CMC professors respond to the pressing political issues of our time

View of the United States Capitol Building in DC
January 8, 2021

As the Presidential Inauguration approaches on Jan. 20, and the U.S. government recovers from the attack on the Capitol, we asked CMC professors to reflect on Trump’s legacy, the opportunities for the Biden White House now that the Democrats control Congress, and how the country might move forward as the power structure in Washington D.C. transitions from the Trump to the Biden administration. As 2021 unspools, our professors will continue to respond to the pressing issues of our time. Email your questions, and we will attempt to get answers from our experts, who span the fields of politics, government, economics, and history.

Derik Smith, Associate Professor of Literature & Tamara Venit-Shelton, Associate Professor of History

Derik Smith
Associate Professor of Literature

Tamara Venit-Shelton
Associate Professor of History

Q. What can history tell us about the pro-Trump mob violence we witnessed at the Capitol?

Smith: On January 6, it was difficult to ignore the ghost of the American past as it stormed into the Capitol building along with the rioting mob. Watching video of a Black security officer being chased through the halls of the Capitol, some observers might have sensed the specter of the Wilmington insurrection of 1898. During that desecration of democracy, a white nationalist regiment massacred dozens of Black people while unseating the duly elected state government of North Carolina. The insurrectionists believed that the multi-racial government partly led by Black politicians was the product of a fraudulent process, and that they had a constitutionally mandated responsibility to violently depose the sitting legislature. There are, of course, significant differences between the events of 2021 and those of 1898. Most importantly, the insurrection in North Carolina was a success, and some of its perpetrators went on to become revered figures of American history. In fact, a statue of one of the orators who fomented the Wilmington massacre still stands in the Crypt of the Capitol building that was mobbed on January 6. While the haphazard and unsuccessful raid of the Capitol was put down, and was far less deadly, it was the haunting reminder of an American past that will not die. For some, it is this history that comes to mind when the ghost at the heart of Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, cries, “All of it is now. It is always now.”

Venit-Shelton: Politicians and pundits often reference contested presidential elections like that of 1876 (Tilden v. Hayes) or 2000 (Gore v. Bush), but these past controversies bear little resemblance to what has transpired in 2020-21. More relevant to our contemporary crisis may be the historical examples of the Wilmington (North Carolina) Insurrection of 1898 and the Jaybird-Woodpecker War of 1889 (Texas). In both instances, white supremacists obstructed Constitutional electoral processes through mob violence. In the case of Wilmington, insurrectionists successfully overturned the results of a lawful election that had brought into power a biracial governing coalition. In the case of the Jaybird-Woodpecker War, white supremacists, with the support of Texas Rangers, terrorized Black politicians and cemented white control of local offices for decades. These bloody insurrections, animated by racist ideologies and designed to perpetuate institutionalized racism, are examples of coups d' etat carried out on American soil. They were acts of domestic terrorism that aimed to obstruct democracy and undermine democratic institutions. And they were emblematic of the regime of racial terror that characterized Jim Crow America in the decades after Reconstruction. Over his four years in office, Donald Trump has signaled his support of white supremacist organizations like the Proud Boys in countless ways and has used their racial animus to amplify his baseless allegations of voter fraud. Not surprisingly, members of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6 brandished a Confederate flag and bore other symbols of white supremacy. Connecting our contemporary crisis to the historical examples reminds us that Reconstruction remains incomplete in America. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Our work is not done.”

Jennifer Taw, Associate Professor of Government

Jennifer Taw
Associate Professor of Government

Q. How did the insurrection play overseas? How will it affect America’s image as a world leader and our ability to influence other countries as they pursue democracy and a free economy? What are the national security implications? In non-democratic nations, how will the images of chaos in our nation’s capital fuel their anti-American propaganda?

Countless media reports overseas showed the images from January 6, leading to a variety of responses, from European leaders chiding President Trump for fomenting violence to Iranian and Chinese leaders indicating that the U.S. cannot claim to hold the moral high ground. The U.S. had already suffered a significant loss of soft power and reputation abroad over the past four years, and more recently as a result of our failures in the face of the pandemic. That our friends and allies have seen that U.S. policy can turn on a dime as new executives are elected does not bode well for future negotiations. Anticipated Senate resistance to presidential foreign policy endeavors will likely force Biden to rely on executive orders, which the international community rightly understands are weak and prone to change. That the U.S. has withdrawn from global commitments and international organizations shows how quickly it can step away from responsibilities. That the U.S. refused refugees, undertook the "Muslim travel ban," and vilified migrants has tarnished our reputation and put the lie to our aspiration to be a "melting pot." The new Biden administration will venture into a world that does not trust the United States and will have to work very hard, against domestic resistance, to rebuild America's reputation.

