By: Madalyn Amato and Julia Terbeche
As members of congress debated over the confirmation of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr., a violent mob inspired by sitting President Donald J. Trump’s rhetoric stormed the Capitol building in attempts to postpone the democratic process.
Trump’s contributions to inciting the violence were “criminal at best and treasonous at worst,” according to Long Beach State associate professor of political science Jason Whitehead.
“It’s a very sad day in the U.S. For the first time since the War of 1812, the U.S. Capitol was invaded by hostile forces, only in this case, those hostile forces are U.S. citizens,” Whitehead said in an email.
Whitehead said that under Volume 18 of the U.S. Code, section 2331, “domestic terrorism” can be defined as “any acts that are dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State” or “appear to be intended . . . to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”
Matt Lesenyie, professor of political science at CSULB, disagreed and said that the acts were not that of terrorism, but the mob’s motivations were clear nonetheless.
“Terrorism is not typically an act to gain control of government…[but] is typically used to stoke fear and alter the behavior of governments and citizens in daily life,” Lesenyie said in an email. “What I saw today doesn’t fit that motivation, even though it will likely cause government officials to alter their behavior and live in fear. It appeared that it was primarily an effort to take over [the] government and install the loser of the presidential election.”
Lesenyie said that the events that transpired were the work of a faction within the Republican Party that is “anti-government and anti-elite.”
“Today that wing of the party expressed their frustration, which stems from a string of defeats in recent elections, by rioting,” Lesenyie said. “Those politicians are choosing to run for reelection as allies of [and] as representatives of those rioters.”
Whitehead maintained that the intentions of the mob were clear.
“There’s no question that the actions we saw unfold today were both ‘dangerous to human life,’ one person actually died, and were ‘intended to influence’ the procedures that were going on that very moment in the U.S. Congress,” Whitehead said.
According to Whitehead, Volume 18 of the U.S. Code, section 2384, provides that “sedition” means when “two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to . . . oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof.”
Whitehead feels that there is “no question that this mob was intending to ‘prevent, hinder or delay the execution’ of the Electoral Count Act.”
Under Volume 18 of the U.S. Code, section 2381, Whitehead said, treason is defined in part as a situation where someone, “owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them.” Whitehead feels that it is a “tougher call” to determine whether Trump’s actions would be considered treason, though it seems that “the forceful invasion of the U.S. Capitol looked and felt very much like an act of war.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, along with many others, have called for taking action against Trump including invoking the 25th amendment, which removes the president from office if unfit to serve, and impeaching him for a second time. However, Lesenyie said a successful filing of a criminal complaint may be difficult.
“It appears that he has encouraged this through his online media, his statements in real time condoned the riot, but he is very strategic in his media usage and generally uses woefully imprecise language in order to leave ample room for interpretation and deniability,” Lesenye said. “In 2016 he charged that 2nd amendment people would deal with Hillary Clinton, a statement which seemed to call for her assassination. There was no criminal complaint then, so I don’t suspect anything to come from his incitement of this raid on the Capitol.”
According to reporting by AJ+, as of Thursday morning only 52 individuals have been arrested for participating in the mob. In comparison, more than 10,000 individuals were arrested for participating in the nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
Arrests after a pro-Trump mob violently stormed the U.S. Capitol to stop certification of election results: 52
— AJ+ (@ajplus) January 7, 2021
“The events were an embarrassment to me as a citizen and as a father of a middle school student who is just now learning about American democracy. But I can’t say that I am entirely surprised,” Whitehead said.
The events that transpired Wednesday were “the result of three primary factors that have been unfolding over the last several years,” and “did not just happen,” Whitehead said.
The first two factors, he believes, include how social media has made it “much easier than ever before to spread lies that look very much like truth.” This has led to a polarized political climate with extremists “more powerful than the centrists of moderates, including populist and nationalist elements of the Republican Party.”
“And third, a very cunning man by the name of Donald Trump, realizing that an opportunity had thus been created for a person like himself to tell lies and spread conspiracy theories with very little accountability, got elected by those means and tried to get himself reelected,” Whitehead said. “All three of these factors together produced a situation where the president knew he could call on ignorant and violent citizens to disrupt the world’s oldest democracy and they obeyed him, many thinking they were doing something noble.”