January 13, 2021

PU Professors Weigh In on Violent Events at the U.S. Capitol

By Donald Gilpin

As the Trump presidency draws to a close and the world reflects on the alarming January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, there are many different opinions and perspectives on what it all means and where the country goes from here. Some of the best informed and most helpful of those perspectives may come from historians and political scientists, and Princeton University’s professors of history and politics have not hesitated to weigh in on the national dialogue.

As Jamie Saxon of the Princeton University Office of Communications pointed out in a press release last week, a number of Princeton faculty “are using op-eds, television news programs, podcasts, online publications, and social media to speak to the moment, share their expertise, and help chart a path forward for the country.”

American History Professor Sean Wilentz, author of a January 7 article in Rolling Stone titled “Lock Him Up: What Donald Trump Did on January 6 was Sedition — and He Must Be Prosecuted For It,” emphasized what he sees as his dual role as a historian. “Some of us feel we have a civic function as well as an educational and intellectual one, that we serve our country in one way or another,” he said in a January 6 Daily Princetonian Podcast, stating that one of his roles is “to bring historical knowledge and wisdom to bear on issues of political difficulty.”

In providing historical context to the recent events, Wilentz compared last week’s violence to the start of the Civil War. “January 6th, 2021 marked the saddest day in the history of American democracy since April 12th, 1861, the day South Carolina secessionists fired on Fort Sumter and commenced the Civil War,” he wrote in Rolling Stone.

“Assassinations, military atrocities, enacting horrific laws, all are shameful and wrenching, and forever stain the nation’s history,” he continued. “But deliberate and violent attacks on the nation’s essential institutions of government, incited by elected leaders, are rarer, and they cut to the heart of our democracy as those other shocks do not.”

He went on to describe the assault on the Capitol as “a direct, calculated, and unashamed repudiation of the nation’s constitutional order.”

Princeton University Assistant Professor of Politics Omar Wasow, who has written widely over the past 10 years on the interweaving of protests and politics, wrote in a January 7 Washington Post article that “the Capitol riot” was not an aberration but “quintessentially American.”

In a telephone conversation Monday, Wasow explained his theory for making sense of recent news, that the violent events in Washington and the historic Senate victories by Democrats in Georgia one day earlier reflect ”a long-run contest between two competing American traditions: one committed to preserving the status quo racial hierarchy and one fighting to advance equality.”

Wasow discussed how the president’s actions helped to ignite last week’s manifestation of the clash between the two traditions, the two governing coalitions. “Trump’s repeated disinformation, repeated lies about his loss were not simply him protecting his ego,” Wasow said. “For him the world is defined by winners and losers, and for somebody who lost an election, to be that loser is painfully threatening to his sense of self.”

He continued, “But it’s bigger than that. It’s about this competition between two coalitions where one is unwilling to accept the possibility that they may not be the dominant coalition in the country. If you feel like your group is entitled to power and you feel the loss of that power, then rather than accept it, people develop all types of elaborate narratives and conspiracy theories to justify why.”

In looking to the future, Wasow said he was “broadly optimistic,” but noted that American democracy is in the middle of a long transition. “We have a good 10 or 20 years of difficult transition ahead, because even someone like Joe Biden, as moderate and mainstream as he is, can win by seven million votes nationally and yet in the Electoral College it was really close.” Wasow noted the structural disadvantages in the Electoral College, in election districting, and in the Senate that impede the transition to a more inclusive country.

“In the near term the more extreme part of the base will define the direction of Republican politics, and in the transition to where both parties are more moderate and more multi-ethnic there will be more political violence, with very heated fights over legitimacy of elections, and very difficult legal and political battles,” he said.

African American Studies Professor Eddie Glaude Jr., speaking on NPR’s January 7 Morning Edition, compared police responses to the pro-Trump mob with responses to the racial justice protests over the past year. “There is a sense in which some people who happen to be white are accorded the rights of citizenship and the right to dissent and others are expected to be grateful,” he said. “And that was in clear view yesterday in terms of how the police responded to a mob, an insurrection in effect.”

He continued, “You saw a peaceful protest in Lafayette Square. You saw peaceful protests across the country over the summer after George Floyd’s murder. And what did we see in response? We saw tear gas. We saw rubber bullets. We saw the vitriol. We saw the aggression of the police in responding to that peaceful protest. And here you have literally thousands of people rushing at the people’s house, walking through the Capitol.

“And I could hear all across the country — at least on my Twitter feed — people just in amazement. Not that they wanted the police to be violent in their response, but it gave evidence to the fact that some people are accorded the benefit of the doubt, are given certain kinds of leeway or space, and other people are not.”

Also in an NPR interview on January 7, Assistant African American Studies Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor emphasized a double standard in police treatment of the protesters.

“It is obvious that if the protesters were Black or if the protesters were protesting police brutality, a U.S. war, or something like that, that they would have been brutalized, that they never would have been in the position to lay siege to the Capitol in the first place,” she said. “The police would have had a completely different reaction to them, as we saw all across the country this past summer in response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. In the Capitol itself, we saw National Guard. We saw people in military uniforms with military-grade weaponry pointed at Black Lives Matter activists.”

Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber, a Constitutional law scholar, in his January 6 “President’s Blog” commented on the violence at the Capitol and “the Constitution’s promise” to help the nation move forward.

“There is no place in a democracy for what transpired today in Washington,” he wrote. “Such lawless behavior is unacceptable and weakens our country. Every leader has a responsibility to oppose it and never to stoke or encourage it.”

Striking a more positive note, he continued, “I am saddened by what we saw today, but I am also confident that Americans can and will rise together to meet the challenges that the Constitution imposes on us: to renew our commitment to the rule of law and to peaceful disagreement; to push always for justice, equality, liberty, and the ideals of a free nation; to respect one another; to restore civic trust; and to redress this nation’s failures and build upon its achievements as we endeavor to become a more perfect Union.”