Riot at the U.S. Capitol, one year later

Political scientist Rogers Smith shares five things to keep in mind as the country looks back on Jan. 6, 2021, while trying to move forward.

Supporters of Donald Trump scale a wall at the U.S. Capitol as Trump flags wave
Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (Image: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

It’s been one year since a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the United States Capitol in a bid to overturn the results of the presidential election. Since then, hundreds of the rioters have faced charges for their actions, and a bipartisan House committee is actively investigating the attack. Penn Today spoke with political scientist Rogers Smith as the anniversary approached, and he discussed five things to keep in mind as the country looks back on that day while trying to move forward.

The riot was part of a concerted effort to overturn the election results

The rally that turned into an invasion of the Capitol was a product of a whole set of concerted efforts by President Trump and his supporters to see if some way could be found to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. This is not to say that President Trump actively planned to have the rally turn into an invasion of the Capitol. But he definitely wanted a rally that would bring pressure to bear to get Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress, as well as state legislators, to pursue any of a number of routes that his advisors had identified for overturning the election. 

It was part of a concerted effort to overturn the result of a presidential election of the sort that we’ve almost never seen before.

The attack was the most serious effort to overturn the results of a presidential election since 1876

In the contested election of 1876, there was a successful Republican effort to overturn the results of the popular vote by making decisions on how Electoral College votes would be allocated. But that was done by a special, congressionally created commission, and it also was not accompanied as this one was by the arousing of popular pressures to turn violence on the Congress.

Even when southern states seceded after the election of Lincoln and prepared for war in 1860, they did not dispute that Lincoln had won the presidential election. They maintained that his victory put the government in hands they regarded as hostile, and so they seceded, but they didn’t engage in violent efforts to prevent the election itself from being certified.

This is the first time we’ve had a mix of lawful and unlawful efforts, including violence, to overturn the result of a presidential election. What the Republicans did in 1876 was highly questionable, but it was through lawful means.

Since Jan. 6, there’s been an effort to foster false revisionist histories of what happened

This is comparable to the post-Civil War revisionist histories that tried to claim that the war was not at all about slavery but about northern aggression against states’ rights. What we’re getting now are stories that the Trump people present acted peacefully, that they were treated brutally by the Capitol Police and are being unfairly punished now, and that any lawless violence was the result of Antifa infiltrators, not Trump people.

This is a false revisionist history, but the pro-southern false revisionist history about the Civil War prevailed through much of the country for the first two-thirds of the 20th century and still prevails in many hearts and minds. So, this false revisionist history that’s being propagated is in real danger of taking hold in substantial parts of the country, which doesn’t bode well for the future of our elections.

Riot police hold their shields in front of the U.S. Capitol, lit up at night, as a man with an American flag looks on
Police stand guard after a day of riots at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Image: AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Trump supporters have launched a two-pronged offensive

The offensive includes a heightened cultural war that’s come to center on bans on teaching critical race theory, and that’s accompanied by a political war to adopt new election laws and to elect or appoint new election officials who will be hostile to likely Democratic voters. The point of the culture war is to raise a sense that liberals and progressives supported by Democrats are really dangerous to American children and America as a whole. That makes it seem more legitimate to have election laws and election officials that will prevent people with ‘dangerous’ views from voting and putting similarly ‘dangerous’ people into power.

Together these developments create a real threat that in future elections; if the popular vote winner is a Democrat, election officials will seek to overturn that result, even in the case of presidential elections. 

Beware the most dangerous clause in the U.S. Constitution

I think as a result of all that, today the most dangerous clause in the Constitution is Article 2, Section 1, which says each state shall appoint in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct a number of electors. This clause provides unfortunately plausible constitutional authority for doing what President Trump urged Republican-controlled state legislators to do in 2020: To choose the electors supporting the Republican presidential candidate, regardless of the popular vote winner in the state. Now, that didn’t happen in 2020. But with new election officials and a heightened sense of the danger of a Democratic candidate in the eyes of many Americans as a result of this ongoing culture war, there is an increased likelihood that Republican legislators might feel that they were entitled to overturn a popular vote for the good of the country. And the reality is that the Constitution just does not require that the popular vote winner in a state receive the state’s Electoral College votes. That’s now a deeply entrenched American tradition, but it’s not in the Constitution, and the power of the state legislatures is. So, there is a real danger that some state legislatures might seek to override the results in their states if a Democrat wins the popular vote against Trump or a Trumplike Republican candidate in 2024. 

If the election were given to a candidate who clearly was not the popular vote winner in this manner, It would be seen as illegitimate by the supporters of the popular vote winner, and we could see a real breakdown in the American political system, possibly even violence amounting to a kind of civil war.

Obviously, I hope none of this will happen, but it is the legacy of the denial of what happened last Jan. 6. The spread of revisionist histories, tied into this culture war and used to justify efforts to get partisan control of election systems, makes what was once unthinkable into a real possibility. I think as we reflect on Jan. 6, 2021 today, we have to face up to that danger. Americans can rise to the challenge of meeting it, but to do so we must recognize that the danger is all too real.