The Center for Politics held the first of three events to promote the release of its new book, “A Return to Normalcy?: The 2020 Election That (Almost) Broke America” Thursday evening. Panelists weighed-in on the fate of President Joe Biden’s administration in the Post-Donald Trump era, the lasting effects of the Capitol insurrection and the role of the media in politics.
The panel included Theodore Johnson, senior fellow at The Brennan Center for Justice, Georgetown University politics professor Diana Owen and RealClearPolitics senior election analyst Sean Trende.
Kyle Kondik — event moderator and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Center’s weekly newsletter that details the latest political news — opened the discussion with a focus on the ramifications of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, calling it “one of the most abnormal events in recent times.”
Johnson called out the weak response of members of Congress to the insurrection.
“It seemed like within a couple of days it was politics as normal on the Hill,” Johnson said. “In my view, it’s unacceptable and opens the door for future iterations of these kinds of disruptions happening again.”
The Center for Politics previously held a Democracy Dialogues event mere hours after the insurrection on Jan. 6 when rioters were still gathered at the Capitol, an event that significantly altered the content of the event. In his introduction to the event, University President Jim Ryan called the riots “an attack on our democracy.”
Trende was also concerned that the riots could be a precursor for similar events in the future. Comparing the insurrection to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — when a car bomb exploded near the North Tower, killing six people and injuring over 1000 — Trende said the insurrection was a “near miss.”
“Had [Jan. 6] gone a bit differently, we may well have had dead members of Congress,” Trende said.
During the riot, members of Congress and former vice president Mike Pence evacuated their chambers just minutes before rioters breached them.
The long term effects of the riots are yet to be fully understood, panelists agreed. Owen said that another day like Jan. 6 could happen again due in part to the way the event already seems to be fading from public attention.
“[To the media], this is just one more in a series of debacles and tragedies,” Owen said. “They didn’t really tell the story about the true level of the assault on the foundations of our democracy.”
Media attention became a sticking point throughout the talk, as the panelists agreed that journalists’ selective attention to Trump’s antics shared a large part of the blame for recent attacks on democracy.
Kondik brought up reports of Trump’s goal to create his own social media platform after Twitter permanently suspended his account shortly after the insurrection. Trende was skeptical that Trump could regain the following he once had — almost 88 million people — on a new site, speculating that only his most extreme supporters would join him. Trende was also concerned that the media’s amplification of Trump’s rhetoric could thrust him back onto center stage were he to find a new platform.
“Trump draws ratings, and that is going to tempt a lot of mainstream media sources who have seen declining ratings,” he said.
Owen was more optimistic about the potential that Trump could succeed in creating his own site, agreeing that the mainstream press would amplify his message even if he garnered only a small following.
“I actually think there’s a 50/50 chance of him pulling this off,” she said.
Kondik then directed the panel toward the future of the Republican party and Trump’s enduring role within it. Johnson likened Trump supporters to die-hard sports fans, saying their unwavering loyalty was one reason Republicans must continue to appeal to the former president, despite his impeachment for inciting the Capitol riots.
“When that sort of attitude comes into our politics, then the economy, a global pandemic, a summer of racial justice protests after the killing of George Floyd doesn’t move the needle much because people are sticking with their teams,” Johnson said.
The effect of this, Johnson said, is that primaries — especially in the Republican party — have become all the more important as Trump still holds sway over the most passionate voters. Speculating about the potential for another Trump campaign in 2024 — Trump has not ruled out the possibility — Johnson conceded that “the field will have to be small, and turnout will have to be high” in order for him to succeed.
Trende agreed that the former president’s lasting sway in the GOP remains a major question, pointing to Republican gains in the House of Representatives and an unexpectedly narrow 2020 election despite a “catastrophic environment.” Republicans gained 13 seats in the House in the 2020 elections and currently hold 211 seats to Democrats’ 219.
“From an electoral perspective, he just wasn’t the debacle that I expected,” Trende said.
Despite the 2020 election having the highest voter turnout in U.S. history, with nearly 160 million Americans voting, Trump came within roughly 44,000 votes of winning Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia, which would have secured him the electoral college and a second term in office.
Trende was less convinced that Trump could duplicate these numbers were he to run again.
“Trump isn’t as dominant in the polls for the 2024 nomination as I’d expected … which suggests that there’s at least an openness to exploring alternatives [within the GOP],” Trende said.
Owen praised Biden’s calm and civil demeanor as he addressed reporters from the East Room of the White House. But the honeymoon phase of his presidency is coming to an end, Owen said, as criticism mounts surrounding his handling of the influx of undocumented migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
A rise in the number undocumented immigrants in the custody of Border Patrol — many who are unaccompanied minors — has stressed facilities across the border and prompted a flurry of criticism of the Biden administration from republicans. Biden blamed Trump’s defunding of the Department of Health and Human Services for the crisis.
Echoing Owens, Trende said that Biden’s approval rating upon entering office was “in the context of honeymoons, relatively low.” Biden holds a job approval rating of 54 percent according to a recent Gallup poll. The average for presidents in their first quarter in office is 61 percent.
Johnson stressed that Biden’s principled leadership and rhetoric is comforting to a still-reeling country but that his “boy scout persona is not popular” in terms of media ratings, which may explain his lower than average approval rating.
Owen remained optimistic about the future of the Democratic party and about Biden’s presidency, noting the successful rollout of vaccines across the country. She also said that young voters have been “activated” and continue to look for “something younger, brighter, more exciting, more diverse in that role as president.”
“We’re [getting] back to a kind of normal life, as it will be post COVID-19, and where do we go from there?” Owen said.
Johnson was similarly optimistic about what Biden’s presidency could mean for the future.
“In a nation that is coming off of a presidency that kind of went off the rails, we’re looking to be sort of rocked back into a sense of normalcy,” Johnson said. “There’s a chance Biden will be sort of the medicine we had to take in order to get back to rock and roll.”
Johnson added that the door remains open for a “charismatic figure that comes on the scene that would put a fire underneath the normalcy that we are beginning to sense under Biden.”
“A Return to Normalcy?: The 2020 Election That (Almost) Broke America” will be released April 1 and is available to pre-order through the UVA Bookstore.
“It’s important to note that there’s a question mark at the end of [that title],” Kondik said. “I think it’s very much an open question as to what sort of political era we’re headed into.”
The Center for Politics will hold its next event, titled “Taking Stock: the Societal Impact of the 2020 Election,” April 8.