The U.S. Capitol has seen countless protests and a number of violent incidents over its two centuries. But what we observed last week, when a mob of President Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol intent on stopping the count of electoral votes, has been called unprecedented.
Robert Churchill is a professor of history at the University of Hartford and studies political violence.
The transcription below has been edited for clarity.
Lori Mack: What makes this incident so different?
Robert Churchill: I think it’s different in two ways. The first way is we’ve had a tradition in this country where a president who loses an election cedes power, not only peacefully, but gracefully. And this tradition goes back all the way to 1800.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson took over the presidency from the Federalist Party. It was the first transfer of power between parties in American history. It almost did descend into violence. And ever since then, we have had the principle that we would never allow that to happen. So that’s the first thing that’s different.
The second thing that I think was different is while we have had protests in the Capitol, and indeed in American history have had armed insurrections, they’ve always been targeted at particular laws.
We have never had an armed insurrection that was targeted at seizing power and voiding the results of an election. That is completely unprecedented in American history. And even in 1860, the South didn’t try to void the election. They simply withdrew from the country. But this is a very new thing in American history.
It’s very new for people to take up arms and go beyond saying, “We will not tolerate this particular law,” to say, “We will dictate what the laws and policy are going to be. We and others will be the sovereign people to the exclusion of everybody else in the body politic.” That’s very new.
It’s been talked about that an insurrection in Washington has been building long before this election cycle. So what about that?
Well, I think that there have been building blocks that have been building slowly. I don’t want to assume that there’s anybody behind the scenes putting these in place, but you have had the emergence of militia groups now going back 20 to 25 years.
Those militia groups have primarily been anti-government in their orientation. They have been targeting particular kinds of federal policies and attempting to sort of craft a deterrent against the kind of state-sponsored violence that we saw in Ruby Ridge and Waco in the 1990s. What’s new is that some portion of that movement seems to [have] grafted itself onto Donald Trump and now see themselves essentially as an armed partisan militia that has decided to do the president’s bidding. That’s a new development.
The second thing that’s new is we’ve got communications technology today that we didn’t have 25 years ago. And particularly in the age of social media, it’s extremely easy for misinformation to spread rapidly. And when you have the president and quite a few members of the congressional caucus of one political party bent on spreading that misinformation, it spreads like wildfire.
The idea that an entire political party would dedicate itself to the proposition for which there is no evidence whatsoever that their loss in the recent election was in fact, due to fraud. That’s a very new thing and it’s a very explosive allegation. It’s not an allegation to be played with lightly and yet folks seem to have played with it lightly. And then there are some folks who even today are doubling down on that allegation.
As someone who has studied political violence, what was going through your mind as you watched these events unfold?
One was disbelief. But the second was that it seems to me that in confrontations with the militia movement over the last few years, the federal government has allowed itself to get beat several times.
When you say “beat,” what do you mean?
The federal government decided to have a showdown with Cliven Bundy and then back down. The federal government had a showdown at the Malheur National Wildlife reserve and then was unable to secure convictions. And then on Capitol Hill, obviously the federal government, the Capitol police, were overrun. When that happens in the face of an armed insurgency, it simply emboldens the insurgency to be more bold and more violent. The federal government, if it wants to go up against these guys, is going to have to win.
How do they do that?
It’s a really, really good question. It’s a very difficult question. And I would say that you have to ask the question a little bit differently: How do you do it in a way that you don’t create martyrs, which is even more difficult.
Nevertheless, if you want to begin to bolster federal authority again, you’re going to have to enforce the laws and you’re going to have to punish those who take up arms against the laws.
We hear the phrase that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Have you seen any of those rhymes so far, and more broadly, what can we learn from history about what may happen next?
I think that what we want to be careful of is that we want to find a way to isolate these insurgents from the larger political community.
There are going to be some people who are just hellbent on taking arms up against the government. We’re going to have to deal with them. But you want to find ways to assuage the anger in the broader public, if that is at all possible. If you don’t do that, then I think you get into a situation that’s much more like 1860, where you have two factions of the public that are angry and getting more angry and getting more violent and alienating each other even further, and that just leads to chaos and bloodshed.
What can we learn? Well, to be sort of broad-minded about this, 40 years ago we had a pretty tight wall between the extremes of the political spectrum and the mainstream. We had a way of walling off this kind of misinformation and conspiracy theories. That wall began to break down due to communications technology.
That wall also broke down because the Tea Party was designed to break it down. The Tea Party was designed to bring the far right into the Republican tent. I think when you look at what tech companies are doing now with de-platforming, what you’re seeing is an attempt to build that wall back up.
And so one of the things that we can learn is that when you invite the extremes into the mainstream public sphere, they have a tendency to alienate and radicalize more and more people. Suddenly you wake up and realize that a significant portion of one of the major political parties really no longer supports the democratic republic of the United States of America, which is a terrifying thing.