Date January 13, 2021
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Brown scholars weigh in on unrest at the Capitol, presidential transition

Ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration and Donald Trump's potential second impeachment, faculty experts from Brown weighed in on what led to this moment of upheaval and where American politics is headed.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On Wednesday, Jan. 6, chaos erupted in Washington when thousands of protesters stormed the Capitol building in an attempt to prevent legislators from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. The day's disordered and at many moments violent events left one of the country's most storied structures damaged — and resulted in five deaths.

One week later, Americans are still grappling with core-shaking questions about who is to blame for the destruction and loss of life, whether the country will ever recover from years of bitter political polarization and what the future of U.S. democracy looks like.

In the days following the unrest, and in the week leading up to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Brown faculty in political science, history, economics, international relations and more weighed in with takeaways and predictions. Some shared their reactions to events at the Capitol via the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs; others wrote op-eds that later appeared on major news websites; and still others participated in a Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy conversation about the presidential transition. Some of their comments, lightly edited for length and clarity, appear below.

The panel of faculty experts

Rose McDermottRose McDermott
Professor of International Relations
Mark BlythMark Blyth
Director, Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance
Professor of International Economics and International and Public Affairs
Wendy Schiller
Wendy Schiller
Chair, Department of Political Science
Professor of Political Science
Jonathan Collins
Jonathan Collins
Assistant Professor of Education
Richard ArenbergRichard Arenberg
Interim Director, Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy
Visiting Professor of the Practice of Political Science

Margaret WeirMargaret Weir
Professor of International and Public Affairs and Political Science
Ivan Arreguin-ToftIvan Arreguín-Toft
Lecturer in International Relations and Public Affairs
Jeff ColganJeffrey Colgan
Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies
Director, Climate Solutions Lab
Mahasan Offfutt-ChaneyMahasan Offutt-Chaney
Postdoctoral Fellow in International and Public Affairs
Postdoctoral Research Associate in Race and Ethnicity
Stephen KinzerStephen Kinzer
Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs
Ed SteinfeldEd Steinfeld
Director, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Director, China Initiative
Professor of China Studies, Political Science and International and Public Affairs
Carrie NordlundCarrie Nordlund
Associate Director, Annenberg Institute for School Reform
Eric PatashnikEric Patashnik
Professor of Public Policy and Political Science

On the events that led to the current moment

Margaret WeirWeir: 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. 

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. 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.

Stephen KinzerKinzer: 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.

Jonathan CollinsCollins: The interesting thing about last week is that it showed us that, at the core, we still have a racism problem. First, we know if those rioters had darker skin, this would never have happened. We see what happens when people with darker skin look to even hold peaceful protests, let alone violently or aggressively enter government facilities. Second, we saw racism in some of the symbols that were brandished throughout the raids — including the largest confederate flag that I have ever seen in my life.

Yes, we have an economic situation we have to figure out. Yes, we have a major public health issue in the pandemic. Yes, we have to figure out how to restore America’s stature in the world. But until we can move white supremacy and issues of racial discontent to the side and move forward as a collective, we’re going to continue to see events like last week happen.

Ivan Arreguin-ToftArreguín-Toft: 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.

Many have heard that the Russian Federation interfered in the 2016 presidential election. 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). Eighty-five percent of that agency’s work was directed toward the use of disinformation to disorient and disable democracies, in particular the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 was Russia winning a war against which the U.S. was too internally divided to mount an effective defense.

Mark BlythBlyth: 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 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 businesses’ 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 has suddenly embraced regulation. Rather, by tacking ever more to the evidence-free conspiratorial fringe, the GOP has 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 U.S. business nearly $50 billion. Then think of his crusade against digital companies, which constitute, thanks to the pandemic, around 20% of the S&P. Now add Trump’s refusal to accept the election result and the complete breakdown in fact-based policymaking that has been a hallmark of the administration, and suddenly, the billions of dollars that corporations have thrown at right-wing think tanks and projects that have aided and abetted the GOP’s 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 of 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. 

On what a Biden presidency could look like

Wendy SchillerPatashnik/Schiller: Joe Biden is taking office as the leader of a sharply polarized country. While Biden may promise to be the president of all Americans, the divisions between Blue America and Red America run deep. According to a Pew survey conducted shortly before the election, roughly 90 percent of both Trump and Biden voters said a victory by the other side would bring “lasting harm” to the country. It becomes easier for some people to justify rioting and violence when they think rule by the other side will end their way of life.

Recent Congresses have not been highly productive in passing important legislation. This is unlikely to change in the 117th Congress, which will now be narrowly controlled by Democrats in both the House and the Senate. However, the margin of control in the House is very small, and in the Senate, the Democrats are well short of the 60 votes necessary to overcome Republican legislative filibusters. The Biden Administration will be able to more easily secure judicial appointments and fill cabinet posts, but in this intensely divided political and social climate, it will be very hard to achieve a large number of major legislative victories. 

