"A country cannot enjoy long-term peace at home if it relentlessly promotes upheaval elsewhere. The best that could emerge from this episode would be a commitment by the United States to rebuild our tattered democracy instead of trying to export our model to the rest of the world."
January 7, 2021
Dean's Professor of China Studies
Director of the China Initiative
Howard R. Swearer Director of the Thomas J. Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Yesterday, we witnessed behavior previously thought unimaginable in the United States: A president, on the basis of preposterous accusations of a stolen election, exhorting mobs of supporters to seize power; members of Congress, espousing those same absurd conspiracy theories, openly advocating for the nullification of election results; and throngs of hyperbolically amped-up citizens – primarily white, primarily male, festooned in all manner of Trump paraphernalia, and with no small number of Confederate flags and neo-Nazi banners thrown into the mix – smashing their way into the single most important architectural symbol of American democratic governance, the Capitol building.
As an American, I shed tears yesterday, telling myself that we’re better than this, that the events I watched unfold in real time don’t represent who we are. And, I thought about those generations of ordinary Americans – including my late father, a decorated World War II combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient – who risked all to secure the institutions of freedom that were being so cavalierly and brazenly defiled yesterday. How could we as a people have come to this?
But, as a scholar of modern China, and particularly one based in an institute focusing on globally comparative analysis, I had a different reaction. As I have written about recently in The Atlantic, the circumstances surrounding the Trump presidency are eerily reminiscent of patterns that unfolded over fifty years ago at the height of Maoism in China. Societal leaders trafficking in wild conspiracy theories about sacred public institutions; an impressionable, enraged public stepping up to the calls for vigilante action; political opportunists stoking the fires of intra-societal hatred; and, at the center of it all, a charismatic leader wallowing in his own narcissism, and relishing the chaos he has willed upon his nation.
Chinese citizens old enough to have lived through the Cultural Revolution know full well how in just the blink of an eye, the most seemingly powerful and inviolable societal institutions can be reduced to ashes. They know the capacity for ordinarily mild-mannered and reasonable people to be goaded into wildly unhinged and violent behavior. And, they know how quickly we can all descend from civilized society into something far closer to The Lord of the Flies. Are we as Americans immune from that? Are we really somehow exceptional? The events of yesterday – indeed, the events of the past four years – suggest not. We have far more to learn from the rest of the world than we could begin to imagine.
The William R. Rhodes ’57 Professor of International Economics
Director of the William R. Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance
Broadly speaking, the two most popular ways of analyzing politics are electoral perspectives, that focus on parties and voters, and what might be called a ‘producer groups’ perspective, where the political preferences of key economic actors are seen to determine policy. One of the most telling events of yesterday was the statement by the National Association of Manufacturers, one of the largest and most influential producer groups in the US, calling the events of yesterday at the Capitol ‘sedition,’ and clearly stating that “Anyone indulging conspiracy theories to raise campaign dollars is complicit.”
Yesterday’s events may have brought this to the surface, but Business’ long relationship with the GOP as the ‘go to’ party for getting what you want (deregulation, tax cuts, environmental rollback) has been under pressure for a while. It’s not that the GOP have suddenly embraced regulation. Rather, by tacking ever more to the evidence free conspiratorial fringe, the GOP ceased to be a reliable partner for Business.
Consider first Trump’s trade war with China, which by the start of last year had cost US business nearly $50 billion. Then think of his crusade against digital companies, which constitute, thanks to the pandemic, around 20 percent of the S and P. Now add Trump’s refusal to accept the election result to the complete breakdown in fact based policymaking that has been a hallmark of the administration, and the billions of dollars that corporates have thrown at right wing think tanks and projects that have aided and abetted the GOPs slow slide to the fringe suddenly seems a less than brilliant investment. As Charles Koch, a key funder of the GOP fringe for years, recently admitted “Boy, did we screw up.”
