A crowd of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, resulting in legislative evacuations and at least four deaths – a surreal, embarrassing scene that felt like a predictable finale to this whole filthy era.
There is debate over whether to label Wednesday's events a "coup d'état" (before this attack I was skeptical of throwing that term around; now I am not) but one thing is certain: the Capitol, which has been violated , has never happened in American history. There was a British raid on the Capitol during the War of 1812, but these were foreign troops, not American citizens.
A monumental question is whether we are on the verge of something much worse. Was this just a flash of violence instigated by a ruthless president – or the beginning of a very ugly and dangerous period in American history similar to the 1850s before the Civil War?
To reconsider this, I turned to Nathan Kalmoe, a political scientist at Louisiana State University and author of With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War. Kalmoe is both a historian and a political scientist, and most of his work focuses on the relationship between partisanship and violence throughout American history. So I asked him to put this moment in context and compare it to previous eras of chaos in American politics. What I really wanted to know is whether for him this is the end of something bad – or the beginning of something much bad.
The following is a slightly edited transcript of our exchange.
How unprecedented is what we have seen today in the history of American politics? What are the closest parallels?
Most people don't know how many historical parallels we have for this moment, although none are new. Our party identities are largely based on race and religion, similar to the second half of the 19th century, which was not by chance full of racist partisan violence. Political scientist Lily Mason's work on public opinion shows that these alignments reinforce partisan animosities.
A parallel within Congress itself was in the 1850s, just before the Civil War. That included dozens of violent attacks and weapons fights drawn among members of Congress, about which historian Joanne Freeman has eloquently written.
The Civil War was the most extreme example of South Democrats' rejection of elections to Lincoln's election, despite not using fraud to justify their rebellion. That violence ultimately killed three quarters of a million Americans. What many people fail to realize is that there was a significant degree of partisanship in the north during this period, including insurrection plans by high-ranking Democrats.
Violence almost erupted after the 1876 elections and the Democrats called for their own candidate to be crowned: "Tilden or blood!" President Grant called on the military to defend the U.S. Capitol, but it was ultimately not besieged.
Of course, Reconstruction and Jim Crow were full of racist violence, which, given the racial and party alignment in the South, was also partisan violence. That period spanned thousands of murders by white supremacists who killed black Republicans and their allies in order to intimidate voters and election officials. After the elections in Louisiana and North Carolina, there were even attempts to overthrow state and local governments.
A more recent case of opposite moral value was when armed Black Panthers took over California legislature in 1967.
Needless to say, we are in a very dangerous area.
You specialize in partiality and violence, but is partiality the problem here? Or are we really talking about asymmetric radicalization?
The biggest problem we face is not partisan polarization or even asymmetrical polarization. At the core of our political dysfunction is that the Republican Party has increasingly become an anti-democratic party that refuses to accept the legitimacy of its opponents or the predominance of popular sovereignty that defines a democracy.
In this way, the Republicans continued the tradition of the Southern Democrats from the 1850s. Southern white people were at the core of the Democratic Party until the Northern Democrats adopted civil rights in the mid-20th century. At that point, the southern white people gave up the national Democratic Party for the Republican Party, which welcomed them with open arms. This period included the enforcement of the suffrage law, which limited the extent to which southern white people and others disenfranchised their black neighbors. It was the first period in which the US could be viewed as a democracy.
The reform of the Republican Party nomination, the response to the first black president, the increasing sorting of social and political identities, and the end of the VRA (Voting Rights Act) protection by the Republicans in the Supreme Court got us where we are today .
The role of political elites (like Trump) and right-wing media aggressors in fueling the resentment and hysteria that led to this moment is an integral part of this story. Is this a familiar pattern in American history?
The leaders of the Republican Party have absolute responsibility for fueling these actions. Today I heard a Wisconsin Republican congressman put it: his colleagues who protested Biden's election hoped to go both ways – strengthen their base with no consequence. Well, as he and Biden said today, those words have very real consequences.
American history is littered with demagogues like Trump, but they seldom controlled a large political party and never ran the United States as president. The closest parallel is probably the southern "fire-eaters," who were rabid advocates of enslavement and secession before the civil war. They were loudly supported by their partisan press, which has some parallels to this corner of today's media landscape.
Political parties have generally used their control over the nomination process to keep the most dangerous extremists out of their top positions. The transfer of nominations to the party's voters increased the risk of levying a demagogue. That is not to say that there have never been other dangerous, racist party leaders who have done serious damage. Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson come to mind. It may be hard to say which type is more harmful, but demagogues like Trump seem to be more volatile in ways that can be maximally dangerous.
You're an expert on political media, and what I find so strange about this clash is that it's not really an ideological struggle. We have a subgroup of the country living in an alternate reality where the presidential election was stolen and they are reacting against this non-event. That part must be unprecedented, right?
