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Harvard faculty reacted with shock and frustration — but often little surprise — to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob Wednesday that disrupted the counting of electoral votes.
Chaos erupted in Washington, D.C. Wednesday afternoon when rioters breached the Capitol, forcing the Senate to be cleared out and Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers to be evacuated to secure locations. Amid the riots, a woman was shot and killed, and several explosives were discovered around Capitol Hill.
Police managed to clear the mob from the Capitol by early evening, and lawmakers resumed the vote count around 8 p.m.
In an email, Government professor Daniel P. Carpenter described Wednesday’s events as “an attack on the legislative foundations of our democratic republic.”
“We are distinguished from monarchies and autocracies by the fact that we observe lawful transitions of power guided by elections,” Carpenter wrote. “The Capitol has been cleared of the mob, but that lawful transition of power was disrupted today by the very incumbent officeholder who stands to be ousted by popular sovereignty and by lawful procedures.”
In an email, Law School professor Noah R. Feldman ’92 wrote he couldn’t “think of” a precedent for the insurrection.
Still, Government professor Steven R. Levitsky — who authored the book “How Democracies Die” — said the violence that occurred Wednesday was a predictable conclusion to Donald J. Trump’s presidency.
“This is what happens when not just Trump, but much of the Republican Party leadership, in a polarized political setting, spends four years lying to its base — working its base into a frenzy telling its base that the other side are traitors, that the other side are trying to destroy the country, that the other side stole the election,” Levitsky said.
“If you spend four years mobilizing the base into outrage, you’re very likely to get this sort of violent mobilization,” he added.
African and African American Studies and Government professor Jennifer L. Hochschild said the insurrection in Washington, D.C. could also be partially attributed to societal anxiety “that’s erupting in all kinds of weird ways.”
“There’s economic anxiety, there’s racial anxiety. There’s probably gender. Most of these people were men — 30-ish-year old white men who either don’t have a job or are worried about their jobs,” Hochschild said.
Government professor Daniel F. Ziblatt, who co-authored “How Democracies Die” with Levitsky, said Republican voters are also anxious about a reduction in their ranks: many are “rural, white, and Christian Americans, who are a declining segment of the electorate, but who are over-represented in the Republican Party and in our political system,” he said.
“So, out of a certain kind of desperation, there’s a fomenting of this fear,” he said.
Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 wrote in an email that the storming of the Capitol “must not be allowed to stand as a precedent for the future.”
“Trump won election as a demagogue and he goes out as one,” Mansfield wrote. “But the future problem is more with his supporters than with him. Republicans will have to educate them in how to lose.”
Levitsky held Republicans’ accommodations of Trump’s behavior — several GOP lawmakers hoped to use the ceremonial vote count to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory — responsible for Wednesday’s complications to the electoral certification process, inside and outside of the Capitol building.
“Trump deserves a lot of blame for this,” he said. “But he wouldn't have been President of the United States, he wouldn't have stayed President of the United States, and he wouldn't have taken his little post election adventure beyond November 5, had it not been for the enabling of the Republican Party.”
Government lecturer Maxine Isaacs said the violent scene at the Capitol was in part due to Trump’s incompetence as well as to his incitement.
“Here’s all these people breaking into the Capitol, sitting with their feet up on the speaker’s desk, sitting in the speaker’s chair, and he’s watching television,” she said.
“When he finally came out at the end of the day, he said, ‘I love you, but go home’ – he was totally ineffective,” she said. “I mean, even if he wanted to encourage them it wasn’t really encouragement.”
Ziblatt added that the situation could have been worse.
“This is not a political leader who has a master plan to carry out the implementation of a coup where the military will come,” Ziblatt said. “So he’s working from a very weak position, for which we can be thankful.”
Ziblatt also said that a “fracture” could emerge between the “Trumpist” and more moderate wings of the Republican Party, and that such a split could present its own dangers to American democracy.
“In my own studies of conservative parties and conservative movements throughout history, a danger is when instead of the mainstream party encompassing these radical elements and keeping them under control, they lose control of them,” he said. “And then you have a large segment of the electorate and some politicians who represent that segment of the electorate who are entirely disconnected from any moderating influence.”
Hochschild said Wednesday’s events and the weeks to follow could potentially chart the Republican Party’s course for the future, including a dissolution similar to that of the Whig Party in the 1850s.
“It’s possible that that’s what we’re in the middle of here with the Republican Party — today, last Saturday, God only knows what will happen over the next two weeks — will drive the genuinely conservative Republicans away from the increasingly small, but radicalized Trumpist supporters,” Hochschild said, referring to a call Trump made last Saturday asking Georgia officials to subvert the election by finding votes for him. “But I’m not sure that they’ll disappear when Trump disappears — so the Republican Party may be just breaking up.”
American History professor Jill M. Lepore wrote in an email she believes a transition of power might take place before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.
“I do not think Trump’s presidency will endure until Biden’s inauguration,” Lepore wrote.
Twelve Harvard affiliates, including Levitsky and Hochschild, had co-signed an open letter Wednesday demanding the immediate removal of Trump from office through the impeachment process or the invocation of the 25th Amendment. Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan started the letter and more than 800 fellow political scientists had signed as of 11:30 p.m.
“Our profession seeks to understand politics, not engage in it, but we share a commitment to democratic values. The President’s actions threaten American democracy,” the letter reads. “He has rejected the peaceful transfer of power, encouraged state legislators to overturn election results in their states, pressured a state official to change election results, and now incited a violent mob that shut down the counting of electoral votes and stormed the U.S. Capitol.”
Government professor Ryan D. Enos said he signed on to the letter since he saw Wednesday’s riots as “a very clear sign that our democracy is under threat.”
“It’s possible that a real dark Pandora's box has been opened in American democracy, and that we will not get out of the situation without something radical happening,” Enos said. “And that radical could be something violent like we witnessed today, or it could be something where we really change people’s lives for the better.”
Harvard Kennedy School professor Arthur I. Applbaum wrote in an email that “what this means is up to us.” He called on the Republican Party to censure Trump for inciting mob violence, for civilian police to clear the Capitol grounds, and for Congress to resume the electoral vote count.
“Congress is a legislative body, not a building, and it must reconvene at once in a secure and preferably magisterial location to take up the work of certifying Joe Biden's election to the presidency publicly,” wrote Applbaum, a professor of democratic values and political leadership. “If the congressional coup plotters have not been shamed by today’s events into dropping their mendacious stunt, then they should be outvoted in both chambers expeditiously, with an incisive rebuttal from one member of each party.”
“If much of this happens, then what today means for American democracy is that we stared into the abyss and pulled back,” Applbaum added.
—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @OLRiskinKutz.
—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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