From A Viral Mask Tirade To The Capitol: One MAGA Influencer’s Winding Road Through 2020

Facebook/Genevieve Peters
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When Genevieve Peters marched onto the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, after the police line had been broken by a mob that overwhelmed law enforcement, she believed the crowd around her was engaged in a powerful show of force — a demonstration that real Americans weren’t going to take a fraudulent election laying down.

“Everywhere you looked, there were Trump flags and American flags, and people that just love this country,” she beamed to her Facebook followers in a live-streamed video that night, as her VIP pass flapped in the wind. “They just coming out of the woodwork, everywhere.”

“This is our 1776,” she recalled saying that day as word came in that the building itself had been breached.

The video would mark the culmination of a year-long journey for Peters, one in which the fervent Trump supporter took on something of a Forrest Gump quality. Throughout 2020, Peters had been present at flashpoints for the right wing — crusading against masks in grocery stores, protesting outside of the Michigan secretary of state’s home, and rallying around Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election had been “stolen.”

All the while, she was recording culture war fodder that she streamed to online followers.

Peters’ post-Capitol livestream didn’t make it on television that night, but plenty of her videos had over the course of 2020. Footage of Peters has reached millions and landed her in the New York Times and on the coveted radio airwaves that, until this month, belonged to Rush Limbaugh. One clip of hers was even featured in Donald Trump’s recent impeachment trial. You’ve likely seen one of Peters’ videos without realizing it.

Peters was just one member of an over-represented demographic at the Capitol on Jan. 6: content creators. Hundreds of people inside or around the Capitol that day held their smartphones and video equipment aloft, recording themselves in the act. Extremism experts have called it a propaganda victory for the far-right, but the Capitol attack also provided the biggest stage ever for the kind mid-tier MAGA influencers that, during the Trump years, made up the hard-working rank-and-file of Trump’s base. They spread his message, dragged their followers along for the ride and, eventually, turned Trump’s brand of confrontational politics into street theater.

Reached by phone this week, Peters told TPM she spoke for hundreds of thousands of people.

“When you don’t give us a pathway, you leave us no out, no way but to show up at your doorstep,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing that has to happen in order for us to get our voice. How sad is that in America?”

The Patriot in Santa Clarita

The activist’s Trumpian political journey started years ago, as an anti-sanctuary city activist in California. A Facebook group of hers, “Family America Project,” served as a communal forum in which Peters promoted videos from the John Birch Society and other fringe groups. You may have heard of one of the group’s moderators, Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Peters’ first big break came in mid-2018, when a town hall rant of hers about sanctuary cities went viral. “Female Patriot in Santa Clarita, California, speaking about Illegal Sanctuary at a town hall meeting,” one Facebook page described the tirade. “Her passion is incredible!”

Maybe you’ve seen Peters since then, yelling over a “drag queen story hour” or barging into a reporter’s shot. The activist essentially follows the same playbook in her work: Make your point, make a scene, make the news.

In her early days, Peters said in a 2019 speech, she aimed to take the high road in her activism. But polite “conversations,” she said, often felt fruitless. Peters said she changed tactics after realizing her opponents were “louder” and “meaner” than she was. “They were stepping all over us,” she said.

The new Peters followed a well-trod path, using social media to amplify her actions and broadcast them to an ever-widening circle of influence. Her theatrics served as a recruitment vehicle for like-minded people whose politics might otherwise be restricted to the internet. Not that Peters appreciates that characterization.

“I take offense at being a ‘spectacle,’” she told TPM. “That’s never, ever my intention. My intention is to fight for our constitutional rights, and to fight for Americans that don’t feel like they have a voice.”

“People see people like myself going out and taking a stand and making sure our voices are heard, and they’re like, ‘Wow, I can do that to,” Peters added separately. “And I think that that is a multiplier, for sure.”

The activist got her star turn in 2020. With coronavirus restrictions (a “fraud-emic”), Black Lives Matter protests and what the former president calls a “stolen” election, Peters and other MAGA influencers had plenty to work with.

In fact, one of Peters’ best-known works came relatively early in the pandemic, when she refused to wear a mask in a Trader Joe’s. “It’s unhealthy for me,” she seethed then. “I don’t want to breathe my own CO2.”

Urging her audience to “share this everywhere” as she argued with a store manager, Peters ended up in The New York Times, which described her “less than amused” fellow shoppers bursting into applause when she left.

Reflecting on the confrontation in a conversation with TPM nine months later, Peters was proud of her work.

“I was going to get my groceries, and you’re basically denying me a very basic thing in America,” she said. “You’re talking about me crossing the line? Let’s talk about the government crossing the line into private enterprise.”

‘This Is Our Culture, This Is Our Country’

When, after months of Trump priming his supporters for a stolen election, Trump lost his bid at a second term in November, Peters was ready to hit the ground running for her President.

Michigan, her home state, was ground zero for Trump’s effort to steal a second term, and Peters played the role of foot soldier with gusto. A couple days after Election Day, she protested in full revolutionary apparel, tri-cornered hat and all, outside the TCF center, the mammoth ballot-counting location in Detroit where Republicans had earlier attempted to disrupt the tabulation process.

The following month, as Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and her 4-year-old child put up Christmas decorations, Peters and a group of Trump supporters marched to her house in the dark of night.

“We are letting her know that we’re not taking this bullshit election, we are not standing down, we are not giving up,” Peters said, later referring to Benson as a “Demo-rat.” Their crowd’s chants echoed in the quiet neighborhood.

“This is what peaceful protesting looks like,” Peters said that night, as people shouted through bullhorns aimed at Benson’s home. The secretary later said she believed the protest was meant to intimidate her.

“The demands made outside my home were unambiguous, loud and threatening,” Benson said of the demonstration, asserting that protest crosses the line “when gatherings are done with the primary purpose of intimidation of public officials.”

Rush Limbaugh picked up the story, quoting Peters. The activist gushed on Facebook, “The feeling you get when Rush Limbaugh says you’re name…?”

Within a week of her spotlight on Limbaugh, she attended a “March for Trump” rally in Michigan. “We have to create independent media and methods of communication!” a speaker at the event pleaded. Then it was on to a second pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., where she filmed the Proud Boys, the right-wing street gang, marching across the national mall chanting “fuck antifa.”

“Taking our streets back!” Peters said, adding a few minutes later: “This is our culture, this is our country, this is our birthright.”

As the Jan. 6 event approached, Peters’ mini-celebrity proved useful. She was offered a free bus to D.C. if she could fill it, and she did.

Her videos from that trip show her basking in the Trumpian upheaval, and sharing it with the world. “DC BOUND! WE AREN’T GOING TO TAKE IT!” she wrote next to a live-stream of the bus trip to the capital.

On the day-of, she even delivered a speech from a tiny, mobile stage. “We The People have spoken, and this election was a fraud!” Peters bellowed.

Later that night, walking through Washington, D.C. as police sirens wailed behind her, Peters beamed at having been “right up at the stairs” of Congress.

“This area that we actually were in, no one was supposed to be in,” she said. “It was all completely cut off and shut down for the inauguration.”

Looking back, Peters was dismissive of her own place in the crowd outside the Capitol that day. She told TPM she hadn’t been contacted by law enforcement and didn’t expect to be. But she said she was excited about what the future held in store for her, and for Trump, to whom she still refers as “our president.”

“This is going to get good, really good,” she said. “It’s going to get exciting.”

Correction: This article initially stated that Peters referred to the death of Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt in a video on Jan. 6. In fact, Babbitt’s identity and the full details of her death were not known at the time. TPM regrets the error.

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