So there is a certain sense irony in the NAM statement. After all, if it wasn’t for business organizations funding fake news on climate change, welfare reform, race relations, and taxes for the past three decades, yesterday would not have happened. As they say, you get what you pay for.
Wilson Professor of International and Public Affairs and Political Science
Can you go right up to the edge without falling over? Yesterday’s mob violence in the Capitol suggests that the answer is a resounding no. Since the 1960s, when Republicans borrowed the slogan from Alabama governor George Wallace, the Republican party has branded itself as the party of “law and order.” Indeed Trump repeated the claim in a tweet after a mob of his supporters rampaged through the halls of Congress. Many Republicans professed shock at the insurrection that took place in Washington, emphasizing that the marauders had nothing to do with the vast majority of Trump voters. And yet.
Well before Trump’s election, the Republican party set the stage for yesterday’s violence. Dog whistle racial politics and anti-government rhetoric have been central to the Republican brand since the 1960s. But after the first Black president was elected, the Republican base went further, now questioning the very legitimacy of government. Tea Party activists claimed for themselves the mantle of true “patriotism.” In power, the Republican Congress, led by Mitch McConnell, used its power to block President Obama at every turn, feeding cynicism about government and fueling hatred of Washington.
Throughout the Trump presidency, Republicans have stood by their leader as he whipped up racial fears, made lying a core governance strategy, and failed to address the biggest public health emergency in a century. They watched as he distorted the workings of the executive branch, pushing aside experts in favor of political loyalists. They failed to raise their voice when he prevented the Department of Homeland Security from investigating the dangers of domestic terrorism by white supremacists. For weeks, Republican leaders indulged his claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Even after the mob attack, a significant number of Republican House members and prominent Senators continued to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election.
The Republican party faces a reckoning. But it is not only with the events of the past few days. It is a reckoning with the strategies they have relied upon for half a century.
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs
For more than a century, the United States has fomented instability and rebellion around the world. At this moment we are doing all we can to push Iranians, Venezuelans, Chinese, Russians, Cubans and others to overthrow their governments. It should not be surprising, therefore, that people in the United States assimilate the idea that using force against governments one dislikes is not only acceptable, but 100 percent American. A country cannot enjoy long-term peace at home if it relentlessly promotes upheaval elsewhere. The best that could emerge from this episode would be a commitment by the United States to rebuild our tattered democracy instead of trying to export our model to the rest of the world.
Read more from Stephen Kinzer HERE.
Richard Holbrooke Associate Professor of Political Science
Director of Climate Solutions Lab, Brown University
We should demand our leaders look to the root causes of the January 6 insurrection. Why, for instance, does the glaring discrepancy between how police officers treat violent white insurrectionists and peaceful Black protesters persist? The Biden administration, along with city and state governments too, should get to work in rooting out white supremacists in all levels of police force. Secondly, what political forces cause so many Republican politicians to fan the flames of Trumpism? The Financial Times found that “the 13 senators supporting Mr. Trump’s last-gasp effort to cling to power have... received nearly $2m over the 2019-2020 election cycle from the political action committees of companies including Koch Industries, Berkshire Hathaway, UPS, and AT&T.” American democracy depends on norms and the ability to feel shame. Blame for the Trump insurgency does not start or end with corporate donors, but the US media should help consumers punish the companies that bear some responsibility. (And why does it take a non-US newspaper to highlight the facts on corporate donors?) The pursuit of these root causes is a serious job, but as citizens we should feel more than just despair. Nothing in politics is linear, actions cause reactions, and the backlash against the January 6 insurrection might yet strengthen American democracy.
Julis-Rabinowitz Professor of Public Policy
Director, Master of Public Affairs Program
Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence in Political Science
Chair of Political Science
The direct cause of yesterday’s insurrection on Capitol Hill was Donald Trump’s effort to delegitimize Joe Biden’s presidential election victory. The decision of Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) to announce their intended objections to the certification of some states’ electoral votes on wholly specious grounds, with no chance of success, played a major contributing role. The pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol was also the result of three larger forces that have been undermining American democracy over the past several decades—tribalism, negative partisanship, and a breakdown of government performance. We explore these forces in our just-published edited volume, Dynamics of American Democracy (University of Kansas Press).
