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“It's watching one of those terrible historical moments in real time.”
That’s how political historian Julian E. Zelizer, Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, described his reaction to Wednesday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
But was Zelizer surprised?
“At one level, it’s just horrible to watch our democracy be in this place,” he said as the 6 p.m. curfew approached and pro-Trump extremists began to disperse amid a growing police presence. “At another level, it's hard not to see how this is the culmination of what has been happening in the last four years -- in fact in the last four decades,” since the rise of what Zelizer has called the new Republican Party.
Other scholars of U.S. history and politics had similar reactions to Wednesday’s events when asked to help put them in perspective. The country they study seemed at once foreign and familiar. They shared feelings of disbelief -- and of having their expectations of President Trump’s final days in office fulfilled. And they warned against seeing the siege as an isolated event but also described it as unique and grave in its implications.
Scholar of democracy Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said the U.S. “has always been a very violent society. And our democracy has always been precarious. But four years of attacks on our institutions, by the president, is taking a particularly heavy toll.”
Suri called the storming of the Capitol, which interrupted Congress’s Electoral College vote certification, “another 9/11 attack on the U.S. government by terrorists.”
A group of “ringleaders,” including the president, “organized and encouraged a small group of people to attack the core institutions and practices of democracy,” he said, expounding on his comparison. “The attackers are motivated by xenophobia, racism and hate” and their “violence is a narcissistic lashing out against institutions and people whose power they resent but cannot challenge legitimately.”
The major difference between Wednesday and the Sept. 11 terror attacks is that this one “came from within, motivated by the leader of the country and elected enablers” in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere, Suri said. “Today's terrorism is at the heart of the Republican Party, which now, in much of its leadership, has become a white supremacist Al Qaeda.”
Another difference? Wednesday’s rioters were overwhelmingly white -- and generally treated with restraint by police. Suri, among other scholars, noted how differently the Capitol stormers were treated from many Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer.
Political scientist Paula D. McClain, dean of the Graduate School at Duke University and immediate past president of the American Political Science Association, said, “If this had been a BLM protest, the police in full military gear would have been present and they would have moved to quickly arrest protesters or use chemicals to disperse them.” It highlights the “disparities in how U.S. citizens are handled when they protest.”
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said that bearers of Confederate flags -- seen in photos of the action -- had “finally breached the U.S. Capitol 160 years after the secession of states in defense of the supposed right of some humans to own other humans.”
It took too long for what happened from 1861 to 1865 to be recognized as treason, Grossman said, and, more recently, “too long to name the acts of white nationalists as terrorism pure and simple.”
McClain said that demonstrations are “a part of our system of government,” in which people “have the right to express their views to their elected officials.” Yet no one “has the right to storm the seat of government, break in, basically hold elected officials hostage and try to stop a constitutionally mandated process.”
Aside from a four-person Puerto Rican nationalist attack on Congress in 1954, and the events of the Civil War, McClain said Wednesday’s attack is perhaps most similar to Shays' Rebellion in 1786, in Massachusetts. That armed rebellion was about a debt, property and taxation, not the results of a free and fair election.
In any case, McClain said that what happened Wednesday “smacks of countries that we criticize for operating outside of established democratic norms.” And yet it’s all been “building over the course of four years with a president who has authoritarian tendencies, lies without consequences and with members of his party that refuse to hold him accountable” and “enable” him.
Matthew J. Schmidt, associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven, said, “In any other country what you see on your TV would be called a coup or an insurgency. You’d see chyrons saying, ‘Overthrow attempt in Kyiv’ and the like.”
On Trump, Schmidt said in a separate public statement, “Calling out a crowd to storm the legislature and falsely claim the election you lost was fraudulent is the sine qua non of dictators across history. What else is there to say? This a gross insult to the very ideals America stands for.”
While Wednesday’s events are certainly significant, Grossman cautioned against framing Wednesday’s siege as a historical “moment” that scholars will study going forward.
Why? “Everything has a history, and what is happening at the U.S. Capitol is part of a historical process that needs to be understood.” The rioters are “people whose historical sensibilities have been nurtured by popular culture and cynical politicians willing to manipulate bigotry for self-interested purposes,” he said.
Bigger picture, Grossman said the fact that 74 million Americans recently voted for Trump, who encouraged crowds earlier in the day to “never concede,” is testimony to a “failure of our systems of public education.”
No doubt education and literacies, including media literacy (and lack thereof), have factored into Trump’s political rise. Internet conspiracy theories, for instance, continue to cast doubt on the election results.
To Suri, at least, Trump’s recent public statements and actions read very clearly as criminal.
“He is far worse than Nixon,” Suri said of Trump. “He has incited violence and attacks against Congress and [Vice President] Pence. He has used Twitter with intention to undermine the U.S. government and legitimate elections. He has also used his power in abusive ways to try to pressure elected officials to change vote totals. All of these are crimes, and he should be prosecuted.”