at the Tiny Town Restaurant, both said they could sympathize with the frustration behind the violence even if they did not condone it.

"I feel like he was cheated. We just all feel like our votes didn't count," said Mashburn, 39.

"He could have maybe done more to defuse the situation but I don't feel like it's his fault," said McQueen, 36.

Randall and Renay Campbell, who run a drive-in restaurant along Historic Highway in Homer, said that while they believed fraud plagued the November election, it was time to move on.

"As far as him being president, it's over. I hate it, but I think he just does need to move on and accept it," Renay said.

The Campbells, both 59, echoed the feelings of many Trump supporters when they questioned if Wednesday's melee in the Capitol was ignited by those backing the president or by Antifa, a largely unstructured far-left movement.

For supporters like Paul Sanchez, a 50-year-old plumber who had a Trump flag flying above the American flag in front of his house in Lamesa, it was hard to fathom that ordinary Trump voters would engage in violence.

"Antifa and Black Lives Matter and that whole bunch tore up shit in cities across the country for months, and the Democrats didn't really condemn it, not really," Sanchez said. "I'm really pissed - but I'm not going to go out and destroy somebody's house, I'm not going to burn down any business."

Washington residents, activists and politicians, including Biden said that the predominantly white Trump supporters broke into the Capitol with ease and then left with few immediate consequences. They said the limited response was in contrast to the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in Washington six months ago.

In Lubbock, 60 miles to the north of Lamesa, Avan Daughrity, a 22-year-old security guard, said he can only envision more strife ahead after Biden takes office.

"I'm talking about Civil War," he said. "Things in the U.S. are going to get pretty intense."

(Reporting by Nathan Layne and Brad Brooks; editing by Paul Thomasch and Grant McCool)

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