The University kicked off its Democracy Dialogues event series via Zoom webinar Wednesday evening — just hours after a mob of Trump supporters forced entry into the United States Capitol building, where legislators were convened in a joint session to count electoral votes and certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump. The violence — which many are calling an ‘attempted coup’ — came the same day that the results of two Georgia Senate runoffs were called, solidifying Democratic control of the Senate.
University President Jim Ryan opened the discussion by condemning the mob, calling their violence “an attack on our democracy” and a “painful reminder of how fragile our system of government can be.”
“Being a citizen of this country is an active thing — something we do not just something we are,” President Ryan said. “Being an active citizen means thinking carefully about the values we share and working together to make this country, a little more perfect, which begins by actually speaking with one another.”
After Trump incited a mob of supporters to march to the U.S. Capitol building and deny the results of the election early Wednesday afternoon, the pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building. They overwhelmed barriers and law enforcement, while Vice President Mike Pence was ushered from the Senate floor and both chambers were put on lockdown.
Margaret Brennan, senior foreign affairs correspondent and host of CBS’ Face the Nation, told Prof. Larry Sabato — event moderator and director of the University's Center for Politics — that while she and others expected Trump supporters to be present in Washington, D.C. today, no one predicted that they would storm the Capitol building in what became a “severe and really concerning security breach.”
Brennan said that the mob’s behavior is directly linked to the president’s rhetoric.
“It is very clear that [Trump] is inspiring the supporters,” Brennan said.
Brennan also said that journalists and networks that have not rebuked the president’s claims that his supporters can somehow reverse the outcome of the election are also to blame for the behavior.
Sabato agreed with Brennan and characterized the violence as a coup d’etat that threatens the legitimacy of the nation’s democracy.
“Millions of Americans now think Joe Biden is not a legitimate president, which is utterly absurd,” Sabato said. “He won a very solid victory.”
Former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called the efforts of several members of congress to overturn the results of the election — which the president attacked Vice President Mike Pence for not supporting — “anti-conservative and anti-democratic.” Congress was debating the certification of the election’s results when the mob broke into the Capitol, prompting an immediate lockdown. Both chambers reconvened at 8 p.m. Wednesday evening. Sabato interviewed Rep. Ryan Wednesday morning, before the president’s incitement of his supporters’ outrage.
CNN Tonight Anchor Don Lemon said that he was not shocked by the day’s events, calling the mob’s behavior “inevitable” thanks to the president’s continued — and baseless — claims of election fraud.
“These are not protestors, these are anarchists,” Lemon said. “They are rioting in the capital of the United States. It is outrageous.”
While Lemon said that he does believe in the future of the country’s democracy, he qualified that Americans need to take a look at what’s happening and “correct it quickly,” particularly as the number of days the president has left in office dwindle.
“Today was a lesson,” Lemon said. “For all those who thought that it couldn’t happen here, well here you go … we have to guard against this. It is not too late.”
Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC News, said that covering Wednesday’s events as they unfolded left him “on the verge of tears.” Karl said he spoke with a Trump ally today who was unsure of whether or not the president would be able to serve the rest of his term, while other allies have told him that the president “has lost his mind.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy also joined the discussion, calling Wednesday “one of the darkest days in the country’s history.” Murphy, along with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, deployed law enforcement in response to the mob’s invasion of the Capitol. While Murphy said that the mob’s behavior is on the president’s hands, he did not specify whether or not he thinks Trump should be removed from office.
Another major topic of conversation was the future of policymaking, especially after Democrats claimed control of both the executive and legislative branches of government thanks to two wins in Georgia runoff races. Rev. Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Rep. Kelly Loeffler early Wednesday morning, while Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff defeated Rep. David Perdue Wednesday afternoon. Warnock is the state’s first Black senator, and Ossoff is the state’s first Jewish senator.
“I’m really disappointed,” Rep. Ryan said. “I didn’t expect us to lose both of these.”
Though Rep. Ryan said that he believes the election was “entirely legitimate,” he said that he thinks Trump — who has consistently claimed that the November election was “rigged” — is to blame for the Republican losses in Georgia.
“It's really upsetting people like me who care greatly about keeping our majorities and I worry about the policy fallout that's going to come from this,” Rep. Ryan said.
After Biden is inaugurated in two weeks, Rep. Ryan said that he hopes Biden “sticks to the center” when it comes to policy-making. Rep. Ryan added that he thinks the former vice president “knows how to do deals” and is more worried about Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s partisanship. After the Democratic majority in the House was narrowed this election cycle, however, Ryan said that he thinks Pelosi will have to start appealing to centrists to get legislation passed.
“He’s a transactional man in nature, which [means] he likes to see government work,” Rep. Ryan said. “He is a person who can get agreements done.”
Democratic strategist Paul Begala and CNN contributor Tara Setmayer also joined to discuss Georgia runoffs in more detail with Sabato. Begala said he thinks that both Black and suburban white voters delivered Ossoff and Warnock the votes they needed to win.
Both Setmayer and Begala cited the work of Stacey Abrams and other organizers in Georgia, who have registered over 70,000 individuals since November. Notably, the 2020 presidential election was the first time the state voted for a Democratic candidate since 1992.
“As a Republican who's worked on these races and issues for the last 20 years, to see Georgia go blue not once but twice is a political earthquake for the Republican Party,” Setmayer said. “If this is not a wake up call that the party is on the ropes, I don't know what is.”
On the presidential level, Begala said that he thinks that among a field of talented primary candidates, the fact that Democratic voters delivered Biden the nomination is especially notable.
“The Democrats were not looking for revolution, they were looking for reconciliation,” Beluga said.
Though Democrats won the presidency, both Setmayer and Begala noted that Republicans made gains down the ballot this election cycle. Setmayer said that she thinks that the idea of Democrats having too much control is what led to these split tickets and, like Rep. Ryan, Setmayer said that she thinks Biden and Democratic legislators should strive to work across the aisle on policy in the coming years.
Despite the unclear future of democracy today, President Ryan said that he hopes that the Democracy Dialogues events will encourage students to engage in productive conversations about politics moving forward. Future discussions will eventually be held in-person in the Rotunda’s dome room, where they will be broadcast nationwide as part of the University’s recently launched Democracy Initiative, which is aimed at studying and advancing the prospects of democracy around the world.
Earlier this week, President Ryan said he hopes to make the University the “leading place in the country to study, teach and sustain democracy.”