The January 6 attempted insurrection of the U.S. legislative branch by President Trump’s supporters seeking to change the outcome of the 2020 presidential election had different contributing factors which present long-term challenges to American society. Among them, leaders will need to counter the mistruths and conspiracy theories that deny American voters the arena for debating the same set of facts, in addition to rebuilding faith in U.S. institutions, the media and the American Dream itself. Education must play a role in this endeavor in addition to a variety of measures aimed at restoring trust – – among them, government support to rural, blue collar America and a presidential pardon of Mr. Trump.
While the former president encouraged his followers to descend on Washington for the January 6 “Save America” rally and later incited a good many of them to storm the U.S. Capitol, the resulting violence had an additional cause. The melee was the culmination of Trump voters being fed a steady stream of misinformation that their identity, way of life and president were under mortal assault and being stolen from them by an elite class of citizens who turned their backs on America’s rural and working-class people.
While this disinformation campaign was years in the making, it was ramped up in the weeks leading up to the November 3 election over allegations of voter fraud and later went into overdrive beginning in the early hours of November 4 with then-President Trump’s false claims of a rigged election.
As the investigation into January 6 progresses, we are learning more about the Capitol Hill rioters and their motivations. They were a collection of Q-Anon adherents, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, anti-government paramilitary group members and other individuals not affiliated with extremist organizations yet disaffected with the outcome of the presidential election nonetheless.
The conduct of these groups was outrageous and anti-American. As of now over 135 of the rioters have been arrested and authorities are searching for an additional 400 suspects. Some will be charged with sedition and may face up to two decades in jail. Currently there is intelligence that members of some of these extremist groups intend to mount further acts of political violence.
The remaining rioters who have yet to be arrested in addition to those planning future acts of aggression must be brought to justice and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This will require capabilities in law enforcement, surveillance and counterterrorism now and going forward.
Just as concerning, there were also disaffected Trump supporters who were not members of hate or paramilitary groups yet still participated in the storming of the Capitol Building. From what we know thus far, these supporters of Mr. Trump had been radicalized from disinformation and conspiracy theories peddled by the former president, his supporters and their increasingly bellicose, partisan news sources, most of them social media based.
These information sources have played to the fears and beliefs of many Trump supporters, contributing to the tragic reality that three quarters of Republicans today do not believe that Joe Biden was elected to the presidency fair and square.
Sadly, many of these Trump supporters think that they face an existential threat from what they consider to be an illegitimate president (Mr. Biden) who represents an elite that is intent on destroying their personal freedoms, economic fortunes, social values and even Christianity itself. They fear the elite’s policies on jobs, immigration, gun rights, abortion and other cultural issues, and they believe that their world will be forever changed by an imminent takeover of America by big tech and the far left.
These fears carry apocalyptic tones and are intensified with feelings of grievance, with many believing that their leader (Mr. Trump) and their rights have been taken away from them via a fraudulent election.
This perceived threat helped to motivate the January 6 rioters to fight like “patriots” in an attempt to take back their government, save Mr. Trump’s presidency and preserve their way of life.
While many of these fellow Americans have been misled by contrived stories and mistruths, they believe – – with some justification – – that they have been left behind by economic and technological trends sweeping the country, leaving them with worse outcomes in health, employment and financial stability.
They also believe that their concerns have not been heard by American leaders over the past four decades.
It bears saying that many of these Americans found confirmation in their concerns over job security and immigration when they learned of some of President Biden’s initial actions as president, such as his revoking the permit of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and his executive orders concerning immigration.
While elections have consequences and allow new leaders to pursue their policies, President Biden must use government assistance and presidential leadership to demonstrate to Trump supporters that he is not out to harm their well-being as many of their siloed news sources allege. This will need to involve a sustained commitment to improving conditions in rural, working class America to address unemployment and job creation; education and training; needed infrastructure upgrades (broadband, better schools, etc.); and improved access to services, such as healthcare.
Yet, there needs to be a broader effort to get to the root as to why so many have been susceptible to conspiracy theories and online manipulation. While social media companies need to improve their ability to monitor digital skullduggery, more needs to be done to help people think for themselves, honor facts and call out “BS” when their leaders and news sources peddle fiction.
Self-government cannot work without an involved and informed citizenry. In part, it requires an educated electorate.
While democracy does not and should not require voters to have advanced degrees in politics, voters ought to know something about their system of government, public heritage and civic tradition. A basic understanding of American civics would have informed Mr. Trump’s supporters of the folly involved with heading to Washington to protest and ultimately block Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College votes and election victory. Put simply, changing the Electoral College results – – which had already been certified by the states – – was not in the power of then-Vice President Pence nor that of Congress.
A public that is not steeped in an understanding of its own political traditions, norms and past is rudderless and susceptible to being misled.
However, more steps are needed. Citizens must be trained to spot online misinformation, propaganda, deep fakes and other fraudulent news and reports. School kids and professionals alike need to be equipped with the skills to think critically, apply analysis as well as research issues and fact check. This training needs to involve an ethical component that emphasizes a commitment to the truth.
In the shorter term, the partisan rancor in Washington needs to cool down at a time when our leaders must focus on the COVID crisis. While some viewed the January 13 impeachment of former President Trump as necessary to convey the serious nature of his misconduct on January 6, the trial in the U.S. Senate is ill advised, has constitutional questions and will inflame tensions at a critical time when the Congress and new President must work together to address the worsening pandemic and its economic fallout.
An acquittal in the Senate trial would likely strengthen Trump politically and raise his profile, possibly worsening the country’s divide in the process.
Although improbable, votes to convict Mr. Trump and bar him from running for federal office again would engender a sense of disenfranchisement among his tens of millions of supporters. This scenario would provide fodder for various conspiracy tales and further erode trust in our political institutions.
For the sake of the stability of American society, President Biden should issue a preemptive pardon to Mr. Trump before the Senate trial begins. Whether or not Mr. Trump accepts the pardon is immaterial – – presidential pardons are final and the last word. Such an outcome, although imperfect, would prevent another divisive impeachment trial and allow Congress and the new president to move on with the nation’s business.
Without question, a presidential pardon would generate controversy by granting Mr. Trump a political lifeline – – preserving his eligibility to run for the presidency again – – and anger those who seek retribution for Mr. Trump’s actions on January 6. Yet, it may be that the best punishment for Mr. Trump going forward is his tarnished legacy and the judgment of history.
More importantly, a presidential pardon by Mr. Biden would probably help lower the temperature in the country, at least for a while.
It may just also serve as an initial sign to Mr. Trump’s supporters that President Biden does not seek the destruction of their leader and way of life.