INDIANA — President-elect Joe Biden is to be inaugurated Jan. 20, but Steven Webster, Indiana University assistant professor of political science, says the transition won’t magically dissolve the tensions that have risen among Democrats and Republicans over the past four years.
The educator said he doesn’t think President Donald Trump leaving office is going to make some of his supporters less angry at Joe Biden or Democrats.
“And that’s partly why this is so problematic because this anger and this negativity is likely to persist and continue to shape American politics,” he said.
“It’s not clear to me that we’re going to snap back to a bipartisan sort of politics where the temperatures aren’t running so high. There’s a dangerous precedent set now, both with challenging an election outcome and then storming the U.S. Capitol and really taking it by force. We use the word ‘unprecedented’ a lot these days but this truly is unprecedented.”
CHAOS AND VIOLENCE
Like so many others across the U.S., Webster was glued to the news and the events that unfolded Wednesday on Capitol Hill. A Congressional vote to confirm the Electoral College results was interrupted by violence when pro-Trump protesters breached the Capitol building as hearings began.
Webster said he watched as what started as a planned gathering by supporters of President Trump to protest the Congressional confirmation of Electoral College votes for President-elect Biden devolved into chaos and violence, leaving four dead and delaying Congress for hours.
“I think political scientists have been warning about this possibility for some time now,” Webster said. “There are so many divisions in our politics and they’re deep divisions. And those divisions aren’t necessarily bad by themselves, but they become quite dangerous when you have incendiary rhetoric that gets layered on top of those divisions.
“And unfortunately, we’ve seen this rhetoric from the president and some other elected officials over the past several years. So when I saw this, my reaction was more sadness than surprise.”
The event was planned weeks in advance by supporters who, spurred by Trump insisting the election had been stolen and fraudulent, were there to denounce Biden’s win.
Around noon, Trump spoke to supporters there, assuring them it was not over and repeating a message that Vice President Mike Pence should deny his Constitutional obligation to preside over the meeting legally.
“We will never give up, we will never concede,” Trump said.
TENSIONS BEGAN TO GROW
As legislators began the confirmation hearing process about 1 p.m., tensions mounted in some parts of the crowd and just before 2 p.m., a group of protesters breached the Capitol building, pushing past Capitol police on hand for security.
Senators and representatives were evacuated or sheltered in place in their offices. Some protesters made it as far in as the chamber floors where the legislators had been moments before, and photos taken by media show at least some were armed.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Capitol police had twice denied offers of additional law enforcement support — including from the U.S. National Guard — days before and the day of the protest.
Chief Steven Sund was quoted as saying police had “planned for a free speech demonstration and did not expect the violent attack,” AP reported. After a call by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to do so, Sund resigned Thursday, effective Jan. 16.
ACTIONS ATTEMPTED COUP
Webster said by definition the actions of those who breached the building amounted to an attempted coup, the likes of which have not been seen in the U.S. in modern times.
“There are people trying to interrupt the functioning of the government by force because they were upset about an election outcome,” he said. “That’s quite unnerving to say about something that happened in the United States, but if you look at the definition of the word it’s really hard to call what happened yesterday anything else.”
Webster said he’s thankful that it was not successful and that nothing more serious took place, “when you have people who are trying to take over a building and it appears some of them were armed, you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “That was a situation where one small thing can set off a chain reaction.”
He said that while divisions have always existed in the U.S. and that they are not intrinsically bad, what’s different now is the unity many feel with the president and the new flavor this has brought to the Republican Party and American politics.
In recent years, the Republican Party has been largely focused on being pro-business, in favor of lower taxes and a strong national defense, Webster said. With Trump leading it over the last four years, things have shifted to a more populist view, with a focus on airing cultural grievances.
He said that’s how it can come to be that someone who may disagree with the president on moral issues can still be a staunch supporter.
“I think Trump has been very successful in engendering anger among his base,” he said. “And that’s important because anger is an emotion that binds people and bonds them to their party or to an individual and in this case that’s Donald Trump and the Republican Party.”
After additional law enforcement were eventually deployed Wednesday to help restore order, legislators resumed the House and Senate business in the evening, reaching a confirmation of votes in favor of President-elect Biden in the early morning.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER TRUMP?
“The big question in American politics in my mind is what happens to Trumpism after Donald Trump is out of office?” he asked. “Does the Republican Party double down on Donald Trump-style politics or do they try to revert back to a John McCain/Mitt Romney style of politics? That’s where I think the real action is going to be is how the Republican Party defines itself in a post-Trump era.”
While tensions are admittedly high right now, Webster said more truly civil discourse could go a long way toward Americans working together to protect democracy.
“I think it would be nice if people could engage in respectful conversation with people that hold different political views than themselves,” he said. “I think we’ve let ourselves get into a culture where we’re increasingly defined by our politics.”
Webster said this means that if a person disagrees with another, it can turn into a much more deep-seated dislike if politics are involved because many see that as saying something about the person’s character.
“I think we need to find a way to have conversations that are respectful and don’t devolve into this sort of tribal antagonism that we have right now,” he said. “And that’s admittedly something that is not easy to do.”