Read the entire article HERE.
Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences
Director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia
Professor Varshney joined an international panel of experts to discuss how a President-incited attack on the legislature is possible in a presidential democracy, but nearly impossible in a parliamentary democracy.
Watch the entire event HERE.
Interim Director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs
Visiting Professor of the Practice of Political Science
The armed attack on the Capitol by a raging mob was at the center of one of the darkest days in all of American history. It was the most serious assault on the building since the British burned it during the War of 1812. I found it personally deeply disturbing on a number of levels.
I was disgusted by the desecration of the building itself. The Capitol is a beautiful national treasure and perhaps the most recognized symbol of American democracy. I worked there for thirty-four years and my wife and I were married in the Capitol building. I felt the offense personally. Seeing guns drawn in the House chamber, a rioter leaping from the galleries in the Senate chamber and occupying the presiding officer’s chair on the dais, and the confederate flag paraded through the halls of Congress were just of few of the shocking images of the day.
But, as distressing as the damage to the building is, far worse is the reality that this was an armed insurrection aimed at overturning the lawful functioning of the government itself. The Congress was meeting in a Joint Session carrying out the final steps of certifying the election of a new president under the Constitution.
But, we should not be distracted by our outrage at the sights on Capitol Hill. At the heart of the existential danger to our democracy, is the inescapable recognition that the actions of the mob were incited by the President of the United States.
President Donald Trump must be held accountable. Removal under the 25th Amendment or via impeachment and conviction would be appropriate. However, the continued support by enablers in his party make successful removal difficult to imagine.
While it is understandable that the incoming president will be inclined against beginning his new administration with a backward-looking effort to investigate and punish the behavior of his predecessor, he has pledged to protect the independence of the Justice Department. Donald Trump is not above the law (even if he attempts to pardon himself) and hopefully justice will be served.
Postdoctoral Fellow in International and Public Affairs
Postdoctoral Research Associate in Race and Ethnicity
The January 6th Capitol Hill take-over by Trump supporters illuminates much about the anti-black police violence historically perpetrated against black dissent. Not surprisingly, and in striking contrast to the Black Lives Matter protest following in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, the pro-Trump protestors (or, rioters, and looters to employ more racialized discourse used to describe forms of black rebellion) was absent the excessive use of force, police violence, rubber bullets, and pepper spray that characterized police response to this summers’ Black and racially diverse protestors. Instead we watched as a mostly white group of Trump supporters scaled buildings, stole statues, took selfies with police officers, and occupied Congressional offices.Trump’s supporters were saluted with fists of support from Congressional leaders like Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, and praised by the President, again unsurprisingly as being “very special.”
Not only should we raise questions about how pro-Trump white protesters were able to escape the physical violence charged against black protest, but also the ways in which white Americans will escape the discursive violence charged against black communities that follow in the wake of black rebellion and periods of unrest. In the 1960s, fears of black violence encouraged policy makers and social thinkers to promote a range of policies that not only increased “law and order” throughout social institutions (see Elizabeth Hinton’s work here). But, moreover fears of black violence also encouraged policy makers and social researchers to explain black dissent as a result of black pathology, and as part of a larger “culture of poverty.” Such behavioral-based solutions that continue to dominate social reforms evaded structural critiques that galvanized unrest to begin with—critiques related to poverty and economic exploitation, excessive police violence, and practices that preclude black opportunities. The Capitol Hill rioters “protesting” unfounded claims of a stolen election not only escaped the first round of excessive police violence. But the protesters and their leaders—despite their delusions—will likely escape too, the enduring prodding in probing by policy makers and social researchers who might otherwise continue to paint all white Americans as violent, looters, pathological and always in need of reform.