Lisa Koch, Assistant Professor of Government

Lisa Koch
Assistant Professor of Government

Q. Can administration officials prevent President Trump from using nuclear weapons?

Speaker Pelosi made headlines, even during this headline-crowded week, when she reported that she had spoken to General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about how to prevent the president from ordering a nuclear strike. However, that is simply not how nuclear launch authority works in the United States. No one can legally countermand a president’s order to use nuclear weapons, including the Joint Chiefs. The ability for a single leader to launch nuclear weapons can make deterrence – instilling so much fear in your enemies they don’t dare use nuclear weapons against you – more credible. But the flip side of this coin is that concentrating launch authority in one person is risky: there is no path to take away that authority short of removing the president from office. If the military, for example, were to prevent the president from launching nuclear weapons, that would not only be mutiny against the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, it would also cast enormous doubt on the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Any use of nuclear weapons from any country is a horrifying prospect, and I believe most US officials would want to prevent a nuclear launch. But the system the United States has in place today means that when it comes to nuclear launch, it’s entirely in the hands of the president.

Andrew Busch, Crown Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow

Andrew Busch
Crown Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow

Q. What does the Capitol riot tell us about challenges facing American politics?

The riot in Washington on January 6 was not fundamentally about white supremacy, though there were clearly some white supremacists in the crowd. Along with some people waving Confederate flags were many people waving American flags, many people waving Trump 2020 flags, and even someone in a Viking costume. A Black Capitol Police officer was chased through the halls; a white Capitol Police officer died of his injuries. The common theme of the day was not white supremacy but the narcissism and demagoguery of Donald Trump and the danger of mob rule by extremists who have decided their favorite cause overrides the imperatives of the rule of law.

Consequently, one challenge facing American politics will be to tamp down the opportunities for demagoguery. This will mean, against the trends of the last century, finding ways to reduce the outsized role of the presidency in American life, restore some significant role for intermediate institutions in the presidential nominating system rather than entrusting all power to primary voters, and bolster respect for the values of humility and self-control among office-holders and office-seekers.

A related challenge will be to reduce the demand for demagoguery. The “cocooning” of Americans in media and social media bunkers, where they hear only amplified and frantic versions of what they already believe, is a fertile environment for even well-meaning people of all ideological persuasions to be whipped into a frenzy over things that just aren’t true, whether it be that Trump actually won in a landslide or that the coronavirus vaccine is a part of a plot by Bill Gates or that Trump was a Russian agent or that American police butcher Black people as a matter of course. These myths are powerful tools, building organizations, spurring fundraising, and inspiring votes; they also excite hatred and anger, and can lead to desperation and ultimately violence.

A third challenge is to restore some of the basic norms of American democracy, one of which is a fundamental recognition that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and for democracy to work you have to take your turn. Another is that a violent assault on lawful authority is not a legitimate protest tactic, it is a revolution. And when it is normalized in a society that still has recourse to democratic redress, everyone gets hurt. Both of these principles were unacceptably undermined on January 6, but they have also been under attack for years from a variety of sources. Trump and many of his supporters refused to accept defeat in 2020; many Democrats refused to accept defeat in 2016, and there were even riots in Washington on inauguration day in January 2017. A band of Trump’s supporters violently stormed the Capitol to stop the electoral vote count; armed anti-lockdown protesters occupied the Michigan state capitol last May; radical forces, sometimes including BLM and Antifa, spent months last year burning large swaths of several American cities, systematically assaulting law enforcement personnel, attacking a federal courthouse in Portland nightly, establishing “autonomous zones” (i.e. “The United States ends here”), and besieging the White House with sufficient force that the Secret Service felt compelled to remove the president to a secure bunker. In 2018, leftist protesters swarmed the Capitol and tried to force their way into the Senate chamber to stop the vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Insurrection, perhaps—but insurrection, all of it.

This is not a false equivalency. It’s just an equivalency, unless we are willing to suppose (as I am not) that attacking the Capitol is fundamentally different from besieging the White House, and forcibly occupying the Senate floor to stop the electoral count is fundamentally different from trying to forcibly occupy the Senate floor to stop a Supreme Court nomination. When we rationalize, excuse, and embrace rule by mob, we open the door to general disorder. When we open the door, we can’t be too surprised by whatever walks through. What walked through on January 6 was ugly indeed. Who knows what might walk through next, before we break our downward spiral?