You are right – this is about partisanship and other social identities like race and religion. And for Republicans, it is an incipient realization that white Christians will no longer be able to hold onto their disproportionate power.
Ideology is not a major motivational factor in public. Lots of people call themselves liberal or conservative, but these are usually alternative names for their partisanship. Most do not hold organized, consistently liberal or conservative positions, and do not really hold onto most political views over time, with a few exceptions regarding group attitudes and identities. They do not derive their views from values.
Instead, most people turn to their parents first, and then to the leaders of the social group for information about the party they should be supporting. They then take the positions given to them by these leaders, provided that they pay sufficient attention.
A minority of Democrats and Republicans heavily consume partisan media, but it is mainly Republicans who find themselves in partisan echo chambers. Democratic media are more anchored in reality than the republican media are increasingly not. And Democrats are much more likely to complement their partisan consumption with traditional bipartisan news media.
Republicans embarked on a multi-year project in the mid-20th century to persuade their supporters not to trust any source other than the party and associated social group leaders. So successful has this effort been that you have millions of Republicans who believe absolutely everything their leaders tell them. It's not because Republicans are stupid – I suspect that if their leaders made the same efforts, this would ultimately happen to Democrats too.
Do you fear we are entering a new era of political violence?
I am extremely concerned about the risk of widespread and deadly violence. Republicans are just beginning to realize that, contrary to what their leaders have told them, they will not keep power. The violence in today's Capitol is the most visible explosion of this realization. However, there were numerous death threats against a wide variety of heads of state, including Republicans, who opposed the coup. They just can't accept losing, or even the possibility that they might lose. And their leaders have encouraged them almost every step of the way.
Some Republicans sound shocked at what happened today. It's shocking to see, but totally predictable given what the president and his allies in government and media have been saying on a daily basis for months and years. This type of violent outbreak was almost certainly of some form, and unfortunately, even more violence is likely.
When violence escalates, when we get caught up in a cycle of violence and retribution, how do we go back? How did we go back in the past?
Cycles of violence are a big risk – violence can get out of hand very quickly and shock everyone involved. We have many historical and cross-border examples of escalation.
Democracy group Bright Line Watch conducted a poll in October asking about their party's support for violence. About 15 percent said it was okay, at least occasionally, for their own party to use violence today. When asked if their party lost the presidential election, it rose to about 25 percent. And when asked whether the other party gets violent first, it rose to over 40 percent. Mutual violence is a big risk.
Lily and I have survey experiments that show that de-escalating rhetoric from Biden (but not from Trump) can reduce support for extreme partisan views, including violence, and these effects have been seen with both Democrats and Republicans. We must remember, however, that violence is a terrible result, but the loss of democracy is far worse. We should not be afraid to use the appropriate means to suppress violent attacks on democracy. Doing differently means giving in to terrorists. The Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow show the importance of violence in resisting authoritarian violence and the consequences of abandoning democracy.
The most peaceful partisan era in 170 years was when the Republicans abandoned the violent enforcement of the constitution in the south. They allowed the white southerners to create authoritarian enclaves that lasted for nearly a century before the federal force brought back the constitution after successful pressure from the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century.
Likewise, the harmonious bipartisanism of the mid-20th century, which everyone loves so much, is based on a bipartisan agreement to accept white supremacy without argument. We can't have that anymore. But if we refuse to accept it, we have to accept the conflict that inevitably arises when we face white supremacy and advance the project of American democratization against its partisan enemies.
Does that mean if Trump (and other Republicans) used de-escalation rhetoric, wouldn't it make a difference?
We think it's important for Trump and other Republicans to use as much de-escalating rhetoric as possible, even if we haven't found any ramifications for a single message in this case. We have newer tests from this fall where both Trump and Biden messages had a calming effect, but only for Democrats. This may be because people just didn't believe in a message that conflicted with what Trump said, or because it didn't take the full weight of Republican news (including Trump's) in the opposite direction could outweigh.
Again, we certainly don't want our limited tests generalized to a broader conclusion that their words don't matter – on the contrary. We believe Republican leaders are essential to ending all of this by clearly opposing electoral conspiracies and embassy violence. Some are already doing this. But the more you don't, the worse it gets.
On your last point about the role of violence, do you mean to say that mutual violence may unfortunately be necessary, presumably from the federal government?
Law enforcement must do its job of protecting democratically elected leaders, government institutions, and the broader electorate. Sometimes this requires the use of force – even lethal force – to defend against violent attacks that seek to defeat the will of the people. The fight against violence by democrats in public is not required if law enforcement agencies are doing their job properly.
Americans are rightly skeptical about supporting violence, even in response to violent authoritarian attacks. However, US history shows that enforcing and promoting democracy has often required violence – usually from the federal government. Examples of this are the revolution, civil war, reconstruction and federal measures by the civil rights movement.
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