Graduate Center, CUNY Professors Comment on Storming of the U.S. Capitol January 7, 2021
Professors Heath Brown, Candace McCoy, Susan Opotow, David S. Reynolds, and John Torpey weigh in on the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Professor Heath Brown
Were you at all surprised by yesterday's events, or did you expect them?
Brown: I was unsurprised by the racism and authoritarianism of the Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol. The President has been encouraging this violence since he was elected in 2016, building on decades of rhetoric and actions to incite these crimes.
I was surprised by the apparent lack of preparation by Capitol Police and other federal authorities. Congress has recognized how precarious the 11 weeks are between the election and inauguration and passed several laws to make the presidential transition period safer and more secure. Every American should be embarrassed by the unwillingness to recognize the building threat posed by the President and his supporters and protect Congress and the critical procedures it was carrying out yesterday.
What are the implications of yesterday's events for the presidential transition later this month?
Brown: Today, Congress should call on every member of the Trump Cabinet to hold hearings on Thursday and Friday to explain how they are working with the Biden-Harris transition team. Cabinet officials should detail exactly how they are abiding by the Presidential Transition Act, what their agencies are doing to share information with the transition team, and guarantee full cooperation with the transition team has been occurring and will continue to occur until January 20th. The White House should also be called to demonstrate that they are fully abiding by all the federal record keeping laws.
The Democratic wins in Georgia contrast with the events in D.C. — a peaceful election and the overturn of a long Republican dominance. What are the implications of that and of the U.S. Senate being controlled by Democrats for the first time in many years?
Brown: An early presidency depends on getting the cabinet and sub-cabinet officials confirmed quickly by the Senate. This has become a problem of late and confirmation times have slowed greatly, raising major national security concerns, including those raised by the 9/11 Commission.
With Democrats in the majority in the Senate, the speed of confirmations is likely to rise, and I expect the Biden-Harris team to have a larger portion of its people in place sooner than any new administration in the last 20 years. This is good for the Biden-Harris policy agenda and good for the morale of the federal workforce.
Professor Candace McCoy
How were demonstrators able to overcome U.S. Capitol security and what does that imply?
McCoy: The U.S. Capitol police are basically security guards. Think "mall cop." They cannot be expected to hold back a mob. If it is apparent that a mob will descend on the Capitol, two “real” law enforcement agencies could be mobilized: the D.C. city police and/or the National Guard.
The key here is to look at which governmental official has the authority to order either of these into the streets or onto the Capitol. The mayor of the District of Columbia could muster the local police, but only for activity on D.C. streets, not the Capitol, because the Capitol is on federal land. The National Guard of the District of Columbia is activated by — wait for it — the federal executive. Ultimately, that would be the President, but in practice the President can delegate the decision to his deputies. Also, the secretary of defense has the authority to activate the National Guard of the District of Columbia. So what we see in this situation was that the president or his deputies did not call the National Guard beforehand, even knowing the “rally” could produce an agitated march onto the Capitol. The D.C. National Guard was eventually mobilized after the Capitol was invaded, much too late to prevent its breach. Who activated it? Politico has reported that Vice-President Pence called the Pentagon after he and all other members of the Senate had been evacuated from the Senate chambers. Presumably President Trump would not call for the National Guard, but at the request of the vice-president his secretary of defense did.
It is doubtful that the lack of police facilitated the riots and storming. That mob was determined to do it no matter what. But the lack of police allowed it to happen. If the National Guard had been in place before the mob arrived, it probably would not have breached the Capitol building. However, more people might have died.
Some have contrasted the reluctance to call the National Guard in to address yesterday’s violence with the way the Trump administration handled last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. What does that say about the president’s priorities, the use of military forces to support specious politics, etc.?
McCoy: Personally, I believe that if a rally the size of Trump's yesterday had instead been a rally of Black Lives Matter protesters, and if it were also held on the National Mall with the expectation of marching up Constitution Avenue to the Capitol, the Trump Administration would have had National Guard three-deep waiting at the barricades of the Capitol.