Rose McDermottMcDermott: One of the things that's struck me about the events last few years is how much of our democracy has depended on norms that we all assumed were laws but actually aren’t. Biden is a great institutionalist; it will be interesting to see whether he chooses to turn some of these norms that we thought we had into actual laws — to prevent people like Donald Trump from behaving in a completely unacceptable way, to have better and stronger guardrails going forward. 

On what last week's events can teach Americans

Ed SteinfeldSteinfeld: As an American, I shed tears last week, telling myself that we’re better than this, that the events I watched unfold in real time don’t represent who we are. 

But, as a scholar of modern China, and particularly one based in an institute focusing on globally comparative analysis, I had another, 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 50 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 to 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.

Mahasan Offfutt-ChaneyOffutt-Chaney: The Capitol Hill takeover 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 protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — the pro-Trump protest was absent a police response characterized by excessive use of force, police violence, rubber bullets and pepper spray. Instead, we watched as a mostly white group of Trump supporters scaled buildings, stole statues, took selfies with police officers and occupied Congressional offices and were then praised by the president as “very special.”

The Capitol Hill rioters “protesting” unfounded claims of a stolen election may also escape the discursive violence that has historically been charged against Black communities in the wake of Black rebellion and periods of unrest. White Americans, after all, are not traditionally subject to the enduring prodding and probing by policymakers and social researchers who continue to paint Black Americans as violent, looters, pathological and always in need of reform.

On the future of the Republican Party

Rose McDermottMcDermott: The money is leaving the Trump administration. You see the National Association of Manufacturers and various corporations saying not just that they're going to stop supporting Trump but also that they're going to stop supporting the members of Congress who supported challenging the certification of Biden. You see Stripe saying they won't process any more donations to the Trump campaign. 

As a result, we've seen early signs of the Republican Party beginning to change. Liz Cheney has gone on the record essentially blaming Donald Trump for the insurrection at the Capitol. Mitch McConnell has indicated he would support impeachment. And big tech companies are not just banning Trump but also saying they will no longer provide hosting services to Parler.

As the money continues to move away from the Republican Party, the Republican Party will continue to change.

Carrie NordlundNordlund: A poll indicated that 60% of Americans disapproved of last week's events at the Capitol. That means 40% had some other feeling about last week. Americans really do see two different realities. I think about the message Trump delivered again and again: "This is a broken system, the system has lied to you, the election was stolen from you, we have to fight like hell." These words clearly rang true to people and motivated them to vote for Trump twice. This political rift isn’t something that’s going away; the people who supported Trump, the people who came to the Capitol last week, the people who believe the election was stolen, are more than just outliers.

Wendy SchillerSchiller: What started this anti-government, anti-legitimacy movement of distrust? You can trace it back to Newt Gingrich's success in 1994 with the Contract with America, which was the crystallization of a narrative that was very appealing to lots of people.

It began when Southerners who had previously been Democrats moved to the Republican Party in response to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which they opposed. The Republican Party's message was, "Get the federal government out of our lives" — the same messaging we saw some legislators using during Reconstruction in the late 1800s, but packaged differently. 

Newt Gingrich repackaged it again. He managed to reel in suburban voters with a "don't raise taxes" message and rural white voters with an anti-affirmative action message. This very fierce narrative of, "don't let them encroach, otherwise you'll be invaded by the 'other'" — Donald Trump capitalized on it and fomented it, but it has been the GOP's ticket to winning elections for some time.

To me, the impetus is not to punish only Trump. It's about holding the entire Republican Party accountable for their electoral success based on messages that fundamentally undermine trust in government and foment racial divisions.

On the inauguration

Wendy SchillerSchiller: Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence made an extremely courageous decision to go back into the Capitol in the wake of the insurrection and say, "let's get back to work." That's why I think it's important to carry on with plans to hold the inauguration outside.

I'm concerned for the safety of Biden, Harris and all of the former presidents who will be there, like everybody else. But I think now is the moment when we have to say, "We can protect the commander-in-chief." 

Carrie NordlundNordlund: I think it's extremely important for Kamala Harris, as the first woman of color vice president, to stand out there and take her oath of office. Holding it outdoors and in public, rather than behind closed doors, adds legitimacy to the event — which is crucial in a time when conspiracies run wild and people believe everything can be faked.

Jonathan CollinsCollins: We have to remember that the rioters from last week seemed to be more interested in spectacle than damage or harm. We haven't seen acts whose end goal was assassination or fatality. I think it's important to hold the inauguration outside as a counternarrative to the chaos and violence. It would send the message of, "We're going to engage in a peaceful transfer of power whether you like it or not, because that's the way our democracy has functioned and will continue to function."

On where the U.S. should go from here

Eric PatashnikPatashnik/Schiller: Jan. 6, 2021, might be the culmination in a long campaign to undermine the authority of government and destroy the institutional protections for the rule of law. Or, and we hope this to be true, it will serve as a day of reckoning which forces political parties, elected officials and voters to confront these crippling conditions and to take meaningful steps to rekindle American democracy.

Richard ArenbergArenberg: 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 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. 

Jeff ColganColgan: As citizens we should feel more than just despair. Nothing in politics is linear, actions cause reactions, and the backlash against the Jan. 6 insurrection might yet strengthen American democracy.