Democracy in Danger / Episode 19

A member of the Proud Boys hate group waves a flag bearing the slogan “Trump is my President” in a stairwell of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 siege. The assault on the seat of Congress by a mob of Trump supporters as lawmakers moved to certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris left five dead and many injured. And it marked the first time the building came under attack since the War of 1812.

Photograph by Alex Gakos via

Along with banners supporting President Trump and decrying November’s elections as a “fraud,” the flag of the Confederate states flew inside the U.S. Capitol this week — a feat not even Robert E. Lee achieved. Egged on by the president, a violent mob laid siege to the building, bringing death and mayhem, and temporarily halting the work of Congress to certify the presidential and vice-presidential elections, a traditionally ho-hum affair.

In this special episode, Siva and Will — together with their University of Virginia students — reflect on what happened. Much as the nation was stunned, these acts were not unprecedented or unpredictable. Join our hosts as they revisit the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year, and other precursors to the Jan. 6 assault in Washington, and take questions from concerned students in a course they’re currently teaching, based on our podcast. The most recent assault, they say, was nothing short of domestic terrorism, and an attempted “self-coup” by the executive branch.


About our hosts

William I. Hitchcock is the William W. Corcoran Professor of History at the University of Virginia focusing on global history during the era of the two world wars and the Cold War. Will has authored many books, including the New York Times bestseller, The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s and is currently writing a new book about President Franklin Roosevelt and the mid-century struggle against European fascism. Follow him on Twitter @WillHitchUVA.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor of Media studies and the director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. He writes regular columns for The Guardian and Wired, and is the author, most recently, of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. Siva has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and in several documentaries, including Terms and Conditions May Apply, a 2013 film about corporate and government surveillance of private data. Follow him on Twitter @sivavaid.

This episode was recorded on Jan. 7, 2021, and posted on Jan. 9.

What we’re reading

By our hosts

As you’ll hear on the show, Will is pretty disillusioned with what the Republican Party has become. But he argues that there’s much to admire about the GOP of the past, particularly in such figures as President Eisenhower. Find out more in The Age of Eisenhower (2018, Simon & Schuster). A the same time, Will has said, Eisenhower’s road to the White House enabled the politics of paranoia that gripped Washington in the McCarthy era.

There is no question that social media helped spread the baseless conspiracy that inspired Trump supporters to swarm the Capitol. In Antisocial Media, Siva shows how unregulated social media disrupts civil society, spreading hate speech and eroding social trust.

In July, Siva wrote for The Guardian about recent measures social media companies have taken to ban hate groups from their platforms — including some of the same content that inspired Trump supporters last week. Find out what those companies’ employees and advertisers had to do with the moves to crack down on dangerous users. And in this essay for The New Republic, Siva asks whether changes to Facebook can possibly salvage the platform for the good of democracy.

From around the web

At an early afternoon rally near the White House on Jan. 6, President Trump called for his supporters to march to the Capitol, saying, “You will never take back our country with weakness.” NPR put together a timeline of what unfolded next.

Was it a coup? CNN’s Dakin Andone explains the meaning of words like “coup,” “insurrection” and “sedition,” and the legal consequences associated with them.

Leaders from around the world condemned the actions of the pro-Trump extremists who stormed the House chamber and almost made their way onto the floor of the Senate. Read the reactions of some heads of state.

Many of the images broadcast online last week were produced by rioters themselves, in what Jake Coyle of the Associated Press has called a “theater of propaganda” rooted in selfie-culture.

While a few Republican lawmakers rescinded their challenge to the election results after the siege, more than one hundred GOP congressmen and women kept that effort up in vain. Check out the full list of lawmakers who objected to the election results, and when.

Should those who voted against certifying the election face consequences? The last time any senators were expelled was after the 1860 election, for refusing to accept Lincoln’s victory and supporting Southern secession.

Nicole Hemmer, a guest on our very first episode, also sees parallels between the events in the nation’s capital and what she saw on the streets of Charlottesville in August 2017 — right down to the reluctance of law enforcement officials to treat white thugs as a serious threat.

Was the attack on the capital a real danger to democracy? Most voters think so, according to Guardian columnist Rebecca Solnit also describes the events as an attempted coup, and one rooted in a history of white supremacy.

If you’re hungry for more, pick up the 2018 New York Times bestseller How Democracies Die by Harvard scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They look at how democracies have fallen throughout history and ask what these stories have to teach us about America under Donald Trump.


A transcript of this episode will be available soon. Please check back.

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