However, talking about how the Trump administration handled last year’s Black Lives Matter protests leads to inexact comparisons. The fact is that the Trump administration did not have authority to order local police to respond to those protests, because they occurred in cities and towns all across the nation, not at the Capitol. In fact, mayors in many cities told Trump to butt out when he kept demanding that they send in the National Guard. Trump often blustered that he would send in federal law enforcement to control protests like the ones in Portland, but of course that did not happen because the only authority he has in localities is over federal properties located in the cities. So comparing Trump law enforcement response at the Capitol with that in cities last summer is useless, because there actually wasn't much Trump law enforcement in the cities.
What happened in Black Lives Matter protests all across the nation last summer was on the watch of the local law enforcement agencies. They do not take their orders from Washington and in fact can resist Washington. Because policing is fundamentally local in the United States, that's where the racism meets the road. Remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan's point: "All politics are local."
Professor John Torpey
What does this mean for democracy and how does it affect our standing in the world?
Torpey: Yesterday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol building, taking place while Congress was inside certifying the election of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States, was met around the world with astonishment and distress, at least in the democracies. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, often regarded during the Trump years as the true “leader of the free world,” said the pictures from Washington made her “angry and sad.” Josep Borell, foreign policy chief of the European Union, tweeted that “American democracy… appears under siege.” America’s international stature over the past four years has been diminished and the reputation of the country tarnished by a coarse bully with little interest in our traditional allies and partners. Yesterday’s insurrection contributed further to the decline of American influence and prestige abroad, a development celebrated by Russian and Chinese media. Many people have framed this trend in terms of the end of “American exceptionalism,” the elusive notion that the United States has a special destiny in world history. Suddenly, the country seemed to have been brought down to earth by a lawless mob. With camouflage-clad rioters scaling the walls of the Capitol building, the images seemed more reminiscent of a South American dictatorship or a Central Asian autocracy than of the beacon of global democracy. Until yesterday, no one could have imagined such scenes; now they are part of our reality. It may not be the last time we see them.
Distinguished Professor David S. Reynolds
How do yesterday’s events and the animosity that fueled them compare with the divisiveness of the pre-Civil War era?
What happened yesterday is what Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, feared the most. Lincoln's first major political speech — given in January 1838, when he was a 28-year-old state politician in Illinois — was called “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” In the speech, Lincoln said that the greatest threats to American democracy came from within. One was what he called “mobocracy” — that is, uncontrolled mobs who willfully violated the law to make a political point. Especially shameful, he said, were white mobs who went on racist rampages, destroying property and hurting people. In the speech, he also targeted another potential danger: the assumption to the presidency of a demagogue who was interested solely in his own power, not in the sanctity of the Constitution. More than two decades after this speech, when Lincoln became president, America was even more divided than it is today. Lincoln saved America by always putting the nation above himself. While in office, he did not inflame passions by playing to a political base. Steadily, surely, humbly, he pushed the nation toward human justice. Lincoln would be appalled by our current demagogic president and the mob action he incited. But Lincoln was a firm believer in the strength of the American Constitution, which he called “the last, best hope of earth.” He appealed to what he called “the better angels of our nature,” and he displayed, in his words, “malice toward none, charity to all.” Yesterday, despite Trump-inspired domestic terrorism, the Constitution held firm when Congress approved the results of the Electoral College. Let’s move forward with the trust that the ship of state will emerge from our political storm intact under Joe Biden, who has pledged to keep in mind both those who supported him and those who did not.
Professor Susan Opotow
Yesterday's attack on the U.S. Capitol was riveting and horrifying. The 2020 chapter (Opotow, S., & McClelland, S. I. (2020). Theorizing hate in contemporary USA. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Perspectives on hate: How it originates, develops, manifests, and spreads (p. 91–108)). American Psychological Association.) I wrote with Sara McClelland discussed contemporary hate in the USA. It sets out the background for yesterday's ugly denouement of Trump's presidency, a presidency that's been predicated on hateful and exclusionary rhetoric, values, and actions.
I see my scholarship on the psychology of conflict and moral exclusion as offering useful insight into the antecedents and dynamics of yesterday's destructive spectacle.
A sample except (page 103): “The core of the phenomenon we call hate is the normalization of hate-based violence directed at groups deemed “lesser” and “other” by White supremacist ideologies, along with the likelihood that perpetrators of that violence will be granted impunity. The failure of law enforcement agencies to co