Whalen: ‘Serious threat to our democracy’
BU historian traces roots of violence at the Capitol
THE SEARING IMAGES of a violent mob of President Trump’s supporters breaching the US Capitol and forcing a temporary halt to the confirmation of the Electoral College votes, in protest of the election outcome, are a vivid illustration of the unprecedented times we are living in.
One woman was shot and three died of medical emergencies during the protests, as members of Congress were evacuated from the chamber to secure locations. Calls are intensifying for the removal of Trump, who has continued to insist that the election was “stolen.”
CommonWealth talked to political historian and author Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University, to get some perspective on the moment.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
THOMAS WHALEN: No, this is new ground. The last time such violence occurred was when you had an invading British army in the war of 1812.
In 1932, there were bonus marchers who were World War I veterans and they brought their families with them. They wanted Congress to give them the bonus that was due to them earlier…because they were hurting economically. Most historians agree they didn’t pose a violent threat to the government, but President (Herbert) Hoover thought otherwise. He ordered (Army Chief of Staff) Douglas MacArthur to kick them out of Washington, DC. It was government inflicting violence there, not the bonus marchers. There were Vietnam protests in the early 1960s and 1970s, but nothing like this.
To me, the most disturbing image was seeing the confederate flag being paraded around in this sacred symbol of our democracy, the flag of treason. It was a really astonishing image.
I don’t want to sound all hyperbolic, but this is a really serious threat to our democracy, particularly the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any major repercussions. Four people are dead, and who incited all this? The president of the United States.
CW: Why do you call it a serious threat to our democracy?
WHALEN: This is a group of terrorists or insurrectionists who took aim at the central heart of our republic, our democratic government, and they were successful for a time. They forced the Senate and the Congress to stop their session when they were basically going to count electoral votes to certify Joe Biden’s election. This is a sacred ceremony of our democracy, the peaceful transition of power. They marched in there and threw a plate of cold water on it. The idea of seeing senators and congressman having to shelter in place, it’s astonishing. You’d expect that in a place like Belarus, not the USA.
WHALEN: Central. He is the one, through his own disinformation and certifiable lies, who’s basically caused this. He gave them their marching orders and apparently, according to most reporting, he was reluctant to release the National Guard to put an end to it for a critical few hours. I think that is indefensible.
CW: You have people comparing this to how the Black Lives Matter protesters were treated. What do you think about how the protests were handled?
WHALEN: If those insurrectionists yesterday were black, they would have been shot dead before they reached the Capitol steps. I truly believe that. It raises serious questions…about the problem of race, and we’ve never really addressed it. The inequality of how justice is dispensed in this country is appalling. When Black Lives Matter marched earlier, they pulled out all the stops in the Capitol. It’s inexcusable how there was such a light security presence by the Capitol Police. They couldn’t handle the situation. I think there’s going to be some hard questions. This should have been caught. It should have been seen. It reminds me of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing. Those should have been caught as well through our intelligence efforts. For whatever reason, the dots were not connected. The FBI, in addition to the Capitol Police and homeland security, have a lot of hard questions to answer. There should be a lot of firings and dismissals as a result.
CW: More broadly, how did we get to this point in society where you had violent protesters breaching the Capitol?
WHALEN: In many ways, with the transition into the 21st century on a global basis and globalization, we have this big open market system. Capitalism left a lot of people behind. Especially if you don’t have a college degree, it’s economically devastating to certain areas, like the old Rust Belt in the Midwest. A lot of people are angry or mad, they don’t know how to put bread on the table for themselves or their families. They blame it on what they feel are elitist politics in league with Wall Street types, globalists. They feel they need to express their anger and their protest over this.
At the same time, there is the matter of race. Projections say by the middle of 21st Century the majority of the country is going to be non-white. Since the beginning of the republic, [white] has been the most dominant ethnicity – culturally, politically, and economically. They feel their power has slipped away and their status has been taken away. People of power never give it up easily. I think that’s what we’re seeing here, there’s a mass panic of ‘oh my God, those others,’ referring to people who don’t look like them, are taking over. You toss in the immigration population, there’s a feeling they’re responsible for the loss of jobs and so forth, it’s all hands on deck, we need to fight against these devilish forces.
They see Washington as part of the problem. I think this trend has been slowly unfolding really since 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan. His big stance was the government is the problem. We’ve taken that to a far extreme now that the government is the enemy of the people. That’s what people yesterday saw it as. Look at the rhetoric they were emitting.
CW: What’s next, how does the country heal from this?
WHALEN: They missed a large opportunity last night. I thought the Republican Party should have put aside its protest to the electoral count and certified it right away. It would have been a great symbol of bipartisanship and unity for the country. People like Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri threw a pail of cold water on that. The Republican Party needs to drive out the extremists in its ranks. That is preventing bipartisanship at least on a congressional level.
CW: What else is affected by this situation?WHALEN: The impact on foreign policy will be huge. We always portrayed ourselves as the shining city on the hill, a bastion of global democracy. We didn’t look like that at all yesterday. It’s going to be very hard for us to assert our moral authority when the rest of the world is shaking its head sadly at what they’re seeing develop in the US. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. It diminishes America’s global influence at a time when the world can’t afford to lose America’s traditional moral authority.