Director, IR Concentration
Lecturer in International and Public Affairs
President Trump’s incitement of his fans to a violent assault on the U.S. capitol yesterday appears to be entirely domestic in origin, so why should this be of interest to students of international and public affairs?
There are several factors that help explain this forever-indelible blot on our national honor and reputation, but most of what we witnessed was the cumulative impact of a foreign-directed assault on our republic, and this best explains how by 3 November 2020, 74 million Americans came to believe both that Donald J. Trump would make an ideal U.S. president; and that he won that election in a landslide.
Many of you have heard that the Russian Federation interfered in the U.S. presidential election of 2016, but what you may not know is that Russia’s interference in 2016 was only the latest chapter in a decades-long (and still ongoing) effort to alter the international balance of power in Russia’s favor through disinformation.
This effort, known broadly as “active measures” in Russia, was implemented by the KGB (now FSB); where 85% of that agency’s work was directed toward the use of disinformation to disorient and disable democracies (in particular the United States). The method starts with identifying pre-existing cleavages in the target society, and then using disinformation to intensify those cleavages; ultimately leading to a situation where facts themselves are impossible to agree on. An early success was the idea that the United States developed the AIDs virus to kill black and LGBTQ Americans. More recently, it was “pizzagate.”
But the FSB at its best couldn’t have had the impact of causing roughly half of Americans believe the other half was either vile or ignorant without help. And Russia got that help from Google, Facebook, and Fox News; all of whose business models systematically trade truth for advertising revenue.
So bottom line? What we saw on the Capitol steps yesterday was Russia winning (Britain formally left the European Union last week), and a United States too internally divided to mount an effective defense.
Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs
There could be nothing more profane than to have thugs invade the Capitol building at the moment when the peaceful transfer of power based on an election validated by recounts and courts was to be sanctified. That desecration is worse for the fact of Trump’s implication in it. It is even more awful because we can’t agree on an explanation for what went wrong.
Of course we all should agree that the criminal trespass, theft, and assaults in the Capitol by these mostly white men, and only a few women and people of color, is egregious. I trust these hateful will be arrested.
Who in security is complicit? The police taking selfies with insurgents? Where was Homeland Security? Were security authorities afraid of hurting the feelings of Trump loyalists by recognizing their threat?
Were those who continued to promote Trump’s lies about a stolen election also complicit? There were 147 Republicans, after the assault, who still sought to overturn the election results.
Of course each senator and representative of these 147 would decry the violence they suffered. They did not want this kind of disruption of their intended disruption. But that does not matter; they need to go back to introductory sociology and learn two lessons.
No author controls the interpretation of their work. Even if Senators Hawley and Cruz did not mean to invite an insurrection, their claims that this election was not legitimate invited the mob to threaten those Trump called “evil”.
Second, authors can communicate without saying literally what they mean. Trump did not tell his thugs to storm the Capitol, but he did say he would be with them in marching on the Capitol on a wild protest. They could understand the surmise.
Disgust now fills legislative chambers and corporate boardrooms. Vice President Pence is reputed to be considering the invocation of the 25th amendment to remove Trump from office. But all those who supported Trump are complicit in this crime. His danger to democracy has long been evident.
What is to be done? The overt crime will not go unpunished, but we cannot allow those who enabled this hate fertilizing culture of lies to go unsullied. Common ground we need, but not on the basis of compromise with those complicit.
I support Cori Bush’s call for an investigation into those who denied this election’s legitimacy. Neither she nor I prejudge the outcome, but the debate about how evidence and reason are used in politics, and the implication of lies in violence, deserves to be heard.
Trump’s MAGA mythos does not die with the end of his term. It will go underground unless that demon is exorcised in the light of its examination. It’s best dissected in those Halls of Congress so brutally assaulted yesterday by Trump’s thugs.
David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of International Relations
Director of Postdoctoral Program
The history and motivation of the 25th amendment matter because they point to the fact that the amendment was really intended to respond to the imperative of a medically ill president, and not primarily a mentally ill one, or one suffering from dementia, as indeed Ronald Reagan apparently was toward the end of his Presidency.
