After the startling events of Wednesday, when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building, Texas A&M professors said the incidents were unprecedented but not necessarily unexpected given the events that led up to the riot.
Violent demonstrators supporting President Donald Trump occupied the U.S. Capitol as Congress met in a joint session to confirm president-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 win. Trump, who led the “Save America Rally” at The Ellipse at noon, encouraged his supporters to march to Capitol Hill. After 1 p.m., the demonstrators were fighting past police and breaching the building, forcing the congressional proceedings to halt, according to The Associated Press. Several hours later, the National Guard was sent in, and Trump released a video asking his supporters to go home.
Late in the evening, Congress reconvened to finish counting Electoral College votes.
A&M political science professor Kirby Goidel said Wednesday’s events are not surprising given remarks that Trump and other leaders made in recent days.
“He encouraged people to march on Washington,” said Goidel, the former director of the Texas A&M Public Policy Research Institute. “He told them that the election was stolen. It’s shocking as you’re watching it, but when you think about the things that led to it … we’ve been building to this point.”
Goidel said Wednesday’s events were unprecedented largely because past incidents of insurrection or larger political and social movements have never had the sitting president as a driving force at the center of the situation.
“I can’t think of any historic parallel, because I can’t think of any time that a president has behaved this way,” he explained. “It’s not because people are trying to fight injustice in the civil rights movement or in Vietnam. ... It’s actually one of our leaders, and that makes this very, very different.”
Trump’s rhetoric is likely to blame for Wednesday’s events, A&M communication associate professor Jennifer Mercieca said. Mercieca is an expert on presidential rhetoric and author of the book Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.
While the president did not lead demonstrators physically, Mercieca said he led them rhetorically, telling his supporters at the “Save America Rally” that they should go to the Capitol and use force to seek justice.
“The show of force that he asked for is exactly what he got today,” Mercieca said. She said Trump inciting violence is typical, pointing to past events when he has told his rally crowds to physically harm protestors and condoned violence done in his name when reporters were threatened and harassed.
Mercieca said Trump makes more sense as a demagogue — a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power — than a president. She added that Trump often speaks of his opposers in dehumanizing ways that most presidents only use when trying to rally a nation around an enemy during a war.
Former President George W. Bush released a statement calling yesterday’s events “a sickening and heartbreaking sight.”
“Insurrection could do grave damage to our Nation and reputation,” his statement reads. “In the United States of America, it is the fundamental responsibility of every patriotic citizen to support the rule of law.”
In Biden’s remarks early Wednesday afternoon, the president-elect said the actions of Trump’s supporters were not a protest but an insurrection.
Mercieca said she agrees with Bush and Biden on their characterization of the event.
“There’s a difference between the average Trump supporter, Republican Party member, and those people who we saw today at the Capitol,” she said. “There’s a right-wing fringe, not a part of the mainstream, that has glommed on to the Trump campaign. For five years or more, they have been trying to foment insurrection in the United States. And they’ve been taking advantage of some of these rhetorical appeals that Donald Trump uses in order to achieve their own goals, which aren’t necessarily Trump’s goals.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who spearheaded challenging Arizona’s electoral votes on Wednesday, has faced criticism in light of the riots.
According to The Texas Tribune, Texas Democrats U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro and his brother Julián Castro, a former presidential candidate, asked Cruz — also a former presidential candidate — to step down on Twitter.
“He has conducted himself shamelessly, and I think he has done this because he believes it’s the only way, the only chance that he has to win the Republican nomination for president,” Joaquin Castro said from the Capitol in a virtual interview with The Texas Tribune on Wednesday.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote on Twitter that “Texans should hold Sen. Ted Cruz accountable for this fiasco,” according to the Texas Tribune.
Cruz released a statement condemning the riots at the Capitol. According to The Associated Press, the objection to the results in Arizona was rejected 93-6 late Wednesday in the U.S. Senate. Cruz was among the six senators who voted to reject Arizona’s certified vote.
Moving forward, Goidel said that Wednesday’s situation likely will lead to discussions about how to avoid such problems in the future.
“You can’t have a democracy where people show up and try to overturn the results because they don’t like the results; that just doesn’t work,” he said. “So we’re going to have to think about what our process looks like.”