Donald Trump has significantly deepened our national divisions, never more than in the Capitol riot. But he is perhaps even more a symptom than a cause. He will soon be gone from the White House, but we will still have big problems on our hands. We need a major adjustment of our thinking about the presidency, about the purpose of politics, about the value of certain key virtues in our office-holders, about our willingness to hear and consider news we don’t like. We need to reaffirm our commitment to accepting defeat as well as victory. We need to rediscover the truth that the rule of law is not optional in a workable free society, and cannot easily be downgraded only selectively. No president can do these things for us, but perhaps the shock of January 6 will motivate us to introspection, and action.

Andrew Sinclair '08, Assistant Professor of Government

Andrew Sinclair '08
Assistant Professor of Government

Q. How did the response to this event compare to the response to the Black Lives Matter protests from the summer of 2020?

The differences in treatment between the participants in this event and the Black Lives Matter protests have already been the subject of considerable comment (see here). On Thursday (Jan. 7), President-elect Biden said, “You can’t tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesters yesterday they wouldn’t have been treated very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol.” This is a complicated comparison, though, because it is also inappropriate to describe what took place on January 6th as an ordinary protest, or to appear to describe it in parallel terms. Along with many Democrats making similar points, Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger called it a “coup attempt” and Republican Senator Mitt Romney stated it was “an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States.” Whatever the term, this was a failure to adequately defend Congress from an attack while it was carrying out a core constitutional function, not simply a tepid response to a protest.

The treatment of participants is not the only policing-related question arising from this event. Additionally, the need to defend the Capitol restarted a debate over the viability, necessity, or meaning of the movement to “defund” or “abolish” the police. (Students interested in better understanding what advocates actually argue may wish to read Gimbel and Muhammad [2019] and some of the resources an advocacy group in Minneapolis, MPD150, has put together.) Furthermore, from the perspective of someone who studies public administration, the most interesting aspect of policing is the necessity of extensive discretion afforded to both public managers and the front-line officers. Accountability requires understanding who has done what in the use of this discretion. It is too early to have a complete picture of exactly what happened, but it is important to think about political control in this story. While the Capitol Police chief has resigned, along with the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, I will be looking closely at reporting about the decisions of the elected officials and agency leaders related to this event.

Jack Pitney, Roy P. Crocker Professor of Politics

John J. Pitney, Jr.
Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics

Q. What does Georgia flipping blue tell us about the future of the Republican party?

Much of the media commentary took it for granted that Georgia has always been a Republican state. That's not remotely true. The state never elected a Republican governor until 2002, with the victory of Sonny Perdue (a cousin of defeated Senator David Perdue). The Legislature didn't go all-GOP until 2004. The reason for the shift is the migration of working-class white voters from the Democrats to the GOP. But political alignments are never permanent. Since then, there has been a growth in the Hispanic and Asian populations, and a shift of college-educated professionals to the Democrats. So, the state may be moving back to the Democrats – but the election of an African American and a Jewish senator shows that Georgia Democrats of the 2020s are radically different from the white segregationists who once dominated that state party. Something similar happened in Virginia, and may soon happen in Texas and other states. For the past 20 years or so, the GOP has counted on the South as its base. That's starting to change.

Jennifer Taw, Associate Professor of Government

Jennifer Taw
Associate Professor of Government

Q. In the aftermath of the electoral college objections, how will the topic of voter irregularities and fraud continue to influence future elections and public sentiment/faith in them?

Polls show that just about a quarter of Republicans believe the election was free and fair. This has been a while coming. The disinformation spread about election fraud took root in fertile ground prepared by years of baseless GOP claims about the need for voter ID and, for eight years, Trump's own false suggestions that President Obama had not been eligible for the presidency. The events of January 6 may have been shocking, but they were the tip of the spear; about half of Republicans approved of the violent effort to "stop the steal" by overrunning Congress. Moreover, as Congress reconvened that evening, several Republican Senators and over 100 Republican members of the House reiterated the lies about election irregularities. Meanwhile, Fox News, OANN, and other outlets offered conspiracy theories about the mob being infiltrated by Antifa and continued to affirm the president's claims that the election was stolen. This narrative is perpetuated because it is politically useful, but it is also destructive as it erodes a subsection of Americans' trust in their own government and electoral system. Such erosion leads not only to the kind of outrage that manifested violently on the 6th, but also to events such as those that transpired in Pennsylvania a day earlier, when Republicans refused to seat a Democratic state senator because they did not accept the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's ruling on accepting certain ballots. Going forward, we can expect to see election results disputed and intensified struggle over voting access versus voting security.

