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US Capitol Riots: Where Do We Go From Here?

Duke experts examine rise of white nationalism, future of democracy and GOP

Part of the The Briefing: Election 2020 and Its Aftermath Series
US Capitol Riots: Where Do We Go From Here?
Duke professors Alexander Kirshner, Adriane Lentz-Smith and Darrell Miller

After last week’s invasion of the U.S. Capitol by a gang of rioters egged on by President Trump, longtime observers of government and politics are trying to determine just how much damage the nation has suffered and how it can begin to recover.

At Duke, three experts in history, law and political science discussed the challenges the nation now faces. In a wide-ranging virtual media briefing, the scholars looked at the historical precursors to the insurrection, the infiltration of police and military by white nationalists, and other issues.

Watch the briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:


On the U.S. Capitol Insurrection

“It was a catastrophic failure of security to actually have the Capitol breached by rioters.”

“We are all very fortunate – it’s becoming apparent by the day – that the potential for loss of life was catastrophic. There was a plan in place that people had come prepared to try to hijack democracy in the Capitol building. If more people had come with firearms, it really would have been a bloodbath. The fact that there are, by most accounts, five fatalities, is remarkable.”

On Comparisons to BLM Protests

“I’m amazed to think you could have a scenario in which there’s flash bangs and tear gas and all sorts of force used on peaceful protests in DC, and here you can have a largely but not exclusively white mob actually storm the capitol building, take up a seat at the speaker’s chair. And then there’s video of them being escorted out. Not even escorted, basically led out of the building with the doors held for them by the very police officers they had just overcome with force. It’s hard for me to really get my head around these two images. One of a peaceful protest being cleared for a photo op, and then rioters being shown out the door and having the door held to them by police.”

“We have somehow backed ourselves into this scenario where it’s perfectly normal in some parts of the country to show up to mass protests with firearms. It’s only been by sheer luck that we haven’t seen a huge massacre occur over a mistaken understanding about where someone is pointing a gun.”

On White Nationalists in Military, Police Forces

“It’s an issue and it’s one that needs to be addressed. I really think it’s up to police departments and the military to sort of get their house in order. It’s a serious threat. Policing and national defense has a kind of small ‘d’ democratic function. The idea is the equal enforcement of the law requires that all the people that are enforcing the law as best they can on an even-handed basis. The idea of who you enforce the law against – and who you cut a break to – should not be determined by politics or racial ideology.”

“This is the whole reason why we have a professionalized police force. This is the whole reason why we have a system of national defense that is premised not on … private militias but essentially what is a standing army.”

“If they are being corrupted from within … then it’s really incumbent and necessary on those actors like the military and police departments to screen out and root out that issue. Otherwise it will fester, and it will lead to widespread distrust of the very idea that we have a neutral law enforcement and military apparatus at all.”

On Politicians and Conspiracy Theories

“What has happened is you have a subsection of the Republican party that has catered to the absolute worst kind of conspiracy-mongering of some of their constituents. Rather than acting as a brake, a voice of reason, they have come to embrace and … mainstream things that 20 years ago would have been thought totally unreasonable. I don’t know how you can have a two-party system like we do when a substantial portion of one party is simply not trafficking in fact anymore. They’re simply resistant to the basis of what the world is.”

“I don’t know how you extract yourself from that.”



On Insurrection as Threat to Democracy

“Anytime you have a mob willing to overpower and injure people to get inside the Capitol to overwhelm and harm Congressional representatives, American democracy has a problem. And parts of those mobs were the very people whose jobs it is to represent or uphold that democracy is incredibly worrying.”

“Historians of the U.S. South or the U.S., broadly speaking, have a great deal to say right now. We’ve seen precursors of this in our academic work. I am flabbergasted to see the escalation in this contemporary moment. To my mind I think back to the Wilmington coup of 1898 in which a mob overthrew democratically elected municipal government in coastal North Carolina and installed their own government that had run on the white supremacy campaigns of the 1890s. I think of mobs during the desegregation era who were willing to attack and threaten school children in their rage at Supreme Court rulings. And I think of spectacle lynchings over and over again, the big kind of mass lynchings that had a carnival atmosphere in which people recited psalms, recited patriotic songs, sold lemonade.”

“This is an escalation of things we’ve seen in the past. It’s not a departure from past patterns. But it’s important to keep in mind in that past, these things didn’t just threaten American democracy, they harmed it. They hampered it. They threatened to break it. And inaction on the part of local governments and the federal government was taken as approval and encouragement.”

On Racial Double Standards

“The police were caught flat-footed in a way that makes no sense given the reports we’d seen in recent days. The FBI knew there was trouble was coming.”

“If these had been black or brown people, what we would have seen would have been seriously, remarkably different. People are citing the summer protests, the response to the George Floyd and Breanna Taylor protests as the counter example. In which damage to property was seen as equivalent to or beyond the harm of damage to life.”

“Many authorities work on racial scripts. Those scripts have been produced and intensified over time.”

“We see these linkings over and over of blackness and criminality, of brownness and illegality, and of Muslim as threat. Some authorities are so quick to see what’s not there to make those links, that they overlook what is there.”