Various people can debate the full nature and extent of President Trump’s psychological ailments, but few would argue against the reality of his extreme narcissism. And it should not surprise any clinician, or indeed any scholar or policymaker, that when you prick the self-delusional wound of a true narcissist, enormous aggression will result.
The challenge with the 25th amendment is that it is not designed to respond to this kind of challenge and thus, temporally and structurally, it is not well suited to an immediate crisis resulting from mental illness. One of the key phrases in the amendment allows Congress to designate an alternative body to the Cabinet to adjudicate the President’s fitness, but Congress has never seen fit to create such an entity, leaving such judgment in the hands of a Vice President, who must initiate, and a Cabinet who must endorse such assessments. These individuals are typically loyal to the president, or at least dependent on him for continued employment.
Read Professor McDermott's entire article HERE.
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs
Policy & Governance Track Director, Undergraduate International and Public Affairs Concentration
Director, Undergraduate Public Policy Concentration
Wednesday morning, on the back of the news from south of the Mason Dixon, I was minutes away from sending out a Happy New Year note thinking maybe, just maybe we could start putting 2020 behind us.
Then my mother, half-hysterical, called to tell me to turn on the tube. The next twelve hours of reality TV were equal parts, mesmerizing, mortifying, scary, and pathetic.
Trump, performing Caudillo. But without the balls to lead the insurrection he has been calling for.
Cops gone feckless in the face of an outraged crowd of the wrong color.
The Rebel Flag planted in the Capitol. The Viking-helmed bozo calling the House to order.
The silver- tongued Objections of Hawley and Cruz, at once silky denials of complicity, and the knives-in- the-back they hope to put to good use sometime going forward.
But as pathetic and terrifying as it all was, it was no big surprise: They have been playing with matches for years while most of the rest of us have been too self-absorbed to imagine such an audience possible.
So, at the end of the day, let me suggest, it really was the morning that was the bigger the surprise.
After all, who among us would have thought that the good folks of Georgia would elect a “Black Radical Liberal Marxist” (sic) and a “Communist Jew” to the Senate? Who really believed we’d be out from under Mitch’s thumb?
At a minimum, hats off to all those who toiled in the sun for a dozen years to give voice to an equally impossible audience. Hats off to Stacey Abrams, a hero for our times.
Professor of International and Public Affairs (Research)
One of the most surprising things about the attack on the Capitol building was the degree of surprise it caused among observers. The mob’s action resulted directly from the President’s speech encouraging supporters, whom he had urged to come to Washington, to march on the Capitol. But the President’s backers were also motivated by a distrust in the election and in all government institutions that the President has himself actively cultivated since he took office four years ago.
Specialists in comparative politics quickly recognized President Trump as fulfilling key traits of an aspiring authoritarian. Already in 2016, political scientists wrote open letters and op-ed columns enumerating the tendencies displayed by Donald Trump that led them to a high level of alarm – his questioning of the electoral process (despite winning the Electoral College), his accusing political opponents of crimes, questioning the legitimacy of an independent judiciary, and attacking the press. This list had been crystallized decades earlier by two political scientists, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, who studied democratic breakdowns in the last century, and it was updated in 2016 by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book, How Democracies Die.
The one trait of twentieth-century authoritarian leaders that remained ambiguous in President Trump’s case was whether he would encourage violence as a way of remaining in power. That question was answered yesterday. Despite the President’s afternoon tweet telling his supporters to avoid violence, he also reassured them as they ransacked Congressional offices that they were “very special” and that he loved them.
Even after the Capitol building was secured, over 140 Republicans in Congress continued to question the electoral votes submitted by the states. They seemed to believe that democracy either doesn’t matter or, if it does, that it doesn’t depend upon their active support. Everything we know about democratic breakdown elsewhere indicates that they are wrong on both counts.