Lily Geismer, Associate Professor of History, and Jennifer Taw, Associate Professor of Government

Lily Geismer
Associate Professor of History

Jennifer Taw
Associate Professor of Government

Q. What are your expectations or predictions for President-elect Biden’s biggest priorities in his first 100 days?

Geismer: Joe Biden confronts an interlocking set of political, economic, social, and health crises perhaps paralleled only by when Franklin Roosevelt took office at the height of the Great Depression. Historians are notoriously bad at predicting the future, but with a combination of the past and Biden’s own statements and his cabinet selections as a guide, I would anticipate a series of short steps to address the immediate economic crisis and reverse some of the actions of the Trump administration. First, the senate majority gives Biden the opportunity to move immediately for passage of the $2,000 stimulus checks (which came up frequently in the Georgia elections), more unemployment benefits relief for small businesses, and more money to state and local governments to address both the COVID-19 and economic crises. In addition, I would expect things like ending the Trump tax cuts, reentering the Paris climate accords, the revocation of the Muslim ban, making DACA permanent, and potentially electoral reform such as the extension of the Voting Rights Act and cancellation of student debt. While it may be difficult to accomplish all of this in a hundred days, the combination of the Georgia senate election and the Capitol riots this week might make some of this agenda more achievable.

Taw: President-elect Biden is facing tremendous challenges, the most important of which is the global pandemic's effects at home. With very slim legislative majorities, he nonetheless will need to step up vaccine distribution and create an inclusive public health narrative while encouraging Congress to provide substantive assistance for people suffering the economic devastation the virus has wrought (this despite the expectation that the GOP will revive its concerns about the U.S. national debt). He will have to explicitly address the events on January 6, doubts about election security, and the devastating political divide in the country that affects everything from education to policing. In the meantime, he has immediate foreign policy concerns to address: Russia hacked the U.S. government; we are in a trade war with China and have amplified tensions over Taiwan; we must mend the rifts with NATO and our Asian allies; we need to sign the New START (nuclear arms reduction) treaty; we need to come to some sort of resolution with respect to the ongoing negotiations in Afghanistan; and we need to renegotiate the JCPOA (nuclear deal) with Iran. America should also step up and contribute leadership and guidance on pandemic response and preparedness, as well as on climate change; it should retake the lead in sustainable technology; and it should affirm its trust in and support for global institutions. President-elect Biden has a lot on his plate.

Zachary Courser ’99, assistant professor of government

Zachary Courser ’99
Assistant Professor of Government

Q. What is the 25thAmendment? Has it ever been invoked?

There are political and constitutional questions about suspending a President’s powers and duties for anything less than medical incapacities such as heart attack or stroke. The origins and history of the 25th Amendment have consistently focused on President’s death or medical incapacity, not on more subjective questions of a President having an unbalanced mind. While the 25th Amendment leaves determining presidential incapacity to the Vice President, a majority of the cabinet, and ultimately Congress, it is not easy to establish without the President’s consent. Moreover it is not meant to be an alternative to the impeachment process, but rather a suspension of powers and duties in case of incapacity.

Article II, Section 6 sets out conditions for when the Vice President may assume the Presidency. However, it provides no definition of when a President is considered unable to perform his duties nor designates who would make the determination. The 25th Amendment attempts to answer who may decide the President is incapacitated by designating this power to either the President in Section 3, or to the Vice President together with a majority of “principal officers of the executive departments” in Section 4. It does not, however, define the conditions necessary for declaring a President “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Section 3 of the 25th Amendment has been invoked three times since its ratification, but Section 4 has never been.

This week there have been calls in Congress for Vice President Mike Pence to invoke Section 4 and suspend President Trump’s powers and duties as President. There have also been informal discussions reported among President Trump’s cabinet members about the possibility. Congressional leaders have stated their preference for the 25th Amendment as being the most expeditious way to stop President Trump from exercising his powers with less than two weeks left in his term. However, the procedure and politics for using it are not clear-cut.

As Section 4 has never been invoked, there will likely be many constitutional and political challenges. It already provides the President the opportunity to challenge the suspension, and a procedure that requires two-thirds of Congress to determine incapacity if there is a disagreement. A determination of incapacity by the Vice President and cabinet would technically effect an immediate suspension of the President’s powers and duties, and the suspension would continue during any presidential challenge until it was determined by Congress he could resume. However, if Trump refused to acknowledge Pence’s authority, the country could quickly be thrust into a constitutional crisis as to who was legally entitled to exercise the powers and duties of the President. Pence has already stated his opposition to invoking Section 4, and two cabinet members have announced their resignations. It is unclear whether acting cabinet secretaries qualify as “principal officers of the executive departments” under the Amendment. With such a short timeline, a likely vigorous defense from President Trump, the necessity of two-thirds of Congress to determine disputes, and the likelihood of the Supreme Court having to determine the meaning of the 25th Amendment, invoking it now to suspend the President’s powers seems fraught.


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