José Cruz, a political science professor at the University at Albany, said studying American history is like watching a country in split screen. He said people need look no further than last month as an example: insurrectionists storming the U.S. Capitol one day, only to be followed by a peaceful transition of power two weeks later.
“We need to see Jan. 6 in tandem with Jan. 20,” Cruz said Tuesday during a virtual panel discussion of UAlbany scholars on the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack. “When you review American history it’s kind of like watching a movie on a split screen: on one side you have American ugliness and on the other side you have American beauty.”
Cruz said on one side of the screen was a presidential inauguration punctuated by the first woman of color to hold national elected office being sworn in by a daughter of immigrants, while on the other side of the screen were the images of rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol.
“It’s part and parcel of who we are as much as what happened on Jan. 20 is part and parcel of who we are,” Cruz said of the ugly events of Jan. 6.
Cruz and other UAlbany scholars grappled with the causes and consequences of the riot at the Capitol, calling out former President Donald Trump for long fostering the kinds of grievances and conspiracies that played a role in nurturing an environment where the riot was possible.
Experts in history, political science, law and extremism also highlighted the difficult questions that remain in the aftermath of Jan. 6: Will the events inspire future acts of violence? Will Republican party leaders reject elements of extremism within their ranks? What impact will efforts to limit access to social media have on how extremists organize online?
“These events have shaken many out of complacency about the security of American democracy,” said Julie Novkov, a UAlbany political science professor who moderated the expert forum.
The scholars started by discussing the semantics surrounding what to even call what happened on Jan. 6, with some pointing out the fact that the mob ultimately disrupted the critical certification in Congress of the electoral college result.
“I have been tending to call it the insurrection on Jan. 6,” said Sam Jackson, who specializes in anti-government extremism.
Jackson outlined the makeup of the crowd at the capitol — a mix of explicit white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, self-style militia groups and hardcore Trump supporters — and said many people gave into the riotous mentality that emerged.
“I think there was also a large presence who were gathered on that day who weren’t necessarily planning on engaging in criminal activity ahead of time but joined in,” Jackson said, also highlighting people who showed up wearing military gear. “The coming together of these different ideologies is really notable and is perhaps a worrying sign for the new year, [and the next] few decades.”
Victor Asal, who also studies political extremism and violence, said the lies and conspiracies that led to attack on the Capitol still have purchase among many people and noted that some people could be inspired by the positive reception the rioters received in some circles.
“There are huge swaths of Americans that still buy the kinds of arguments that were being made,” Asal said. “This is domestic terrorism using violence to try to achieve its aims. The things they are saying are very likely to encourage people in the future to use terrorism.”
The panelists were highly critical of Republican political leaders, arguing most either participated in inciting rhetoric or failed to denounce it.
“The lack of condemnation of these kinds of protesters from a party, with some (elected officials) encouraging them to take these kind of behaviors to the Capitol is really very damaging to the stability of American democracy,” Asal said.
Timothy Weaver, a political scientist, emphasized the importance of the event that the rioters disrupted — counting and certifying the electoral college votes — to say the attack “wasn’t merely a riot.”
Weaver said some of the attackers also intended to assassinate members of Congress. He said the mob was ultimately inspired by a president and abetted by others in the party.
“This group was inspired by, at the time, a sitting president of the United States and abetted by many leaders of the Republican Party, and I think it’s incredibly important not to whitewash these stubborn facts,” Weaver said. “The party of Lincoln on Jan. 6 became, at least in part, the party of sedition,” Weaver said.
Historian Bruce Miroff honed in on the role that Trump played in giving a platform to grievances that had previously been sidelined in American politics. As a president that championed a paranoid style of American politics, Trump pulled views and ideas from the fringes into the center of the discourse — thanks to the fundamental power of the presidency, he said.
“This is not just or only about Donald Trump — the presidency has the visibility that makes it the central institution of American politics, so when the presidency becomes involved with paranoia that combination brings the fringe to the center,” he said. “What we saw on Jan. 6 really required the president… He gave them legitimacy. There is no legitimacy like legitimacy that comes from the presidency.”