“A right-wing militia threatened to kidnap the governor of Michigan, and that didn’t signal that we have a problem with political violence in relation to Trumpism that needed serious addressing.”

On Fixing Democracy

“Attempts at reconciliation without doing serious repair work and without a reckoning on who’s responsible for what, are likely to create more disfunction. What’s going to happen next is still an open question. What needs to happen if we are going to get to a new, more productive, less dysfunctional place in our politics is a serious reckoning with how these recent moments came to pass, and the culpability for the people who encouraged, incited or enabled (it.)”

On Whether the GOP may Change

“It’s good to remember we haven’t always had the Democratic party and Republican party as our main parties or our only parties. Our politics have evolved before. They’ve incorporated stronger third parties and weaker third parties. We have a hard time imagining other realities, but parties, they do come and go, or they do change so much internally that they become something else. Likely? Perhaps not. But possible? Sure.”

“It’s important to keep in mind that these claims of election fraud that had currency … are really tied to people’s shock and dismay that efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans and other people of color didn’t work as effectively as they have in the past.

“The rage at the fraud is actually an indignation of voting working more the way it’s supposed to. Historically, attempts to disenfranchise have been backed up with violence – political violence usually directed at the group trying to participate. The departure here ... is that the political violence was directed at the government itself.”



On Preventing President Trump from Seeking Future Public Office

“The right to vote requires a reasonable but not unlimited set of options. Citizens don’t have the right to violate the rights of others. Citizens don’t have the right to elect whomever they want. We typically have a limited set of choices. We don’t have the right to elect a child or a foreigner to the presidency, for example. So our rights to participate in a democracy aren’t set back if we can’t elect people who have worked to undermine the electoral process.”

“People don’t have the right to seek office. They have a right not to be excluded. People who have used their power to undermine the electoral office, which I think it’s quite clear the president has, have demonstrated they won’t exercise power well. They won’t exercise power in the interest of the citizens.”

“Because of that, via their actions, they’ve relinquished any legitimate complaint they might have about being kept or excluded from political office.”

On how Georgia Senate Elections Provide Hope for Democracy

“Probably the best news we’ve had for democracy in the past several weeks is the election outcome in Georgia, and that’s not a partisan issue because the Democrats won, even if I may think that. It’s clear that at least in the Senate, the leadership in the Senate … have taken that as a message about the usefulness of an ideology that completely rejects the validity of other party when Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot.”

“The fact that those two Republican senators lost in Georgia, when they were already holding a seat … is an incredibly good thing from the perspective of democracy because it says ‘look, this is a strategy that might not prove useful.’ The best we can hope for is that we see other election outcomes like that.”

“It’s not about partisanship. But if we see Republicans who do acknowledge the legitimacy of their opponents be successful, if we see leaders running for office who do that, that will be the best kind of news we can get.”

“If only one party is willing to acknowledge the victories of their opponents, then that party itself will have an interest in shifting its own position. And then we’re in serious trouble.”

On the President’s Superpower, and Whether it’s Transferable

“We have a president, the leader of a political party, not a fringe member … but the leader of a party, saying that the sky isn’t blue but that it’s pink, and everybody going along with that. The import of that cannot be (overstated). The big question I suppose we’ll have is what happens post-Trump? Whether the other people, the career politicians who might rise to take his place, will be as willing to engage in that kind of politics? It is one of Donald Trump’s superpowers – he’s able to speak about things that aren’t true as if they are true, and seem impervious to all the normal emotions that go along with that. It’s not clear to me that another political actor will be able to do the same thing.”

“I think what we’ve seen over the last four years and in particular over the last three months is just how important a role political leadership plays in these kinds of moments.”

On Post-Factual Era In GOP

“In 2008 when Obama won by a significant margin and Democrats took a 60-vote majority in the Senate, there was all sorts of things written about how the Republican party would change fundamentally. They had a very successful election in 2010, and not much changed at all. I think that rather than there being a fundamental break, I think the most we can hope for is a kind of an electoral message that the strategies they’ve employed over the last five years under the leadership of Donald Trump will not be successful without him. That could lead to a change in the strategies the party employs. To me that’s the most optimistic scenario about what can happen. I think the idea that the party is going to fracture or it’s going to face some grand denouement is wrong.”

The experts:

Alexander Kirshner
Alexander Kirshner is an associate professor of political science at Duke University. His expertise includes antidemocratic opposition to democratic government, democratic revolutions and the value of loyal opposition. He is the author of the book, “A Theory of Militant Democracy: The Ethics of Combatting Political Extremism.”

Adriane Lentz-Smith
Adriane Lentz-Smith is associate professor and associate chair in Duke's department of history, where she teaches courses on the civil rights movement, Black lives and modern America. A scholar of African American history and 20th century U.S. history, she is writing a book about police violence during the twilight of the civil rights era.

Darrell Miller
Darrell Miller is a law professor who specializes in civil rights, constitutional law, civil procedure and state and local government law at Duke University. He also co-directs the Center for Firearms Law at Duke Law School. His scholarship on the Second Amendment has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.